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Making Her Bed, Memoir from Mai-Lon Gittelsohn
Our “guests” from China never made their beds. When May Fa (Beautiful
Flower) appeared at our door one afternoon, daddy offered her tea and then took her to
my room. He showed her where to put her clothes, told me to empty one of my drawers
and pushed my clothes aside to make space in the closet. That was how I knew I was to
have another roommate from China and that this one, like the two before her, would not
know how to make a bed—she wouldn’t know how to tuck the sheets in tightly at the
foot, to pull the blankets up, folding the top sheet over, set the pillow in place and cover it
all with the chenille spread.
Tossed together like peas and carrots in fried rice, May Fa and I smiled and
mimed because she spoke only Cantonese and I had forgotten all the Chinese I learned in
my two years of Chinese school.
May Fa was soon drafted to work at the family restaurant and I reverted to my
usual solitary life—American school until three, then home to an empty house where
silence would already be crouching like a dull beast, stupefying in its weight, the quiet
broken only by the ticking of the clock in the living room, the dripping of the faucet in
A click of the key in the front door at two in the morning, and everyone would be
home from work, ready to heat up the wok and relax over a late meal of noodles and
chicken almond mandarin. At last, I could push away the pillow that covered my head,
tuck the blankets under my chin and fall into a sleep that felt safe, protected.
I would only stir and turn over when May Fa tiptoed into the room and fell
wearily into bed. In Hong Kong, May Fa had a mui jay, a servant girl who made her bed.
Labor in China was so plentiful that even those of modest means could afford a servant. I
imagine that the work in America was much harder than she expected, but the life seemed
to agree with her. Her waist grew quite thick, barely disguised by a wide cummerbund
that she wore over a Chinese tunic.
Six months after her arrival, May Fa disappeared from my room. I came home
from school and the drawer was empty, the closet vacated. She was gone, apparently
moved to San Francisco. Her name was never mentioned to me again, but six months
later she came to visit balancing a box of dim sum and a new baby in her arms.
Mai Lon Gittelsohn teaches memoir writing. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Oregon’s Pacific University with a focus on poetry in June, 2012. Her chapbook, “Chop Suey and Apple Pie,” was published May, 2014.