Josna Rege

459. Householder

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, parenting, places, singing, Stories, Teaching, United States on April 10, 2020 at 2:59 am

This is the eighth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Householder.

I can’t remember anymore what my parents gave us for our wedding present back in 1983, on the farm in Winchendon; perhaps they helped pay for our honeymoon trip to India, my first return trip since we had left in 1968 and Andrew’s first time ever. What I do remember is my mother’s personal present to me: a box of at least two dozen beautiful high-quality tea towels, every single one of them different. (In the States they are called dish towels, and nobody knows what they are because nobody uses them. And don’t ask me what a tea towel is because if you don’t know I’m not going to tell you. Look it up!) It was at that moment that I knew I was really a householder, and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, as if my mother was passing part of herself to me to carry forward.

I used those tea towels sparingly over the years, not bringing them all out at once, but keeping some back so as not to spoil them. More than 36 years later, there are still a couple left. They represent many bountiful meals cooked for our immediate and extended family and circle of friends, countless dishes washed and dried companionably, table settings laid out and cleared away. They call to mind recipes passed down from our families and made our own; feasts for special holidays; and, after Eric and Nikhil were born, children’s birthday parties with lots of wiping-up of spills and sticky hands and faces. And of course, they remind me of Mum, and her hard work and cleanliness and caring.

My family in India also welcomed us into the life of the householder, that stage of life most central to the functioning of society. This was before the era of economic liberalization, when, at their wedding, couples were given one set of stainless-steel thalis to last their whole married lives. We still have ours, with our names engraved on the underside and on some the name of the person who had bestowed them upon us. After preparing an Indian meal and laying out the gleaming thalis with the little stainless steel katoris arrayed around the edges, I feel loved and nourished.

Being a householder wasn’t just cooking and cleaning but carrying out traditions, old and new. It was hanging a garland of mango leaves over the door to the house; painting eggs at Russian Easter; hosting and attending family gatherings, in the years when our parents were still active and the undisputed heads of the extended family; visits back and forth to Newton to visit my parents and to California to visit Andrew’s parents and grandparents; going out mushrooming with Andrew’s mother Anna and his Grandma Pauline; helping Anna put up her wild cherry brandy (“it cures what ails you”).

Being a householder meant repairing frozen pipes with numb and chilblained fingers, trying in vain to save a bird that flew down the chimney into the wood stove and getting a raccoon out of the chicken coop; it was paying bills, doing taxes, getting our two rooms in the shared farmhouse ready for the birth of the baby; making sure that every piece of furniture was child-safe; and finding a place near his cradle to hang the mobile of a thousand paper cranes that Andrew’s sister Vera made to welcome him into the world.

Most of all, being a householder was becoming parents. The first five-and-a-half years of Nikhil’s life on the farm in Winchendon passed by in a blur, as parenting for those years before kindergarten was all-absorbing. It was venturing out in sub-freezing temperatures to cut a Christmas tree or help build a snowman when every fibre of one’s being cried out for a nice hot cup of tea and a good book by the fire; cross-country skiing through the woods to our friends’ house, pulling the babies behind us on wooden sleds; play-acting King Arthur and Good Sir Lancelot; mediating fights. It was dancing to old vinyl records in the evening before bed to tire the boys out; allaying childish fears with words of comfort and reassurance; reading aloud to Nikhil for hours (“just one more chapter!”); singing him to sleep with his favorites and mine: The Skye Boat Song, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean (with the saddest lyrics changed); Morningtown Ride; Doc Watson’s Freight Train Boogie; Donovan’s Epistle to Derroll, everything by John Prine.

Somewhere in there we found time for more-or-less gainful employment, that too an integral part of being a householder: Andrew holding the fort at Whetstone Press in both Boston and Winchendon; my job as a stringer for The Winchendon Courier, the local weekly; and, when Nikhil was nearly three, teaching at UMass a couple of days a week.

