Monday, September 11, 2006

The Peonies

Over my fireplace hangs a watercolor painting of two red peonies on rice paper. It's handsomely double matted in pine green and light grey and in a black lacquer frame, although the giver of the picture told me not to frame it, it was a simple picture, on rice paper, and he had seen it painted with his own eyes. But I'm not too good at following directions. In the right hand corner are characters, which I assume to be the artist's name, but I don't know that.

This picture has followed me for almost twenty years. For a time it hung in my apartment in Michigan, and then in my office in North Carolina and later in Ohio, and now it has landed on two tiny nails above the white brick fireplace.

For a long time I wanted someone to ask me about the picture, how I got it, where it came from, what it meant. I was like a character out of the Chekhov story, The Lament, a story in which a cab driver yearns to tell his riders about the death of his son by pneumonia. His fares tell him hurry up, what's taking so long to get to the Kremlin? He finally tells his sad story to his horse, his best listener.

The giver of the picture--QiQuan--said we met the day I wore large gold earrings and smiled without showing my teeth. We did similar work, and we were both strangers in a strange land. He sent me a packet with porcelain white and blue dragon necklaces for my children, a silk scarf, an orange paper cutting that he said was from a famous novel, and a black lacquer tea set. He sent a hand written formal note on yellow legal paper, saying he hoped my children would like the dragons.

He told me he was unusually tall for a Chinese man, almost six feet tall, and he had a way of shaking his head that made his hair splay out like he was a shaggy dog emerging from the swimming pool. His breath smelled of exotic spices and he complained that American food was not very good, except for pizza and spicy mustard. He said when they expected company at home there were at least nine different dishes on the table.

When my young children were sick he made pastries from Hungry Jack canned biscuits, filled them with a special pudding, and called them Heart's Ease. He said at home all he did was study and teach his students, and he was an expert on Moby Dick. He said he could outdrink all of his colleagues, but that he worked so hard they had a nickname for him that in translation meant Balls of a Dead Man.

He went on a trip to Atlanta and when he came back he said he told many jokes, and he was known as the Johnny Carson of China. This seemed incongruent to me, as he did not seem funny so much as urgent and intense, with his head shaking and his desire to spill information out to me, making him breathless. He said he wrote to his wife that he still loved her and hoped she did not hit their son.

The picture of peonies he saved for last, before he left the country. He told me that the peony is the queen of flowers in China, and that he was giving it to me, because he saw how hard I worked with his own eyes, and that the queen of flowers should go to the queen of women. shouldn'tt have it framed, because it was just a simple picture. As I said, I'm not too good at following directions.

After almost twenty years, I think it's a good thing no one really asks about it, because maybe it's given me strength not to talk about it, after all. It's sort of a secret, closely held, a trump card I can peek at to remind myself, yeah, I worked hard, and I knew QiQuan, and I am a rich woman, not a character in a Chekhov story at all, at all.

14 comments:

Southernmush said...

Hello Beth,

I just recently came upon your blog which I found to be quite interesting. I also keep a journal at AOL J-Land which is mostly filled with my thoughts and the activities of my day-to-day life. I found that you asked very good questions and your questions really got me to thinking. I am really glad that I found your blog. I will think about those questions you asked and perhaps I will be able to come up with some answers to some of your questions. Once again I have to say that I am glad to have found you and your blog. Thank you once again.

Theresa Williams said...

Beth, this is a terrific post. It seems to me I remember you making reference to this man, but you never seemed especially willing to go into details. The idea of the painting going with you to all your destinations and then ending up at "home," over the hearth really fits with your theme of coming home to yourself, to what matters. Your best writing is on themes like this and when you pull out the memories like a beautiful scarf for us to see. Perhaps it was good you didn't talk about the painting. Good that you held onto it and as a result could share it with us here. It's beautiful.

alphawoman said...

Lovely stuff.

Erin said...

What a beautiful post, Beth! You have such a way of telling a story. Every time I visit your blog, I'm impressed and inspired.

Mystic Wing said...

Beautiful story, wonderfully told. I'm delighted to have discovered your blog.

Paul said...

This is beautifully written, Beth. And Mary's "lovely stuff" comment is a phrase borrowed from Davy Carton of the Saw Doctors.

Wenda said...

Oh, I like this very much and imagine that the not talking about the painting helped fuel this wonderful writing. Or I may be projecting my own reality onto you. Sometimes when I speak a story before writing it, the story never gets written or the writing is dry, empty, decompressed or all of the above.

Gannet Girl said...

Beautiful entry, Beth.

V said...

Beth, that`s beautiful writing. Thanks for letting us in.
V

Vicky said...

This is a delight, Beth. Beautifully expressed. I could see both him and the painting. Thank you,

Vicky

Erin said...

Hi, Beth:

How have you been? I really miss reading your blog! :-)

Hope all is well,
Erin

Jay D. Homnick said...

Dear Beth,

I apologize for using this medium to write a letter, but I did not see an e-mail address listed.

Your writing is very lovely and I don't mean the slightest slight. I just want to stress that I invented the term 'fessay' and my blog, which showcases a few of mine, has been up since March 2005. It is at fessays.blogspot.com.

Actually, yours is a cleverer title because it not only compresses fictional-essay into 'fessay', it also utilizes the confession element as in 'fess up'. Still, I got there first and I use the name commercially.

Warmly,

Jay D. Homnick

Jay D. Homnick said...

I'm sorry, Beth, if you wrote me a comment it got erased by accident. There were two versions of my latest fessay and when I deleted the uncorrected one I saw there had been a comment. However, the system deleted the comment along with the version.

If that was you, my apologies, and please write again.

Sorry,

Jay

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