‘I want ten stories!’
‘Ten! That’s too many, how about five?’
‘Ok, but I want long ones.’
‘Sure, that’s fine.’
Five ‘long’ stories every night in exchange for me going to bed with no further quarrel. That was the bargain I struck with dad when I was about 4 years old.
We had just moved into a new home in Thousand Pine, it was the first home that belonged to us and us only. Before that, we always had to share our unit with another family due to shortages of urban housing at the time. Our new home was on the ninth floor, it was about 65 square meters or 700 square foot. I loved it, it had a standalone kitchen and bathroom, and featured two separate bedrooms, an open balcony where I could fly paper planes, and even a roof top that was de facto ours. Perhaps it was me reaching a more boisterous age, or the fact that there was no longer any outsiders sharing our home, I must have felt more emboldened to make a scene every night about my bed time. To ensure the tranquility of their evenings, my parents had devise ways to ease my bed time drama.
So the deal was struck: five stories for an orderly bedtime routine. I specifically struck the deal with dad, not mom. Mom was the shrewd and demanding parent, dad was a gentle and yet stoic figure in our household. It was a lot harder to fool and negotiated with mom while dad was much more inclined to let go off the fine prints in our tug of war. I knew I would get a better deal with dad, and I did.
I didn’t remember we have many story books at the time. I only remembered one picture book ‘Mom goat and seven goatlings’ depicting lighthearted fightings between the goat family and their nemesis the ‘big grey wolf’. I remembered it so well I could recite the entire story to the letter. On one occasion, guests were amazed that I could ‘read’ as they overheard me ‘reading’ it to Yiqing, my childhood friend.
To better fulfill his promise, dad took me to a book store the next day and bought two children’s story books. They were not picture books with short sentences anymore, but real books that had nothing but texts. I could not read, I referred to them as the ‘blue’ book and ‘yellow’ book according to the color of their covers.
With our new reading materials in hand, dad would come read to me every night so long as he was home. After clamping a reading lamp to the head board, Dad would pick up the ‘blue’ or ‘yellow’ book, snug next to me and start reading. I’d listen intently to every detail while curling under his arm or putting my head against the side of his belly. The stories were a mix of traditional folklores, allegories as well as American Disney classics. It was through dad’s reading I came to know Princess Snow White, Pinocchio and more. I especially liked the Cinderella story because it had many more characters and was one of the longest stories we had. We didn’t speak mandarin at home, but dad would read in mandarin and try his best to pronounce every syllable correctly. He even tried to do impressions of the characters from time to time.
I almost never dosed off before the five stories were read in full. One time both my parents were working late, I was sleeping over at my grandparents, the bed time story reading duty fell to my young aunt. She was starting to dose off half way through it, I immediately knocked her awake:
‘Little aunt, don’t sleep, keep going’.
At one point, she thought I was about to fall asleep and tried to skip a paragraph, I immediately sprung to live shouting:
‘Little aunt, you missed the part Snow White first met the seven dwarfs.’
The hottest summer nights were the only times dad couldn’t live to the five-story commitment. The brutal Wuhan summer sun often left our home like a blazing oven that refuses to cool off. The lack of AC or the money to use it forced us to find inventive ways to escape the heat. Mom and dad would pack up a bamboo bed, a rocking chair, a giant watermelon and sometimes a bucket of ice, and we would go to the roof top. After a few slices of watermelons, we would wind down under the starry night. There was not nearly as much noise and light pollutions back then. Against the backdrop of chirping summer critters, dad would make up for the usual story reading by telling me folk stories of the constellations:
‘Do you see that bright silvery band that looks like a river in the sky? That’s the Milky Way. Do you see that two bright stars on either side of it? The elders say they were the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, they were desperately in love but were forever separated by the “Silvery River”’
‘How did they meet? Why were they separated?’
‘Well, it all happened long ago, once there was a cowherd ….’
Like any cunning little rascals, I often tried to trick dad in reading more stories. While I always kept perfect count of the number of stories read, dad would sometimes lose track and keep on going, I never interrupted him when that happened while always pointed it out the moment he overcounted. As I think about it now, I’m sure he knew I was playing tricks on him, he just chose to play along anyway.
While many parents might see reading to their kids for up to an hour every night a chore, I doubt dad ever felt it was one. From the moment he agreed to five stories a night, he set out to cultivate a curious young mind, inspire a love for literature, instill respect for knowledge, and demonstrate the values of commitment. I could not have asked for a more dedicated father and I hope I could do the same when it is my turn.
August 27, 2023, Seattle