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“My Mother Collects Teapots”: A Short Story12 min read

5 July, 2010 0 comment

By Lydia Kwa

Photo by: Olga Caprotti (Creative Commons)

There’s a special wall in my mother’s townhouse. That’s because magical feats of appearance and disappearance keep happening in front of that wall for as long as I can remember. I’m not saying I have a great memory—I’m almost 14, and there’s way too much going on all the time, so I tend to forget lots of stuff. Queenie—as I like to call my mother in the safe refuge of my own quirky imagination—is often on my case about being a space cadet, but who wouldn’t want to check out when we’re surrounded by so much craziness? Poor memory aside, there’s a lot I can tell you about that wall.

In my Social Studies class, Mr. P has been covering World Religions and mentioned that the monk who brought Zen Buddhism and kung fu fighting to China sat facing a wall in a cave for nine years and even cut off his eyelids so he could stay awake to meditate. Talk about dedicated.

I’m sure Bodhidharma’s cave wall wasn’t as nice as our special wall which is a luscious looking yet peaceful blue. I can tell you the exact name of the paint: Blue Milano. Which makes me think of Alyssa Milano. My fave role of hers is as Phoebe Halliwell in the TV series Charmed. Truly awesome.

Those people who make up names for paints should get paid a good sum of money, for all the brilliant ideas they come up with. I doubt that those guys were thinking of Alyssa when they came up with the name Blue Milano; more likely they were thinking of the exotic location in Italy. Whatever.

Our townhouse on Keefer Street is just doors away from what used to be the corner store run by Chinese people like us. Nowadays, it’s called The Wilder Snail, and lots of artsy types are there every time I pass by, drinking their fancy coffees. Does Art make us wild? Yet slow as snails. Yeah, right. My Dad was really upset when that long-time grocery store closed down. That’s because his memory is way superior to mine. He grew up in this neighbourhood, and he remembers running into the store to buy black licorice and trying to sneak off with a couple of fruit gums in his coat pocket, just for the thrill of it.

Just two streets north of us is the Ted Harris paint store on East Hastings. That’s where my parents bought two gallons of Blue Milano paint to make that wall special about ten years ago. I love going there when I get the chance after school and before I head home. I like to pick up the paint chips one by one and chant the names under my breath. I love words, especially the sounds they make in my mouth.

My parents bought the townhouse way back in the late 80s soon after they got married. That was long before real estate got unreal in Vancouver. I think Strathcona’s a strange ‘hood—what with all the wealthy whites mingling with the aging Chinese immigrant population and people like my parents, first generation CBCs and their kids. CBC stands for Canadian Born Chinese, just in case some of you are wondering.

Dad never went to The Wilder Snail, but my mom is totally the opposite. Queenie boldly ventures there every Saturday morning. I’m guessing it’s because she likes to think she’s as hip as those artsy types. She always orders a cappuccino and looks dreamily out the window. She doesn’t even notice me when I pass by outside. I often catch sight of her chatting up strangers at the next table.

Most people are easily taken with Queenie. When they first meet Victoria Wong, they’re mostly thrown off because of her eccentric mannerisms and the way she animates that petite body of hers. She stands just under five feet tall, but she makes good use of what she has, agitating her body all quivery like a flighty feather, as if completely and permanently on some kind of a drug trip. She has a high-pitched, bubbly laugh, like she’s about to pop and fly off into the ether. And she throws up her arms when she wants to make a point. She’s so darn charismatic. She works at the reception desk in a doctors’ clinic in Marpole, answering calls and arranging appointments, totally cool and efficient. The patients love her. Some would even say she’s pretty, with that long mane of jet black hair. Dark eyes and lovely caramel tan. Nah, she’s not yellow and neither am I. Leave your stereotypes at the door, okay?

You must be starting to get a sense of my style of storytelling by now. I tend to ramble and digress a lot. Anyway, back to my mother. Queenie managed to draw my Dad to her, I’m sure of it, because she entranced him with her infectious charm. Even when Gus—that’s my Dad—got pissed off at her, she could succeed in cracking a good joke and making him laugh despite his anger.

She cast a spell on him so that he would work hard to make that wall special. I already told you about Blue Milano. Soon after painting that wall, Gus built his wife an elegant rosewood cabinet to house her expanding collection of teapots. My father fashioned his work of art in the style of a Japanese tea cabinet, with glass sliding doors salvaged from an art deco piece of furniture he found at Value Village. I remember being forbidden to go near that cabinet until I was nine, and even then, I wasn’t allowed to handle the teapots, but merely to stare at them through the glass. Inside, on four shelves, were those magical vessels with their handles all facing right at the exact same angle.

Those teapots were tiny, all made of yixing clay and specially imported from China. I used to wonder if we were trapped in an Asian Alice in Wonderland story and the Mad Hatter would show up one day to borrow Queenie’s teapots for a grand Tea Party.

My mother’s collection was so vast. It was the kind of thing you only get to see in the homes of seriously tight-assed tea enthusiasts. But Queenie never used them for making tea. Instead, she took out the precious creatures and fondled them. I even heard her talking to them, as if they were her dearest friends. I know, I know, it’s sort of perverse. Last year, there must have been 45 of them, one for every year that she’s lived. This was not coincidental. Queenie had been hard at it, saving money to acquire each piece, focused on achieving this goal.

