Mimi Chen Ting: Artist And Mother Remembered

Mimi Chen Ting at Dillon Beach, November 2021

It’s been just over four weeks since my mother passed away, transitioned, died — however you want to say it. She’s gone. We cremated her body just over three weeks ago. But here’s the thing. I still can’t believe she’s dead. You see, when I think about my mom, I don’t think about the frail and weakened woman whose body, after three years of battling cancer and withstanding the brutal nature of cancer treatments, finally surrendered to the inevitable. Because my mom was the fiery center of our family, the sun around which we all revolved, the very essence of life itself.

When I was a kid, I used to love looking through the family photo albums that my mom meticulously put together. Each album bore the label of the year (maybe two) documented by the photos within. Much as I loved looking at photos of past vacations or me and my sister as babies or young kids (I had a highly attuned sense of nostalgia even as a child), the album which held special allure was the one labeled “Mimi and Andrew”. This album held photos of my parents: pre kids, pre marriage, as young adults, as teenagers and as children themselves. I remember one photo in particular. It’s black and white and was taken when my mother was a young girl, probably around three or four. She’s lying on her belly on the grass, head cocked up, looking to her right at something in the distance. Or, perhaps she’s just daydreaming, imagining something so wonderful that it brings a full cheeked smile to her face. I remember looking at that photo as a kid and marveling at how much the kid in the photo looked like my mom, or was it vice versa? It wasn’t just the physical resemblance, because — duh that was a photo of my mom as a child, she literally IS the same person. But there was something so captivating about the expression, the illumination, the sense of wonder and joy, and the fierce spirit captured in the face of that little girl at a moment in time decades before. THAT was the essence of my Mom.

Mimi Chen Ting as a child in Hong Kong

I’ve been thinking a lot about that these last few weeks as I’ve contemplated her life, her death and now her absence. In life, my mom was an absolute force of nature with the ability to control the energy of any room she entered. Her smile would warm you like the afternoon sun. But do her wrong in any way and her glare could stop you in your tracks, turn you to stone. Medusa had nothing on Mimi. My mom was an artist. Her need to create and express herself through her paintings, her prints, her dance or performance art was as essential to her as breathing and eating. It sustained her very being. Creating was how she processed and made sense of the world around her. But like many women of her generation, it was not always easy to strike the balance between her career and her family. And that tension was also part of my mom — something that I could sense as a child. Because she took on her role as a mother with the same ferocity and dedication as she did in the pursuit of her art. She approached parenting in the same way as she did painting: a game of give and take, an improvisation, a trusting in her own instincts and intuition to get where she needed to go — in this case, to produce the people she wanted to see in the world. Parenting as an act of creation. Of course kids are not blank canvases. There was a moment when we started pushing back and realized that we were our own people with our own thoughts and opinions. But I’m glad to say, the experiment kind of worked out. My sister and I are reasonably good people (I’m probably a little less so — cuz let’s be honest, my sister is pretty fucking phenomenal). As a parent now, I’m aware of the baggage that I bring to raising my own kids. So I can recognize some of what my mom brought to the table of child rearing. Let’s just say there were a lot of bags. Like she probably got charged extra for exceeding the weight at the ticket counter. Some of those bags she unpacked through the course of her life, but others she took with her to her death.

To be clear, there was never any shortage of love, affection and support when I was growing up, but ours was a complicated relationship. We shared similar dispositions: a certain strong willed stubbornness, and a quickness to anger and to emotionally shut down. We were the same sensitive souls. This was most pronounced during my teenage years because my parents were struggling with their relationship and I was struggling with, well, just being a teenage boy. Like the positive nodes of two magnets, we just couldn’t connect. Full disclosure, I still often feel like that same emo teenager, but I’m happy to report that through the past decades I’ve gained a certain amount of personal insight and my relationship with my mom has grown quite close. As an adult, I can now see her struggles and the tension in her life more objectively. They are the things that I struggle with as well: how to balance career ambitions with family life, how to satisfy the creative impulse and what does it mean to be an artist. These are the things that my mother and I talked about in several conversations over the last few years. You see, when my mom was first diagnosed with cancer three years ago, my instinct as a documentary filmmaker was to start recording her life’s story. So, on several occasions in between chemo treatments when my mom was on the upswing after suffering the side effects of infusion, I’d bring my camera to my parents’ condo and we’d sit down and talk. To be honest, I had dueling motives when doing these interviews. One was as a documentarian trying to get the facts and stories of my mom’s personal history as well as her opinions on life and art. The second was as a son who, frankly, wanted some resolution on issues that I was carrying — namely, given the force of her personality, if she recognized the deep impact both positive and negative that she had on her family (my dad, my sister and me — okay mostly me) Yeah, pretty cliche. Perhaps that’s why I kept going back, to pick her brain for any morsels of resolution. I remember before one of the interviews, my mom asked if she’d be able to see or hear what I would make with these interviews. I told her I didn’t really know because that was the truth. I just wanted to gather the material, but I had no idea how I would use it or in what form. All I knew was that I needed to hear her stories and these interviews were excuses to ask her things I would not ask if we were just hanging with the family enjoying a delicious meal (which was usually how we spent time together). But the truth of the matter is after recording these interviews, I didn’t really listen to them. Of course I made sure the media was safely stored and even had the first couple interviews transcribed, but I wasn’t ready to fully listen to or hear what she had said. Because that would mean trying to make sense of her words, to organize her memories, anecdotes and thoughts — to tell the story of her life. But I wasn’t ready to do that because I wasn’t ready for her to die. Cancer had its own plans.

