• Vol. 04
  • Chapter 04

The Photograph

I never knew my Grandmother was an acrobat. Mother never said a word. She thought it shameful, something to keep hidden. Grandmother still did her exercises every day; the gentle controlled rhythm of Tai Chi kept her body supple and full of grace. Mother would watch, her lips folded small, her arms hidden in her sleeves.

Other times Grandmother would sit quietly in the corner, the flower painted screen behind her to keep out the draughts and the glances of strangers. Mother would not allow me to talk to Grandmother; she said Grandmother lived in the past and the past must be forgotten now we were in this new land. Grandmother’s eyes gazed backwards. Her hands, her muscly pink hands were kept hidden under a striped silk shawl. Mother said a lady’s hands should be whiter than almond petals.

When I travel I take in my heart a picture of my Grandmother, calm as milk in her corner, saying nothing. I am an expert in the techniques of early photography. My hands smell of dust and fading developing chemicals. The past is my life’s work.

I have been invited to the National Museum of Denmark to catalogue their collection. Today I have been shown this photograph, tentatively labelled “Chinese Acrobat, early 20th century.” My Grandmother in front of the flower painted screen, her hands almost covered by the striped fabric. The sepia print is hand tinted, pink as cherry blossom waiting to fall.