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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.