SHANGHAI, JUNE 1937, the air hot and muggy. My father stood on the verandah of our home, a villa on Hungjao Road in the western suburbs outside of the International Settlement. His back was to me as he looked out at the expanse of lawn that to me, at six, seemed vast as an ocean. He faced east, toward the Bund and the Whangpoo River, and I thought I smelled the river's familiar sharpness, a grimy mix of factory smoke and seaweed and fish, though the Whangpoo was some ten miles away.
It was dusk, a word that I understood as "dust," which made sense to me, one of those few words whose meaning matched its sound. That was how the world seemed at that hour: slightly dusty, softened and dimly covered in some eerie talc, the sharp edges chalk-picture blurry. My father had played polo that afternoon and still wore his riding clothes, off-white jodhpurs and a jersey shirt, the color so creamy it appeared liquid, and black leather boots that I wanted to touch to see if they were real. They seemed somehow conjured up. He, too, seemed conjured up, in that dim light. He leaned on the verandah wall, his drink next to him, a tumbler that held Four Roses, golden, the color of caramel, and it was as though the Scotch softened everything: the night, the stone wall, the leaves of the plane trees just beyond, the sharp edges of the crystal tumbler, my father himself.
My father stood very still, gazing out at a city that he loved. To me, it was simply home, no more, no less. But as I stood in the doorway, watching him, waiting for him to feel my presence, I felt certain inside that I was in exactly the right place: this house, this doorway, this night, this father. I wore a white cotton nightgown that had been sewn by hand. I was clean, just out of the bath, my long brown hair a cool wet trail down my back. Chu Shih, our cook, had given me long-life noodles and jasmine tea for dinner, then helped me get ready for bed so that I could say good night to my parents before they went out.
I heard my mother's voice then, and I turned from the doorway before my father saw me. She was descending the long curved staircase, and she wore a wine-colored silk dress with a border of pearls sewn into the neckline. My mother's name was Genevieve, and it suited her: she was elegant and graceful, and was always known only by her full name, with one exception: to my father she was Eve, and when he said her name, he did so intimately. Our last name, Schoenepronounced "show-en"meant beautiful or handsome in German, and I thought it suited both of my parents. When I was afraid, I would repeat their names to myself, and the sound of those names lulled me and made me feel safe: Joseph and Genevieve Schoene.
My mother smiled at me, and I suddenly wanted her not to go out. I wanted her close, though there was no reason to be anxious. This was just an ordinary night. My parents went out most evenings. I learned only later, when my mother and I had moved to the United States, the startling fact that parents usually stayed at home with their children in the evenings.
My mother did not share my father's passion for Shanghai, but rather held the city at arm's length. It was an entity she did not want to know better, and she was every bit as diffident toward it as my father was affectionate. He knew every part of the city, while my mother knew only what she had to. She seemed to regard it as a temporary post, not a home, and she used what she called her landmark system. In each neighborhood, she chose a starting point, and she always started from that place, regardless of where she had to end up. In the French Concession it was the Cercle Sportif Français, a nightclub she liked on Route Cardinal Mercier. In the International Settlement it was the Sun Sun Department Store at the corner of Tibet and Nanking Road. On the Bund it was the brass lions in front of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. Her plan seemed to work; my mother was never lost. I understood her system, for I had a landmark of my own, a place I always started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I did. It was my father.
My father was, from my careful observations of him, a person who solved problems. When I was five, I accidentally swallowed a Reese's cinnamon drop whole, and I began to choke. My father stood only a few feet away; we were at the home of his friend Will Marsh, and he was just saying good night. He glanced at me, looked back at his friend, looked at me again, and said, "Excuse me." Then he simply picked me up by my ankles, held me upside down, and laughed when the cinnamon drop popped out of my mouth. For a long time, his ability to fix whatever was wrong was a given of my childhood.
There were other givens as well. My mother's elegance, her patient manner, her propriety and composure. She taught me never to say I was full after a meal, but only that I had "had a sufficiency." Her beauty was a given. I knew even as a young child that she was beautiful, not the way children think their mothers areI knew she was, from the way men stared when she entered the room, the way other women regarded her, the intensity with which my father watched her. For a long time, her beautiful long hair was a given, always worn in a chignon at the nape of her neck. It seemed somehow private, the most intimate part of her, as though it held secrets she would never divulge. Her intense yet somehow odd devotion to my father was also a given. She was like his moon: she circled only him, yet always at a distance.
On that summer evening, when my mother reached the bottom of the stairs, she glanced around her as though getting her bearings. It was a familiar gesture; she was looking for my father, and it was what she always did first when she entered a room or a house or a garden. Now she glanced about and, not seeing him, looked at me.
"He's outside," I said simply
She nodded, then leaned toward me, smoothing the wet strands of my bangs off my forehead. "You're warm, Anna."
"Can I see your hair?" I asked.
She stooped so that she was closer to my height. She did this gracefully, a small miracle in her long, fitted dress. She smelled like Chanel No. 5, and just under it, a trace of lilac from her bath. She turned so that I could see her back, and her hair was the way it always was, bound at the nape of her neck. I leaned close to see what she was using to hold it there. On the carved mahogany dresser in her room was a Venetian leather jewelry box that held in its crimson velvet lining more than a dozen fasteners and combs made of ivory, tortoiseshell, silver, jade. Tonight she wore my favorites: two intricately carved ivory needles that intersected and held her hair perfectly in place.
We heard my father's footsteps then. My mother looked up, about to stand, and I asked the question that was always in my mind but which I had never voiced. "Do you love him more, or me?"
She did not hesitate. "I love you both," she said simply. And then she rose, smoothed her skirt, and went outside to join him.
They left a short time later, after my father had showered and shaved and dressed in a dinner coat. He whistled "Moonglow" as he came downstairs, and I knew he was in good spirits. My mother stood at the large window in the kitchen, sipping a glass of sherry, waiting for him. He came into the room and smiled at her. And then he saw me, sitting at the table, drawing.
"You," he said, and he headed toward me and seemed as large as the huge brass lions that guarded the entrance of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. "And now for you." And in two strides he reached me and lifted me from my chair and held me so high that I felt the closeness of the ceiling just above my head. I breathed in his scent of Old Spice and Four Roses and Philippine cigars, and I was certain that my father was strong enough to hold up the world. His hands were warm and firm and huge around my rib cage, and I wanted him to never put me down.
But he did, of course, and my sides stayed warm from his grip as he roughly kissed my cheek and held the door for my mother and headed into the still night, whistling again. I heard the sound of car doors as my parents slid into the backseat of the Packard, which waited for them outside, then the crunch of gravel as Mei Wah, my father's Sikh chauffeur, walked to the front of the car, and then the sound of his door. And then I heard the even hum of the Packard's engine, a sound I came to dread, as it eased toward the street.
I went out on the verandah. My father's glass was still on the wall, empty except for its strong scent of Scotch. I watched the car slowly make its way toward the street, its red taillights bright. When it reached the end of the driveway and left the gravel to meet the road, it blew out a small cloud of dirt, like a kiss, and I took a deep breath and felt the fine dust of my father's presence, familiar, another given, filling the cracks and covering the surface of my life.
Excerpted from the distant land of my father by bo caldwell. Copyright © 2001 by Bo Caldwell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.