On March 6th, my mother passed away with my father, my sister and myself by her side. Images of that day will be forever etched in my memory. Even though we knew it was coming — sooner rather than later, given her rapid deterioration over the last few months — the suddenness and finality of her death shocked us and it still does. It was as if there was a tear in the space time continuum. At one moment our mother was alive, her ever present spirit animating her body even in its weakened state. That fiery spark, though dulled was still there. And then in an instant — ssssssssssp — she was gone. Our sun, with its life giving energy we assumed would last forever, had gone out and we found ourselves in a different universe — one where my mother didn’t exist. Her death has quite frankly been the most painful thing I’ve ever dealt with. I feel blessed to have my father and sister to share this burden of tremendous grief and the support of my wife and friends who have opened their hearts whether to lend an ear, provide a delicious meal or share their own stories of grief. If there’s a silver lining to the death of a loved one, it certainly is the reinforcement of bonds of community and friendship and the reminder that while we might feel so absolutely alone in our grief, we never truly are.

For her memorial, which we held this past weekend at the building that houses her art studio, I decided I wanted to do a short video (five minutes at the most) to just give a sense of my mom as an artist. Mind you, I didn’t really start thinking about this until about a week before the memorial. I thought, well I have these interviews. I’m just going to find a few soundbites that encapsulate her passion for painting and what art meant to her. So I started reading transcripts and listening to the interviews and I couldn’t stop. My mom would often say “Oh, I’m terrible at talking about myself.” But she kind of was really good at talking about herself. Sitting at my computer, with my headphones on, her chesty voice and absolutely distinct diction (a combination of Hong Kong and American English) playing in my ears, I got absolutely sucked in. I told my wife, “My God, these interviews are great!” It’s strange because even though I was actively interviewing her, asking her questions and probing her on different subjects (my voice is on the tape as they say) I might as well have not been there, because some of the things she said, the stories, the pearls of wisdom, I felt like I was hearing for the first time. Though, I think it’s more accurate to say, I was listening to her words and hearing what she was actually saying in a way that I was unable to when she was alive. My mother’s death has, for me, removed a lot of the psychological and emotional baggage I had acquired over the years regarding our relationship. Those things had obscured my vision of her. But with her death I was able to see her clearly as a full human being and not just my mom. And that’s given me a much more profound sense of empathy, a greater understanding that she had her issues and struggles, like anybody, but through sheer will, determination and a fair bit of magical thinking, she created the world and the life she wanted. In reviewing these interviews, I listened with an open heart and I got to know my mother all over again. It’s been a true gift. My thoughts about the purpose of the video tribute began to change. Of course I still wanted people at the memorial to understand who she was as an artist, but I also wanted them to understand who we, her family, lost as a wife and mother. I thought I would just make a separate video where she talks about family life and the travails and joys of being a mother. However, in putting together the script and organizing the sound bites I decided to just make one longer video because short attention spans be damned, this is my mom. Her life cannot be reduced to 5 minutes of screen time. So, I gave her a whole 13 minutes! I found that I just could not separate the artist from the mother because neither could she. In her words “art and life are the same to me.”

I realize now how true those words are. I miss the woman who gave me life. I miss the woman who showed me what it is to dedicate one’s life to creating. I miss the woman who imbued in me the love of stories and storytelling. I miss the woman whose delight in all things delicious and love of cooking have inspired my own. I miss the woman whose fire and depth of feeling I recognize in myself and in my own daughters. Heck, I even miss her voice offering her unsolicited opinions of how I can do this or that better or more specifically, the way she would do it. I miss the woman who knew me the way only a mother can know her son. All these words to say I miss you, Mom. And I love you. Wherever you are, I love you. Always.

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