A NIGHT WITH MY GODMOTHER ROSE

Copyright 2017 MillieAnne Lowe, Oceanside, California

A MEMOIR…

A dreadful fear came over me again as a chilly wind blew at me in the fall of October 1950. I don’t know how it happened, but I had lost another pair of red gloves. I remember they were special because the girls in my 4th grade class at school wished they had a pair of gloves just like mine. It was one of those rare times when I got any attention at all. In the school yard they asked if they could move their fingers through the white fluff, then we all giggled in delight. Most of the time I was the one yearning for a nice dress, shoes, or cardigan like the other girls.

Losing that second pair of red knit gloves with fluffy white fur around the wrists, threatened big trouble for me. I knew Dad’s choice of punishment could be the one-inch hard and thick bamboo stick, or the thin one called a sah tung. The latter looked like a duster, but held by the feather part it became the dreaded stick that sped through the air with a whoosh to cause pain and shame. For days I would wear a long sleeved sweater to hide the bruise on my arm, or if he just hit my thigh, pedal pushers would hide the red welt on my leg. I knew by heart the steps that led to that one hard strike.

Afraid to go home without my gloves, I looked all over in the cloakroom where my classmates and I hung our coats and scarves. My friends, Cathy and Shirley, searched all over Garfield School’s upper and lower schoolyards with me. My precious gloves were nowhere to be found.

“Maybe your dad won’t be as mad as you think,” said Cathy.

I cringed at the thought of having to face my dad with the truth. I raced down the steep Filbert Street steps, ran through Grant Avenue’s Beatnik Land, and impatiently punched the traffic light buttons at the Columbus and Broadway intersection. I wanted to have the table set for dinner before Dad got home from work. I made a list in my mind of all the good things I could say about my day at school.

Dad came home tired and dusty from his work down in the Hunters Point projects. He hung his work jacket on the back of the front door, emptied the last drips of coffee from his thermos, and quickly began steaming my favorite type of fish – bass, on the Coleman burners of our makeshift stove. The sweet smell of Texas Long Grain Rice escaped noisily through a little hole in the rice pot’s lid. When Dad said, “Lucky, I made extra sauce for you to pour over your rice, the fish is ready. Come take them to the table.” I did as I was told, using hot pads to hold the sides of the fluted ceramic dishes Mommy had loved.

I waited for him to be seated and said in Cantonese, “Mommy, Daddy, eat dinner.” I remembered how both Mommy and Daddy had taught me this call to dinner as she seated me on top of a stack of telephone books placed upon a wooden stool. Even though she was gone, I had been setting a place for her at the dinner table every night. Dad had said, “We continue do this to honor and love her.”

I began chatting about how well I did in reciting my nine times table in front of the class and with a little bit of pride said, “I didn’t miss any words in the spelling test.” Then, in a softer tone of voice, I told him what happened. “Daddy, when the bell rang I went straight to the coat closet but my red gloves were not in my coat pocket. I know I tucked them deep inside, just the way you taught me. But they weren’t there.”

Dad’s thick black eyebrows knitted together. He put his chopsticks and rice bowl down and stared at me. I saw his eyes squint and his lips pinch together in anger. The fear I felt caught my breath, I choked, and started to cry. That made him angrier. As he pushed away from the table, his tea spilled over onto the oilcloth cover and his wooden stool screeched on the linoleum and bumped into the floor radio. His words filled the small living room, “Do you not see how hard I worked to buy you those gloves?” He got up, bussed his unfinished bowl of rice and ivory chopsticks into the deep kitchen sink. The top of the rice pot clamored closed and I heard the wooden chopping board slam against the sink. A few ceramic dinner dishes clinked hard as they fell against each other.

I dared to approach him and stood at the counter in front of the kitchen window where he chopped meat. “I’m sorry, Daddy, but I looked all over the school yard several times. Cathy and Shirley remembered seeing me put them in my coat pocket when we got back from recess. Cathy thinks someone stole them.”

From past experiences, Dad’s long seconds of silence had instilled in me fear and dread. I felt cold and the muscles in my arms began to quiver.