Wait a sec. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. It isn’t as if my mother has been steadily acquiring teapots over the years. The number of teapots in the collection has fluctuated. I believe the largest number of teapots my mother ever had was 49, but then there was a time when the collection dwindled to about eight or nine. That’s because Queenie has a soul driven by a swirl of contradictions.

Here’s the perfect word for my mother: ENIGMA. I like seeing it displayed on the Scrabble board. I just did the word last Tuesday in a game with my best friend Meena and her brother, the dashingly handsome Johan, voice–broken and just turned 17. He hardly has any time for us anymore, except when we sit down for our regular game, which only happens about once a month these days.

Back to my mother, the Enigma with a capital E. She becomes a totally different person when she gets into one of her dark moods. You’d think a person who adores her teapots and calls them precious wouldn’t even want to expose them to the slightest risk of harm. But whenever Queenie got embroiled in a quarrel with my Dad, her voice grew more and more shrill, and her body would wind up so tight, she looked like a giant firecracker about to burst open. Tortured soul, she would succumb to the Dark Mood in a predictable fashion. At the height of their quarrelling, Queenie would rush over to the cabinet, pick out one of her darlings and fling it at my father, almost always missing him.

“See what you made me do!!” she would scream out, tears brimming in her eyes, as the beloved vessel crossed the irreversible line between Beauty and Oblivion.

I thought the insanity would never stop. But for some mysterious reason which will never be revealed to me, Gus and Queenie got all peaceful for a bit, especially in the six months leading up to Queenie’s 45th in May last year.

One Friday afternoon during this quiet phase between my parents, I decided to skip my last class and go home earlier. As I entered our townhouse, I felt an overpowering shiver pass through me. It was eerily silent. Usually, there would be the radio left on, CBC Radio 2, its familiar tone drifting out to the hallway from the kitchen. Queenie was not expected home until close to 7 pm. But Dad was supposed to be back after his early shift at Lafarge working the cement mixers.

I took off my shoes in the hallway and crept toward the living room. As I got closer, I heard a flurry of low moans. My eyes took in the back of a woman kneeling on the carpeted floor with her head in between my father’s legs. His pants were dirty tidal pools around his ankles. His head was tilted backwards, eyelids fluttering like uneasy shutters disturbed by the wind.

“Hey! What the hell…”

Dad startled out of his trance and fumbled for his glasses on the sofa. Before he could do anything further, I turned around and ran out of the house, propelling my body down the path as fast as I could, heading toward Meena’s house.

My lungs were hurting as I stumbled onto the front porch and sat down in the wonky rattan chair, wondering what to do next. I was spared from too much fretting because Meena opened the front door seconds later.

“Hey, it’s not our day for Scrabble, so what brings you…”

“Well, why not?” I said.

So we played a game of Scrabble.  I didn’t have to say much, because she could tell something was up. I didn’t want to talk about the fiasco at my house. That’s the great thing about true friends—they know to let you just hang and to not bug you about being upset. My face was hot, but I felt a cool shivery sensation running along the inside of my thighs. I couldn’t wipe out the image of that woman going down on my father.

Meena made CAT on the board. What luck, I gasped under my breath. I formed the word CATACLYSM, and felt the rush of joy as I lined up the smooth wooden chips side by side.

I guess that’s why I acted the way I did next. No longer satisfied with being the silent watcher, the obedient child who didn’t get a whole lot of satisfaction from living on the sidelines, while Queenie and Gus upstaged my adolescence and acted like a couple of spoiled celebrities.

It was my turn to be dramatic. I’d been curious how it would feel to touch Meena’s lips. I reached out my left hand and, using my index and third fingers, I lightly stroked my friend’s voluptuous lower lip.

Meena didn’t seem to mind. Her eyes widened beautifully with delight.

When I returned home three hours later, Gus was no longer there. I heard the sound of quiet sobbing from deep inside the house. On the floor in front of the Blue Milano wall sat Queenie, tears streaming down her face, surrounded by the broken shards of her loved ones. The inside of the cabinet looked desolate, so quickly haunted by their absence.

It’s been over a year since my Dad left. Didn’t take long for Queenie to get rid of that cabinet. But that lovely wall remains, reminding us of what used to exist.

Mr. P in one of his lessons on Buddhism spoke about the notion of attachment. I still don’t get it. I mean, how does that explain what Queenie did to those teapots of hers? If she had been so attached to them, why would she have destroyed them?

Just a week before the cataclysm at my house, I sneaked a teapot out of the cabinet when neither parent was home. I even took it into my bedroom and lay on my bed with it. I cradled its smooth curves in both my hands and a warm pleasure gradually spread through my chest. But—almost as soon as that happened—a sudden wave of fear tied up my guts in knots. My hands started to tremble. I quickly put the teapot back where it belonged.

I feel really sick about that. If only I had kept that teapot safe in my room, it would have survived. If only.

These days, I like to stare at the special wall and ponder its mysterious history. I thought that Queenie would never collect teapots again. Then yesterday, she came through the front door laughing in that particular wild and crazy way, then danced around in the kitchen, showing off a delicate teapot, a warm saffron yellow that made me feel all relaxed and blissed out. Then she put our new guest away in a kitchen cupboard, to keep company with ordinary cups and a very boring, white porcelain teapot.

Can’t tell if this signals a total return to her old habit of collecting only to destroy. In the meantime, I’m just letting myself enjoy the simplicity of that uncluttered wall. Daughter of Bodhidharma I’m not, but hey, what’s the harm in staring at blankness?

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