The White Egg
The White Egg
(A story by Michael Feldman)
Paintings by Michael Feldman
“I have always looked for my mother, everyday of my life.”
ON THE TRAIN A MIRACLE HAPPENED
World War Two was in full swing, bombs falling, Jews dying. Poland totally destroyed. The war hit hard. Our home was gone.
I was one year old when my mother died of starvation as she held my brother and me and cried, “Who will take care of my babies?” My brother and I with my father were barely alive. Hitler was on a rampage. Somehow we escaped the Nazi death camps. Death everywhere I looked. At the age of one I could smell death. Eating what we could find, we were a bag of bones. One step ahead of Hitler.
Escaping on an overfilled train with Jews running from the Nazis. On the train a miracle happened! A young woman in her mid 20’s was standing next to us. She was withdrawn, in shock. Her sad face was overwhelming and pale, dressed in ripped clothing full of dirt. Hardly eaten in days. She was scared.
My father looked at her and put his arm around her to comfort her fears. They spoke a little. She was from the same town near Warsaw Poland as we were, but we did not know her. Her name was Sarah.
She spoke in Polish, telling my father a horrified story that thirteen of her family members were lined up next to her and shot. And then pushed into a mass grave. Somehow they missed killing her, she was also pushed into the grave of dead bodies. In all the confusion, she managed to crawl out and escape from the Nazis. My father told Sarah to stay with us and we all would help each other. They lived together for the rest of their lives.
Sarah and Harry arriving in America
A SECOND CHANCE
We were homeless, my brother and I slept in doorways of bombed out buildings while my father and Sarah protected us from harm and the cold night weather. As we walked the broken streets in the cold winter, my father saw in a store window some rolled up money. The window had a break just big enough to put my little hand inside and reach the money. Money that helped us survive. Later my father sewed the money into the lining of my coat. He told me to wear my coat at all times.
As we moved from city-to-city, village-to-village, we were looking for a safe home. We moved as far as to Asia from war stricken Poland, where at my young age I saw how hard Asian people had to work under Communist rule. Most people were very poor,
living from the land in little make shift huts along the river. One Chinese woman cooked soup for us. I remember it was hot and spicy with a fish broth.
Most Chinese families tried to help us as best they could. Gave us shelter and food and clothing. We could not stay in China and had to move on.
Ten years on the move from Asia, Russia, Poland and British Occupied Germany we are finally on a battleship heading to America, across the stormy Atlantic Ocean. Three huge waves crashed into the battleship almost breaking the battleship into two halves. Sailors welding it back together into the late night. We thought we were going to drown. Women and children living on one half of the battleship and men on the other half. Joking that the ship would split and we would separate the men from the women and children.
My father was a barber in a small resort area of Zakapana, Poland. This was where he had his own barber / beauty shop along with my mother. When the war broke out they had to leave everything. His barber experience allowed him to cut the sailors hair on the ship. On the battleship barbershop I would spin around in the barber chair as fast I could. This made most sea sick people who saw me want to throw up.
Three weeks later and many seasick immigrants, we arrived into the New York harbor passed the Statue of Liberty and landed at Ellis Island. After long lines of inspections and health paper work, we get new names. Michael from Moshe, a new name I liked. I felt American.
A new beginning. We looked up at the skyscrapers of New York. I remember my first American meal at a shiny diner that looked like an airplane without wings, my father reached into his pocket and took out a piece of paper, showing a picture of an advertisement with a photo of chicken noodle soup to the waitress who had a long cigarette dangling from her mouth. Looking at that ad, might of been the beginning of my later advertising career. At about 11:00 PM that evening the Jewish Federation put us on a train to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a work city. We were on the train all night. Sara holding me while I slept.