In his plaid woolen shirt and stripped suspenders that supported his worn work pants, my dad walked over and handed me my coat and scarf, “Go back to school and look for them again,” he said.

With rapid obedience, I put them on and as soon as I stepped outside, I heard the loud click of the Schlage lock. I knew he had done what he had threatened to do for so long. He was disowning me. He had locked me out. I heard the inside chain fall into place. This time it was not to keep the burglars out, but to keep me out.

I knocked on the door, “Daddy, it’s late. It’s dark already. I’m afraid to go back by myself.”

“You do what I tell you to do. If you don’t find your gloves, don’t come back. I don’t want you anymore.”

Knocking on the door again, I pleaded, “Please let me back in, Daddy. I’m sorry. I can check the Lost and Found box tomorrow.”

“How many times did I tell you? Be careful so you won’t lose them,” he said. “You just don’t listen to me. I don’t know what to do with you anymore. Go away. Don’t bother coming back.”

Tears fell down my face like a waterfall. My dad had threatened me like this before, but for such things like a ‘C’ grade in Arithmetic, and not being as smart as my cousin, Elaine. In the past, he would let me in. But this time, I knew I would not get a second chance to do better. I didn’t know what else to say to change his mind. I looked down the short hallway and saw that it was empty. The usual dinner chatter from the neighbors next door had stopped. They all listened, and waited. I knew no one would come to my aid. I stood outside our apartment door, scared, and I cried.

“You stop your crying!” he yelled. “You will bother all the neighbors. And don’t bother going to your aunties’ house. I told them a long time ago, not to take you in if I lock you out.”

In disbelief, I stood by the rich red-brown door Dad and I had painted together when I was three years old. He had been so proud of me. I tried to justify what was happening. I’m only a little kid. I didn’t steal anyone’s money, and I didn’t break anything. Why was he being like this to me? Then a deeper thought emerged, If only Mommie were here, Daddy wouldn’t be treating me like this.

Then I thought of Godmother Rose. She had been my mother’s best friend and employer at the sewing factory just up the street. She would help me. I wiped my tears with the back of my hands, ran down three flights of stairs, flung open the street door, stepped into the alley and stopped. It was darker on the sidewalk than the upstairs hallway. The buildings across the way loomed over me. Flashing neon lights from Red’s Cocktail Lounge on the corner reflected on the windows of the parked cars and store windows. I noticed that the people walking around were not like the daytime shoppers I was used to seeing every day. Go back upstairs! You’ll be safe there. No, he won’t let me back in. I talked to myself figuring what to do. I just have to cross over Grant Avenue and run up Jackson Street to Ross Alley. It’s not far.

I hurried to the corner and looked both ways before crossing over Grant Avenue. I ran up Jackson Street and passed only one person walking downhill, a woman tightly bundled in a scarf and coat like myself. At the corner of Ross Alley, I turned left. A few steps to my right the Rickshaw Bar had its doors open. The sound of music, the soft clinking of glasses, and laughter escaped toward me. I had never seen the bar’s doors opened before, not in the daytime when I played tag and hopscotch outside the sewing factory across the way. A dark shadow inside weaved its way to the doorway, That must be a drunk like Mommie talked about. She had taught me, “Don’t ever let a drunk get near you.” I ran to number 22 Ross Alley.

 

The front door to Godmother’s sewing factory did not open. It felt strange that the door was shut tight and silence had replaced the roar of the power sewing machines. In the doorway a foot from my left, I pressed Godmother’s round button doorbell long and hard. The door buzzed and I heard the lock click. I pushed the door open and ran up the steep flight of stairs to her flat.

Godmother opened her door just as I reached it. Relief filled my mind and my chest heaved with short breaths. My problem tonight seemed difficult again as I saw the surprise on her face. “What’s wrong?” Her gentle hands held my shoulders as she guided me to her dining room table and had me sit in one of her bentwood chairs. She untied the bow of my scarf, pushed my bangs out of my wet eyes, and her thumbs brushed aside the tears on my face. Godmother’s hands were soft and I smelled the familiar scent of dishwashing soap. She moved quickly to the sink and brought back a dampened facecloth. As she wiped my face, the comfort of the warm water gave me fresh hope.

