Once upon a time is the way that most tales for children start, and as a result, it is the way that many children start their tales. Once upon a time, I lived in China; but, more than once upon a time, I had a nanny. They say these things come in threes in fairy tales, and that’s what happened to me.
Our first nanny was short from what I remember. A sturdy woman with chopped hair who didn’t speak a lick of English. The night she was fired, she yelled at my brother and me as we rode after our friends on our bikes. We’d just gotten out of school and we were supposed to be home, but we pretended not to hear or understand as we made our escape while she waved her hands in the air behind us. When we came home, the sun had set and the doors were locked. My brother and I sat on the front porch for a few hours, shivering in the winter chill until our parents came home. She was gone the next day.
The second was a young college student who spoke perfect English. I loved Rosalie. She had bleached hair that was crimped in waves, and we’d lay on her bed together and play games on her computer. My mom said she was lazy--she didn’t want to work, she just wanted to get paid. She took me roller skating once and bought me a red penguin keychain. I still have it, though she left not long after. I missed her when she went.
Shan Dan was the perfect fit for our family. The first too hard, the next too soft, but the third one just right--comes in threes, I did say--and she settled in, snug and warm like the blanket over Goldilocks’s head. She spoke no English when she came, but that was fine because our Mom wanted us to learn Chinese anyway. She wanted to have someone to practice with--for both us and herself. I always preferred English, but my mother loved to twitter away in the lilting tones of Mandarin. Shan Dan and my mom spoke of many things that I never heard till I was older. They were not tales for children, but I will tell them anyways.
Once upon a time, Shan Dan was a farmer’s daughter who’d been poor her whole life. Her family wasn’t necessarily poor; they owned land and grew crops in the rural mountains of Kai Li. I visited once--long after this story. I remember the bite of the cold morning air and the low fogs in the rice fields. Most vividly, I remember a hunter hauling a bundle of dead birds over his shoulder. Their legs were tied with twine to a long bamboo stick, and their brilliant green feathers were tinged with blood that dripped behind the hunter as he passed us by on the dirt road, gun in hand and whistling a jaunty tune. No, Shan Dan wasn’t poor; she grew up in a home with people who loved her in a place that was beautiful. She was poor in a different way. The way a woman is when she knows that she has few marketable skills and that she will get nothing when her parents die. That was the way of her family and there was no changing it or the culture that was heavily embedded in their way of life. Her brother would inherit the land and the family wealth. The best she could hope to manage was to find a husband who would support her. What she managed instead was to find love.
It was the perfect setup for a fairy tale. He was a handsome young man, a friend of her brother’s. They met when he’d come over to her house. He was an orphan; he had lived in an orphanage all his life and now taught there as an adult. He had nothing to his name that the orphanage had not provided. But that was enough for Shan Dan. They were married not long after they’d met and they lived together in a house that was owned by the orphanage. I wish I could tell you that this was a fairy tale--that her husband was a long--lost prince, that they’d found a cask that gave them money, or a lamp to grant them wishes--but no. The poor orphan boy remained an orphan, and the poor farm girl married him, but together they were happy. They had a son. Things come in threes.
I also wish I could tell you her story ends there, soft and idyllic. I wish her story was a fairy tale--but if it had been, she never would have been in my life.
Her husband moved up through the orphanage and became the principal of their school. Their son grew up and they had enough money for him to go to college. Shan Dan made their house a home. Her husband worked throughout the week and fished on Sunday mornings up in the mountains. He loved to fish and it lightened the load if he caught enough to feed his family in the coming week.
On one particular Sunday, Shan Dan had a headache and begged her husband to stay home with her. But he loved fishing and he insisted on going out. She laid in her bed and waited for her husband to return home, probably looking out her window and watching the weather. I don’t know what the weather was like that day. It’s something I would have asked, had I been able to. But to her credit, I never heard this story from Shan Dan. I was a child and it is a terrible thing to be told a fairy tale that ends in tragedy, knowing that someone you love has lost so much. It is a terrible thing to know there is nothing you can do but love them anyway.
And Shan Dan loved her husband when she lost him. She loved him even though he hadn’t stayed home with her. She loved him when he didn’t come home that night. She loved him when she heard the dam above the river her husband fished on had broken. She loved him when she swore up and down that the body she’d been asked to identify wasn’t his. Swore that the bloated water-laden man wasn’t her husband till she saw his eyes and knew.
The orphanage forced her out of her home--she was no longer one of theirs with her husband dead--and they had other people to house. Her son dropped out of college when the money ran out and started working. Shan Dan did too. She moved in with one cousin first--then a second--then a third--and worked a bar. The men there weren’t courteous--foreigners with bad attitudes and wives they mostly didn’t pay mind to. Shan Dan got tired of being touched--of being made a victim.
So, when she was offered a job as a housekeeper and nanny to my family, she was happy for the opportunity. And that doesn’t feel like a fairy tale blessing, but I think it was, in a way. With the salary she made, she was able to rent a home not far from ours, something to call her own--something she’d never had before. She was able to send her son back to school--which he was happy for--and while there’s nothing to be made up for what was lost, I think she found something new. She and my mother were inseparable. They did everything together. In the end, Shan Dan was less a housekeeper and more a second mother to me and my brother. For years, she raised us, fed us, clothed us, nurtured us. She had soft hands and a sweet voice. She had harsh words and a gap between her teeth that I always thought was pretty. She had a house that I begged her to leave so she could live in ours. I wanted her to be close by so I could crawl into her bed when I had nightmares. My brother did much the same. She was patient. She was kind. She was stern when she needed to be. She loved us.
Things come in threes, I’ve said--the fairy tales have said. Three brothers, three sisters, three wishes, three wise men. Shan Dan had one son, but in the end, I think she had three children.
Laurence Dean is a graphic designer by day and an aspiring writer from the hours of 1:00 AM – 5:00 AM. She loves fairy tales, ghost stories, and legends. She is a fervent defender of spiders and snakes.