The Chinese Cupboard
The Chinese Cupboard was an enormous red metal box the size of a modern refrigerator and was fronted by two doors. Once opened, it revealed various sized wooden teak drawers, all having ornate brass pulls. There were teak shelves in there too, shiny and glowing, satin smooth. It stood upon a sturdy, shiny black stand and it became an item I would dearly love.
It was owned by my 3rd set of grandparents, rather rigid and disagreeable people. They had rules no one had ever heard of, even Queen Victoria, and they expected them to be obeyed without question. Grandmother Rogers was of Scottish decent and, at least back then, it was no myth that Scots were frugal. For example, she saved every scrap of unconsumed food from people’s plates and would proudly make up a “casserole” or a “cake” from those fragments and demand they be eaten. Believe me, those creations tasted like they had been lying out on a road for an exceedingly long time.
Grannie R. taught history in the NYC public schools. Back then, Mrs. Rogers was allowed to slap misbehaving kids with a ruler or anything she was holding, grab them by an ear and drag them to the principal’s office if they’d dared to misbehave in her classroom. This was permitted, and the students did not resist. They went along if they knew what was good for them, and at that point, nothing was. Back then, that sort of teacherly discipline was not abuse; it was considered proper procedure and would produce stellar adults.
Grandmother Rogers was fierce. And lucky for her the principal was her husband, my step-grandfather Rogers, a one-eyed foul-tempered tyrant of the first order. That public school had zero discipline problems. Once a kid got shoved into Mr. Rogers’ office, one was not quite sure he or she would ever reappear. He showed no favoritism to me, and I certainly reciprocated.
Going to visit those ogres with our parents was surely akin to an early form of child abuse. “Fun” was not in their lexicon but because it was pounded into us that it was “the proper thing to do,” so off we went to Rogers Hell. It would always be on a weekend or in the summer so as to not interfere with their school duties, and we dreaded going and often tried to fake lethal illnesses. Nothing worked. We had to go even though it certainly interfered with our weekends and summer days.
One of dear old Grannie and Grampy’s R’s rules, and amongst their worst, was that everyone stayed at the dinner table until all were excused, and considering that older people really loved to sit and gossip and complain endlessly over cold coffee at the end of the meal, it was beyond hell for us kids. Those post-prandial confinements to our hard dinner chairs were gratuitous punishments no child should bear. Those wolverine step-grandparents would not release us no matter how sad, bored or uncomfortable we kids were. In fact, I was pretty sure they liked us to suffer.
Ah, but I was saved. That huge red metal cabinet shoved into the corner of that claustrophobic dining-room prison was covered with intricately detailed Chinese paintings and stories. I would stare at it as those hours dragged, and I’d let my imagination move along with the things those ancient Chinese people were doing on the front of the Chinese Cupboard. They smiled and danced, they sold their products in the market place, kept birds and cats, traveled behind ox carts, they wore magnificently embroidered kimonos and the women’s feet were too tiny to discern. Adorable children with shiny black hair rolled down hills, laughed and played, and friendly wild animals gamboled joyfully in the background hills. Many women carried whisper-delicate parasols. Some of the men held shining snakes wrapped around their hands, many played games on boards. There were flowers and beautiful trees with singing birds displaying long colorful tail feathers in their branches, lengthy winding paths went toward simple, small homes. Pots of curious foods cooked and steamed on small fires and many of the Chinese people carried delicate musical instruments, harps and flutes. Grinning happy dragons with huge wings swept and tumbled through the clouds in the azure skies. Sweet, fat Chinese babies rolled and laughed in the grass.
Chinese stories rose from the bottom of that Chinese Cupboard in swirls and wondrous colors. Mesmerized, I stared at them and began to actually hope the dinner would not end, at least for another hour. I no longer heard the din and drone of the grown-up’s tedious conversations. I was enchanted by that great red Chinese Cupboard. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, and in memory, it remains thus.
After those ornery grandparents with their unshatterable rules finally died, I wondered who would get the Cupboard and yes, I wished someone would give it to me, but alas, it went elsewhere. All I can do is hope it’s still standing proudly in some person’s home and stirring up a bored child’s imagination by showing the magical Chinese stories painted on the front of that mysterious, old Cupboard. I owe it much. How does one say thank you to a big red metal beautifully decorated Chinese Cupboard for saving me from the tortures of endless dining room table hours?
谢 谢 That’s how!