Once again I think Mom left me a cryptic message. Since her death in late March, I’ve been working hard to organize the fifty years of paperwork that chronicles Mom’s life work as a community volunteer, preservationist, historian and docent. I have spent hours sorting through Mom’s decades of paperwork, stacking, and refilling, sometime even shredding the nits and bits from the overflowing files and boxes.
Last week I was organizing her office supplies, stacking new legal pads, crisp manila envelopes, and fresh file folders in boxes, when I came across a well-worn folder. It seemed odd to find this dog-eared folder stuck in the middle of new ones. Mom’s paperwork is cluttered, for sure, but I have noticed that there is some organization among the disorganization.
I opened up the dog-eared folder, and an envelope of photographs tumbled out along with some papers.
The pictures were of the “Stilwell Calligraphy,” that we displayed downstairs in the Taoist Temple Museum. General Joseph Stilwell was a United States Army general who served in the China Burma India Theater during World War II. Along with John Leighton Stuart and George C. Marshall, Stilwell was one of the three most influential U.S. delegates deeply involved in Chinese history.
I can’t quite find the right word. I’m overwhelmed. Or perhaps inundated is a better word choice. No, maybe dazed is the word I need. Actually…
The calligraphy is a very important and rare item in modern Chinese history, a gift from the working people of Beijing. The center characters express appreciation for help given when they were in need.
In 1997, the calligraphy was donated to the China Alley Preservation Society by General Stilwell’s son-in-law, Colonel William Cameron, Retired.
As I perused the correspondence between Mom and Cameron, I suddenly froze. I was unable to remember seeing the Stilwell calligraphy after the Taoist Temple’s tragic May 12 fire. It had been hanging on the west wall, the common wall to the staircase where the fire had started. Some of the items hanging on that particular wall were damaged, salvageable under a museum conservator’s hands. These particular items were moved to a safer place and I racked my brain in an effort to recall if the Stilwell calligraphy was among them.
I called Steve and met him in the Alley. We checked the safe place first but didn’t find the calligraphy. Holding my breath and hanging firmly on to hope, I entered the Temple Museum with Steve. The calligraphy was not on the portion of the wall that wasn’t completely scorched. We could not find any evidence of remains near the calligraphy’s hanging place. Puzzled, but still hopeful, we left the Alley.
I contacted all of the China Alley Preservation Society docents, thinking that perhaps the calligraphy had been previously moved. I also contacted our Chinese American historian, Sonia Ng, hoping she knew of the calligraphy’s location.
Upon hearing my news, she said, “I hope this is not gone! I have visited the Stilwell Museum in the Yuzhong District of Chongqing, and they don’t have anything like it. In fact, I have never seen a Chinese banner like this.”
By evening Steve and I had determined the calligraphy had not been moved. I thought that it may have been overlooked in the safe place. We decided we would take a more careful look the next day.
Steve left for the Alley early in the morning. He returned shortly and announced as he entered our home, “I found it.”
“Where was it hiding?” I asked.
I am still grieving over the immeasurable loss of Mom, and now that grief has deepened with the inexpressible loss of Taoist Temple Museum art…
“I’ll show you,” was his response.
The picture he had taken sent me down another rabbit hole of grief. Evidently the wall became so hot that the framed piece rocketed off the wall, the glass exploded, and the rare calligraphy flew across a counter and ended up in a scorched tangled heap on the floor.
We returned to the Temple and carefully put the remains of the Stilwell calligraphy in a conservator’s box and placed it in a safer place. I don’t know, yet, if the conservators can restore it. I do know that if I hadn’t come across Mom’s Stilwell file, I wouldn’t have known to look for it and the remains would surely have further deteriorated.
Slowly but surely, the kitchen has once again become my “happy place,” though these days I think of it more as my “healing place.” The evening after we located the Stilwell calligraphy, I needed to make one of my comfort foods, steamed dumplings. I had some round dumpling wrappers in the fridge along with some ground chicken. I decided to add some herbs from the garden to complement the Asian flavors. I wanted to use some of the basil that’s growing so bountifully. We planted a variety of basil plants, and I specifically wanted the flavor of Thai basil in these dumplings. Feel free to swap for whatever basil sounds good to you or is at hand.
In this recipe I use the “Big Hug” fold on the dumplings. It just seemed appropriate as I found myself sending virtual hugs into the beyond in gratitude for Mom’s message and ongoing work on preservation from there.