The White Umbrella

Gish Jen

When I was twelve, my mother went to work without telling me or my little sister.

“Not that we need the second income." The lilt of her accent drifted from the kitchen up to the top of the stairs, where Mona and I were listening.

“No,” said my father, in a barely audible voice. "Not like the Lee family.”

The Lees were the only other Chinese family in town. I remembered how sorry my parents had felt for Mrs. Lee when she started waitressing downtown the year before; and so when my mother began coming home late, I didn’t say anything, and tried to keep Mona from saying anything either.

“But why shouldn’t I?” she argued. “Lots of people’s mothers work.”

“Those are American people,” I said.

“So what do you think we are? I can do the pledge of allegiance with my eyes closed.”

Sisterly embarrassment seized me. Why hadn’t Mona wiped her lenses when I told her to?

Nevertheless, she tried to be discreet; and if my mother wasn’t home by 5:30, we would start cooking by ourselves, to make sure dinner would be on time. Mona would wash the vegetables and put on the rice; I would chop.

For weeks we wondered what kind of work she was doing. I imagined that she was selling perfume, testing dessert recipes for the local newspaper. Or maybe she was working for the florist. Now that she had learned to drive, she might be delivering boxes of roses to people.

“I don’t think so,” said Mona as we walked to out piano lesson after school. “She would’ve hit something by now.”

A gust of wind littered the street with leaves.

“Maybe we better hurry up,” she went on, looking at the sky. “It’s going to pour.”

“But we’re too early.” Her lesson didn’t begin until 4:00, mine until 4:30, so we usually tried to walk as slowly as we could. “And anyway, those aren’t the kind of clouds that rain. Those are cumulus clouds.”

We arrived out of breath and wet.

“Oh, you poor, poor dears,” said old Miss Crosman. “Why don’t you call me the next time it’s like this out? If your mother won’t drive you, I can come pick you up.”

“No, that’s okay,” I answered. Mona wrung her hair out on Miss Crosman’s rug. “We just couldn’t get the roof of our car to close, is all. We took it to the beach last summer and got sand in the mechanism.” I pronounced this last word carefully, as if the credibility of my lie depended on its middle syllable. “It’s never been the same.” I thought for a second. “It’s a convertible.”

“Well then make yourselves at home.” She exchanged looks with Eugenie Roberts, whose lesson we were interrupting. Eugenie smiled good-naturedly. “The towels are in the closet across from the bathroom.”

Huddling at the end of Miss Crosman’s nine-foot leatherette couch, Mona and I watched Eugenie play. She was a grade ahead of me and, according to school rumor, had a boyfriend in high school. I believed it. Aside from her ballooning breasts—which threatened to collide with the keyboard as she played—she has auburn hair, blue eyes, and, I noted with a particular pang, a pure white folding umbrella.

“I can’t see,” whispered Mona.

“So clean your glasses.”

“My glasses are clean. You’re in the way.”

I looked at her. “They look dirty to me.”

“That’s because your glasses are dirty.”

Eugenie came bouncing to the end of her piece.

“Oh! Just stupendous!” Miss Crosman hugged her, then looked up as Eugenie’s mother walked in. “Stupendous!” she said again. “Oh! Mrs. Roberts! Your daughter has a gift, a real gift. It’s an honor to teach her.”

Mrs. Roberts, radiant with pride, swept her daughter out of the room as if she were royalty, born to the piano bench. Watching the way Eugenie carried herself, I sat up, and concentrated so hard on sucking in my stomach that I did not realize until the Robertses were gone that Eugenie had left her umbrella. As Mona began to play, I jumped up and ran to the window, meaning to call to them—only to see their brake lights flash then fade at the stop sign at the corner. As if to allow them to passage, the rain had let up; a quivering sun lit their way.

The umbrella glowed like a scepter on the blue carpet while Mona, slumping over the keyboard, managed to eke out a fair rendition of a catfight. At the end of the piece, Miss Crosman asked her to stand up.

“Stay right there,” she said, then came back a minute later with a towel to cover the bench. “You must be cold,” she continued. “Shall I call your mother and have her bring over some dry clothes?”

“No,” answered Mona. “She won’t come because she…”

“She’s too busy,” I broke in from the back of the room.

“I see.” Miss Crosman sighed and shook her head a little. “Your glasses are filthy, honey,” she said to Mona. “Shall I clean them for you?”

Sisterly embarrassment seized me. Why hadn’t Mona wiped her lenses when I told her to? As she resumed abuse of the piano, I stared at the umbrella. I wanted to open it, twirl it around by its slender silver handle; I wanted to dangle it from my wrist on the way to school the way the other girls did. I wondered what Miss Crosman would say if I offered to bring it to Eugenie at school tomorrow. She would be impressed with my consideration for others; Eugenie would be pleased to have it back; and I would have possession of the umbrella for an entire night. I looked at it again, toying with the idea of asking for one for Christmas. I knew, however, how my mother would react.

