Mrs. Lee owned the little laundry a block and a half from my apartment that I used to take care of my garments. Every Saturday at noon I would bring the stuff that I had soiled that week in and would pick up the previous week’s newly cleaned clothes. Mrs. Lee always had my clothing ready for me.
I tried practicing my limited Mandarin with her – but discovered that she only spoke Cantonese. But I did know enough Cantonese to count to ten. (That and being able to say Happy New Year was the extent of my knowledge of her dialect.) I think it amused her that I was trying to speak her native tongue.
Anyway, she took great care of me and learning my schedule would always have my little bundle of clothing ready and my dry-cleaning right at the front of the store so that I didn’t have to wait for her to find them among all the piles of freshly cleaned laundry that filled the store. By this time I had been a customer for five years.
After my father died I did not go into the laundry for three weeks. The first two of these were spent taking care of the arrangements for dad, then a week in New York to get my mother settled in and to make sure that she was doing okay. Then I decided that spending time with Finney my Irish Setter who had spent all this time in a kennel was more important than having clean clothes.
But I got back on schedule and the following Saturday I arrived at my usual noon time to get the laundry and dry cleaning which had languished in Mrs. Lee’s laundry during my absence.
As I went in the door Mrs. Lee excitedly lifted the wood slat in the counter that allowed her access to the working part of the store. She rushed over and gave me a big hug and said, “We missee you. Where you been?”
I told her that my father had died and that I was trying to get my mother settled after the loss that we both had suffered. I remember that my eyes welled up with tears as I explained this to her. Mrs. Lee began to cry.
She looked at me and said, “You an orphan. Mustee take care you don’t go hungry. You waitee here.”
She went in the back of the store and I could hear the that she had turned on her stovetop. As I waited I rested my laundry on the counter and I could hear the hissing, splashing sound that is made when food is added to the hot oil in a wok.
After about five minutes, Mrs. Lee returned to the front of the store carrying a typical white Chinese restaurant-style carry out container. She placed this in a small paper bag and said, “You eat. You not go hungry.” She had made me a meal of stir-fry chicken, onions and snow pea pods. I didn’t know what to say other than, “Thank you.” I gave her a hug and took my clothes and her meal home.
As I thought about it on my short walk home I realized how special this lady was in trying to do what she could to assuage my loss. Our only interaction was my weekly visit to drop off and pick up my cleaning. We really were little more than strangers – or at the most acquaintances.
The following week I went to Mrs. Lee’s laundry per my usual schedule, my arms loaded with an unusually large number of garments. I walked in and she greeted me as usual as I dropped my big load on her counter. She did the count on all the garments and wrote up my tickets. I reached in my pocket and handed her the claim checks for the previous week’s load.
As usual Mrs. Lee had my garments ready for my pickup at the front of the store. I laid out the money to pay for them which she took and then came to the counter with my garments. She also handed me another little brown paper bag which contained another carryout container of food that she had prepared for me.
Until she returned to Canton three years later to help her ailing brother who was dying, every Saturday that I went in to Mrs. Lee’s little laundry she always had my laundry ready for me – as well as her little carryout box so that “I didn’t go hungry.”
Mrs. Lee was a very sweet lady – and I miss her. But it gives me hope that there are still some kind and caring people who roam the face of planet earth. I hope one day to be considered one of them.