August 4th, 1994 my house burned to the ground. We lost everything I had scrimped and saved on my $6/hour salary to buy: the kids’ beds, my books, second hand furniture, appliances, the china my mother had given me – one of the last and the best gift from her. What was at the time a top of the line stereo system, to include one of those newfangled CD players. Only 3 things survived that fire: my daughter’s trumpet, the newspapers I had inherited, dated March/April 1945 chronicling the end of World War 2 and Hitler’s death – miraculous save, that one! – and my red blankie.
Fortunately neither I nor my Monster Babies were anywhere near there. We were in Texas, meeting my long lost/recently found brother, enjoying the first paid vacation I’ve ever had. We were set to start driving at midnight. Just before hitting the road Brother called and told me to hurry. He had to catch an emergency flight to Germany, where our mother lay dying. A family member was needed to witness her Last Will and Testament.
Clearly this was not a good time for Team Krejados.
I remember only vaguely… impressions, blurs of happenings. Long distance phone calls confirming the rape of my life and the utter destruction of my property. My blessed Sister, urging me to get away from it all by going to the mall. Breaking down and crying outside of a music store after searching their bargain bins for music I might like. That is when it truly hit me: why buy any music? I no longer have a stereo to play it on. Agony of loss, not just of my mother but of everything.
One incident I remember distinctly: shoes. I needed them, they fit and, at $4, were priced right. I did not buy them. For a long time, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy anything. Why should I when, in a moment or at the whim of someone’s greed I could lose everything all over again?
Believe me: I am well over that sentiment. Nowadays I shop, not just for things I need but for things I or my loved ones want. As much as I am trying to live a bare bones existence, this honey of a gig, the attainment of tenure and this home I stumbled onto with no clue what I was headed for when I came here compels me to nest. I confess I have been lulled into comfort and security. Some vagabond I turned out to be!
Today’s purchase: an office chair. A black faux-leather covered, swivel-tilt, high-backed manager’s chair. I reason I spend so much time in my office, sooner or later I was going to have to invest in a quality parking place. Starting day after tomorrow I will park my derriere in a luxury chair instead of these ersatz office chairs I’ve been making do with almost since I’ve been here.
Not that it is anyone’s fault. The Chinese have a strange idea of comfort. Even their leisure centers, from restaurants to Starbucks offer more wooden, straight-backed chairs than inviting, ‘sink into me’ settees.
Remember, when I first moved into this new apartment? And again, on my third anniversary here the school offered to replace whatever I needed? I got a hard-as-a-rock new mattress, a couch that feels a little less soft than a Chevy bench seat and looks like it belongs in a cocktail lounge; and a new office chair from some kitchen collection. Ladder-backed, wooden slat seat, four legs on the floor.
I’m not complaining. I have much more than most, certainly more than what is needed to live and way more than I bargained for.
It was only when I went to B&Q, China’s Home Depot equivalent that I found my dream chair. Immediately my heart (or butt) was sold on it. Considering how much time I spend seated at the computer already, add to that my new part time gig starting this fall of editing a manuscript, and writing editorials – a part time job I stumbled on (more on those later), I reasoned I’m going to spend enough time in that chair to get my money’s worth within six months.
Price tag: 839Yuan. Comparable office chairs in other stores are at least twice that, with a delivery fee of up to 50% of the cost of the chair. B&Q charged only 50Yuan for delivery. However, delivery would have been free had I spent 1,500Yuan or more. I couldn’t think of anything else I needed or wanted, so I cheerfully paid the extra 50.
I am so excited about this new chair! Not just because I’ve needed/wanted a decent office chair for about 2 years – since the old one broke, but because I negotiated the purchase and delivery all by myself!
I could have asked for help. There is no lack of people wanting nothing more than to help me do every little thing. But if I accept all this help, how will I ever learn to do for myself? This morning, logging on just long enough to ask Google Translate how to say: ‘what is your delivery charge?’ I dashed out of the house and headed straight for the store. In less than one hour I had a voucher for one chair, all paid for and the guarantee that the delivery team will call me one hour prior to arrival.
Times like this I think of my son. Odd? Read on.
Losing everything in the fire was traumatic enough but what really devastated me was losing my pictures. Maybe not so much those from my youth – I’ve never really been photogenic anyway. The loss of my kids’ pictures was nearly unbearable. The best images of them are engraved on my heart but actual likeness of them, something I can whip out and show off… gone, all gone. Damn again the thief that robbed us of our life till then!
Turns out, not all was lost. Everyone who heard of our plight, who had pictures of us at any time or stage of our lives duplicated the photos they had. More than any cash or material contributions from total strangers, more than the Red Cross starter kits we were given when we finally did get a home of our own, those pictures were the greatest gift. Perhaps even the greatest gift we’ve ever received. My heart certainly remembers it that way. And then…
Some fifteen years after that cataclysmic time, cleaning out her former husband’s office my sister in law ran across a video. By that time I was living in Texas, just a few miles from her. Following her intriguing invitation – “I have something you’ll want to see…” I repaired directly over. She was right.
Seated, refreshment in hand, she pushed the VCR’s ‘play’. On the TV: scenes of my kids and me, playing in the park. The quality was terrible. The tape was several years old and had not been kept in the best of environments. Playing it over and over was risking permanently ruining it. I couldn’t help myself.
The video was shot in July 1988, when my brother and his family were passing through Tennessee on their way to a new duty station in Texas. The visit lasted less than a day. My kids were 6 and 3 years old. There was a segment showing them on a playground. There I was, impossibly young, pushing my baby boy on the swings, with Girl-Child occupying the swing next to him. He commanded me to stop pushing him, so I walked away – out of the frame. A few moments later he shouted: “Look Mommy, I’m swinging myself!” with boundless glee, in the sweetest voice, complete with Tennessee twang. There he was, pumping his little legs, rocking his body back and forth, his blond hair alternately flying back or covering his brow. And that smile.. a mile of smile! A graphic depiction of the boundless joy a body feels at doing what was previously unimaginable.
Since viewing that tape, the joy and triumph of his cry has followed me everywhere, all these years. Except now, it is my triumphant cry.
In my Chinese world, every time I do something I’ve never done before, such as: the first time I bought a train ticket, every time I go somewhere I’ve never been, or the first time negotiating a home delivery I play that small moment of video in my head, sharing my baby boy’s exultation at managing something seemingly insurmountable all on my own.
“Look Mommy! Ah’m swingin’ MY-SAY-LF!”
Yes, I swung it myself. My mouth smiles, even as my eyes mist.