It’s the winter of 1951, with one of the worst snowstorms to hit the east coast. We lived in a very poor part of Pittsburgh at the Fort Pitt Hotel. In a cold room. (Much better standards than that we experienced in bombed out Europe.) Pittsburgh a polluted city from the steel mills turned the snow into a dirty grey, looking like a black and white photo. The air was smelly from sulfur, and reminded me of rotten eggs. White snow that fell the night before now was a brownish grey as cars slid on the slippery streets. As spring came the snow would melt. Summer was even worse than winter, humid, stagnant air and hot days and sleepless nights as air conditioners and fans ran all day and night. Only a walk through the Schenly Park would give us relief. Sometime I would go with my brother Joe to the local swimming pools surround by cement to cool off.
Eventually we rented an apartment in a European, mainly Jewish part of Pittsburgh. Squirrel Hill where many immigrants lived. Hardly anybody spoke English. Bakeries, butcher shops, barber shops and Chinese restaurant, all languages from Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish and Chinese were merged onto busy streets. It was a colorful rich experience. Sunday mornings were so alive with shoppers, buying fresh breads, cakes, lox and fruits and vegetables. My dad would bring home bagels and lox, my favorite.
I met some kids in my neighborhood and learned to speak English while playing with them. We played games and ran around. It didn’t matter if I could speak English or not. Playing cowboys and Indians became our universal language. I got my first cowboy outfit complete with a black hat, a toy gun and star badge. Bang, bang through the bushes and small ally ways we played. Good guys verses bad guys.
My first cowboy outfit
in our back yard
My dad worked as a barber. A old leather bag filled with barber tools that he brought from Europe in his hand. He took the early streetcar to work for an Italian barber named Pete. A little man with a pencil mustache and a kind look on his face.
My father earned about $10 to $15 dollars a day, coming home on a streetcar late in the evening. Tired, but happy to see his family. Sarah always had a warm dinner waiting for him. She hand made most of the food we ate. Cut her own noodles and then boiled chicken and carrots, onions and celery to make chicken noodle soup. My favorite was beef brisket and potatoes with overcooked carrots.
America gave us good food.
When Pete the owner of the barbershop died of a sudden heart attack, my father somehow was able to buy the barbershop from Pete’s wife. He put a sign on the door ” If you leave you lose your turn,” words that meant a lot to me. My father was always there for us and would never leave. Sarah cooked, lit Friday night candles and sometimes when my father came home early, we all ate dinner together, Sarah cleaned and washed clothes, also the barber towels for the shop. At lunch, Sarah brought soup to the barbershop. Sarah hardly spoke English, but smiled to the customers at the barber shop. She had become our new mother. Sarah was always there for my brother Joe my dad and me. Sometime Sara would eat last to make sure everyone had enough food.. A traditional European family way.
I started grade school. Because I did not speak English well, the school put me in second grade even though I was much older, so I was always the oldest in all my classes. I smiled a lot, my teachers liked that.
AMERICA IS GREAT
Our first TV was a black and white Dumont television with rabbit ear antenna that had aluminum foil wrapped around them, my dad was always adjusting the antenna so the picture would not look snowy. I watched many cowboy movies. Sometimes I would look into the back of the TV to see if there were little people and horses inside. The Lone Ranger was one of my favorites shows to watch. My brother and me would run down to Minio’s Pizza and get a slice of pizza and run home to watch television.
My father kept buying newer color TV sets and stacked them up on top of older TV’s. Most rooms had two or three or four sets. He would not throw out the older televisions.
We lived in a large mostly Jewish community. Rabbis with their families strolling the busy street. Hardly anybody spoke English.
It was a colorful town. Bakeries and butcher shops with chickens hanging in the windows. The streets were friendly. Most of the immigrants hardly spoke English. On Saturdays, Jewish Sabbath there were no stores open. Empty streets. On Sundays there was hardly any places to park.
Drawing and painting became my world. I liked art when I came home after school and sat on the porch drawing, creating images and listening to old 33 and 1/3 records on an old time record player that would have to be hand cranked. I listen to the music of Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and some classical music. Sometimes I enjoyed deep heavy Wagner and Beethoven. Most of the records were given to me by our neighbors.
