A sparkle in time
Cindy Xinru Yan
1977 was an important year of Chinese history. Beloved chairman Mao passed away a year before, and the demise of the Gang of Four ended the most painful history of the Culture revolution. “This country changed every day and night,” the newspaper told people. I was a 12-year-old girl, and 1977 was just a regular year for me. Those changes did put more insecure looks on my parents’ faces, but people’s life didn’t change a lot. We still lived in a room no bigger than a dove cage. I might have exaggerated a little, but that was how I felt. I didn’t know how to call this place because it was neither a house nor an apartment. Two small rooms and a tiny living room were the entire living space for five people in my family. We did have a small storage room in the yard, which was the place mother stored all the food for winter. I avoided to go in there because the freezing air and thick darkness in that closed space took all the air from my chest. Me and grandma stayed in the smaller room, my parents slept with my younger brother, Ming, who was only 3 years old. Every night I fell asleep listening to grandmother’s gentle snoring. The wall was old and covered with yellow water spots. When I stared at those shades of spots under the moon light, they looked like tiny people. The fear and curiosity went away when I turned to my grandmother’s side and held her tight.
One morning I woke up early, the entire world was still dark and quiet. The sound of snow falling from the roof was loud and clear. I heard mother and father’s argument regardless if I wanted to or not. Carefully crawling over sleeping grandma, I put on my heavy winter coat and pushed the door open slightly.
“If you still care about this family you wouldn’t buy those useless things! Do you think we are rich enough to be generous to random people?” Mother tried to lower her voice but failed. The shakiness and long pauses meant there were tears in her eyes.
“The old man doesn’t have a place to stay if he doesn’t sell those matches. Lunar New Year is coming after all.” Father, clearing his throat, sound defeated.
“Those matches were wet! I thought you are a smart man Dr. Li! I can’t believe we live in this condition as a doctor’s family! I didn’t become a nurse to pay for your medical school to live this kind of life!” Mother was crying now.
Father grabbed his coat and stormed outside. I huddled back under my blanked as fast as I could to avoid seeing mother cry. Those yellow tiny people on the wall stood there peacefully; they looked down at me and my life in this tiny space. Pulling the blanket over my head, I needed to stop thinking about why I lived so poor as a daughter of a doctor and a nurse. Grandma always told me that my father was a decent man, but I wasn’t sure. Everyone said Dr. Li was the kindest man they ever met. When patients couldn’t afford their medicine, they came to Dr. Li because he let them borrow money or even gave their medicine for free. When our neighbors didn’t have money to buy food or pay for their kids’ school, they knew they could rely on him. However, as a father, he couldn’t pay for hardly anything Ming and I wanted. It made me feel sorry for him when he lowered his head to avoid looking in my eyes. However, I wanted to believe in him because he was my grandmother’s son. My mother used to say that the best thing my father ever did to this family is letting grandma stay with us. I couldn’t agree more. The life without her is unimaginable. Who’s going to wake me up every moving and prepare me for school? Who’s going to make toys with color papers for Ming and me? Who’s going to comfort the whole family when my parents had a fight? My mother was busy enough with her job as a nurse, and father barely came home for dinner because he always worked late in the hospital. Luckily, grandma was always there for us.
I was the first one running out the classroom after the teacher dismissed the class. Chilly wind swiped through narrow streets and blew down some branches. I felt like a bird flying in the wind. When I was running through the freezing wind, I didn’t have to think about the fight, the small living space and my mother’s tears. There were probably not enough winds to blow all my troubles away. I raised my head and took a deep breath. It was not worth to get a cold for running in the wind, so I decided to go home.
Before I reached door, I was surprised to see my whole family standing next to the storage room. Ming jumped out of mother’s arms and ran to me.
“June! Look what daddy got us for the New Year!” he said. His little face blushed with excitement.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. The cold, small room which used to be filled with cabbages and potatoes now looked like a palace of foods. A bag of pork ribs hung in the corner of the room. Oranges and apples were shining on the shelf. I felt saliva forming. The last time we had pork was months before, and I almost forgot what fresh fruits tasted like. Some decorations for Lunar New Year were on the shelf. The color of bright red and gold brought the new year atmosphere into the room. My father took a box from the shelf and handed to me. Smiling, he seemed shy, and gently encouraged me to open it up. It was a beautiful red box decorated with golden flower patterns. I took it with my both hands, it was heavier than I thought. No matter what was inside I wanted to save the box for my toys. Ming couldn’t wait and opened it with his little hands. At least 20 pieces of traditional pastries were placed closely in that box. I didn’t know foods can be that pretty. Some of them were pineapple cakes shaped like bunnies and sunflowers. I could smell the sweet and sour pineapple jam inside of the pastries. Taro buns have golden and fluffy crust with crispy beaked almond on top. The one in the middle was shaped like a lotus. The pink petals were made by many layers of crispy pastries. I was sure that the flower heart contained soft, sweet red beans. It was even looked better than a real lotus! Before I reached out my hand to take one, mother closed the box. I immediately knew that we needed to save the pastries for the New Year.
