Opening my eyes to the sunlight streaming into my barren room, I recalled the events of the previous day. The day our village had been ‘modernized’, when the Red Guards had ransacked our house, taking our pots and pans, destroying our photos, and…
I shook myself out of my sorrow. I wouldn’t think about those things for now. Today, on November 27th, 1970, I was turning twelve, and there was no way that I was going to allow the Red Guards to take away my happiness, even though they’d done their best to take away everything else.
Shivering, I pulled on my thickest sweater, doing my best to try to stay warm in the cold mid-autumn air, and slowly walked downstairs. As I did so, my grandmother heard my steps, and peeked out at me from the kitchen door. Her face really brightening up when she saw me. “Li Hua, the little birthday girl! What type of muffins do you want today?” she smiled, her face filling with wrinkles.
Muffins? What? I couldn’t believe that she could still smile after what had happened yesterday. I then looked away from her happy expression to the nearly empty kitchen behind her, and then back to her, again. “But… the Red Guards….” I stared at her.
Grandmother laughed. “Ah, Li Hua- do you really think the Red Guards would ever be able to take away everything?” I nodded, and she squinted at me. “Well, you’re wrong. As long as I’m around there’s till hope. Nobody’s going to outsmart your wise old grandma anytime soon,” she said earnestly.
She then opened a drawer of the cupboard, which had been empty just the day before. Now, however, it had five different pans in it. Amazingly, even our old oven, which had been missing yesterday, was back to where it had been.
My Grandmother and I drew the curtains closed, fearing that someone might report us. We then pulled out the pans. “Wow, Grandma, how’d you hide these?”
“I have my ways.”
As we got out from the cupboard the little bit of flour we still had, my mother and father groggily stumbled downstairs. Their eyes, like mine had moments earlier, widened when they saw the pans and the oven. They didn’t, however, question the situation, knowing it was the doing of my grandmother, and that she would never provide the details of what she had done. Still, they knew that Grandmother had made it through China’s entire conflict with the Japanese, and so it wasn’t a surprise that she had figured out exactly what to do now.
We got to work on our muffins, and I realized quickly that we only had a limited amount of supplies. Still, it didn’t matter; we could make due with what we had. We cracked open two precious eggs, using our wooden chopsticks to whisk them into a frothy mixture; and we dumped in our brown sugar, as our white sugar had been taken the previous day. We used a bowl to shake the flour to separate the lumps, and then added it to the combination. Everyone joined in on the effort, and our laughs and joy seemed to warm up considerably the frigid air.
Most of all, we were lucky that we still had our old oven; my grandma’s grandfather had been a good friend of an English missionary, who had given it to our family, where it had been ever since. It was a peculiar thing, looking like a fancy table, with a drawer on its side, and although generations old, the oven looked well off, as we had always taken great care of it.
Having been in our family for such a long time, the oven had for as long as I could remember always given us all a sense of security and hope. It had been through all of World War II, the Great Leap Forward, and now, the Cultural Revolution, as well. Surely it would help us survive through the rest of this conflict, too.
While our muffins baked slowly in the oven, we all sat down by the window. “May this Revolution soon be over,” I heard my mother say, as we looked out at our unusually quiet town- the Guards had persecuted all the intellectuals, and anyone else that might still have had traditional views, making everyone afraid.
I told myself that everything would be okay, and, with a sense of eagerness, went back to check on the muffins. Opening the oven door, and looking at them inside, I saw that they were already of a golden brown color. I smiled just at the sight of them. “They’re done!” I called to my family.
Everyone rushed over when I began to take the muffins out. As I picked one of the muffins up in my hand and took my first bite, I realized that it was really hard. I could even still see some of its white flour. But, I didn’t care, and neither did anyone else in my family. We all began to laugh, and the warmth from the oven added to our sense of happiness. With everyone around, and the oven keeping us warm, the muffins tasted wonderful.
It was then that I realized that these muffins were not just my birthday muffins. They were our entire family’s muffins, and they represented our defiance to those who tried to squelch our optimism for the future. Today was the day that we finally all realized that we were never going to lose our hope.
It was also a day of happiness, and a day to celebrate our dreams. The oven, giving us happiness and a sense of security, was acting as the means for us to cling onto hope until the end of this Revolution and beyond. It would, until the end of the tragedy, continue to sit in our kitchen silently, a witness to all of our difficulties, as well as a symbol of the joy of our being together as a family. I would always turn to it whenever I felt scared or down.
Today, in fact, the old oven seemed as if it were smiling happily. Walking upstairs to join my family, I looked back at it one more time, and as I did so I heard its voice clearly in my head.
“Happy Birthday, Li Hua!!! Don’t ever lose your hope.”