School was very hard for me. I did not learn to read until later. My teachers gave me extra art supplies to keep me busy. I drew pictures and brought them in the next day. Miss. Whichanick, the art teacher at school would hang them on the wall. She dressed like a Beatnik, wore an army coat. She would carve on a big wooden log for the entire semester that ended up looking like a thin branch by the time she finished her carving.
As I became a teenager there, even though I did so-so with the ladies. I remember three girls coming up to me in the hallway at school, one of them asking me “Do you like her?” pointing to a shy young nervous girl. “No” I said. They walked away. Ever since then, I have wondered what became of her. Would she have become my girlfriend?
In high school I soon got a good reputation as an artist. High school were good art memories, lots of drawings on the chalkboards, paper and cardboard of future looking cars. I hardly did any homework. Paintings and drawings is my love. Everyday, new art came from me, abstract, classical, impressionist they all poured out of me. Looking at art books. Copying paintings. Soon kids would ask me for my drawings. And some stealing them. Saturdays and Sundays, I would hang out at Carnegie Museum, a fifteen minute walk from our house. I look at old dark painted master with naked women and angels around them, also modern paintings of large shapes and colors. The ones I liked most were the impressionists.
Seeing originals was so important to me. Picasso, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, religious painting with gold leaf halos.
I memorized each brush stroke, each figure and composition. It was great to have such a wonderful museum so close to my home. This was building a strong vocabulary of art in me that in my later years I could use in my paintings. I was so focused into each painting that sometimes I would dream about paintings.
A CAR I WISHED WOULD OF HAVE KEPT.
Grease in my hair, I dressed like a hoodlum, pegged black pants, motor cycle boots, a black corduroy jacket with a rabbit foot keychain dangling off my pocket. I was sixteen and I drove a ’56 Chevy convertible, pea green with yellow insert with black and pea green seats. I was cool. I drove to fast in my car and almost wrecked it against someone’s house. The owner of the house wanted to kill me for ruining his front lawn.
At high school dance parties I danced into the night. Loved real rock and roll music, blues and lots of classical. My friends and I drove around for hours into the night, warm summer nights with the top down, we listened to the Del Vikings, the Drifters and many R&B sound. When I was by myself I listened to classical radio, sometimes opera. The deep voices reminded me of rabbis praying at shule. My best friends Brent, Timmy and I drove by the blazing steel mills at night, the mills lighting up the dark night from the fire of the steel ovens, we would be singing along with songs on the radio. We called ourselves Kings of the Road.
A DJ on WAMO radio across the street from a fiery steel mill named Porky Chadwick “The platter pushing papa of the radio” played the best music. My friends and I sang in a group called Little Joey and the Cobras. Joey was in a wheelchair
and we stood around him and sang. We thought we were so cool singing in front of the corner drug store until somebody dumped a bucket of water on our heads from the apartment above. After school I worked at Sunny’s Drug Store as a soda fountain clerk. The drug store had cockroaches running around behind the counters. Sometimes I would throw them into the hot fudge and put them on a hot fudge sunday to tease the girls.
My speaking English was getting better, but my spelling was terrible. When our teacher gave a spelling test I would have to cheat. One time the teacher asked the class to spell “caution” so I looked over across to my friend Jackie Arthur’s desk and he wrote
“cow shit” we both got paddled. Twice, once for misspelling and the other time for swearing.
After I graduated high school and realized I was not college material. I wanted to go to art school. I lived at home, set up my art studio in my bedroom next to my bed and usually stayed up past midnight painting.
Paintings of long haired women as
I was always searching for my mother through my art. Wondering what she looked like.
Ivy School of Professional Art was a creative trade art school. Mostly taught by professional people who worked in commercial art and fine arts. This trained me for my future in the ad business. Advertising would become a successful career for me. My strength was ideas and I could sketch them out to show clients.
The arty girls from the school were fun, creative and so was sex. One girl let me paint her naked body and roll her over a canvas.
