Today was the 19th Mother’s Day since my mother’s death in 1990, at the age of 75. (In the photo at left, taken circa 1953, she was 37 yrs old.) The arc of her illness, from accurate diagnosis of malignant melanoma to her death, was less than five months.
We had a complex relationship, the crucible of which was the two years she and I were in Brazil waiting to reunite with my father, who had come ahead to the U.S. (see earlier blog entry: “Dia do Trabalho 1962″).
In adulthood, I’ve succeeded in understanding the forces that made her who she was and the strength of character and resilience she displayed throughout her life. She was a remarkable woman, a tough broad who was also deeply vulnerable to the tragic consequence of a life-long love for my father: an embittered death. But that’s another story, where the villain is not him, but a series of Hobson’s Choices – the ironic term for situations with forced “choices” – entwined with the history of China in the 20th Century.
I know that her intentions were loving and unimpeachable: to provide me, her only living child, with better life-opportunities. It’s what makes it bearable to know that I only remember her saying “I love you” once to me in her life: on her death-bed in the hospital.
I wrote the elegiacal lament and witnessing below over a period of years, fine-tuning it even tonight.
The embroidery now hangs in my bedroom. (It’s pretty big, about 3 ft x 4 ft. The pink background has faded a bit over the years – it’s at least as old as I am!) The two butterflies are in the upper right-hand corner: my iPhone camera doesn’t have the resolution to show the fineness of the details.)
The camphor chest was sold when we left Santa Rosa in 1964. I recently located (!) the family that bought it, but they are unwilling, thus far, to sell it back to me.
for Lee Pik-Yuen 1916 – 1990
What song for a life of sorrows?
What sorrows steep within a tea?
What tea for partings without the proper song?
In less-than half the heartbeats you carried me within,
an obscene rebellion tunneling beneath the skin
collapsed all the familiar contours:
your body now a ladder of bones
in an emptying hospital room,
and the high-collar Shantung dresses,
slit-to-the-knee brocaded sheaths
of an abrupted youth and Shanghai sweets
become an anonymous sheet
I would not let be pulled over your face.
So much was hidden already:
the unsupplicant bowing before
the carved chest left in Brazil,
your tai chi-smooth splitting of the twin brass-locks
that raised the fishermen, the village,
the pavilion in the clouds,
to furlough from a scented darkness
song-birds straining their silk threads,
two dazzling butterflies
flightless, though unpinned.
Contemplated for a pot or two,
yet always re-folded, never displayed,
you always camphored it away,
the creases deepening
unsmoothable as the choices made:
strength to a weaker husband,
solace from a tended rose-bush,
yourself the muted nightingale
in an unlocked cage.
Your final face moon-mottled and lifeless,
the eyes tranquil seas, finally,
this son unfurls it now,
pennant and shroud,
to sing you homeward
with words you would not recognize,
to turn your ashes into steps.
Though there is no more pleasing,
I take the silence as approval:
I drink my fill,
and call it tea.
(The embroidery was consumed in the December 22, 2010 fire of my apartment. That black “stripe” between the windows is where it was in the earlier photo.)