Rare Saga

The unexplored saga story world.

Ode to My Virtuous Sister

Sixty-four years ago today, i was born. As my birthday arrives, childhood memories of my elder sister occasionally float through my mind. I can only pity my actual junior high school education level, without any writing experience, and not knowing how to write a memoir. All i have is the natural urge to express my genuine memories of my sister.

1960 was an unforgettable time for our generation. The outbreak of a nationwide great famine wiped out all edible things in nature. Tree bark, leaves, pond weeds, etc… Every day in the village there were people starving to death, but no one cried, no one looked, no one carried them away. Because people really had no extra strength left, they could only ask the production team’s ox carts to drag them away…

That year, i was 12 years old, in 3rd grade elementary school. My sister was 22, already married for over a year.

There were still water conservancy projects, with special funding from above for food. Because they opened canteens at the work sites, men and women competed to go earn a bite to eat.

My sister’s in-law’s work site was east of our village. The canteen was set up in our village. Every morning before dawn, my sister would go to the canteen to line up for food. The staple was sweet potatoes first boiled then steamed dry. Per person per portion, weighed by catty and tael. By the time it was divided into everyone’s bowls, there was at most half a bowl, barely enough for most people to eat half-full. My sister would pick out the bigger, whiter pieces of sweet potato, wrap them in a prepared old cloth, then hold it to her chest. Whenever i hugged my textbooks (no schoolbags then) and neared the school gates in the early morning, i could see my sister’s slender figure from afar in the cold wind… My sister would stuff the package into my hands, then hurry to catch up with the coworkers who had already gone far… This went on for over a month at the work site. My sallow little face gradually regained some color and glow…

When i grew up i often thought, my sister was in her youth then. How could she get through the work of carrying over 100 catties of soil on her shoulders, eating only leftover, broken, blackened or even moldy bits of sweet potato? My sister was using up her own young body to supplement the nutrition of my tiny one… Whenever i think of this, my heart is restless and uneasy, and tears well up in my eyes…

Although my sister had no education, she was gentle and graceful, tall and straight, one of the few village beauties. Just because our elders had borrowed one sack (about 100 catties) of high quality glutinous millet (with bran still on, about 60% grain) from someone, to avoid them coming to dun every day, they engaged my sister to their child. With this in-law relationship, they didn’t come asking for that sack of inferior, branny glutinous millet anymore. As compensation, what was lost was my sister’s lifelong happiness.

My brother-in-law was one year older than my sister, and belonged to that extremely honest kind in the village. Not only uneducated, he couldn’t even count to ten. I remember when brother-in-law came to our house, my sisters-in-law teased him saying: “uncle, count how many lattices are on our window? ” my honest, embarrassed brother-in-law said “how can i count if you’ve pasted paper over it? ” eliciting laughter; another time, the sisters-in-law teased brother-in-law. By coincidence the production team’s livestock keeper was leading two oxen to the well to drink. One sister-in-law said “brother-in-law, count how many legs those two oxen have altogether? ” brother-in-law chuckled and said “who can count while they’re walking? ” naturally eliciting another roar of laughter. Whenever put in an awkward spot, my sister would keep silent as always. She had already submitted to fate’s arrangements. Life’s hardships seemed to have deprived my sister of the ability to laugh. So from young i don’t recall what my sister’s laugh was like…

My sister very rarely spoke in front of others, always listening quietly when others talked. Someone asked her “why don’t you say a word? ” my sister said “listening is better than talking. Remember what’s right in what people say, ignore what’s wrong. “

although my sister never went through school gates, she especially venerated educated people. So many mornings when i woke up starving, i didn’t want to go to school anymore. Because the remaining students weren’t even one class-full, with four grades combined. Teachers took turns teaching. Class time for each grade was less than 10 minutes, the rest of the time we read or wrote on our own, so as not to affect other grades’ lessons.

Teachers not teaching would lie on the bed waiting for their next class, because lying down conserved strength, ensuring they could make sounds loud enough for 30+ people to hear next period. Teachers whose turn was not next would go to nearby fields looking for edibles. No more vegetables, they dug up vegetable roots from the soil…

Whenever my sister saw i was thinking of dropping out, she would encourage me saying “persevere today, maybe tomorrow will be better… Born in our place, living eight lifetimes would be the same as not living, recognizing a few more words, who knows when we’ll struggle our way out… ” i listened most to my sister. It was completely to avoid disappointing my sister, it gave my young heart the conviction and courage of “persevere one more day”.

