The China Man
It was always there, from my earliest memory. My mother’s taste at the time ran to “Oriental.” That is what they called it, back in the 1950s. We had a round coffee table and end tables finished in black lacquer. Like Michelangelo, I used lie on my back underneath the coffee table and draw on the unfinished underside of it. There was a mural on one wall, a scene on sepia colored wallpaper that appeared to be sketched in pen and ink. A delicate, arched bridge over a stream with cherry blossom trees in the background. On a low bench sat a porcelain doll in satin clothing. The walls of the living room were gray, the carpet green and sculpted. Looking back, it seems the colors were rather somber. I didn’t think about it at the time. One end table held a lamp and beside the lamp was the China Man, made of ceramic.
I was forbidden from touching him. Little figurine, all of five inches tall, of an Asian man carrying a basket of laundry. It was white, his clothes were white –loose appearing pants and a jacket with a Mandarin collar. A little hat on his head, and a long, dark pony tail. I thought that was very strange. The “laundry” was carried in a box that had a removable lid and was topped by a golden elephant. I touched him anyway, whenever I thought I could get away with it. I would take that laundry lid off to see if anything was inside. Nothing ever was. Poor, little man, always and forever toiling with a load of laundry
When we moved to Long Island, the black lacquer was stripped from the tables so the natural wood grain came through. Walls were white and carpet a soft, light lavender. The “Oriental” theme had been abandoned, but the little China Man continued to stand on an end table, nevertheless.
As I got older, I lost my fascination with him. He was just another thing that my mother had. Another thing among many things that I did not find attractive or intriguing. My tastes and occupations veered off in different directions.
We aged. Life and people changed. We weathered marriages and divorces, births and deaths, arguments and estrangements, long distance moves, illness, adversity, all the shocks that time and life have to offer. Before my mother died we were exchanging letters. I lived in another state. She never met my child. She never told me she was sick. Ours was always a difficult relationship, the kind I had to steel myself from over thinking, lest I fall into despair. My mother, the enigma.
Years later, decades, in fact, a package arrived at my door. It was from my niece who had started communicating with me after my many years in familial “exile.” The package was shaped like a shoebox and wrapped in brown paper. It was rather badly beat up, so I feared for whatever might be inside. There were pictures from the distant past, they survived the obviously bumpy ride to my stoop. With only newspaper to protect it, I uncovered the other inhabitant of the package…the little China Man. There he was, after all these years and accompanying heartaches. At first I thought the lid to the laundry basket was gone or broken, but it, too, was wrapped in newspaper and miraculously entirely intact, including the golden elephant. I was instantly back in my mother’s “Oriental” living room, surreptitiously sneaking a peek inside his basket. My eyes blurred with uncontrollable tears. Why was this trinket so important to her? Had it been a gift? Was it entwined with a sentimental memory? He is a mystery, much like my mother herself.
He stands safely in a china closet now. I can’t stand him, but I love him. Imagine that? If I feel that I can handle it, I look at him. No need to dare a forbidden touch anymore. It is he that touches me.
June Volz 2016
June Volz 2016