“Things,” she would say. “What’s the matter with a raincoat? All you want is things, just like an American.”

Sitting down for my lesson, I was careful to keep the towel under me and sit up straight.

“I’ll bet you can’t see a thing either,” said Miss Crosman, reaching for my glasses. “And you can relax, you poor dear.” She touched my chest, in an area where she never would have touched Eugenie Roberts. “This isn’t a boot camp.”

When Miss Crosman finally allowed me to start playing I played extra well, as well as I possibly could. See, I told her with my fingers. You don’t have to feel sorry for me.

“That was wonderful,” said Miss Crosman. “Oh! Just wonderful.”

An entire constellation rose in my heart.

“And guess what,” I announced proudly. “I have a surprise for you.”

Then I played a second piece for her, a much more difficult one that she had not assigned.

“Oh! That was stupendous,” she said without hugging me. “Stupendous! You are a genius, young lady. If your mother had started you younger, you’d be playing like Eugenie Roberts by now!”

I looked at the keyboard, wishing that I had still a third, even more difficult piece to play for her. I wanted to tell her that I was the school spelling bee champion, that I wasn’t ticklish, that I could do karate.

“My mother is a concert pianist,” I said.

She looked at me for a long moment, then finally, without saying anything, hugged me. I didn’t say anything about bringing the umbrella to Eugenie at school.

The steps were dry when Mona and I sat down to wait for my mother.

“Do you want to wait inside?” Miss Crosman looked anxiously at the sky.

“No,” I said. “Our mother will be here any minute.”

“In a while,” said Mona.

“Any minute,” I said again, even though my mother had been at least twenty minutes late every week since she started working.

According to the church clock across the street we had been waiting twenty-five minutes when Miss Crosman came out again.

“Shall I give you ladies a ride home?”

“No,” I said. “Our mother is coming any minute.”

“Shall I at least give her a call and remind her you’re here? Maybe she forgot about you.”

“I don’t think she forgot,” said Mona.

“Shall I give her a call anyway? Just to be safe?”

“I bet she already left,” I said. “How could she forget about us?”

Miss Crosman went in to call.

“There’s no answer,” she said, coming back out.

“See, she’s on her way,” I said.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to come in?”

“No,” said Mona.

“Yes,” I said. I pointed at my sister. “She meant yes too. She meant no, she wouldn’t like to go in.”

Miss Crosman looked at her watch. “It’s 5:30 now, ladies. My pot roast will be coming out in fifteen minutes. Maybe you’d like to come in and have some then?”

“My mother’s almost here,” I said. “She’s on her way.”

We watched and watched the street. I tried to imagine what my mother was doing; I tried to imagine her writing messages in the sky, even though I knew she was afraid of planes. I watched as the branches of Miss Crosman’s big willow tree started to sway; they had all been trimmed to exactly the same height off the ground, so that they looked beautiful, like hair in the wind.

It started to rain.

“Miss Crosman is coming out again,” said Mona.

“Don’t let her talk you into going inside,” I whispered.

“Why not?”

“Because that would mean that Mom isn’t really coming any minute.”

“But she isn’t,” said Mona. She’s working.

“Shhh! Miss Crosman is going to hear you.”

“She’s working! She’s working! She’s working!”

I put my hand over her mouth, but she licked it, and so I was wiping my hand on my wet dress when the front door opened.

“We’re getting even wetter,” said Mona right away. “Wetter and wetter.”

“Shall we all go in?” Miss Crosman pulled Mona to her feet. “Before you young ladies catch pneumonia? You’ve been out here an hour already.”

“We’re freezing.” Mona looked up at Miss Crosman. “Do you have any hot chocolate? We’re going to catch pneumonia.”

“I’m not going in,” I said. “My mother’s coming any minute.”

“Come on,” said Mona. “Use your noggin.

“Any minute.”

“Come on, Mona.” Miss Crosman opened the door. “Shall we get you inside first?”

“See you in the hospital,” said Mona as she went in. “See you in the hospital with pneumonia.”

I stared out into the empty street. The rain was pricking me all over; I was cold; I wanted to go inside. I wanted to be able to let myself go inside. If Miss Crosman came out again, I decided, I would go in.

She came out with a blanket and the white umbrella.

I could not believe that I was actually holding the umbrella, opening it. It sprang up by itself as if it were alive, as if that were what it wanted to do—as if it belonged in my hands, above my head. I stared up at the network of silver spokes, then spun the umbrella around and around and around. It was so clean and white that it seemed to glow, to illuminate everything around it.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

I knew that I was in store for another bolt of sympathy, and braced myself by staring up into the umbrella.

Miss Crosman sat down next to me, on one end of the blanket. I moved the umbrella over so that it covered her too. I could feel the rain on my left shoulder and shivered. She put her arm around me.

