Our room was at the far end of a two-storey house on Rue de Cardinal Mercier. To reach it we didn’t go in by the front door to the house (that was probably part of the rental agreement), but by walking beside a long high-hedged fence down a narrow lane that ran from Cardinal Mercier to the Rue des Soeurs, opening the picket fence, through the big back garden and past part of the rounded back of what was now a three-storey house with two small basement flats that opened onto the garden. Between them was a stone staircase that we climbed to the house’s back entrance, and the first door on the left of the corridor was to our room. My parents could also use another door further down the corridor that opened into the back part of our room, where their bed was, and my mother’s dressing table, an armchair and a desk with drawers where my father kept his things, and wardrobes along the wall.
The room had rounded bay windows that looked down onto a large back garden, with a row of tall trees at the end of it by the fence separating it from the next property, a house with an even larger garden. In the front part of the room, looking inward, were a sofa under the window, a round table to the left, behind which was a kind of glassed-in veranda with sliding double doors which always received a lot of light, where the little kitchenette was, and along a bit further on that wall was a door into the bathroom and toilet. Between the front and back parts of the room stood a long bookshelf about a meter high, and along the right wall was a wardrobe and large cupboard that held my clothes and toys and books and I had a little desk there.
Meals were sometimes brought by a Chinese boy or amah, from a Jewish restaurant several blocks away. Sometimes we went there to eat. Many times my mother used to get cream and churn it with a large spoon in a large bowl for a long time, until it turned into butter, for me, she said. She believed that butter was important for me. I remember breakfasts in the sunny part of the room, with white bread, butter, a soft-boiled egg in an egg-cup: the first time I was given one instead of having the egg opened up for me and poured into a little bowl, my father showed me how to tap on the top of the egg with a spoon to break the shell, and then pick off the broken pieces, dip the tip of my spoon into the yolk, then touch the tip onto a dab of salt that was on the saucer, and put the spoon back into the egg and take out a spoonful. He also said that it was better to put the rounded end of the egg at the top, and that there was a story about two countries that had gone to war with each other because one country said everyone had to open the round part of the egg while the other country said everybody had to open the pointed part.
Rue de Cardinal Mercier ran into the Avenue Joffre, where there were stalls three thick along the pavements and spilling out onto the road, vendors with all kinds of foods, fishes, and noodles, and hot tea, in summer, I asked why and Mother explained it was to help you sweat, the Chinese thought it was good to sweat during the summer. We never bought anything from outdoor stalls for fear of dysentery. And there were all these Chinese walking around with holes in the back of their pants so they could just squat down and shit wherever they needed, and many of them cleared their noses by pressing a hand against one nostril and shooting out snot from the other nostril onto the street, and they had these large round straw hats and carried things on sticks, one stick with two things hanging from either end over the back of the neck, and there were women with very small feet because their parents had bound them when they were children and mostly they ignored us and we ignored them, even in the house. And the sky was often blue and sometimes it rained.
I used to play in the garden alone because no other families in the house had children my age. One day I was playing with a ball near the back fence, and the ball went over the fence. That was how I met my first friend in Shanghai, a boy my age, Joboy. He was dark, an Indian, and spoke English. We had difficulty communicating at first, because I’d only just started learning English, I could speak a little, but found myself lacking words. I tried to tell Joboy that we had come here because of the “voyn”, I didn’t know how to say war in English so took the Polish word wojna, (pronounced voyna) and tried to make it sound English, as if hoping that by some magic of sound the meaning would be conveyed.
He invited me to play with him in their garden. He pushed aside the wire netting from one of the fence posts, winking as he did so. “Before you came I had to get my ball back somehow,” he said. He was surprised that I had only one first name, which I told him was ‘Richard’, the name I had started to use at the pre-school run by two Australian ladies my mother had taken me to soon after we moved into our new self-contained one-room home, although at home I was still called ‘Rysio’, the affectionate diminutive form of my official name, ‘Ryszard’ by which I sometimes would be introduced to some new acquaintances of my parents or to ‘business contacts’ of my father. He had a string of names, Jose Maria and several others, and so did all of his five sisters, four of them older than him and one younger, and a baby brother. I met Jessie, his younger sister, almost as soon as I stepped into their back garden. She had just come out of the back of the house, and ran down the steps to see who was with Joboy. She was dark like her brother, with lovely black eyes and a mischievous smile, and was wearing a cream colored summer dress. Joboy and she got on very well together, and the three of us took to each other immediately, and would spend many hours playing in their back garden.
Joboy’s family’s house was not subdivided like ours, and was larger and had a larger garden, with a summerhouse in the middle of the part adjacent to our back garden, and many smaller trees behind the long row of cypresses that separated the two properties. There was also a front garden and a gate that opened onto the lane that ran into the next street in the westerly direction, the Rue des Soeurs.
Joboy and I became good friends, and he would invite me to play with him in their grounds, with him and sometimes with his younger sister Jessie, who was also my first love. We played many games, running games and ball games and card games like “War”, and once after Joboy told us his strange theory about how mothers and fathers make babies Jessie and I took off our underpants behind the rose bushes between their house and our fence and I tried to put my little willy in the crack where she pissed from, but it wouldn’t go in and we dismissed the theory as another one of Joboy’s wild ideas.