We created some expressive art. Shortly after I graduated art school, the school asked me to teach there. I taught figure drawing. A Heavy naked model fainted and fell from her modeling stage on top of a student. He seemed happy. The dean of the school brought the local mailman to my class to see the nude models. The dean had a pipe in his mouth and would light a match, but never light his pipe.
My first art job was working at a department store in their advertising department. There I designed over 500 ads in my first year. A woman I worked with named Parvin reminded me of what I thought my mother looked like. Dark hair with a rich olive skin completion. She was kind to me. And a great artist.
At the department store I sat at Andy Warhol’s old desk with his name scratched into the wooden top of the desk. Warhol worked there a few years earlier as a designer. I worked into the late night creating ads, afterwards walking through a closed department store was strange and erie. My imagination was stirred up into horror movies. Manikins coming to life. Chasing me through the store.
After my job ended at the department store I got a job with Pubic TV. Mr. Rogers became a good friend and told me “What nice colors I have to play with” in his polite slow voice pointing at my magic markers. “Can you spell colors?” Michael Keaton (Batman) worked as a lighting grip for Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. And Carol Burnett came to the station and put on many specials, TV shows on alcoholism. My job was to created sets, design printed posters, I was creative director for the TV stations art department. Maybe the best job I ever had. Many late hours and low pay.
A year later I was able to find a job with a large national advertising agency working as an art director. Traveling a lot to New York City directing photo shoots that I designed for ads. I liked my work. Money was good. Stayed at expensive hotels. Worked hard but still found time to paint. Again I painted images of women with long hair. Explored different mediums from oils, acrylics and mixed mediums. Also I carried a camera everywhere. I photographed mostly beautiful women. Long flowing hair with the sunlight
MY ‘70’s GIRL FRIENDS.
Helen, a very attractive Greek woman. We had so much fun together. Helen love the night life. Good jazz, played the piano,
Sometimes we would hop on trains and end up in far away cities. Stayed in funky hotels. Had food fight and got thrown out of hotels.
Mary, she wore mini skirts, hot little body riding a bike. Always stoned. Snapping her gum.
Enid, great writer, smart likes to be creative, later in her life she became a talk show host on the radio.
Susan, everything had sour cream in it, washed the same laundry two or three times in a row.
Diane, very creative, great Italian food. Wore expensive clothing, saved money. We traveled to far away countries.
Kendra, short time relationship but interesting to be with.
Suzan, good in bed or rowboat, eats space sticks and painted abstracts and weird paintings.
Cherie, let me paint her body and rolled herself on a canvas.
Nancy had long blond hair down to her knees. I would iron her hair to keep it straight. She ran off with Led Zeppelin’s drummer.
Then came disco days, my image changed, to a disco cool guy. Black leather pants, zip up half boots and cool disco shirt. Big collar shirt with lots of silver chains. I was ready for the dance floor and singing” Staying alive.”
At the ad agency I worked on many ad campaigns. One was for Bank Of America. We came up with the slogan ” Look to the leader” it was used around the world. In Germany the slogan translated to ” Look to the Fuhrer” I also worked on the Marlboro advertising account. Even though I did not smoke, the ad agency made me keep a dirty ashtray with a pack of cigarettes on my desk, in case a client came by. Then one day I get a message to come to the owner of this large 150 million dollar ad agency’s office. His office is very large with teak wood floors and empty desk of papers. As he sat me down on the couch, he told me that I was the first Jewish person they hired.
I worked in a special creative think tank. An off shoot from the big ad agency, about eight creative people and myself.
Self portrait staring into the mirror
We would spear head client development. Ideas towards getting new clients. We had a penthouse apartment suite, catered food, a waiter who made fresh coffee all day and served it in a silver coffee pot in china cups and saucer, and I earned lots of money. More than my father earned through out his life. Drove new Mercedes sports car,
I had come far from that little starving boy in the war.
CHINESE WOMEN MAKE GREAT WIVES.
