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Roses From My Father

ISSUE:  Summer 1970


I don’t know about the rest of you, but I didn’t have a happy childhood. It was miserable. I had a father who was never home, a mother who read True Detective magazines, and an older sister who was a born leader.

Luckily, however, I have a poor memory. My memory is the sort where I recall clearly what was said last week or last month but haven’t the foggiest idea what was said thirty years ago.

Thus faultily equipped, I set about recently to record my early years. When I read the result, I discovered that my childhood had been delightful. In addition, the record seemed to be mostly about my father (the one who was never home). I don’t complain. Indeed I wish the story were entirely my father’s. As a child I was earnest, pompous, and a worrier, whereas my father was a great wit. He could make everyone in the room laugh except my mother.

He was an importer-exporter, and he traveled a great deal. He was an American businessman in North China during the years when it was possible to be such a creature… before Pearl Harbor.

So the first twelve years of my life were spent in Tientsin, a treaty port in China. I lived in a three-story Tudor-style home in the British Concession.

The house was spooky in the daytime. The main rooms were paneled darkly, and French wall tapestries hung in the halls. There was a fireplace in every room, so that at night the house became friendlier. At night under the bedclothes I could watch the firelight leap up through the dark as our amah, Wan-nai-nai, poked the coals for one last time. Then she would wait in an armchair until my sister and I fell asleep.

She was a tiny woman with a plain, pock-marked face. Her black hair was twisted into a tight bun. In the bun would be thrust two jeweled hairpins. As Wan-nai-nai sat or moved in the dark, her jeweled pins would take color from the fire and sparkle.

Our house was on Race Course Road and enclosed by a high wall. Across from us was a U. S. Army parade ground. Every Saturday morning in the spring the U. S. Fifteenth Infantry displayed itself there. My sister and I watched from the roof of our house.

To reach the narrow area where we could sit in exquisite discomfort on the roof, my sister and I would climb out an attic window and up and down two gables. For survival’s sake, we climbed barefoot, skinning our toes on the tiles and not daring to look down. Once arrived, huffing and puffing, my sister would announce proudly, “Nobody will find us here.”

Far below us soldiers marched, horses trotted, caissons clinked, and Sousa’s brassy glory sounded.

One Saturday morning my father drove home for tiffin with a business friend. For some reason, as he climbed from his car, he happened to look up and see his daughters.

He shouted at us, but the Army band was louder and we were pretty far up. His shouts ceased, and he strode indoors. My sister and I crossed the roof and re-entered the attic. We tiptoed to the second floor where we met our mother.

“Where’s Daddy?” in a whisper.

“In the diningroom pouring himself a drink,” she said. The fact that it was he who had discovered us was a break. It tempered my mother’s wrath enormously. Under no circumstances could she appear to be on his side.

“The man he brought home to tiffin,” she added, “is Mr. Davis. From the bank.”

We blinked. We were young but we were growing up in the Depression. If there was one powerful image in our youth it was that of “the bank.” It was the Wizard in our Land of Oz.

“Is Daddy mad?”

“Very mad. You’d better stay out of his way.”

Yet later that afternoon when my father called us into his study, he was unexpectedly mild. He said that he and Mr. Davis had been curious to know why we girls had been up on the roof.

“To watch the Infantry and hear the music.”

“Huh,” he said. “That’s a reason I wouldn’t have thought of. Well, you can thank Mr. Davis for putting me in a good mood. He’s going to lend me some money I need. So I won’t punish you two the way you deserve. But next time…watch the Infantry from the window. Is that clear?”

It was clear. With a certain amount of relief we never returned to the nosebleed gallery.

As I’ve indicated, my parents were not noticeably compatible. Years before, theirs had been a romantic, whirlwind courtship, the sort that so often leads to disaster. They knew each other just eleven days before they married. When in memory I see them, they are seated at the table, separated by glassware, linen, and company. Thus apart, they could achieve a clumsy tranquility for as long as it took to go from consommé to fruit.

My mother was bitter about their relationship. My father did not appear so. However disappointed he may have felt, he appeared on the surface to be a contented man. Always preoccupied but content.

His name was Mac. He was tall, freckled, with fading sandy-colored hair. As a youth he had been nicknamed Red. He had blue eyes, an Irish nose, and a stubborn chin.