My father looked at my mother and said, “Today I picked up my paycheck and brought something for the Lunar New Year. I felt sorry for my kids because they had not eaten tasty food for months. I spend money on everyone else, but not them. They deserve a better life. At least I can give them a happy new year.” he picked up my little brother and placed one hand on my shoulder. Mother laid the box on the shelf carefully, and closed the door behind her. Her face was brightened up by a gentle smile.
“I will cook those foods with grandma. We will have a great Luna New Year like your father said,” mother said warmly, slightly leaned on my father’s shoulder. My family had some fruit after dinner. Meat, pastry, and other food were saved for new year just like I predicted. My father even drank some wine with mother on the dinner table. They talked and laughed like they never fought. Suddenly, a thought stroke me, “only money and fancy food can bring peace and joy to this family.” I was terrified by my own thought. Biting my lips, I forced myself to stop thinking.
The happiest person on the table was my grandma. She sat quietly, cut an apple in small pieces, and placed them on everyone’s plates.
“Anyone want more apples? I can get it in the storage room,” grandma said. When she mentioned the storage room, she looked at my father. Her eyes were filled with satisfaction. I didn’t pay much attention to what they were talking about because the lotus shaped pastry was the only thing I could think about. Looking out from the window, I could only see the shape of that storage room. I wanted to go in that room again but outside was freezing with snow falling heavily.
I went to bed early at that night, wishing to weak up early next morning so that I could spend more time in the storage room.
“What should we do now? We have to call the police to find the thief!”
“You lost your mind. Polices would not come here for some lost food!”
Waking up by sounds of a fight again, I couldn’t open my eyes because of the bright light streaming through the window. I reached out my hand to grandma’s side of the bed. It was cold and empty. When I ran into the yard in my pajamas, I couldn’t feel the cold at all. The storage room was wide open like an empty black hole. Some carrots and half bag of flour lay on the ground. Pieces of red paper which used to be new year decorations were still hanged on the broken shelf. Some neighbors stood in front of their doors, scratched their necks and stared at our empty storage room.
“What a shame! Now everyone knew we have no food for the New Year!” my mother’s voice shaken because of the anger and shame.
I saw my classmate stood with his mother. When my eyes met with his, he walked towards me. His mother genteelly grabbed his hand.
“We all feel sorry for June’s family, but you’d better not go. There is nothing you can do, and what if they asked to borrow some foods from us?” the mother lowered her voice but I heard her clearly. They walked inside and closed the door.
Burning tears rolled down from my cheeks; everything was blurred but I knew grandma was comforting Ming. I could still hear my mother yelled at my father.
I lost the lotus flower, and my parents were fighting again. Looking into the empty storage room, it was nothing there to make the family happy again. My heart ached when I thought about it. Suddenly I fell into an embrace; it was my father. I could feel his chain bone when I leaned my head on his chest. I didn’t realize my father became that thin. Without looking at his face, I knew he wasn’t crying or shaking. His steady heart beats calmed me down, and my tears stopped.
“We are going to figure something out before the Lunar New Year,” my mother looked at me. “Don’t you worry about it.” Like the most of Chinese mother, she refused to show her volubility in front of her children.
“Go and help your mother. I need to go to the hospital,” my father told me.
I knew exactly what my mother meant by “figure something out,” Every time she said that, she went to borrow money from Mrs. Yang, the old lady lived next to us. I didn’t like Mrs.Yang at all even she regarded my father as a savior of her family. My father operated her son for free when they had no money. The son recovered well and became a director of the largest factory in the province. Woman in neighborhood said that Mrs. Yang was an ignorant barbarian, and all the money she had didn’t buy any class for her. I didn’t know what that means, but every time she talked, it sounded like she was yelling. When children accidently walked in her yard, she yelled at them so loud that the whole neighborhood could hear the high-pitched voice. Children in the neighborhood called her an old witch. However, she only showed her hospitality to my mother, which didn’t make it easier for my mother to talk about borrowing money.