My advertising career eventually took me from Pittsburgh to Chicago, Boston, and then to San Francisco with an advertising agency. I took a bus to work everyday. As we passed a Chinese outdoor billboard near China Town, that was advertising an ancient skin care product. On this billboard there was a beautiful Chinese woman, she had long black hair, pulled into a ponytail, porcelain skin and a beautiful smile. The bus came around the bend and the sun glared into my eyes, a bright white light shined into my eyes and blocked out the billboard. I fell asleep.
At the ad agency, I met many people from all walks of life. Anny, a very beautiful young lady from St Petersburg, Russia. Anny loves to bake and eat chocolate. We would go out and eat Tiramisu cake at Cafe Puccini in North Beach. We both liked museums and share many stories. She left me chocolate on my desk almost every day. What a good woman. Anny met this perfect guy who wasn’t super handsome, but brutal, a bit dark skin, dark hair, green eyes, also he loved her, he was honest with her, reliable, respectful, smart, kind, with sense of humor, successful, confident and a gentleman with a gypsy sole. I was envious of them, and how good they were to each other.
My secretary was from China, a real beauty to me. Beautiful body, long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. Black almond eyes that smiled at me, her lips were puffed up and soft that I wanted to kiss them while she talked at me with her strong Chinese attitude. Her name is Yuan Li.
A portrait I painted for Yuan Li’s birthday
She did not like it. Thought she looked to old
Yuan sort of reminded me of the woman on the billboard. Pretty with a perfect skin complexion. A great smile. I fell for here. I wanted to see her every day and night. Run my fingers through her black hair. We ate many dinners together. She loves Sashimi, Japanese raw fish with cold sake; sometimes we ate Thai and sometimes steak dinners but I always seemed to order the wrong food for her. She never ate Chinese at a restaurant, she thought most restaurants were to Americanized.
Yuan and I had sex so many times; it was best to marry her. She smiled every time we made love. When we slept together she held me and she would snore. I thought it was cute. She made me happy holding my hand when we walked together for evening walks.
Yuan Li came from China ten years earlier. She learned some English, but would complain to me in Chinese and call me crazy most of the time. I loved hearing her complain and babble in Chinese as she waved her hands, this reminded me of Sarah always complaining about my dad and saying he was crazy.
A Chinese justice of the peace married us on Chinese New Year Day in a Buddhist church in China Town. Yuan wore a traditional silk dress with white on white Chinese floral pattern and a gold and red collar. She looked so beautiful smiling and holding her wedding flowers. I wore a white long shirt with black silk pants and a black round hat with a long tassel. We looked so happy together.
Chinese New Year celebrations with firecrackers that crackled off and dragons dancing on Grant Ave, the night seems to light up for our wedding.
Yuan’s family came for the wedding, they came a long way from a northern city in China, Wuhan. They especially traveled thousands of miles to be at our wedding. Her best friend Ann from China came for the wedding. Ann is a funny but traditional Chinese woman. Her hair pulled back into a bun with two sticks sticking out. Ann wore a three quarter pantsuit. Carrying her large fake designer bag with her. When Yuan and Ann walked together they held each other’s hand and seem to float in harmony, gossiping and giggling. It was a pleasure to see them having so much fun. They both were so into each other that they would totally ignore my presence. Yuan’s family only spoke Chinese in our apartment so I felt mostly left out. But I liked hearing the sound of foreign language spoken in our apartment. Yan, her mother 81 years old is a Buddhist and was a vegetarian for 20 years. Now she drinks a glass of strong rice wine every day.
Wuhan China is mostly a steel industrial city much like Pittsburgh. Yuan’s mother worked as a kindergarten teacher, teaching school inside the hot steel mill factory. Three generations of teaching inside the same steel plant. The workers dropped off their children to the kindergarten on their way to work in the mill. There the kids learned to respect the Communist China ways. Singing their national anthem. Marching like little soldiers in the courtyard. The kids also learned English and about different countries. Sometimes they had Italian day, French day. And celebrated many holidays. The kids dressed in costumes that a teacher named Kelly would make. The costumes were very creative. The kid’s art was also very creative and colorful and filled the entire page.
