Thursday, November 20, 2003

Dear Ma,
It's been eight years today since you died. As you may or may not know, depending on whether you're currently the ethereal all-knowing spirit that you sometimes imagined yourself as in life or simply a vaporized carbon form, a lot has changed since I got the call that afternoon at the newsroom from your visiting home nurse telling me that you "appeared to be dead."
You would've gotten a laugh out of that, because, yes, you more than appeared so when I got there and based on what that well-meaning ninny told me later, you'd been like that for at least an hour before she arrived, let herself in, dithered around and then decided to make some calls.
No matter. Well, I'm in China now for at least a year. And Julian is in college and doing very well. Anyway, what I wanted to you was "thank you."
Thank you for teaching me how to see. More than a mother, you were an artist first and foremost and it was that gift that you passed on to me, whether you know it or not. Not the gift of drawing or painting, but teaching me how to see, sum it up, soak it in and catch the details. The light and shadows. You put it on canvas and I've tried to put it into words.
How to see the beauty in the hard light and sharp shadows of a descending day in autumn. How to look at a seemingly ordinary person and see something special, comical or tragic. It's in your paintings. The young man leaning defeated and tired in in the half light of a Denver apartment hall. The back of an old Chevy truck in a Boulder alley on a late September afternoon.
I was reminded of what you taught me just yesterday. Shenzhen is a terrible place for good light. It's polluted and often smog choked. But there are days, like yesterday, when the winds blow in from the Pacific and sweep the gunk away the light is magical.
I was walking back from lunch and saw an impossibly beautiful woman. No one special, just another Chinese office lady on the surface, but with a face that simply glowed. Living porcelain. And as the sun moved just a fraction, there was a subtle shift that readjusted every shadow and definition on her face just enough that I could see her not as an young beauty but briefly preview her as the elegant old woman she will someday become.
You taught me how to see that years ago when we were eating lunch on an autumn afternoon on the Pearl Street Mall. You interrupted whatever I was rambling on about to start gesticulating with that weird pointing and chopping motion you'd do with your hand when you were excited and pulled me closer to point out a gorgeous, long-haired red headed woman sitting at a table nearby.
"See her?" you hiss/whispered. "See that woman there? Look. She's beautiful now and you can see how beautiful she'll be when she's old. It's a trick of the light."
Yes, I saw that trick then and just yesterday, again. This time it wasn't a red head, but the effect was the same. Thanks, ma. I love you.

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