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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 


the kitchen. 


          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.

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