The Chens are without a doubt a cat family. My mother’s side raised a procession of cats with colorful names like Mao Mei (“little sister cat”) throughout her childhood in Chongqing.
When I was 19, Mom heard that a friend’s neighbor had some kittens. We ended up taking a pair because she couldn’t decide between a tabby and a spotted white kitten who bore more than a passing resemblance to our first cat.
They were known by three different sets of names – Salt and Pepper according to my sister Nancie, Jay and Silent Bob according to me, and Xiao Mayuan (“little sesame ball”) and Xiao Tianbang (Sichuan slang for “little oaf”) according to my parents. Their antics were a constant source of delight and alarm for my family. There was the time they dive-bombed the goldfish bowl from the top of the kitchen cupboard while we were on vacation, and also the time Pepper made some Chinese aunties shriek by interrupting a barbecue with a few bloody offerings of his own.
My sister was particularly attached to Salt and Pepper. When Pepper disappeared last August, she tirelessly handed out flyers door-to-door with friends. However, our worst fears were confirmed when a neighbor reported seeing a lifeless tabby at the playground; his body bore the marks of a fight with a larger animal. To make things worse, my sister found out that our mother had kept this knowledge from her; when she demanded to know why, Mom told her an incredible story.
When Mom was a little girl during the Cultural Revolution, my grandfather and uncle were in prison, my grandmother was forced to attend a “concentration group,” and my aunt was sent to the countryside to perform hard labor. At night, Mom often felt lonely and scared in the family’s two-story house. Her only comfort was Da Mahua (“big dough twist”), a large tabby named after a Chinese fried snack. He was her constant companion, batting playfully at her pen when she wrote and lying quietly next to her when she read.
One day, Da Mahua disappeared. She found out what happened to him when one of the neighbors reported seeing a couple of local kids shooting at a large tabby. The cat managed to escape despite heavy injuries, but it was unlikely he’d survived. Mom cried for days, wishing that she’d never discovered his fate.
As a mother, one of her defining traits has been her quickness to shield my sister and I from unpleasant truths. When our first cat vanished the summer before Grade 6, she told me he’d run away; in my early 20s, I found out he’d really been hit by a car. With Pepper’s death, my mother was once again trying to save her children pain. After my sister heard Da Mahua’s story, all her anger evaporated; she called her in Shanghai, where Mom was visiting Dad at the time, and they cried together on the phone. For Nancie and I, our relationship with our animals has always been – and will always be – intimately linked to our relationship with our mother.
I’m glad to be able to share this, my most personal story to date, as this is my last editor’s note. It has been three and a half years since I joined beijingkids – first as an intern, then as deputy managing editor and ultimately as managing editor. I’ve been lucky to meet countless families during this time, to share in their stories, successes, and failures. My colleagues have also been a deep source of inspiration and left me with life-long friendships. I am proud to leave the leadership of the magazine to my dear friend and current deputy managing editor, Aisling O’Brien.
I will remain in Beijing for the time being, so don’t be a stranger. To everyone who has laughed at my horrible puns along the way, thank you; I have been truly blessed by your humor, friendship, and guidance. I don’t believe in goodbyes, so I’ll sign off with a simple “see you soon.”
This article originally appeared on page 7 of the beijingkids June 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email email@example.com.