The Last Day of My Childhood (Re-edit)
That year looked the same as all my earlier years.
I was eleven years old, in my last semester of primary school.
Different from most of the other similar-aged kids, I was quiet and obedient, never made any trouble: At school, I was a good student. Each class, I sat straight-backed on my seat, listening and interacting attentively, wrote down every single note that I thought necessary; when my father taught me and my younger brother that the best way to practice our hand writings was following the font of the dictionary, I did. So, all my homework and quiz papers were written neatly and beautifully, like a piece of calligraphic work. After school, I always walked back home accompanied by a few classmates. They loved to listen to me telling them stories—I had read a lot more books than they did. They scrambled to walk closer to me; they repeated my stories to others. Plus, I made sketches, especially those beautiful ladies’ sketches: Some were reading, some were playing instruments, and some others were wearing army uniforms holding swords in their hands… Even with these hobbies, and I didn’t do extra studies after school, my grades were great enough to easily beat all my cousins, my neighborhood kids, and my parents’ friends’ children.
I was a child every parent wanted to have; I was the example to other kids. But sometimes I felt unhappy—I wasn’t pretty; I didn’t have nice clothes to wear; everyday on my way home I could see an old man selling little bamboo baskets, I longed for one but my pocket was forever empty; the boy to whom I paid secret attention, liked another girl who was as pretty and proud as an elegant swan. I was jealous of her: Why could she change her outfit everyday, but I always wore the same ones? Why did her black leather shoes shine like mirror, but mine were made with cloth, on which my aunt hand embroidered two large pitiful flowers? I didn’t ask my parents for a better pair of shoes; I knew they had no money. Only once a year I could have the chance to own something new, which was for Spring Festival. Most of my possessions were second hand—From either my cousins, or my parents’ friends’ children.
For the first time I felt inferior, but there was nothing I could do about it. In spite of the fact that my grades were higher, I could tell stories and sketch, that boy had never noticed me. To him, I was just an ugly duckling, while he had his proud princess. In my presence, the relatives used to express their pity by saying that both my parents were quite good-looking, why didn’t their only daughter, which meant me, inherit a bit of their features?
I remained silent when I heard that, but the inner me became unhappier. From time to time I looked into the mirror, figuring how to pretty up myself. My mother read my mind. She pulled me into her arms, comforting: “Don’t worry, you are my and your father’s little princess; you are the princess of the family. A golden heart and merits are more important than a pretty face.” I listened; I kept those words in my mind. I upturned my face to watch my mother: She was still young, in her thirties; she was elected unannounced as the most beautiful mother among my classmates’—In the meetings that were held for the students’ parents, although my mother’s clothes were as plain as usual, and she had no leather shoes to wear as well, the men kept stealing glances at her, while the women looked defensive.
I was proud of my mother; I wanted to be a mature woman like her—Until later, when I realized that I didn’t know her at all.
That Summer, after finishing the enrollment examination for middle school, I went to the countryside—The village where I was born and where some of my uncles were still living.
I wasn’t worried about my examination at all; I was sure that by end of July, I would receive an acceptance letter from the best school in the town. Besides, I had no homework nor holiday work to do. Thus that Summer was destined to be wild and fearless!
I loved to spend my Summers in the countryside—Usually I would finish my entire holiday homework hurriedly during the first few days of my Summer holiday, then I would beg for my mother’s permission to let me go to the countryside, otherwise nobody would buy me the bus ticket. But that Summer, my mother looked upset; one day I even heard her arguing with my father in their room. I knew it wasn’t good timing for me to mention the ticket to her; since I just learned to ride a bicycle, I decided to ride to the village. One morning I got up very early, left my mother a note, then took my bicycle heading for my dream place. That sixteen miles’ adventure took me about three hours: I rode as fast as a flash of lightning, knowing that my mother had no way to chase after me. The route was vague in my memory. Sometimes if I got lost, I jumped off the bicycle and asked for the passersby’s direction. At last I arrived at my uncle’s house in the village before noon, right after my mother’s phone call.
That was the first time I could remember that I fought for my own will without my mother’s permission. My mother didn’t criticize me; she even didn’t say a word about it when a few weeks’ later I saw her in the village.
In my child’s heart, I couldn’t really explain what the magic of the countryside was. The food there was simple; everyday I ate basically the same things: Congee was the breakfast with a little pickles like turnip; white rice for lunch accompanied by simply stir-fried vegetables which were just picked from the kitchen garden one or two hours ago; dinner was soup noodles—Handmade wheat flour noodles in plain soup water, on the surface of which floating some vegetable leaves as if to cover the shyness of lacking grease. The villagers seldom ate meat—It wasn’t because they couldn’t afford it; they just didn’t reward themselves easily; they showed no desire for the things which they considered to be beyond their basic necessities. They lived as instinctive and content as the livestock they raised; while there I was happy and healthy too.