My brother Joe
My brother Joe and his girl friend Florence came to our wedding from Pittsburgh. They enjoyed it very much. Florence always seemed to trip over something. Joe always wore a black shirt, black pants and long Elvis sideburns. He kept sneaking away to strip clubs in North Beach. An area filled with clubs and great Italian and Chinese restaurants. Joe told me the dancers treated him so nice. As he paid $20 for a beer.
It was sad my father and Sarah had passed away. They would of loved to be at our wedding.
This time Sarah could not doge the bullet, she could not cheat death. Sarah also died from not eating, like my mother who starved to death from the war. As Sarah grew older, she got depressed, her bad memories came back to her from the war and what happened to her family. After I moved away, there seemed not much for her to do. Joe, my brother was not home much. My dad hung around the barbershop and she was alone. Watching TV or sitting on the front porch talking to her neighbor Lilly. Her memories of bad times came back to her.
She stopped eating. Sarah went to the hospital and got into a coma for about a month. She starred out into the air not knowing we were sitting with her. After the hospital interns poked her in the lungs trying to put a catheter tube in her chest, she died. After her death, six months later my father passed away of pancreatic cancer. He told me “Even a tree gets old and dies.” I was the last to be with him. I put my hand on his chest and he gave me his last breath.
Yuan and I lived on the 2nd floor of this busy intersection, listening to the busy street sounds of locals and tourists
GRANT AVE AT JACKSON
I moved in with Yuan Li to her little apartment in Chinatown. Yuan home cooked fish soup with dry seaweed and white fish with bones and head with the eyes looking at me in a spicy broth made from dried fish, she also made a very spicy seaweed salad with pork that did not agree with my Jewish upbringing but I ate it anyway. Hand made won tons, chicken dumpling soup. Yuan hung our laundry to dry outside our balcony. We fit well into China Town.
Yuan was always doing laundry. Watching Chinese, Japanese and Korean horror movies on TV with English subtitles, the kind of movies that were scary for me to watch. Sometimes I would call her by her American nick name Coco that she adopted. Most modern Chinese take on American names such as Betty or Wendy.
Coco taught me to save money. She would hide her money in a locked box nailed to the floor in the closet. My dad also hid money around the house. The box was filled with twenty-dollar bills. Every time we needed money. She went into the bedroom closet and took out twenties from the box Nailed to the floor and paid cash for everything. One time our refrigerator broke. She took cash out of the box and put it into her oversized handbag and took a bus to Sears Department store and paid cash for a new refrigerator.
Many things she did brought back memories of how I grew up and how Sarah and Harry created our home. Like Yuan, Sarah was always doing laundry and watching TV. The VCR blinking 12:00 forever as she watched game shows and cooked dinner. Plastic covering the furniture. Special bone China dishes trimmed in 24 carrots gold used for high holidays. When we remodeled the kitchen Sarah never used her dishwasher. She kept shopping bags in it. She cooked mostly in the basement. The old stove ended up down into the basement. With the washer and dryer and old refrigerator.
Yuan, like Sarah had plastic flowers that were the centerpiece on the dinning room table. Photos on the mantle of her family, her sisters and brothers. Also old Chinese posters of pretty calendar girls from the 1940’s our apartment got filled with many Chinese nick-knacks and Chinese Buddha sculptures. We even had a fish tank, with two very large Poi gold fish. They hardly could turn around in the tank. The fish were very happy to see me because I would over feed them. (Jewish mother)
I truly liked Yuan and her Asian culture. We had a trust for each other. She is a very smart strong woman for me to be with. “Always marry a smarter woman than yourself” my art teacher once told me.
Yuan though I was mashuga (Jewish word for crazy) Yet I knew
through her kisses that she really loved me. It warmed my heart to be with her.