“Tell me what happened,” she said. “Why are you crying, and why are you by yourself?”

I bawled out the story. Then I got the hiccups. She brought me cold water in a green tinged coffee mug. “Lucky, you need to stop crying. I will take you home and talk to your daddy.”

I watched her stand in front of the hall mirror, take bobby pins out of her hair, and run a comb through her short curls. From the closet, she pulled out the brown wool coat she always wore when she took me to the movies. The familiar large white rhinestone pin, shaped like a leaf, bobbed on her lapel. Slipping on her coat, she said, “Put your scarf back on now.” She buttoned the top button of my coat and said, “From now on you need to be more careful with your things.” My breath caught as I heard this. She quickly added with a pat on my chest, “I know you are a good girl, but your daddy has a lot of worries. He does not know how to take care of a little girl. You will have to work harder to be a good girl in his eyes.”

For a moment, I thought I had lost Godmother’s love. Then I understood what she meant. I nodded my head, but still could not understand why he treated me this way. For years, he had been telling me, “Right before Mommy passed away, she made me promise never to give you away.” Why did Daddy change his mind and not love me anymore?

 

Godmother’s key jangled as she locked the door to her flat. She nodded for me to start down the steep flight of stairs. Holding on tight to the handrail, I heard her footsteps behind me. I had a new sense of relief. I was not alone anymore. Godmother Rose understood me. Being with her at that moment, I felt safe.

I held her hand as we walked down Jackson Street. The street lamps threw our uneven shadows before us. We were two oval shadows holding hands. Would she be able to change Daddy’s mind? If she couldn’t, would I be taken to an orphanage? His angry voice burst into my mind, “If I don’t want you, no one else will want you either.”

A car honked at us as we entered Beckett Alley. I pulled the keychain from my neck and used the front door key to enter the apartment building. Leading the way up, I guided her to use the wooden handrails and climb three flights of stairs to apartment number eleven. Another overhead light bulb had burnt out in the hallway. The glow of the streetlight shining through the window at the end of the hall helped us see our way. I stood close to Godmother as she knocked on the door. “Sam, it’s Rose. Let us in so we can talk.”

I took a deep breath and waited. Finally, the lock clicked and Dad opened the door wide for us. “You shouldn’t have bothered your Godmother,” Dad said.

Godmother and I sat on the small sofa covered with a pebbly maroon fabric, it was the same place where my mom had lain dying six years before. I put my knees together and laced my fingers tightly on my lap as Mommy had shown me. She had said, “It is the proper and lady-like posture for a little girl.”

Dad spoke with Godmother in a Chinese dialect I could not understand. I kept quiet and looked down at the buttons on my heavy grey coat. I felt hot but did not have permission to take it off. I had not been made welcome to stay. Feeling tired and sleepy, I wanted to lie down and forget everything that had happened, but the matter was not over yet. I heard a change in the rhythm and force of Godmother’s speech as she took a firm position with my dad. I waited for my dad to say something back to her. Finally, he gave in and said to me, “Go change your clothes for bed. Remember to brush your teeth.”

When I had done so, Godmother Rose had gone home. Dad sat in the straight-back chair on a pillow my mom had made for it. I grabbed a matching pillow from the adjoining chair and put it on the floor in front of him. Kneeling down on it with my hands laced together at my chin, I bowed my head and asked, “Please forgive me, Daddy. I am sorry I lost the gloves. I know you work hard for your money.”

Again, I waited for his response, still in fear of his anger and the sah tung that might whip through the air and leave another welt on my side. Then he said, “Better get to bed now. You have to get up early for school.”

At that command, I stood up, put my pillow back on the chair, stepped close and gave him a kiss on his cheek. I said in Cantonese, “Good night, Daddy. Sleep well,” then rushed to bed.

Copyright 2017 MillieAnne Lowe, Oceanside, California

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