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Marcos Chin
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July 2011
Transformation
posted:

When I was young I would stare into the mirror at myself and imagine what I would look like when I grew up. I was a chubby kid with a black bowl cut and soft effeminate features. My ear lobes were fleshy and hung down away from the sides of my face, like pieces of gum stuck to the edge of a desk.
“It was lucky,” my aunt would say.
My ear lobes were a sign of luck.
I looked at the roundness of my face and judged it against the faces of the actors who I saw on television who had light skin with slim and chiseled features, deep set eyes shielded beneath a prominent brow; their rectangular faces framed by soft wavy brown hair. I tugged at certain parts of my face, and sucked in other areas to try to find these qualities within myself.
"Not so lucky at all," I thought.
My lips were too pink, my cheeks too portly, my eyes too bulging and creased at the corners. I looked down at my belly which stuck out past the waistline of my pants, and then I pulled  my shoulders back and stretched the fabric up over this soft hump of mine.
Sometimes very early in the mornings, while the rest of the world was still asleep, I would climb up the stairs to meet my mother outside of the bathroom. It was barely 5:30am, the time when she would awake to get ready for work. She stood with her back to me, arms in the air, flicking her wrists about her head, teasing and scraping down and then up against the locks of her black hair that grew fuller and softer with each wrist snap. I don’t remember exactly what we spoke about, except that I was curious and mesmerized by her actions.

My mother is a simple woman. To some this may sound insulting - who would want to be described as simple? To be simple means being obvious, plain, and boring. There is so much complexity within the world that we live in; so many choices and options available to advise the ways for us to live, the foods we eat, the way that we look, and the opinions we should have. We can become thin if we believe that we’re too thick and we can look strong, and even feel stronger, if we’re too skinny and weak.
We can become anyone.
So how could anyone be described as simple?
And how dare I use this word to describe somebody, especially my mother?

I grew up in a very modest home, with modest parents, who raised modest children. When we moved to Canada all we had was each other, the help of our extended family who sponsored us to live there, and the clothing on our back and whatever money we were permitted to carry away with us. My entire family was born in Mozambique, Africa: my parents, myself, and my older brother and sister. We left in the mid 1970s because the country was on the brink of civil war. For centuries, Mozambique was a Portuguese colony, but in 1976 the country gained back its independence. News spread via word of mouth that the government was subverted, which inspired a mass exodus of individuals who moved to Portugal and other parts of the world, and civil war ensued until the 90's. My family was one of the fortunate ones who were able to leave the country traveling to Lisbon, and then to Toronto through the sponsorship of my aunt and uncle. But this was all at a cost. My parents’ banks accounts were frozen, their home terrorized by the police, and so whatever they could take out of the country with them, they could carry in their hands within a limited number of suitcases, and on their backs.
 
In photos, my mother wears thick-framed Nana Muskouri glasses to match her dark hair, cut short, which tapers towards a fine and delicate neck. She dresses in a sixties style American bandstand shift that falls so softly against her, accentuating the slimness of her shoulders, and the length and leanness of her body in a self-effacing way. Sometimes she is standing in front of a wall of flowers, and other times in a random city setting, with suggestions of a building behind her, or off to the side. I imagine it’s my father who is taking the photos of her. There’s a kind of care about how the picture is delicately composed as if it’s been taken by someone who loves her dearly, who wants to show the rest of the world how beautiful she is.  There is no indication of impending war; there are no signs of trouble. These photos lay bare a playful side of my parents’ youth. My mother doesn’t talk much about her past very much. For as long as I have known her she has never remembered out loud, nor has she fondly dreamt to us about any past moments in her life when memories can blur softly into the next, and then the next, and then the next again.

~

I would sometimes crawl into the bathroom near my mother’s feet and sit beside the box of coloured pencils and blushes and lipsticks that rested on the edge of the open cupboard underneath the sink, where she kept her makeup. I examined each one, attentive to their opalescent brilliance mottled against each other on the floor and insides of this box like romantic graffiti; the coloured pencil tips mixing together to create new colours and new qualities about them.  Sometimes I sharpened these pencils, and studied the iridescent shavings that curled out from the sharpener’s blade and into my hands leaving entrails of colours along the edges of my fingers. My mother carefully lined her eyes with these pencils and I gazed, and wondered about whether it hurt her to do this or not.

This lasted for about forty-five minutes or so, and in my mind, it was mother putting on her lipstick that marked the end of this ritual. She stood like a movie star bathed in Edward Hopper lighting, her hair brushed into soft curls that kissed the tops of her shoulders, her cheeks slightly blushed, wearing an almost sheer grey blouse marked with pretty floral shapes of colour, tapered and tucked neatly into a narrow navy skirt, which grazed just above her knees.  She left the house every morning going to a job that required her to enter numbers into a computer repeatedly; a task that sounded deadening to me, and I wonder if it was the same to her as well. My mother did this for over thirty years, and I’m curious now, about whether her morning transformation ritual was actually a glimpse into her thoughts, or even a means to take her, if only for a few minutes, out of a world of expected modesty and into a place of fantasy.  
 
* the illustration at the top of the page was commissioned by Jason Treat from "The Atlantic" in the 2011 Spring Fiction Issue, for a story entitled, "Scars."
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Chin is teaching at TutorMill, an online mentoring site for students of illustration!