I looked my mother fixed her hair again and again before she left. Looking into the mirror, her face twisted slightly as if she ate something sour. Quickly rubbing a little bit of lipsticks on her lips, she blended it with her finger. The scarlet color made her face less pale. She took out her nicest dress from the closet, it was a light brown winter dress she brought two years ago. The way she pulled the zipper up reminded me of a warrior putting on an armor. My mother barely dressed up. For some reason, she seemed sad every time when she put on nice clothes and make ups. Chinese people always said woman look like lotus flowers when they dressed up, but my mother looked like a warrior with sadness in her eyes. I took a deep breath, held her hand, and followed her. She looked surprised, and told me to stay at home. “I don’t want you to go alone.” I said. She gave me a pale smile, held my hand tight, and knocked on Mrs. Yang’s door.
“Mrs. Li! What brought you here? Please come in!” the old lady wore a silk robe with tiger pattern on it. She invited my mother and I into her house.
The living room was two times bigger than ours. A large soft leather sofa shined under sun light. Before my mother said anything, she started to talk about her son brought a new refrigerator for her as a new year present. Words came out of her mouth like bullet shoot out the gun. My mother was not capable of stopping the bullets.
“Mrs. Yang, I have to tell you something” my mother finally got a chance to speak.
“If it’s about the money you borrowed from me before, don’t worry about returning it today! Just return it whenever you are ready, probably after the Luna New Year?” Mrs. Li poured more tea in my mother’s cup.
The awkward smile on mother’s face made my heart shrink. Mrs. Yang kept talking while my mother sat on the couch anxiously. When she finally paused, we said goodbye to her and readied to leave.
“I hope you staying longer, Mrs. Li, I always love to talk to you.” Mrs. Yang said. She went to kitchen and took out a basket. “I roasted some sweet potatoes, please bring it with you.” She handed the basket to my direction without looking at me.
My mother sighed after Mrs. Li closed the door behind her. We walked home silently. My mother held my hand tight, it started to hurt. I said nothing and kept leaning close to her. I was so mad at Mrs. Yang but I was also tired and hungry, so I took a sweet potato from the basket. There was a red envelope on the bottom of the basket.
Mother picked up the envelop and opened it. I saw a stack of cash and a hand-written note, it says “Happy Luna New Year”. It was Mrs. Yang’s hand writing because she was the only one in the neighborhood who spelled “Lunar New Year” wrong. My mother smiled, carefully put the cash back to the envelop.
“Neighbors told that me I shouldn’t be friends with Mrs. Yang. Guess who’s wrong,” Mother said while she walked fast towards home. I could tell how happy she was by her steeps.
Delightful smell of food rose from kitchen; my little brother ran in there excitingly every few minutes. Mother used the money in envelop for new year shopping. We got all the meat and vegetables, but the box of pastry was already sold out. I felt guilty for my disappointment. Luckily, everyone was busy so no one noticed that. It was too late to buy decorations. My grandma picked the red paper from ground and asked me to draw something on it.
“I have a better idea.” I told her, pointing at a box of wet fire matches my father brought.
I painted all the fire matches with gold paint and used glue to attach them with the red paper. I put the matches into a shape of “福”, which means luck and fortune. I wish I can light those matches. Imaging those sparkles of fire made up the character 福， I felt extremely satisfied. After hung the whole thing on the wall, Grandma sat on the bed and made papercuts used the rest of red paper.
“June, this is for you,” Grandma put a red lotus shaped papercut in my hand.
I looked around, Mother was cooking in the kitchen, her eyes were red because of the smoke. Ming sat on the floor played with matches I left. Holding the lotus tight, I felt that I was not a child anymore. The pastry box wasn’t for me because I was no longer the child that carving for pastry. I still wanted delicious foods, but the happiness of whole family meant more to me at that moment. My father came in, shut snow and wind behind the door. His hair and shoulders were coved by snow. Taking off the heavy black coat, he took out a box of firework. I poured a cup of tea and handed it to him. He took the tea, looked surprised.
“I saw the old man who sold me matches. He gave me this box of firework to thank me for helping him. I checked it this time, the fireworks were good,” father said.
“Daddy is the best!” Ming ran to him.
I smiled, placed the box of firework on the table and took my father’s coat. People said they enter the adult’s world at the age of eighteen, but for me it was on the Lunar New Year of 1977. At that moment, I knew the time when people really became stronger was when they made sacrifice because of love. My mother was strong, and so did my father. I didn’t know what will happened to my life after 1977, but I knew I will always remember this new year. The decoration which I made by matches stacked in my mind. If I can light it, those sparkles will made up the character that means lucky. The Lunar New Year of 1977 was like a little sparkle in time, tiny but bright, my heart was brightened every time I thought about it.
Cindy(Xinru)Yan is a junior student in UNCG, born and raised in Shanxi, China. She majored in Chinese literature before she came to North Carolina.She attended UNCG since 2016.