From a background of poverty (only child of a widow in Boston), he had gone to work for an import-export firm. In 1906 at the age of twenty-two he was sent by that company to North China. Except for business trips to the States, he spent the rest of his life—thirty-one years—in the Orient. In that time he came to speak Chinese and Japanese well and even to acquire a Chinese name, Mei feng, by which he, his wife, and his children were known.

Business took him often away from Tientsin: to Shanghai, Peiping, Tsingtao, and occasionally to Kalgan, Mukden, Harbin, and Tokyo. He knew the Interior of North China. Before there were automobile roads, he had traveled it by horseback.

For the help he gave the Chinese in the famine-stricken areas of the North during the early nineteen-twenties, he was decorated by the government. He received the Order of the Tiger. It is a large, enameled medal bearing a seated tiger with pouchy dewlaps and almond-shaped eyes.

My father was an importer-exporter, as I’ve said. On one occasion he exported an out-of-favor politician, a Chinese official who had lost power in a Northern province. There was a price on his head, because that’s the way they did things in those days. My father had known him for many years and helped him to leave the country alive. He disguised the man as a coolie and then slipped him into a line of dockworkers loading a ship at Taku with goods of my father’s company. Once aboard the official deposited his burden and then hid himself. He remained out of sight until the ship was far out to sea.

My father also exported carpets, walnuts, and pigs’ bristles. He imported Ford automobiles and trucks which he assembled in Chinese factories.

He was not the sort of person who moped around the house of a Sunday saying, “What’ll I do today?” He played the saxophone, he organized an amateur dramatic group, he helped to build the Tientsin Race Course, he raced horses under his own colors, he collected porcelain, and he golfed.

On the other hand, my mother was the sort who moped around. She was a solitary person who lived in a house of parties. When my father was in Tientsin, our home was noisy with good times. (There were so many parties, indeed, that I was born during one. As I came into the world, a three-piece band played downstairs.)

But when my father was out-of-town, my mother was alone. She had no close woman friends. She didn’t play bridge or mah-jongg. No one dropped in for tea.

She was a small woman with straight features and beautiful eyes. She had a warm, vital voice and a smile like it. Alas, the smile meant nothing. She was humorless and short-tempered. She was also trusting, naive, and brave. She never made a joke, but she laughed at the ridiculous. She would laugh till tears came at Harold Lloyd.

Her happy times had begun and ended long ago when she was a girl. They began when she had attended Miss Walcott’s School for Girls in Denver and continued on through a certain June Hop at Annapolis. She had, in case you cared, almost total recall of those years and especially of that June Hop.

When the happy times ended, they ended forever. One of her suitors, the one from Annapolis, died in the World War, and another suitor wasn’t rich enough for her parents. She was twenty-seven when she married my father. She went to China with him and lived there for sixteen years.

During those years she became skilled at crosswords and solitaire. She collected operatic records, which she adored, and told second-hand anecdotes about Galli-Curci, Melba, Schumann-Heink, and so on. The rest of the time she wrote her parents. She was an only child and when she mentioned her parents, she spoke as if they were Abraham and Sarah to whom God’s original promise had been given.

Early in her marriage, they had visited Tientsin. The visit had been a failure. The unsanitary conditions of the Orient frightened them, and the colonial life of the Europeans disturbed them. So they had returned to Evanston, Illinois, and stayed there. When a letter from Evanston arrived at our house, it was a time of thanksgiving for one and all. 

My mother would be pleasant for days, poring over the letter with its clippings from the Chicago Tribune and photographs. She forgot that she was sensitive and misunderstood. She forgot that Mac neglected her. She forgot that the servants were impossible. Small wonder that before I was eight, Evanston became a magic word for me. Everything wonderful happened there. People were loving. People were perfect. I used to hope that when I died, if I didn’t get into Heaven, I could at least make it to Evanston, Illinois.

Another vivid impression of America I received from my mother was that of the State of New Jersey. Unlike Evanston, New Jersey was earth-centered. Vacant lots and lovers’ lanes: that’s what New Jersey was made of, at least according to True Detective magazine. My mother subscribed to it, and each month I pored over it. My mother may have skipped the ads, but I read everything. I kept ceaseless vigil for the most wanted American criminals of the decade. (None of them showed up in Tientsin.) I suspect that if I were to go into the New Jersey heartland today, I would still expect to find people dressed in the nineteen-thirties’ mode, standing about in vacant lots pointing to an X. And of course every shady lane in New Jersey must contain at its most scenic spot a Chevrolet with two cold bodies in the front seat.

