It was 1944, and the American planes flew over us regularly. First there would be the sirens, a shrieking wail up and down warning us to seek shelter (which was a joke, there were very few shelters). My big sister Maria and I decided to stay in place, not even under the bed, and we got a show to beat all shows. The building 500 feet from us and in full view through our bedroom windows suddenly exploded and roared in resounding cracks as it collapsed in flames. Listen, Maria said, that is the gas pipes going up.
Our parents were resigned, and then so were we as we watched the show. We would either be bombed ourselves or not. There was nowhere to go except under our beds. Our ahmah cried out in the kitchen with each thudding bomb; the poor woman was wishing she had stayed on the farm with her husband, who was not having a good time either. The Japanese army had pretty much demolished his livelihood by confiscating the crops to feed themselves.
At dawn the sirens gave voice once more, a prolonged cry that told us the bombers had gone and left new rubble on the streets.
Presents under the tree, that is. It was the most special family get-together I will remember, and there have been good ones in the past. Credit goes to my nephew and his wife, who together have raised two calm and serious girls who understand the value of being close.
And what’s more, it was a gigantic tree decorated with trinkets made by my niece’s mother and meant to be brought out and displayed for generations,
a tradition which failed to make itself felt by me and no wonder, with the upheavals and rending of stability that classify my life.
I made sure Anthony understood what he and his wife have achieved. No small matter. A surety meant to be carried on by their sons-in-law. A holding to be cherished.
It was 1937 and the Japanese were at war with China. We were living at our country home when we found ourselves trapped between artillery fire from both sides.
I was an infant and someone carried me as we evacuated. There was no time to open the safe that held valuables and papers. My sister led our dogs on their leashes and we set out walking. Driving out was no option — the Japanese army had cut down the trees lining the road to prevent anyone from escaping in vehicles.
And so my parents, three brothers and sister and I walked 30 miles to our house in Shanghai. We were fortunate to have that. And the war progressed until 1941, when it became a World War.
Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese army up until the end of WWII. There were checkpoints throughout the city where sentries stood guard. One was the Garden Bridge over Soochow Creek.
My sister, 11 years older than me, picked me up from school after work (yes, I had to wait until 5 o’clock, always the last to leave school) and went to cross the bridge. As usual, the sentry demanded that we kowtow to him before daring to cross, but Maria was feeling combative that day and refused to do so. The sentry then poked her with his rifle, whereupon Maria flew at him and pummeled his face. The sentry beat her with the rifle butt. I stood there worrying, of all things, about her hat which had flown off her head and into the creek.
Eventually an officer arrived and told the sentry to stand down. He let us go on over the bridge. Maria said nothing all the way home but then shut herself in her room to cry. She was black and blue all over for a week.
She is gone now, but she was a feisty woman. She taught me to dance and to play cards. We sang duets together, and shared passwords and our own language. She was Big Sister through and through.