Zhongshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan, 1972
Mom stayed at home with us when I was boy. Home was Taiwan once Dad made captain at the Taipei Air Station. Then Sister Mother, who some called Sister Esther and some called Superior General, became my teacher at Dominican School. If I was the only one to call her Sister Mother, it wasn’t a put-down but a natural association between abstract nouns for family members. I learned much later that her real name was Marian Caldwell (1915-2000) and referred to her simply as Marian in my daydreams of the conversations we might have had if she’d known me as an adult.
I don’t remember what Marian looked like except that the frame made by her coif and veil made her face seem bunched-up in a way she’d grown used to. I suspect I was also warping her appearance in the countless drawings I did in my spiral-bound notebook of cartoon nuns in different shapes and sizes. She’s un-seeable now. I can’t even find a photograph of her in the yearbooks of our time. She’s buried in the vast cemetery along Chongde Street in the mountains on the outskirts of Taipei. I remember riding my Schwinn Typhoon down the lanes there long before she died. I remember drawing myself speeding along on my bike, cherry red amid grayest tombs and the likenesses of nuns and my gravestone rubbings taped into my nonextant notebook. I used to ask myself if the ghost fear of Taiwanese boys was real. If so, were my rubbings more like goading the very guys I wanted to be friends with?
I would give anything to see the drawing that made Marian my enemy. I almost certainly began with a few light marks, and with an expanding sense of purpose patterned blue bikini bottoms with stars for a pelvic region. After that, I must have given her go-go boots galore, a lasso of truth, an eagle for a breastplate, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and a tiara doubling as a boomerang when weapons needed knocking out of the hands of perpetrators—say Cheetah’s. Say Ares. Say Genocide. Behold: The Circle.
Mother Sister found no Great Defender in a leggy triangle whose legs were different sizes but asked of boy illustrators dumb to how girls should be considered what their place was in Earth’s meadows. Able-bodied and swift with her hands, she whacked my knuckles hard with a rattan cane for drawing a pornographic picture. Drawing blood on her third hit she caught hold of herself.
I don’t think she would have hit me had I not named my patron. From her greater perspective, I was lying. After all, who would put anyone up to such an odious drawing? Mary Chang, who was littler than I, I called Nettles after a stinging nettle stung her on our way up the Junjian Yan Trail to Dog’s Head Mountain one sunny morning. It was Nettles who paid forward a cup of ramen for the likeness of the superhero she must call Supergirl for her trouble pronouncing W’s.
Marian, you would be surprised to know how often I think of you. I imagine you sometimes in the bustle of crowded squares, among commuters filling the avenues at dusk, your hunch drifting away toward its vanishing point. I sense your presence now in a picture at an exhibition at the Harvard Bookstore on Massachusetts Avenue. Known for such books as The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Epiplectic Bicycle, and The Beastly Baby, writer and illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) includes more than a few cutthroats and pied pipers in his drawings. His style is disarming at first, and then it alarms. We must look hard and, doubting ourselves, look again to see if he really is featuring a pedophile in what appears to be a cartoon for children. Our fear of what it may be, Marian, we sense in this untitled drawing— and fly beyond the bejeweled fingertips of the fat man striding along a kind of Edwardian Fifth Avenue in his fur coat and golden fedora. If he longs languishing to tap that or snatch that or whatever such beings do, my own imagination, Marian, has always been more puritanical than sexualized. Never mind that the illustration is a canard of human predation provoking us to reflect on the jurisdiction of fear and reasoning. Never mind that Gorey probably got smacked for being accidentally or naturally flagrant or flamboyant in his younger days. Never mind how one pays for being who one is in a conservative epoch. But I’m no cultural critic. I’m not even sure what I want to say to you, so I’ll keep it simple: I wish you were here with me at the exhibition. We could go to dinner afterwards. The first thing I’d tell you, even before we shared our opinions about the art, is that I’ve tried many times to write a memoir about my childhood. In it, I report that you hit me three times and that on the third time you drew blood. This is my flourish. Though you did hit me three times, and though it hurt, I did not bleed. I wanted the word blood to connote the fear I felt, and my confusion. I’ve called the piece, my so-called memoir, “Wonder Woman Alights on Dominican School.” It is my “Supergirl” essay, too. I was talked out of doing much with it because this superhero means so much to so many women as to feel proprietary. Your heaven is like that, too. Proprietary. I’ve never believed in it as a place to go, but if it is a place, I look forward to meeting you there and walking with you over mythical hills into valleys and meadows where fear is a funny remnant and boys, taken at their word, are patiently redirected.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004