As I’ve said, my mother was bitter, and generous with her bitterness. She was also generous with her personal philosophies. One bit of advice she gave my sister and me repeatedly was:

“For Heaven’s sake, amount to something! Lead a life of your own! Paint, write, sing, or act! Do something. Don’t just get married. If you do, you’ll throw away the best years of your life on some man, waiting on him hand and foot.”

Briefly put, my mother did not push the feminine mystique on us.

I accepted her advice at face value. It was not until many years later that I examined it. Then I saw in an instant that valid though her words might be in general, in her case they didn’t apply.

When had she waited on my father hand and foot? During her best years there had been a dozen servants in the house. The terrible pity of it was that in my mother’s circumstances, a woman didn’t need to amount to a damn … or a hill of beans, as she would say. Wan-nai-nai raised us children. Liu, the No. One Boy, managed the house and servants. My father had functioned perfectly before he met her and was still functioning perfectly. The sad truth was that my mother’s best years were thrown away on herself.

We come now to my sister. In her good looks she resembled my mother. In manner and behavior, however, she resembled my father. She knew exactly what she wanted and drove to get it. When she became an adult and was in her late twenties, she spent a considerable amount of time in analysis. She learned she was insecure, frustrated, lacking in motivation, and so on. As a child, though, ignorant of her character deficiencies, she had incredible get-up-and-go.

She decided one winter that she would be a second Anna Pavlova. She would study ballet, and since she did not want to go to ballet school alone, I would also study ballet.

My father said it was impossible. He had already paid for her riding lessons and her piano lessons. We simply didn’t have any more money. We were in the midst of a world depression. If business became any worse, he would have to close the Tsingtao office. (In our family, closing this office was the equivalent of going over the hill to the poorhouse.)

My sister insisted that she was going to dance. My father talked about “the bank” and debts and creditors.  My mother sat at the table, where these conversations took place, in non­combative silence. She knew nothing about money, and she didn’t intend to learn now.

All the time my father spoke, he was eating rapidly. He always finished before us and was usually peeling an orange while we were still on the fish.

“All right! All right!” he cried finally, throwing down his napkin. “You can dance, damn it! But if you dance as well as you play the piano, it’s money down the drain. Don’t tell me about it, and don’t practice at home, and if there’s a recital or a show, don’t expect me to buy tickets!”

He shoved back his chair and left the room.

My mother buttered a roll. “He doesn’t mean it,” she said mildly. “He’ll buy tickets, you’ll see. He won’t be there, but he’ll buy tickets.”

As it happened, the purchase of tickets was beside the point. First, my sister and I had to learn to dance. For two miserable winters we traveled weekly to a seedy building in the French Concession where dwelt Madame Voitenco. We traveled there by our family ricksha, me stacked atop my sister, a blanket up to my chin.

Madame was a white Russian. She was not my first white Russian, but she was one I shall never forget. She was tall, agitated, and wore blue mascara, blouse, shorts, stockings rolled to the knee, and dancing slippers. Her hair was secured behind her head. Uncaught strands, of which there were many, clung to her sweating neck. She was always in a rage.

The object of her wrath was her male accompanist. He could not please her. He played too fast, too slow, too soon, too late. He was Russian also, handsome and grey-haired. He wore a shabby, neatly pressed pinstripe suit. His expression was one I’ve since met in dentists’ waiting rooms: boredom made bearable by pain.

The practice room was the color of mustard, or so I recall it I may be wrong about the walls, but I’m sure about the floor. I seldom raised my eyes from it.

Madame spoke French-English with a Russian accent. It took me two sessions to recognize my name. Then I came to recognize it more by intonation. When she called my sister’s name, there was a lilt of hope. When she called my name, there was undisguised disbelief, a to-what-depths­-have-I-sunk sort of thing.

I didn’t blame Madame. I had no interest in ballet. I lacked grace. I lacked a feeling of rhythm. To this day when I dance with my husband and he says reassuringly, “It’s easy, dear. Just follow the beat,” I ask myself desperately, “What beat?”

