When I returned home after 3 years of living in cold water flats, after I had dragged my bedraggled self home from the bloodbath of the Tiananmen Massacre, Baba did not push me back out into the world. He merely asked me to practice my Chinese calligraphy as a form of meditation. "Stay home for a year and reach a level of peace, five layers deep," he said. "In a year's time, you'll know just what you need to do."
(Baba and Belle,1993, taken by Mama)
Indeed, in the time it took the Earth to circle the sun, I learned what I needed, wanted to do.
It all began on the proverbial dark and stormy night when a tree took down the power line. I got into my parents' big bed and Baba began telling stories. From a modest beginning of pencil drafts, I started to write, “Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders.” Each chapter was matched with a painting. I spent three years a recluse, dreaming of a day when I would hold a finished manuscript. I could only believe, hope that when I typed the very last period on the final draft, the book would find a way out into the world. 'Baba" was published in 1994 by Harcourt with a preface by my good angel, Amy Tan.
Sunday is Father’s Day and I honor mine with an excerpt from from the introduction to “Baba.”
Weariness . . . fighting the currents, struggling across the river Liu, carrying you pick- a-back, and, once reaching the sandy bank, limping, inching down the wagon roads. Daughter, it was that same dream again," Baba used to say to me. "I carried you through the dunes and across the plains of Manchuria, shouldered you into the vanished landscape of my youth; and always-always, in this dream, you are only two or three . . . ."
But today I can tell you that this dream no longer plays in the night for Baba, for during the waking hours of the past three years, my father as taken me down a meandering tortuous road of memory. It was breathtaking and sobering to see the scope of his life's scenery.
With each segment of the journey, he would set me on his shoulders and step into a spreading landscape that in the foreground was composed of intimate, human scenes, playing out one next to another, stories unrolling in time and space like motifs of a great, long Chinese scroll. Sometimes we dallied in peaceful settings; other times, we hurried away from places in the white heat of war. From my perch upon his shoulders, I saw the land, the sky, and the unfolding of events between them--at the dusty level of the heart-to-heart, where men's hopes wrestle with reality. During my journey upon Baba's shoulders, of course, he revealed himself, but so much more beyond himself, his focus was on the lives of the men and women we encountered, those who had painted childhood and youth with movement and color.
Stepping back in time, Baba had to relive the circumstances; to shoulder me into the landscape, it was necessary fro him to endure once again the bittersweet ironies but also to embrace the beauty, joy, and wisdom of a world now lost. (I know that on nights after we had returned from a sally into the past, Baba had trouble falling asleep: it was easy to call fierce emotions into the present but difficult to unloose them back into forgetfulness.
When I returned from lunch in town this afternoon, my 80 year-old father was in the living room. I felt Baba's bright, silent gaze. He was studying my face to see how his daughter's day had passed. This is the one man who I trust implicitly, completely, unconditionally. When my mother was pregnant with me, Baba's students asked him whether he wanted a daughter or a son. He said, "I want a long-legged daughter who will travel far." And so I have.
Wishing your beloved fathers, living and of memory, a joyful Father's Day.
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