My mother's jewels
`MY grandma is `writing' her eyebrows,'' my daughter Qing announced to the guest who came to see my mother. I was embarrassed. My five-year-old did not understand that putting on makeup was considered a bourgeois idea in China. In fact, my mother was the only one in the neighborhood who used eyebrow pencils and face powder. Fortunately, the guest pretended to take no notice of what Qing had said; the yellow wintersweet in a large vase seemed to have attracted her attention. Qing was not discouraged at all. As the only child of the family, she thought it very exciting to have a visitor to talk to.
``That is my grandma's favorite flow-er,'' she went on, not giving me an opportunity to show my hospitality.
``My grandma likes beautiful things. She used to be very beautiful herself. Would you like to see her pictures?'' Without waiting for an answer, my daughter ran out of the living room and returned with a photograph album in her arms. The guest was delighted to see my daughter's eagerness. She took the album and turned to the first page, to my mother's wedding picture.
``Doesn't she look like a film star!'' Qing exclaimed. Since it was a black-and-white picture, Qing felt it her responsibility to explain what the picture could not show. ``My grandma was wearing a red silk dress. Her wedding cloak was made of white transparent gauze. Look at her pearl necklace. She used to have many jewels.''
Qing began to turn over the leaves of the album rapidly, trying to show the guest the various jewels my mother was wearing in those pictures -- gold ear-rings, jade bracelets, silver hairpins, and diamond rings. Qing was always proud of the beauty of my mother in the pictures taken in her early years.
Qing was very familiar with the pictures, which were arranged in chrono-logical order. She stopped halfway through the album and said disappoint-edly, ``Now from this page on, you will not see her wearing jewels anymore.'' The picture on this page was taken in 1962. In the picture my father and mother were surrounded by their seven children.
``My grandma's eyes look smaller. Her face is smaller, too. She's not beautiful anymore. And she doesn't wear those jewels,'' Qing continued explaining, but this time she was unable to explain what the picture could not show. She turned to me, ``Mom, why didn't Grandma wear her jewels in this picture?''
``Because she was old,'' I answered.
``Then why didn't she give them to you?''
Excited, Qing asked, ``Where are they?''
I did not answer her question, although I knew where the jewels were; they were here, in my body, in my blood.
Staring at the picture, I let my thoughts run back to the years from 1959 to 1962, when the whole of China suffered from serious natural disasters. I lived with my mother and my younger brother at our home in Shanghai. My father was away teaching in the suburbs of Shanghai, and all of my elder brothers and sisters were living elsewhere; most were studying at college, and some were working after having graduated from college.
At that time everything was rationed, from matches to soap, from sugar to rice. Extra food was available only at very high prices, sometimes 10 times higher than normal. One day, my mother was in the kitchen, staring at a cabbage that looked stale. I thought she was going to fix our supper.
``Yen,'' she said, turning to me, ``why don't you go to the Russian restaurant to eat?''
What a good idea, I thought. We had not been in a restaurant for a long time. In those days, dining out was a luxury to most people.
``OK,'' I answered, ``let's go.''
``Oh, no. I'm not going,'' Mother said gently. ``You know `The Red Chamber' will be on the Peking Opera radio broadcast at 6. I hate to miss it.''
It was true that my mother was a keen radio listener. So I took my younger brother to dine in the restaurant at the corner of the street. The beef soup with onions and potatoes smelled good, and the brown steak with red tomato sauce on a white plate was a pleasant sight to look at.
When we returned home, both my brother and I gave Mother a glowing report. ``It was so delicious!'' I declared. Mother smiled happily at our detailed description of the food.
``What did you have for supper, Mom?'' I asked.
``Something delicious,'' she quickly answered, then immediately started telling us about the opera broadcast over the radio: how the people in power in Jia's family played a trick on Bao Yu to impose an unwanted marriage on him. Mother's vivid description of the story, her admiration of the excellent wording of the lines of the play, and her praise of the touching music took us into the wonderful realm of art. I almost felt a-shamed of my intense interest in food.
For a whole week, the smell of cabbage soup hung in the air of our apartment during our lunch and supper times. But the smell was not so unbearable because of my mother's pleasant talk at the table. I felt grateful to have rice to go with cabbage soup when my mother told us that in some places people had nothing to eat at all. Once in a while Mother would fry eggs for us, but at such times she would always be too busy in the kitchen to eat with us.
One day my brother asked, ``Mom, when can we have dinner in the Russian restaurant again?''
``It is too much to dine out once a week,'' I said, giving him a warning glance. He was too young to understand the situation, I thought. Mother drew me to her and held me tight. After a little while, she raised her eyes and said, ``It's not too much. We have enough money for that.''
I looked at Mother carefully; now she was smiling, and I was convinced. Then Mother patted my brother on the head and said, ``Go to the restaurant with your sister tonight.'' My brother was delighted and so was I. Again, Mother could not go with us because of her radio program.
From that time on, my brother and I would go once a week, under the tall trees standing along the roadside, to the restaurant at the corner to have dinner. Mother never went with us; I assumed that she enjoyed art more than food. I cannot remember how many times I saw new green leaves break forth from old trunks when we went to the restaurant, and I cannot remember how many times I saw Mother bending over her needlework when we got home from the restaurant.
Mother was always busy tailoring her clothes to fit, always taking them in; year after year everything looked large on her.
In 1962, the end of the disastrous years came at last. That summer I passed the national university exam and was accepted by the East China Normal University. The whole family was proud of me because the number of students the universities were allowed to accept had never been so low. More important, my composition for the exam was published in the major Shanghai newspaper. So Mother decided to take the whole family to the photographic studio to have a formal picture taken. Humming happily, I went to one of her trunks, where she used to keep her jewelry box. Since all of our social activities had been reduced to the minimum, I had not seen Mother wear jewels for years. But on this occasion, I was sure she would like to wear something special.
At the bottom of the trunk lay the pretty jewelry box, a black lacquerware inlaid with golden flowers. ``I'll choose that gem brooch,'' I thought. I remembered how beautiful my mother looked when she wore it. Delightedly I opened the box. But the moment I opened it, I was stunned -- the box was empty! And all of a sudden, the brown steak, the beef soup, and the fried eggs came to my mind. My eyes blurred. I could see nothing but my mother's figure bending over her clothes, sewing.
With a heavy heart, I went to the photographic studio with my family. While the photographer was directing lights on us, I turned around to see my mother. Although her eyes were sunken and her chin had sharpened, her smile was still beautiful, the same beautiful smile I saw on her face when she sent us to the restaurant, when she gave my brothers their tuition, and when she paid for my sisters' winter coats. I turned back to the camera and smiled. I smiled for the beauty of my mother.
``Mom, where are Grandma's jewels?'' My daughter's voice awakened me from my reverie. To answer her question, I moved my finger to the picture, touching the seven children surrounding my mother and father, and said, ``Here they are.''
Qing was amused. ``My uncles and aunts and you are Grandma's jewels?'' She giggled and turned to the guest. ``Isn't my mom funny?''
The guest gave me an understanding smile and took Qing on her knees. I did not follow the guest's eyes to the beautiful wintersweet in the large vase. I heard my mother's approaching footsteps. The living room was filled with a sweet fragrance.