I was bemoaning the coming terrors of nightfall, all tragic and Shakespearian, when my phone, blasting the somber, violin-strung songs narrating my pity party, died. I groaned and plucked the headphones out of my ears, hoisted myself up, and rubbed bleariness out of my eyes as they focused on the imposing houses our car was speeding by.
“Glad to see you back from the dead.” I had more than a couple photos of my mom’s teenage years that proved she had spent a good chunk of her high school career emulating the dead, and I didn’t appreciate the hypocrisy.
My dad chuckled - he always liked her “wit”, which made sense since his humor was just as uninspired than hers. But I’m being mean. An engineer and a pharmacist, my parents were both extremely smart, but very much lacking in the comedy (and in general, the creative) department. Which explains why when I begged them to let me miss the family’s annual cake-making hullabaloo so that I could find inspiration for my final project (due next week!), they hardly cared.
“Aren’t you always saying that inspiration is everywhere?” My dad had said, enjoying using my words to stab me in the back.
And of course that was technically true. But when the inspiration you’re looking for will determine a solid 40% of your grade and will be presented in a city-wide showcase, it’s best to go somewhere where the inspiration flows easily, not somewhere where your little cousins are coating every surface with flour and where your aunts and uncles are constantly asking why you’re not more interested in science. My family was the most intellectual bunch of people you could meet, and although they dabbled in certain artistic pursuits like patronizing world-renowned art galleries and watching operas, they were more to solidify their brainpower than anything.
So no, I was not feeling very optimistic about my grade or my project as I dragged myself up the steps to my aunt’s house. She was a accountant with a knack for the housing market, and she bought and sold properties like they were nothing. The three-story wonder had some of the prettiest designs I had ever seen, resplendent with Grecian-style columns and elegantly arched windows, but when I asked her about it she said she merely bought the house since the asking price was a steal. I drifted off into a reverie about making my project about Greek gods and goddesses, but was shot back into reality by my relatives’ booming laughter.
“Sorry, what?” I asked when I realized all eyes were on me.
“We were just saying - your head is always in the clouds!” Aunt Jill smiled, throwing an arm around me as she guided me into the kitchen.
“I, I was just thinking about my project. Your house reminded me of the Greek pantheon -“ I stammered. Many people would have long resented their family for not knowing anything about art, and I had many friends who were, but my family went to every showcase, bought me endless supplies, and took me to all sorts of art exhibits, even if they couldn’t help asking if I would consider channeling my “creative energy” into the sciences. Once, my uncle tried to explain that painting was not unlike biomedical engineering, but by the time the poorly-presented analogy was over, I was more convinced than ever that I would not ever consider the sciences again.
“Ai, you think too much about the Greeks, Artemis this and Aphrodite that. Nothing wrong with that, but you need to learn more about our own culture. We have stories too, you know.”
I was still a little shocked that the goddesses’ names had stuck in the head of my aunt, who had once asked me three times on a single museum trip who this “Zeus character” (pronounced Zee - us) was.
“What are the stories?” I asked. Maybe I’d get something out of tonight after all.
Aunt Jill tossed me an apron and tied up my hair. “Well, the cakes we’re making tonight have their roots in ancient mythology.”
“Yes, I know. The Lotus Princess.” I snagged a berry from the bowl on the counter. “I never really liked her.”
“What, you don’t like the Lotus Princess?” Aunt Jill exclaimed. “But her story is so inspiring!” She handed me a whisk and a carton of eggs.
“Aunt Jill, you think that wasting away in a pond because her boyfriend died is inspiring?” I asked incredulously, cracking the eggs and flicking the shells into the trash.
“Oh, Lily. That’s not the end of the story.” Aunt Jill smiled, cleaning the berries and dumping them in the blender.
“The princess used her tears to water the land around her. Once she saw what she had done, she shared her home and knowledge of the land with her people and brought wealth and prosperity to the kingdom! And every year, we remember her graciousness and resilience by making the recipes she passed down and sharing warmth with our families.”