A small restaurant gave me tea as I painted
Grant Ave, Chinatown, San Francisco
Living in China Town was great. It totally reminded me of my old Jewish neighborhood back in Pittsburgh, but instead of dead chickens hanging in the butcher shop windows, there were ducks, Chinese bakeries with puff pastries and vegetable stands and old people with their pink (Thank You) plastic bags filled with their finds for today. Sometimes I would take my watercolors and find a building to lean against just off Grand Avenue and draw and paint busy street scenes. The locals are proud of their town. Busy shopping and talking.
Many times I set up my easel and painted street scenes with my oil paints. Chinese people walking by me give me the thumbs up, smiling and talking to me in Chinese. One old man stood next to me for two hours talking Chinese to me then gave me an English remark “good” pointing to the painting.
Yuan and I so enjoyed living there. It was home for us. The sounds of the streets. Laundry hanging out from each apartment window to dry. I wanted to learn everything about China. I studied their history, their art, their languages and also their healing medicines. I read stories of two young Calendar model girls who survived the war that was wagged on them by the Japanese, they lost their mother in a war, and how they survived the war then came to Angel Island in San Francisco. Some Chinese were detained for months or sent back to China if they were sick. Similar to my experiences when I arrived to Ellis Island in New York.
THE WHITE EGG
Soon I cooked, ate, drank and became more Chinese. My Asian friend Sabrina Yu called me “The White Egg”. White on the outside and yellow on the inside. A term Chinese called white people who want to be Chinese. I learned to speak the language and learned to draw in ink Chinese characters from the alphabet. Learned how to use special brushes on rice paper with an ink stone that was in a beautiful wooden box.
We live in this little apartment in China Town listening to Chinese Water Music. Red tassels on most things. Dark cherry wood chairs with red cushions, low lighting and meditative moods. I learned to play the stringed zither, an instrument thousands of years old. I also painted Chinese Brush Art on rice paper of gold fish and I was more and more becoming happy. Reading Chinese proverbs “Even for a tree of 1000 feet, its leaves return to the root when they fall.”
All this reminded me of my family who long passed away. A family I had missed and that was deep rooted in me. A quality of life with a long heritage.
As time went on my wife Yuan and I were getting older I knew so
much about the Asian world. It was what I wanted to become.
Yuan made me happy. Now I have mostly Chinese friends to play
checkers with. Fong and Betty, a Chinese couple we would go to
Restaurants together with. Evening foggy walks through the narrow
streets in China Town. Drinking many cups of hot green tea.
And hoping to have a happy life.
BECOMING A CHINESE
Then one day while Yuan and I were walking through the small busy streets of Chinatown a crate of vegetables fell from a unloading grocery truck and hit me on the back of my shoulder. Yuan took me home. Put a hot wet towel on my shoulder. She sat on my butt and hard massaged my shoulder with scented mint oil as I rested face down on a hard pillow. I was dizzy and became sleepy. Yuan made me a special healing tea she bought from an old herbal teashop near our apartment. The teashop was ancient and dark with dry bugs and fish eyes in jars, Xiao’s teashop had been there for a long time, I heard that Xiao’s great grandmother opened it when she came to America. This hot tea had sticks and bark from pine trees and 1000-year-old fish eggs that stunk up our apartment. When Yuan opened the tea container I could see fumes or ghosts coming from it.. The old herbal tea seemed to put me in a trance and started my mind thinking. The tea brought back memories of the war and how my mother died from starvation and memories of Sarah and her horrible nightmares through out her life. Also images of my father with his bloodshot eyes. Working hard, trying to be happy. Forgetting the war. Playing his violin at the barbershop.
Yuan taught me to respect the Chinese traditional way. So different than the American culture. Thousands of years of traditional Asian heritage and honor and respect. Respect for family and each other. That is why “Chinese women make great wives.” Yuan taught me that love is like a season and we all hope to have blossoms of great memories after hard winters.