“You poor, poor dear.”

I knew that I was in store for another bolt of sympathy, and braced myself by staring up into the umbrella.

“You know, I very much wanted to have children when I was younger,” she continued.

“You did?”

She stared at me a minute. Her face looked dry and crusty, like day-old frosting.

“I did. Bu then I never got married.”

I twirled the umbrella around again.

“This is the most beautiful umbrella I have ever seen,” I said. “Ever, in my whole life.”

“Do you have an umbrella?”

“No. But my mother’s going to get me one just like this for Christmas.”

“Is she? I tell you what. You don’t have to wait until Christmas. You can have this one.”

“But this one belongs to Eugenie Roberts,” I protested. “I have to give it back to her tomorrow in school.”

“Who told you it belongs to Eugenie? It’s not Eugenie’s. It’s mine. And now I’m giving it to you, so it’s yours.”

“It is?”

She hugged me tighter. “That’s right. It’s all yours.”

“It’s mine?” I didn’t know what to say. “Mine?" Suddenly I was jumping up and down in the rain. “It’s beautiful! Oh! It’s beautiful!” I laughed.

Miss Crosman laughed too, even though she was getting all wet.

“Thank you, Miss Crosman. Thank you very much. Thanks a zillion. It’s beautiful. It’s stupendous!

“You’re quite welcome,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said again, but that didn’t seem like enough. Suddenly I knew just what she wanted to hear. “I wish you were my mother.”

Right away I felt bad.

“You shouldn’t say that,” she said, but her face was opening into a huge smile as the lights of my mother’s car cautiously turned the corner. I quickly collapsed the umbrella and put it up my skirt, holding onto it from the outside, through the material.

“Mona!” I shouted into the house. “Mona! Hurry up! Mom’s here! I told you she was coming!”

Then I ran away from Miss Crosman, down to the curb. Mona came tearing up to my side as my mother neared the house. We both backed up a few feet, so that in case she went onto the curb, she wouldn’t run us over.

“But why didn’t you go inside with Mona?” my mother asked on the way home. She had taken off her own coat to put over me, and had the heat on high.

“She wan’t using her noggin,” said Mona, next to me in the back seat.

“I should call next time,” said my mother. “I just don’t like to say where I am.”

That was when she finally told us that she was working as a check-out clerk in the A&P. She was supposed to be on the day shift, but the other employees were unreliable, and her boss had promised her a promotion if she would stay until the evening shift filled in.

For a moment no one said anything. Even mona seemed to find the revelation disappointing.

“A promotion already!” she said, finally.

I listened to the windshield wipers.

“You’re so quiet.” My mother looked at me in the rear view mirror. “What’s the matter?”

“I wish you would quit,” I said after a moment.

She sighed. “The Chinese have a saying: one beam cannot hold the roof up.”

“But Eugenie Roberts’s father supports their family.”

She sighed once more. “Eugenie Roberts’s father is Eugenie Roberts’s father,” she said.

As we entered the downtown area, Mona started leaning hard against me every time the car turned right, trying to push me over. Remembering what I had said to Miss Crosman, I tried to maneuver the umbrella under my leg so she wouldn’t feel it.

“What’s under your skirt?” Mona wanted to know as we came to a traffic light. My mother, watching us in the rear view mirror again, rolled slowly to a stop.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“There’s something under her skirt!” said Mona, pulling at me. “Under her skirt!”

Meanwhile, a man crossing the street started to yell at us. “Who do you think you are, lady?” he said. “You’re blocking the whole damn crosswalk.”

We all froze. Other people walking by stopped to watch.

“Didn’t you hear me?” he went on, starting to thump on the hood with his fist. “Don’t you speak English?”

My mother began to back up, but the car behind us honked. Luckily, the light turned green right after that. She sighed in relief.

“What were you saying, Mona?” she asked.

We wouldn’t have hit the car behind us that hard if he hadn’t been moving too, but as it was our car bucked violently, throwing us all first back and then forward.

“Uh oh,” said Mona when we stopped. “Another accident.”

I was relieved to have attention diverted from the umbrella. Then I noticed my mother’s head, tilted back onto the seat. Her eyes were closed.

“Mom!” I screamed. “Mom! Wake up!”

She opened her eyes. “Please don’t yell,” she said. “Enough people are going to yell already.”

“I thought you were dead,” I said, starting to cry. “I thought you were dead.”

She turned around, looked at me intently, then put her hand to my forehead.

“Sick,” she confirmed. “Some kind of sick is giving you crazy ideas.”

As the man from the car behind us started tapping on the window, I moved the umbrella away from my leg. Then Mona and my mother were getting out of the car. I got out after them; and while everyone else was inspecting the damage we’d done, I threw the umbrella down a sewer.

Gish Jen is author of several novels, including Typical American, World and Town, and The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap.
Originally published:
April 1, 1984


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