Forgive me if my tone is little elegiac. I’m sitting at the dining table writing this in the biggest and most modern home I’ve ever lived in as an adult, yet ironically, at a time when the household is at its smallest ever. Of the four stages of life in the Indian tradition, the householder or grihastha (“occupied with home”) is the most active, passionate, socially engaged. Now I hover at the brink of the next stage, that of vanaprastha, or retiring to the forest, alternating between longing to withdraw and needing to keep the home fires burning. After all, if people like Bernie Sanders, at age 78, can run a punishing presidential campaign and, without missing a beat, go on to advocate tirelessly for the most vulnerable, then who am I to withdraw from the fray? Retiring to the forest may not be an option, although in this time of stress and uncertainty it is becoming a necessity to take time out just to breathe.

Bernie Sanders [Rebecca Cook Reuters]

In closing, under the current Stay-at-Home Advisory to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, all but those designated as essential workers are confined to their homes. My students are understandably claustrophobic, especially those who had just begun living away from home for the first time, now cooped up in the house with the college and the dorms closed, unable to go to the gym or to hang out with their friends. Some of them, along with their parents, are essential workers in the health-care professions or service workers, having to care for elderly people in nursing homes or running cash registers at supermarkets or delivering pizzas and packages door to door. They must return home, change their clothes and shower so as not to risk exposing their grandparents, parents, or children to the virus. Despite being under tremendous stress they are pulling together with their entire household, determined to make the best of a terrible situation as they care tenderly for frail grandparents, treasure the unexpected time they now have to play board games with their family, and even help younger siblings with their homework. They are in the student stage of their lives, too young to be bearing the burden of householders, but bearing it nonetheless, and cheerfully. If they must do it, so must I. In a situation that requires all hands on deck, vanaprastha will just have to wait.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. I actually didn’t know they were als called tea towels in English! In Dutch we call them “theedoek”, which would translate to “tea cloth”. What do they have to do with the hot beverage I’m not sure. Do you know?

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    • I didn’t know either, so I looked it up. First, apparently they are sometimes called tea cloths in English as well (maybe in Canada), though I’ve never heard that. Apparently they originated in 18th-century England, when tea drinking was becoming part of everyday life. The tea towels were used to keep the teapot warm, prevent drips and burns when pouring, and to cover baked goods.

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  2. How uplifting to read your wonderful memories of the householder life, always shared with family and friends. Thank you so much for the reminder of the warmth of human company. As the days pass one day after another in our self-sheltering solitudes it is a comfort to envision days ahead with each other.

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    • Dear Anna, your warm response has cheered me up no end. This isolation can get one down, and I needed to be reminded that we will gather together again. x J

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  3. I love that your culture had named the stages of life and where you ought to be is forest bound but for circumstances. I have the feeling that while you may be ready chronologically, it isn’t happening in your physical being. We’re living longer and enjoying better health generally than previous generations. The insights to a different culture are fantastic thank you for sharing. Linda xx

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    • Thank you for your comment, Linda. You’re quite right that because we’re living long we both retire later in life and (health permitting) can stay active and engaged with the world well beyond retirement. My mother, then newly retired, was part of a group starting in the last 1990s called the Third Age, which explored these issues.
      I should slightly clarify that these four “ashramas,” as they are called, are the four stages of life (traditionally a man’s life) in Hindu tradition. While they make universal sense–the student, the householder, the forest-dweller, the renouncer–they are of course continually being reinterpreted as society changes.
      Another slight correction is that this is not quite “my” culture is that I was not raised in a practicing Hindu household (we were pretty secular but celebrated everything in a multicultural kind of way), but of course these concepts were pervasive and became part of my understanding of how a person lives their life in relation to society. That was a long response! x J

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  4. Well I had to look up “Stringer’ so now I know. In this time of being locked up with a daily walk around the block or through the empty university grounds next door I am pleased to have a middle sized house with rooms for different activities and a front garden and a back yard. It has never felt too large even though the children have left. They were all coming back this Easter but alas we don’t know when they will be filling up the bedrooms again anytime soon.

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    • I’m glad you don’t have to feel cooped up, Linda. I don’t either, and feel fortunate in that. We too are on the edge of a large university campus that is almost deserted except for some stranded students, mostly international. (How must their parents be feeling?) Sorry your children aren’t able to come home for Easter this year. It’s the same all over, except for those who are in place with their families as so many of my students are.
      Yes, it’s fun to use stringer–don’t get to put it in a sentence much anymore I was paid by the inch!

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