It was understood by my family that my sole reason for going to Madame’s was to sustain and chaperone my sister. Why my sister who was nearly three years older than I and who had a considerable weight advantage should need me as sustainer, was never made clear.

Finally, when it seemed the students would mutiny if they were not permitted their hour upon the stage, Maclame presented a dance recital. My sister was the star of the show. As usual, she came on strong. Her biggest applause was heard when she performed as a Persian water carrier. Is that the right term, I wonder, for a heavily veiled girl carrying a pitcher on her shoulder? In any case, that is what she did. I was one of twelve princesses, and at no time was allowed on stage without my eleven sisters. Madame appeared in the finale. She danced at some length with a Fairy Prince. He turned out to be her accompanist in disguise. He had doffed his pinstripe and now wore a shabby, neatly pressed costume.

My mother was right about my father. He bought tickets for the recital, but he wasn’t there to see us. Business had taken him to Japan. But he had not forgotten us. At the end of our performance as we returned to our dressing room, we were each presented with a basket of pink roses. Inside was a note from my father. I no longer remember what he had written, but I know my sister and I were overwhelmed. We kept looking at the roses, at the notes, and at each other. There was nothing more to wish for. We felt then the way the astronauts must feel when they return from a space trip and are told to go to the telephone because Washington is on the line.

That evening was more or less the apogee of my sister’s career. Having reached the heights and dragged me there with her, she put away her veils and retired with her press clipping. The clipping from the North China Star mentioned her three times and she never tired of it.

We returned to an earlier interest: ice hockey. Here again I functioned as sustainer and chaperone. In spite of shaky ankles and feeble circulation I was thrust out again upon the ice. The next winter each dismal twilight found me dodging pucks.

In my sister’s company, I went occasionally to the street food vendors. What with cholera, small pox, and distinctly non-Western methods of crop fertilization, one had to be careful what one ate. At home food was scrubbed, boiled, and cooked until it was limp. Nothing was eaten raw. On the street, however, my sister and I ate everything.

Peddlers sold hot meals: rice, vegetables in gravy, and a few slivers of meat. You were given a steaming bowlful and chopsticks. You ate while standing. Most regular customers, such as the ricksha boys, carried their own chopsticks. Once, I remember, we stopped at a vendor’s where grasshoppers, frying in oil, were on sale. We bought and ate some. For a few coppers you were given a cornucopia, made from a twist of newspaper and filled with insects.

My sister led me many Saturdays to the movies. She liked horror movies. If none were playing, she would accept a jungle film, provided it was really dreadful. There is one jungle movie I have never forgotten. Robert Armstrong or Lionel Atwill was abandoned in the heart of Africa, after having had his gun taken away and his lips sewn together. Weeks later a passing safari found his watch by the side of a river swarming with alligators. Why the alligators rejected the watch was not made clear, but at any rate the creatures had eaten everything else of Robert or Lionel. For months after, my worst nightmares concerned that miserable watch and poor Robert (or Lionel) wandering, with sewn lips, through the jungle.

Now and then my sister gave me time off from hockey or movie fun, and I would spend an afternoon alone. Here was my chance to be the happy-go-lucky ten-year-old God meant me to be. Did I seize it? No. I spent my free hours in the north sittingroom, a bleak room with an empty fireplace and a closed piano. There I sat, in an armchair, reading books in the fading winter light. The books were old ones my father had read years and years before. I read E. Phillips Oppenheim until he came out of my ears. I read someone named Hichens and I read Sax Rohmer…Ahhh! “The Witch’s Brood” stands out. There I sat, alone, squinting in total concentration, too hypnotized by the horrors on the printed page to notice that I was slowly freezing to death. (During those years the room was rarely used and seldom heated.) But I never did freeze. At the first clink of cocoa cups from the dining room, I’d know it was tea time, and down would fall the book. Nothing could keep me from tea.

In the summers we went to Peitaiho, a resort on the Bay of Chihli. Tientsin was for me stuffy rooms, Ovaltine, and chest rubs. Peitaiho was the sound of doves cooing over and over in the Lotus Hills, the hush-hush-hushing of waves upon the sand, the ring of donkey bells, and the shouts of donkey boys. It was the fragrance of mimosa and the touch of dusty, scented pine needles as I sifted them through my fingers. It was the smell of kerosene burning at night in the veranda lamps. It was happiness without qualification.

