Yet I was not dissatisfied with my lookswell, when I was younger, yes, multiply so. But by the time I became a young woman, I knew it was better to be unforgettable than bland. I learned to transform my faults into effect. I darkened my already thick eyebrows, put big-stoned rings on my knobby fingers. I dyed my muddy hair in long streaks of bright gold, red, and lacquer black and wove them into a massive plait that striped the entire length of my back. I adorned myself with layers of unlikely colors, clashing tones married by texture or design or flow. I wore large pendants and medallions, clown-green gaspeite where people expected cool imperial jade. My shoes were my own design, made by a leather worker in Santa Fe. "You see how the toes are curled in the Persian slipper tradition?" I remarked to those who stared too long. "Why do you suppose the Persians started doing that?"
"To show they were upper-class," one person said.
"To point their feet to heaven?" another ventured.
"To hide curved daggers," a man guessed.
"I'm afraid the answer is less fascinating than that," I would say before revealing the fascinating fact: "The curled toes lifted the hems of long skirts to prevent the wearers from tripping as they walked the long carpeted halls to pay obeisance to their shah. And thus you see, they are merely practical." Every time I said this, people were highly impressed, and later, when they saw me again, they would say, "I remember you! You're the one with the fascinating shoes."
At the funeral, Zez, the curator at the Asian who oversaw restoration of ancestor commemorative paintings, said I had a style that was "absolutely memorable, as emblematic as the best portraiture of the Sackler collection." That was a slight exaggeration, of course, but it was heartfelt. I certainly felt pings and pangs in my own late heart. There was even a moment when I could sense the ache of others. I was suffused with shared griefat last, to feel so deeplyand I was glad, truly this time, that I did not have children, no dear daughters or sweet sons to feel the kind of pain that would have come from losing me as their mother. But all at once, this sadness-gladness evaporated, and I settled into more reflective thought.
To think, in all my life no one had loved me wholly and desperately. Oh, I once believed that Stefan Cheval cared for me in that wayyes, the Stefan Cheval, the famous one with the controversial footnote. This was eons ago, right before that pink-skinned congressman declared his paintings "obscene and un-American." My opinion? To be perfectly honest, I thought Stefan's series Freedom of Choice was overwrought and clichéd. You know the one: gouache overlays of U.S. flags draped over images of dead USDA-stamped livestock, euthanized dogs, and computer monitorsor were they television sets back then? In any case, heaps and heaps of excess to show immoral waste. The reds of the flag were bloody, the blues were garish, and the whites were the color of "discharged sperm," by Stefan's own description. He was certainly no Jasper Johns. Yet after Stefan's work was condemned, it was vociferously defended by First Amendment rights groups, the ACLU, scads of art departments at top-notch universities, and all those civil libertarian types. Let me tell you, it was they who conferred upon the work grandiose messages that Stefan never intended. They saw the complexities of meaningful layers, how some values and lifestyles were judged more important than others, and how we, as Americans, needed the shock of ugliness to recognize our values and responsibilities. The rivulets of sperm were especially frequently cited as representing our greed for pleasure without regard to mess and proliferation. In later years, the mess referred to global warming and the proliferation to nuclear weapons. That's how it happened, his fame. Prices rose. The mere mortal became an icon. A few years later, even churches and schools had posters and postcards of his most popular themes, and franchise galleries in metropolitan tourist centers did a brisk business in selling his limited-edition signed serigraphs, along with prints of Dal', Neiman, and Kinkade.
From Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan. Copyright Amy Tan 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Putnam Publishing. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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