I wanted to learn more about Chinese herbs and drank different teas from that ancient teashop. Xiao, the older woman at the teashop told me to try three kinds of tea. One of these special teas. Dark in flavor, almost coffee like tea made my urine pink. Another made me laugh a lot, and the third made me see everything moving and breathing and changed my skin to turn yellow. The more I drank this rare foul smelling 1000 year old herb tea, the more my skin turned yellow and I looked and started to think like a Chinese person.
I started to wear Chinese traditional costumes. Gold silk robe, with a lime green lining and dark plum silk pants and with pointed shoes. And a round hat. My wife thought it was a bit too much and thought it best to separate. She said if you love someone, sometimes it’s best to set them free. Yuan eventually moved back to China to be with her mother and sisters and her friend Ann. I was left alone to explore my inner thoughts. And not fear my feelings.
FROM PERSECUTION CAME ART
Soon after drinking the old herbs I noticed my vision blurring, also I noticed my eyes were changing to an almond shape. My hair turning from silver to a rich black color. My walking leaned forward as my feet shuffled across the wooden floor. I had become what I wished for. But Fong and his wife Betty my Chinese friends did not feel comfortable to be around me. They both thought I was a white ghost. The culture between Asian and American is very different and can never be understood with each other, no matter how we change. Asian the “We” and American the “I”
I painted large paintings that came from depths in my soul and not from my brains. I painted in brilliant colors. With feelings. Large flowers and great simple still life paintings, lemons in an old silver cup. Bowl of fruits, old trucks, Landscapes that became impressionist and abstracts. I got new energy to work late into the night. I was becoming myself. No artist blocks. Fresh and strong. Bold and colorful. Painted from my feelings that exploded with color. I was on fire.
I painted a Mercedes with my mother sitting in the back seat waving to a little boy. She had a napkin in her hand as she wiped her tears.
I also painted a little boy saluting to solders in a German tank that rode through a small village. Then I made a collage of war images.
I worked fast as I listened to new kinds of music. Music from around the world. Through all of this hard work I was getting to understand the basic kindness and goodness that Confucian believed in was finally here with me. An inner glow. That year I painted over two hundred paintings. Up early and up late. Canvases leaned against the walls. Rooms and hallways with paintings. Colors of pinks and blues lime greens. Squeezing paint from every tube I had Nothing could stop my energy. I was free from the memories of the war that brought me down. Free from the dark side of Nazis. Happy colors with an inner light filled my canvases. A strong glow came from my heart. I painted a two hundred year oak tree, a tree that watched life being born and die, symbolizing my strength through the storms of the war. My pain was relieved.
I hired models to draw, dancers, musicians and just interesting people, old and young to draw from, I drew over 1000 drawing that year.
When I painted scenes on the streets, people would stop what they were doing and watch me paint. Some would want to buy my paintings right there. Being myself became the universal language and most people smiled at me. The power of art became my language. I produced some 1200 paintings in a few years, which of almost all have been sold. Some as far as China and some to Africa and France. Eventually I opened a small art gallery and continued to paint. New visions and use of colors. I was written up in articles in Hong Kong and Italy. Local newspapers printed my picture of me painting. Most people know me as the “artist.”
THE PO AND THE HUN
Eventually my art and taking these Chinese herbs that transformed me to become Chinese also eventually extended my life to the after life. The Po and the Hun. A Chinese view of Dual souls that became one. Neither dead nor alive. Just on. There I was transformed to be able to speak to my family that had passed away. Harry, Sarah and also my mother. The real search for my quest.
All my life I was searching for what my mother was like. Through my art, my photography, through the women I met.
“Like a bird that fell from its nest always searching for its mother.”
Finally we meet. My mother with long dark flowing hair, like my paintings of her, With deep mystic eyes and a big smile, a white and yellow glow around her she said.” I will take care of my Children. ”
Be thankful for what you have. And maybe the guardian angel could
be your mother, or maybe your grandfather that is looking after you.
ALMOST A TRUE STORY.
The war and growing up in America is true.
Yuan Li and living in Chinatown is totally fiction.