One day as we were playing in the garden we heard loud drumming and cymbal-clashes coming from the street the other side of Joboy’s house. Joboy told me it was the annual Chinese New Year parade, and said we should go and look. We ran out to the street, and I was amazed to see all the streaming red banners with gold Chinese letters on them and dancers throwing huge red silk sashes up into the air and then a gigantic paper and cloth dragon’s head held up on tall staves with a long train under which scores of figures walked and danced as the dragon’s head cavorted through the street, and Chinese in fancy costumes and men on stilts and music and singing.
After some time I was also befriended by a couple of Joboy’s older sisters, and met his parents, and was invited inside. It was a magnificent house, with rich burgundy upholstery on gilded furniture and brocade curtains in the large reception room that opened onto the back garden. A grand piano stood to the side, and sometimes one of Joboy’s sisters played it while I was there. Joboy had a lot of toys and games in his room on the second floor, and on some rainy days we played together there. One evening, when I had stayed longer than usual, a bell rang in the house, and Joboy said it was time for vespers, did I want to go down to chapel with them? I thought a moment, decided not to admit I’d never been in a chapel and, said Yes. He may have even asked me if I was a Catholic, and to that too I may have answered Yes I don’t remember if I would have known what that meant, or even, though I would have known I was a Jew, if I had any idea what that could mean or that it might be connected in any way to religion. I probably did that because I so wanted to be with them and be like them.
It was the most marvelous room I had been in in my life. It was larger than the room I lived in with my family, and was painted all in azure-blue and white, with lovely statuettes of saints and the Madonna and Child and a picture of Jesus with his glowing red heart exposed to full view. I was already in love with Joboy and Jessie. Now I fell in love with this room.
I loved the scent of the holy water you dipped your fingers in and crossed yourself, I learned quickly to imitate the motions and loved to hear the stories about God who had become a man and as the Son of God had come to redeem all humans everywhere, but by his death saved us all from punishment for our sins, and I easily understood sinning as being bad, something I already knew well about myself since my first trauma – was it in Vilna? – when my parents had discovered me pleasuring myself with my little erection, and had yelled angrily at me and told me I was bad for doing that, and I must never touch it except when making peepee or washing it, and if I did it would turn black and fall off. Their anger and disgust had left me with the feeling that because I liked it & wanted to do it I was bad, and that they couldn’t love me if I was bad…
Azure and white chapel. Azure robed Madonna, pink faced with white headshawl trimmed with gold. Azure cloak and white blouse on the figure in the gold-framed portrait in the center of the wall above the altar, of the gently bearded beautiful Jesus with his bright red heart and long black hair. Below it, over the altar, on a silver cross, I could see his tormented body and suffering face as he gave his life for love of me and all humanity. Here God first became something I could feel as real and to be loved. Now there was something bigger and better than me or my parents for me to love and be loved by, and this I wanted and needed, for I could no longer purely love or be loved by any of the three of us, that primal triad out of which I had to find my way. I loved the little statues. Marian, one of Joboy’s older sisters, explained to me that they were just statues, that the Blessed Virgin holding the Infant was just a picturing of how She was really always there to lovingly embrace each of us as she always embraced Him in His Infancy, whenever we turned to her in adoration. She didn’t appear physically or hold you physically and you didn’t become an infant then, but it happened through and in your mind and spirit, you imagined it and you were embraced, and I understood that you could always become like an infant in Her arms, She was mother of us all because she was mother of God and God was Father of us all and of course of His Son and He could be all He wanted to be, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and always be all the moments of the story of His birth, life and passion on earth, as infant, as teacher, as sacrificed Christ. Mother of Jesus pray for me, I know you’re praying for me and I know Jesus hears and loves me and through Him the Father hears and loves me and it is wonderful to be so loved. Looking at the statues during the prayer, with the smell of incense and holy water under the little dome, I could feel these feelings. And later, when Marian gave me a rosary with a crucifix on one end of it and small oval brass medallions with figures of the Madonna and Child on them, and explained that I could have the same feelings even when not in the chapel, I felt I had received the best gift I had ever been given.
Did I hide it from my parents? I don’t remember. I remember only that I would often go to play with Joboy and Jessie in the afternoons, and go to chapel with their family in the evenings. One day, however, they were not at home when I went out to the garden. Longing for the kind of emotion I felt when we prayed in the chapel, I propped up my little crucifix on a stone among the trees, knelt and prayed, repeating the shortened version Marian had taught me, Ave Maria, gratia plena, ora pro nobis peccatoribus. Amen. (There was a magical feeling in pronouncing the exotic Latin words, and Marian had told me their meaning in English: Hail Mary, full of grace, pray for us sinners.) Ave Maria, gratia… and got caught in mid‑prayer. I don’t remember if it was my mother or my father who had seen me in a kneeling position among the trees and had come over to see what I was up to. The crucifix was snatched up and I was told to come inside.
To be continued…