Upstairs, I decided to take a peek inside my mother's bedroom. She sat regally at her makeup desk, fully dressed in a pale evening gown that glistened under the orange light like a mermaid's scales. Her attention was focused on brushing her long hair, which rippled down her arching back, jet-black and wavy. My mother was not a typically thin Asian woman. She had heavy breasts and round hips, joined by a thin waist. Her eyes, big and rimmed with dark mascara, concentrated on the image before her. Years spent watching my mother gaze at herself in the mirror had convinced me that she was the rarest, most beautiful creature that ever walked the face of this Earth.
My presence startled her. She took her eyes off her reflection, looked at me, and smiled, showing her white, straight teeth. At times I had sat for hours in my mother's bedroom while she confided her beauty secrets to me. I would listen earnestly, not to what my mother said, but to the mesmerizing sound of her voice, always full of wisdom and intelligence.
Her smile faded into a slight frown as she said, "Look at you. What is that all over your face?"
I touched my cheek and felt the remnants of the whipped cream. Licking my fingers, I answered her, "It's for my cake in the kitchen. Can I come in?"
She nodded. "Sure, come in." And then came the scolding. "What a dirty boy, eating in such a manner. Why don't you wait till dinner?"
I sat on her bed and looked at her curiously. Using a small cotton pad, she was pressing white powder onto the backs of her hands.
"What are you doing, Mommy?" I asked.
"I am putting makeup on my hands, darling."
"You are always asking the same question."
"I never remember what the answer is, Mommy."
She paused and held her hands in front of her face, where they stood at attention like two proud soldiers ready for inspection.
"I do this because I want people to notice my hands. Aren't they beautiful?"
Along with her fortune, my mother's hands were the ultimate pride in her life. Before she met my father, she had worked as a hand model for a jewelry company. In contrast to her voluptuous body, her hands were long and graceful. Each finger was a smooth cylinder with invisible knuckles and no wrinkles; each nail was defined, extended, well polished, and glossy. She spent hours smoothing the sharp edges of her nails, trimming the out-of-place cuticles, and changing the color of the paint. Not until she was completely satisfied with her hands did my mother apply makeup to her face, a process that would also require a few hours. She said that since her face was not extraordinary, her success would depend on her hands. As if to prove her point, my mother made sure that her hands were always displayed. They danced in front of her face during a conversation, rested on her cheeks in photographs, or raised her chin when she exercised her power. Sometimes, they daintily held the stem of a champagne glass. Once my mother considered buying insurance for her hands; however, this idea did not meet with approval from my grandfather. I'm sure my mother wished that she had gotten insurance the day I accidentally bumped into her while running down the hallway. The collision broke two of her nails and scratched her fingers, leaving her boiling mad and me with welts on my cheek.
"Is this party for me, Mommy?" I asked as she continued tending to her hands.
"Does it mean I can stay up late tonight?"
"You can stay up a little while after you blow out your candles."
"Will there be any children coming over tonight from my class?" I asked her hopefully.
"No, darling. No other children, just you and your brother. So you can be the star tonight. After all, it is an adult party; you don't want any children here to spoil it, do you?"
Copyright © 2001 by Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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