A laugh shattered the glowingly warm feelings in the kitchen as I imagined the pretty princess passing out the decadent cakes my family made every year next to a lantern-lit lake.
It was my cousin, Anya, freshly out of college and snatched up by one of the country’s top research centers. “The Lotus Princess wasn’t a humanitarian. She’s just some old wives’ tale meant to explain why lotuses bloom at night. Apparently, when the moon catches her tears, they sprout the blossoms. And a bunch of nonsense.”
She launched into a long tirade on why lotuses are night-blooming flowers that I immediately tuned out, focusing instead on mixing the eggs into the flour. Despite Anya’s boring realism, she painted a beautiful picture - I could just imagine the silvery glow surrounding the magical seed of the lotus and how it unfolded in the moon’s milky light. My name brought me back to reality - and to Aunt Jill scolding Anya.
“Lily’s just getting interested in our culture, why do you have to ruin it with some botany lesson?”
Anya scoffed, tossing her long braided hair over her shoulder as she folded sugar into the batter. “You don’t need to romanticize the story to make her appreciate her culture. And I thought your entire generation of the family thought Lily should be pursuing a field like botany anyway?”
Aunt Jill was evidently trying to rebuff Anya’s points, but settled instead on shaking her head. “You’re just like my brother. No room for fantasy. And at least mine had a good, inspirational role model.”
No room for fantasy described most of my family, even you, Aunt Jill, I thought silently.
“Stephen! Cora! Come and tell Lily about the Lotus Princess.”
Anya was calling her older brother and his wife over. Cora and Stephen Liu were doctors, and although I had always been slightly intimidated by my elder cousin, I loved his wife more than anything. She was the only family member that was a kindred spirit and I always looked forward to seeing her. She was beautiful, she loved everything about romance, music, and theatre, /and/ she was smart enough to impress my uncle - a renowned cardiologist who studied East Asian linguistics in his free time - with her wit and intelligence.
Cora grinned and looked up at her husband, whose steely mask always melted whenever she was near. Brushing stray locks of her inky hair back, she settled onto a kitchen stool and, with cake mold in hand, began weaving her own tale.
“The lotus princess was the daughter of the emperor and fell in love with a shepherd she met when she was out exploring a lake near the palace. She fell in love with him but was terrified that her father would be mad. Indeed, when her father’s guards caught them, the emperor ruled that he be exiled for his crimes. Turns out, the shepherd was actually a prince who was scouting out the kingdom because his father wanted to see if they could form an alliance. The prince’s father, was outraged to hear of his son’s treatment and forbade him from ever stepping foot into the princess’s kingdom ever again.”
Cora paused and glanced over at Stephen, who was lining up her freshly-molded cakes onto the baking sheet.
“The lotus princess, however, decided she wanted to live no life without him and ran from the kingdom. She managed to escape the heavily fortified castle in the middle of the night with nothing but her wits a little bundle of treasures. When her father went to look for her, he found two lotus flowers on her bed, a message that she was staring a new life. Despite his anger, he couldn’t help but admire her nerve. It is said that when the young lovers’ wedding was announced, he sent the couple a thousand cakes to celebrate, a beautiful gown of silver thread embroidered with lotus flowers for the bride, and an array of treasures for the prince and his parents. Impressed by the princess’s boldness and love, the prince’s parents accepted the lavish gift and offered to form an alliance. The princess saved her kingdom that day, and she also won her true love.”
“That’s my favorite version.” I declared, sliding Cora and Stephen’s perfect cakes into the oven.
Anya was less impressed, rolling her eyes, and Aunt Jill exclaimed: “Why you kids always have to draw so much romance into it?”
“Stephen, that’s not how mom and dad told us!” Anya stared at her brother, who shrugged and told her if that’s the way Cora told it, that was the way he was going with.