Also completely for my sister’s hopes, i grit my teeth and endured that period, changing the psychological path and life trajectory of me and my descendants for generations…

Although my sister spoke little, her heart was as clear as a mirror about human relationships and right and wrong, good and evil. During the famine year’s spring festival, it was my sister’s second new year after her marriage. On new year’s day morning, she sat on the kang with her in-laws eating the only dumplings of the year. To have this meal of dumplings, each family thought of different means. Some took out ancestral jewelry; some took out bedding prepared for marrying off daughters; some elders painfully took out coffins and shrouds prepared for their own funerals; families with truly no other way tore off a roof beam and exchanged it for a few catties of wheat at the black market, mixed with some sweet potato bits when grinding flour, barely scraping together the only dumplings of the year…

While eating, a beggar woman appeared at the door, repeatedly saying “sir, ma’am, give me something to eat… ” the grandparents made no reply, neither agreeing nor refusing, just kept silent. Hard to blame the elders, for these dumplings they had gone to distant relatives over 100 li away who grew millet in ponds, and borrowed 5 catties of wheat. This “one meal”, meant one bowl per person, finished and it counted as one meal, counted as not going hungry during the “new year”. Seeing the shivering woman frozen outside the door, my usually reticent sister tried asking grandma “ma, today’s so cold, why not give her a bowl of dumpling soup? ” seeing grandma nod, my sister put down her own dumpling bowl on the stove top, took the beggar’s grimy begging bowl from her hands and washed it clean in the basin behind the stove, ladled a full bowl of dumpling soup, then sneakily fished out a dumpling from her own bowl and added it to the soup before handing it to the woman. The woman took the steaming hot dumpling soup and seemed to drink it up in one go, but didn’t eat that dumpling. She turned and poured it into the cloth bag on her back, then satisfied, left dragging her crooked, slender beating stick (actually no more dogs, just a begging prop)… Later whenever my sister spoke of this, her eyes always brimmed with tears — that woman must have had children waiting for her to bring food home… And grandma always said — tsk, seen those who drive off beggars, never those who wash bowls for beggars…

After my sister divided the hearth from her in-laws, she moved into three rundown low-ceilinged rooms in the east wing. Although the house seemed ready to collapse, my sister was hardworking by nature, keeping the rooms and outdoors swept clean. From then on whenever i went to sister’s, no matter how hard life was, she always tried to make me a bowl of noodles.

After separating from the grandparents, my sister got along extremely well with grandma, grandpa and neighbors, never bickering, never got angry. People asked how she did it. My sister always lightly said “easy, stay closer to ‘loss’, farther from ‘advantage’”. Although my sister couldn’t speak lofty principles, she had her own code for how to be a person. She never took advantage of others, whether they knew or didn’t know. Sometimes the neighborhood chickens ran into her henhouse to lay eggs. My sister always stood guard nearby, listening for the chicken’s “cock-a-doodle-doo” of success. Then she would take the still warm, body-temperature eggs in both hands, follow behind the chicken to see which house it returned to, ask clearly whose chicken it was, then send the eggs to them. One egg could sell for five cents then. For an ordinary farming family, five cents could solve a life problem — buy four liang of salt, or three liang kerosene, or two boxes of matches, or one notebook for a child going to school.

My sister’s virtuous personality filled her heart with love. In her eyes, the whole world was good people. Even when others wronged her, onlookers were indignant but she was tolerant — tsk tsk, who doesn’t make mistakes, who’s to say they meant it.

My sister’s peaceful, indifferent attitude meant her heart was tranquil like water. She never rejoiced excessively, never grieved. If by chance she had good fortune, she would always say “tsk, whose family doesn’t eat dumplings on new year’s? ” when vexed by annoyances or troubles, she often consoled others “don’t worry, it will pass… ” after the matters were over, when us kids asked sister how she knew “it would pass”, sister said “what do i know, i only know one, worrying is useless; two, heaven won’t block a good person’s livelihood… “

after i started working, i wanted to save up some money for sister, but having lived frugally all her life, she was very unwilling to accept others’ help. So i secretly slipped money under her pillow or mattress. But sister never spent it, always finding some reason (like kids going to school, getting married etc) to give it back to me.

Sister raised over a dozen hens, getting 7-8 eggs daily in spring and autumn. But she never bear to eat them herself, once she had 10 or 8 catties she would bring or send them to us. She said the grains she fed her chickens were different from commercial feed, so the eggs were treasured in the city but just everyday fare for country folk…

Perhaps god cherished my sister’s kindness, and sympathized with her bumpy fate, granting her a healthy constitution. At 75 years old, straight-backed, black-haired, sharp-eared, clear-eyed, working 6 mu of land with brother-in-law, raising two oxen and over 10 chickens, in ordinary years self-sufficient with surplus, never needing others’ help. Last year when three nephews ran up debts with the bank raising ducks and couldn’t repay the loan, my sister took out over 30,000 yuan at once. Not just the kids were shocked, even neighbors marveled — when did she save up so much? Sister said “don’t eat from your mouth, save from your belly. Having money without spending is fine, no money is not fine. Old with long illness or disaster, relying on yourself is better than relying on others… “

This year sister’s cotton was hit by severe flooding, only earning over 1000 yuan from 6 mu, deducting costs of fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, film etc, labor for nothing, strength for nothing, net income not even 100 yuan. I told sister “don’t plant next year, take a break. Tell me if you need money. ” sister said “crops must be grown every year, officials don’t farm, common folk understand. Commoners stop farming land, however big an official, however much money, their necks must be bound… “

Whenever market days came, sister always rode her three-wheeled bike to zhao family market, lower river market, even fu guo market on nice days, round trip 60 li, never staying overnight at our home. She said she was busy at home, couldn’t leave. Actually sister knew city people loved cleanliness, feared adding trouble to others.

The sister in my memories and reality, in the depths of my heart, has an unspeakable yet unforgettable appellation — “sister-mother”.