Blossoms Gathered at Dusk
by Madame Li Huarui
When one is old and knows that the twilight of life has fallen, memories of the past seem to appear more often than guests of flesh and blood. A scent, a sound, an old photo, a word spoken aloud-- any or all of those things might evoke a nearly forgotten moment and suddenly you find an old familiar face, a stolen moment, a soft peal of laughter echoing from some golden afternoon.
Today, for instance, as I sat copying holy texts, I had the urge to lay down my brush and put my paper aside and find a hairpin that my mother had given me on the eve of my wedding. I called for my grand nephew Yan to carry down my bridal chest from the attic.
As he set the tattered old box down, a million thoughts raced through my mind. The faded paintings of butterflies and blossoms brought a smile to my face. But that was nothing compared to what happened when I opened the box. The scent of the past drifted upward to my nostrils. The fragrance of ten thousand days wafted upward from the light pink silk that covered the items in the box. I was instantly transported back to my childhood home-- to the small, but tidy, room that my sister and I shared. Unbelievably green bamboo, dappled with sunlight, was waving in a slight breeze just outside the open window. The pulled-back pink gauze curtains let in the scent of wild roses, and song birds and insects lulled us into an early summer, mid-day drowse with their varied melodies.
My sister was younger and than I. She was intelligent and dutiful, and never quite knew how wonderful she made our lives. I recall her, that particular day, placing items in the new bridal chest that my brother had brought me from Peking. I was marrying into a family of scholarly renown, and only the best would do. She laughed as she looked at the items and teased me gently, as was her way.
From the outer courtyard I heard my mother's voice, "Daughters, our head gardener says the peaches are coming along nicely this year. Your father went to the orchards to see for himself. Are you two asleep?"
She peeped through the diaphanous curtain that hung over the door.
"Still messing with that box!? Ah?" she chided. "You will break some of the delicate items if you are not careful."
"I'm always careful." my sister said, as she stepped from the bed, leaving the small, but exquisite box and its contents alone.
"Go on, now." she said to my sister. “See to your grandma. She is fussing on cook and needs to be calmed down. Take her a fan and ask for a story.” My mother knew that nothing pleased her mother-in-law, like being asked about the olden days when the family had great honor bestowed upon them by the imperial court. Those days were gone, but in my grandmother's dreams, they lingered on. Just as now, my golden days, linger on only in the dreams of this silly old woman.
My sister retrieved a pretty hand fan painted with peonies and court ladies and danced off toward the main hall of the house. My mother sat down next to me and gently took a bundle from the folds of her sleeve. She slowly removed the pale blue silk that covered the object, until at last, it was revealed to be a finely carved hairpin made of jade, perfectly white and flawless. With her small, delicate fingers she traced out the design of a dragon and phoenix amongst clouds.
"See how finely this is carved?" she placed it carefully into my eager hands. "It was my mother's hairpin, and her mother's before her. It was all that was given me by her when I left home. I treasure it, for it is all I have of her. Likewise, there will be a day when all you have of me is this hairpin and the few memories that the years will allow you to keep. When you hold it, think of me. And no matter where my ghost is, I will be at peace."
"I will." I said as I pondered the finely etched design.
I was deeply touched, but at the time, my heart was young and I did not fully understand how beloved that item would become. It was only with many years and much loss that I truly understood how precious the hairpin is. Yes, it is merely a piece of carved stone, an excellent example of craftsmanship, a treasure, yet, it is still without flesh and bone and without breath-- a stone. The reason it means so much to me is that it is a tangible item that is mystically connected to an intangible moment. In its fine lines, are the lines of my mother's face, in its smoothness, is the smoothness of her hair, and in its chime, is the chime of her laughter. All the tiny details of that day are recorded in its molecules. Not just that day, but a thousand days, a thousand joys, a thousand tears, and endless songs sang in scented, distant chambers.
Yan, every helpful, found the hairpin and gave it to me. Though nearly 80 years had passed since that day, once my frail, withered hands touched it, I was there again. Tears came to my eyes and my heart beat fast as sweet specters came to comfort me. Yan asked if he should put away the hairpin and take the chest away. The young never understand the foolish tears of the old. When you are young, you cry in sadness for things you can not obtain. When you are old, you weep tears of joy for things that you did obtain, but could not hold on to. No matter how strong the hands, they can not hold time, love, or fading dreams.