Our house was separated from the beach by a high cliff. On our beach were three or four p’engs, bath-houses made of matting. My mother and her neighbors would sit in the shade of the p’engs, drinking sherry and eating biscuits. The women were very jaunty in beach pajamas, those floppy-legged, flowered creations of the thirties.

If this were a story by Evelyn Waugh, the roof would fall in just about now. In Waugh’s earliest novels, there is a wonderfully bogus atmosphere, almost exactly like the atmosphere of my childhood. The characters are fairly rich, quite privileged, and marvelously good-looking. Alas! Three pages before the end we find these same people buried, figuratively speaking, up to their chins in earth, with the ants beginning to send out scouts.

Surely it will happen here, in this story. There will be an untidy but plausible ending for this American family in China. Yes, there is an ending, but it is a pleasant ending, because my father was a lucky man.

For over twenty years he had been buying tickets in the Chinese National Lottery. In the middle of the Depression when he was desperately in need of money, when he had mortgaged everything, his ticket was drawn. I remember the day we heard the news.

My father was in Tientsin and the rest of us in Peitaiho. Just about noon, a friend of ours from the city came running down the cliff path and across the sand. He reached our p’eng and shouted to my mother, “Have you heard? Have you heard? Mac has just won in the Lottery!”

We had no telephone at our house, and the word, I believe, had been brought down by someone arriving on the train from the city.

My sister and I had just splashed onto the beach from the water. We screamed with joy. Everyone was jubilant, and my mother said several times, “Thank God! Now he can pay the bank!”

My father had not won first prize, but he had won $50,000 Mex, or Chinese money. The equivalent then in gold was a nice sum. And that is how, during the Depression, my father was able to be less depressed than most.

First, of course, he had his confrontation with the bank, but that institution was good enough to leave him enough to buy three race horses. Our stables had been empty for some years, but now they were occupied by two grooms and three Mongolian horses with the unlikely names of Navajo, Pawnee, and Kickapoo. They were not winners; they never did more than place. Even so, it was fun for several years. Sunday mornings very early my sister and I went with my father to the race track to clock his horses. Afterwards we went to the clubhouse and ate a breakfast of sausages, mashed potatoes, fried eggs, toast, and cocoa. We ate in a private room, overlooking the track. My father read the papers or joked with us. Those were good times.

Soon after my sister’s fourteenth birthday she completed her education at the British Grammar School in Tientsin, and my parents decided to send us to the States to enter high school. My mother was to return with us.

By this time the Japanese armies had taken all of Manchuria and would soon be outside Peiping. Nonetheless, we were undisturbed by the war news as we went by train to Taku with my father. In Taku we boarded a Japanese ship for Kobe.

My father lurched aboard ship with us and then had to leave to catch his train back to Tientsin. We said goodbye to him at the gangplank. He walked along the pier until he came to its end. Just before he rounded the corner for the train, he stopped and waved. He was bareheaded, and the wind flipped his tie back across his shoulder. Then he was gone.

He died of pneumonia the following February. Although he had had a bad cold to begin with, he had spent his last conscious day on the ice, watching friends at a game known as “curling.” It is a Scottish game, I think, played with large discs which slide across the ice to score points.

At the time my father was living with a friend, the British Consul, whose wife had also left China. There were no women about to nag the men, to see they took care of them­ selves or to telephone the doctor. The next morning my father went to his office. An hour later he collapsed and lost consciousness. He died in four days, at the age of fifty­-three. He is buried in Tientsin.

My mother lived to be seventy. When she was in her early sixties, she said something I have always remembered. She was white-haired then and round-shouldered. She was sewing, and I was a few steps away drying dishes. We hadn’t spoken for a while. Then I heard her say, “God, he was attractive!”

Startled, I asked, “Who?”

“Your father.” That’s all she said. She was not given to reticence but she said nothing more. It was the last time she spoke of him.

The work of my father’s years in China was destroyed. The Japanese began the job in 1941 and the Russians finished it in 1945. They left nothing. My father’s porcelain collection is at the bottom of the Yellow Sea. But there is no reason to be sorry, to regret, or to mourn.

Since my father’s death I have searched for his memory where I can, and the places are few. But I know he led a great life in a country he loved and with friends he loved. He never needed to go home again. He was always there.


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