Mother never liked to talk much. So instead, she and I painted together in the backyard, side by side, in front of our easels. I’d paint the neighborhood cat, or the face of the girl I liked from my 10th grade class, crude pieces I had no regrets wadding up and throwing away afterward.
Mother was the dedicated one. She took art classes at the community center and learned to paint still lifes. She started with Asian pears, clusters of lychees, a durian, and other fruit she found at the Chinese market. Then, as her technical skill increased, she came home from Chinatown carrying plastic bags containing organ meats. She unwrapped a pig kidney and placed it on a stool beside her easel. The next trip she brought home a cow’s heart. The viscera she painted glistened with hyperrealism, a sort of fetishism for the grotesque that filled me with curiosity. She had been a surgeon in China, so maybe she was expressing the nostalgia she felt for the profession she could no longer perform in America, without a US license. Indeed, when several of her paintings won honorable mention at the local museum art show, she titled each piece Guangxi, her hometown province, with a number after it. A pair of deflated lungs on a wooden table was named Guangxi37. A crimson liver on a porcelain plate was Guangxi56.
She often made soup from the offal after she was finished painting it. I always asked her for a sip, but she didn’t let me try it. Not ever.
Once, in the kitchen with the soup boiling, I asked her why she left China in the 1960s. She went silent, completely still, staring past my shoulder. Moisture glistened at the corner of her eyes, and the broth bubbled over onto the stovetop. I put my hands on her shoulders, gently shook her, Mother, what’s wrong, her arms rigid, her eyes fixated on the wall, smoke rising from the pot, the smell of burning liver and onions. Then, as if a spell had been broken, her face brightened. She removed the pot and scraped its contents into the trash.
I never asked her about China again.
During my freshman year of college, I suffered bouts of excruciating pain. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. The student health doctor examined me, gave me a referral to gastroenterology, who would eventually refer me to a psychiatrist, Dr. Leavitt.
I took a class on Modern Chinese History. There was a lecture about the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. The Red Guards’ unrestricted killing sprees throughout the provinces, the “struggle sessions” during which political enemies were denounced, shot, beheaded, drowned, or disemboweled. A photo of a man on his knees, his arms held behind his back by men in green khaki jackets with Chairman Mao’s face pinned to their lapels. One hand pulled the man’s face up by the front of his hair. Another hand shoved a piece of bloodied meat between his lips. The caption, “Man eats liver: Cannibalism during the Guangxi Massacre.”
If she doesn’t want to talk about it, there isn’t much you can do, except come to terms with it.
Dr. Leavitt’s wisdom during my session with her before Winter Break.
I’m home again, at the dining table with Mother. Steam rises from her bowl of kidney soup, and I smell woody herbs, sesame, and ginseng root. I ask her for a taste, but she shakes her head. So I grab the bowl from her, scraping it across the tabletop, oily broth sloshing onto the table. Her eyes widen as I take the spoon in my hand, and dip it into the broth. I raise the spoon to my lips.
It tastes salty. Earthy, somewhat bitter. I swallow, feel the warmth dripping down my chest, coating my stomach. I push the bowl back to her, and reach out to touch her shoulder.
We bundle up and bring our easels outside, under the crisp December sun. We start painting each other.
Photo by Nenad Stojkovic, used and adapted under CC.