Anya sighed. “Ah, never mind then, Lily, it’s just an old story. So many people have told so many different versions.”
Cora winked at me behind Anya’s back and mouthed: “Mine’s the best.”
I flashed her a smile and nodded. “Well, Stephen, what was the version that your mom told you?”
Stephen looked at his wife. “Mine’s - ah - not as nice as yours. Um, the princess fell in love with a guy-“
“A god.” Anya interrupted.
“Sure. And then when he had to leave her for heaven, she was so sad that she wasted away crying. And the god couldn’t bear it, and so he sent her cakes and tea on big lily pads. When she died eventually, he turned her body into lotus flowers that would adorn the lake so he could admire her beauty forever. The end.”
There was an awkward silence.
“That was kinda weird.” Cora said. “Why couldn’t the god stay with her until she got old and died?”
“I don’t know, honey, it’s just some old story my parents used to justify eating these things every year!” Stephen shrugged and shook his head.
Cora laughed and Anya protested that that wasn’t the right version, and they argued about it all the way to the family room, where we served the cakes with steaming cups of green tea. I leaned over to my grandfather as he beckoned me over to refill his cup. He was a retired surgeon who, ironically, had hand tremors.
“Gramps, who’s right?” I whispered as I glanced over at Anya, who was fuming silently.
“About the lotus princess?” Gramps smiled sadly. “They’re all wrong. Only your grandmother knew the right story and I’m sorry they’ve all forgotten it so soon. The lotus princess fell sick one day as a child and was nursed back to health with tea made from the lotus blossom. One day, she married a prince of a faraway land. Years later, she fell sick again and because that land had no lotuses, she was unable to recover even though her husband tried to import them as soon as possible. Devastated, he spent mountains of gold to craft the most beautiful lotus garden outside the palace in her memory. Every year on the anniversary of their marriage, he would go and bring cakes to the garden and leave her beautiful things in tribute. He was found dead there, one day, lying peacefully among the beautiful flowers that once saved his wife.”
He excused himself shortly after and went to the garden to sit under my grandmother’s magnolia tree like he did every night. On the way back home, I asked my parents about the princess and they both a wonderfully jumbled version filled with inconsistencies. We laughed all the way home as they corrected each other constantly and spun off into wild tangents.
I never did figure out the "real" version and while I didn't think it mattered at all after what the story had told me about my family and the very nature of mythology, my professor told me my painting of the princess, while beautiful, was not "properly rooted in documented mythology." I didn't really remember anything else about that lecture or even who won the showcase.
All I remember is how my family came to support me and cheered when they saw my painting. How Aunt Jill beamed when I told her I was inspired by her hospitality and kindness to paint warmth into the princess's eyes. How I proudly presented my perfectly rendered lotus blossoms that I had ground into beautiful realism just for Anya (she approved). How Cora lit up when she realized her wedding gown had inspired the flowing, silvery robes I had draped onto the princess. How Stephen laughed when he discovered that there was a little lily pad with cakes and tea piled onto it. How my grandfather admired the lotus garden I placed the princess with, and how he burst into a smile when he noticed the magnolia tree tucked in the corner. How my mom laughed when my dad told me "I told you you could find inspiration anywhere."
My family stopped pushing me into science after that, and I stopped assuming that just because they loved the scientific world that they lacked wonder and creativity. Years later, I surprised them all by discovering a new lotus hybrid, driven to study them by a mythical princess. They came out to support me all the same, although with more than a few "I-told-you-so" comments and grins.
By then, I had spent just as many hours studying the blossoms as I did painting them. My art had started selling, and although I had painted over a dozen other renditions of the lotus princess, I never did part with the original. The new ones had finer technique, lusher colors, nicer composition, but they lacked the heart that my family inspired. Decades later, when I finally put my brushes down, that painting still hung in my foyer: the little princess that won no awards and had been brought to life one unexpected night was my prized possession and the center of attention. And when curious guests asked about it, I simply replied that she reminded me of my family.