As I approached forty, I almost persuaded myself to marry and have a child. The man loved me deeply and spoke in the romantic verbiage of destiny and diminutive nicknames that are too embarrassing to repeat. Naturally, I was flattered and also touched. He was not handsome in a conventional sense, but I found his genius to be powerful, and thus an odd aphrodisiac. He was socially inept and had a number of strange habits, but on the basis of DNA alone, he was an ideal partner for procreation. He spoke of our future child as part angel, part wunderkind. I was intrigued with the idea of a child, but inevitably it would arrive in a package called motherhood, which raised memories of my stepmother. After I refused the man's numerous entreaties to marry, he was shattered to the depths of his being. I felt quite guilty until he married another woman, six months after. It was sudden, yes, but I was pleased for him, really, I was, and I continued to be pleased when they had a child, then another and another and another. Four! There was so much to be pleased about, wasn't there? One was the most I would have had, and for years I thought about that child that never was. Would she have loved me?
Look at Vera's two daughters, I often musedthey have always adored her, even in their teens. They were the progeny that people can only dream of. Might my child have had similar feelings for me? I would have seated her on my lap and brushed her hair, smelling the clean scent. I imagined myself tucking a peony behind her ear, or clipping in her hair a pretty barrette speckled with emeralds. And we would look in the mirror together and know we loved each other so much that tears would spring to our eyes. I realized much later that the child I imagined was my young self, who had longed for just such a mother.
I admit that whenever I heard that certain offspring of friends had turned into misfits and ingrates, I received the news with schadenfreude, and also was relieved to have missed the entire spectrum of parental frustration and despair. What could possibly be more socially devastating than having your own child declare that she hated you, and in front of your less-than-best friends?
This question came to me as I watched Lucinda Pari, the director of communications for the Asian Art Museum, rise and approach the lectern to provide her own contribution to my eulogy. She had once told me that I was like a mother to her. Now here she was at my memorial, praising my virtues: "The money from Bibi Chen's estate"she paused to toss her sleek curtain of hair like a racehorse"money derived from the sale of her deluxe three-unit apartment building and gorgeous, bridge-view penthouse on Leavenworth, in addition to her store, the legendary Immortals, and its enormously successful online catalogue business, on top of a personal collection of Buddhist arta very fine and well-regarded collection, I might addhas been willed in trust to the museum." Loud clapping ensued. Lucinda's talent has always been to mix drama and exaggeration with dull facts so that words balance out as believable. Before the applause could turn thunderous, she held up her palm and continued: "She leaves us with an estate estimated to bewait a minute, here it istwenty million dollars."
Nobody gasped. The crowd did not jump up and cheer. They clapped loudly, but I wouldn't say wildly. It was as if my bequest had been expected, and an ordinary amount. When the room quieted all too soon, she held up a plaque. "We will be affixing this in commemoration of her generosity in one of the wings in the new Asian, to be opened in 2003."
One wing! I knew I should have specified the degree of recognition I should receive for my twenty million. What's more, the plaque was a modest square, brushed stainless steel, and my name was engraved in letters so small that even the people in the front row had to lean forward and squint. This was the style Lucinda liked, modern and plain, sans serif type as unreadable as directions on a medicine bottle. She and I used to argue in a friendly way about the brochures she had expensive graphic artists design. "Your eyes are still young," I told her not too long ago. "You must realize, people who give vast amounts of money, their eyes are old. If you want this style, you should give people reading glasses to go with it." That's when she laughed in a not-so-joking way and said, "You're just like my mother. There's always something not right."
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.
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