That summer, every morning I rose around six with my cousins. I followed them to the fields to cut fresh grasses for their goats and ox, then we went home and dried the grasses in the shade. My cousin told me that the goats would be ill if the grasses they ate were still with undried dews. Because of that, every time when we fed those horned animals, I felt nervous since I didn’t want them to get sick. However, the way they chewed on the grasses looked so adorable—They enjoyed their meal as much as I enjoyed watching them; and many times I forced back my salivas not to try the grasses myself, given the impression that they seemed awfully juicy and smelled awfully sweet, like all the other wonderful veggies.
After the breakfast of every living creature in this house, we would go to the vegetable garden to check its produce. For some reason, the villagers there loved to plant green eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes, long hot peppers and loofa. As a direct consequence, the daily lunch of each household was more or less the same—You could tell it from the bowls carried by the neighbors, who used to gather under the big willow tree at the entrance of the village, chatting while having their own lunch. To them, it was one of their precious entertaining moments.
I barely could help my cousins with the heavier physical work; the only things I could do were wash vegetables, sweep floors, and take care of the kitchen range while cooking—During those years, the main fire source in the country kitchens was wheat straw, the ashes of which could be used as fertilizer for the crops as well. The whole kitchen was like an oven in Summer when the range was on. I sat behind it, kept feeding the range with straw. The fire was only one foot away, baking my face and arms. My clothes were thoroughly wet from the sweat when the meal was done. But I loved doing that; I wanted to be needed.
Once during that Summer, we went to a market event held in a nearby main village: We took a little ferryboat first to cross the river, then walked on foot for another one hour. It was an open-air market, crowded with villagers coming from surrounding villages like us. You could buy everything there at a bargain price, such as farming tools, clothes, kitchenwares, crop seeds. At one booth a yellow-white gingham patterned blouse caught my eye right away. But I had no money, and was too shy to ask my aunt or cousins to buy it for me. Reluctantly, I suppressed my fondness and passed the booth without giving that blouse a second glance; when we turned at a crossroad, I shot my last glimpse at it in the crowd: It was swaying in the breeze like a flag of victory. I was beaten, thus I felt sad.
The next morning, my mother came to the village with my younger brother. She didn’t talk much to me, but dropped my brother at my uncle’s house, then hurried to somewhere else.
That day looked the same as all my earlier days.
My mother came back in early afternoon, while I was reading under the eave and my younger brother napping in bed. My mother sat next to me, silently, just combed my hair with her fingers. I looked up at her, called: “Mom”. She nodded, put her arms around my neck, her chin was to my head. She spoke: “My poor little child, you look so messy. What can you do in the future? You are just a peasant girl; you are not pretty; you even don’t know how to make yourself prettier.” Her tone sounded like complaining, but the way she was holding me showed only tenderness and love. I still remembered what she told me in the past—“Don’t worry, you are my and your father’s little princess; you are the princess of the family. A golden heart and merits are more important than a pretty face.” I was about to remind her of that, a teardrop fell on my front placket—My mother was weeping. I hung my words at my tongue.
That afternoon, my mother left the village. My nine-year-old brother and I watched her walk up to the dam. She turned around, waving her hand at us and smiled. Then she strode along the dam; her back was becoming smaller and smaller until it faded into a little dot then eventually vanished at the end of that dusty road, and my horizon. That was the last time I saw my mother.
She left us—She left her family, left her children, left her husband. She divorced with my father the next day. Months later, I overheard the talk between my relatives, saying that my mother abandoned the home was because she couldn’t stand the poverty anymore, and that she married my father considering he was a handsome hardworking man; she thought he would have a future and give her a comfortable life. But after thirteen years’ struggles, endless disappointments, she finally decided to go—She was not that old; she was still pretty; she could have another life-changing chance if she was determined.
My father never talked about my mother since; and I never saw her again. My last memory of her was that day—Her little talk with me; her green polka dot white ground blouse that gradually disappeared on the dam. I lost my mother since.
Almost overnight, I understood a lot of things before my twelfth Autumn: My father’s shame and failure; my mother’s weariness and dissatisfaction; the truth of life and the inevitability of growing up.
At the end of that July, I received my acceptance letter from the best middle school in my town. Nobody celebrated it. Unsurprisingly yet sadly, my childhood was gone. I never went back to the village anymore.
I forced myself to grow up, quickly and stubbornly—After that Summer, before that Autumn.