Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

437. Wide Awake

In Childhood, parenting, Play, Stories on August 8, 2019 at 8:56 am

My friend Anna brought her grandson Dylan to visit yesterday evening on the way back from the movies, the new remake of The Lion King. He was with us for an hour, hour and a half at the most, but boy, was he switched on, and so were we, the whole time.

From the moment he came in the front door he noticed everything, all the time, responded to it, remarked on it: the inordinate number of slippers in the straw basket in the entrance hall, the length of the galley kitchen, the image on one of the trivets (a gloomy old gargoyle from the Bodleian Library)—there was nothing that escaped his keen eye. I was slower on the uptake. He had a sharp new haircut, which I eventually commented on admiringly once I noticed it; he took the praise lightly but with appreciation.

I got out the carrom board, which had been relegated to a corner of the living room since the last children had visited, back at Christmas. As soon as I compared it to pool he understood all the rules—you got a second turn if you pocketed a piece, you had to cover the queen in order to win (this was just like pocketing the eight ball in pool, he pointed out), you forfeited a point if you accidentally sunk the striker. Here he had more questions that I was unable to answer, such as what happens if you sink a piece along with the striker. He was soon improving his technique and controlling the force he put into his shots. He didn’t throw a tantrum when he found himself repeatedly sinking his his striker, but was a good sport; and when he won his first full game he announced it with quiet pride.

Although Anna had forewarned me that Dylan wasn’t a big eater, he knew what he liked. He had told his grandma after the movie that he wanted a hot dog, and sure enough, he ate two, on whole-wheat buns with ketchup. Although he did note that it was the reddest hot dog he had ever seen, I was relieved that this difference from what he was used to didn’t put him off. While he was at it he ate with gusto, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to get on to the next thing; after all, eating was a bit of a waste of time. About halfway through the meal he got up and stood behind his chair, testing something—himself, us, I’m not sure which. Perhaps anticipating an adult admonition like, “Finish eating before you leave the table”, he commented on it when we didn’t: “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” I think I tried to acknowledge what he had said without drawing undue attention to him: “Perhaps you’re just experimenting”, or something like that.

During the meal he made conversation and, unlike many children, responded to questions from adults quite readily. What was The Lion King about? He had to think that one through a little, but his reply was spot-on. He identified the main character, the cub, explained that hyenas had teamed up with the cub’s uncle but—I was impressed here—didn’t simplify the plot to bad guys vs. good guys, and understood the concept of sacrifice, that the old King had saved the cub’s life at the cost of his own. He showed us how. Using his table napkin folded into a sharp point and the steep side of the napkin-holder, he demonstrated how the uncle had knocked the King down into the pit as he was trying to climb up. (By the way, I haven’t seen the film, so have only Dylan’s account to go on.)

Asked how his basketball camp was going, he was quite forthcoming, although I don’t think he would have volunteered any information without the prompting. He told us how many children there were, how many coaches, how many teams, how many games they played per day. He was both the youngest and the smallest, he told us, but it was his grandma who added that he was more than holding his own. He also told us that he had played basketball for a time at school, but hadn’t gotten one basket the whole season. Again Grandma was quick to point out that he was still very short for basketball, and that he got plenty of baskets while practicing.

Then it was time for dessert but he wasn’t much interested. He nibbled on an ice pop but soon got up to finish getting all the carrom pieces in and do push-ups on the carpet. Asked whether he intended to finish the ice pop he said that he was letting it melt and was going to scoop it up with a stick, but neither Anna nor I thought that that would work very well, and he didn’t push his luck. He came back to the table readily enough and ate a bit more of it, then was happy to let me finish it off. By now there was a new game starting, and we all needed to play a part in it: he sprinted from one end of the dining room to the far wall of the living room and back, while we spotted and timed him. First he ran the course, then sprinted, demonstrating the difference between the two. Then we estimated the total distance, and finally Grandma started the timer on her phone while Andrew counted off the seconds. Dylan completed the course in excellent time and then beat his own record twice. Once in-between, when the adults got distracted in conversation (how often and easily that happens!), he clapped his hands together to get us back on track, and even then it took a while for us to catch on.

He asked to use the toilet and insisted on crawling down the hall on his stomach, though I was able to dissuade him from doing the same through the kitchen. He noted the presence of the bidet in the bathroom, something new to him, and asked what it was for. Before I left the room he asked me to confirm that the left faucet was indeed the hot water and the right the cold, telling me that he had once encountered a sink where they were reversed.

Dylan had a terrific sense of humor throughout, sharp without being unkind, yet wasn’t afraid to express his fears, even to someone he didn’t know very well. During the racing, at the far end of the living room where he touched the wall and turned around for the return trip, there was a tall narrow window with the Venetian blinds up to reveal the overgrown flagstone path along the side of the house. All the adults were near the starting line in the dining room, and in tagging the far wall he had to catch a glimpse of that shadowy passage in the gathering dusk. After a couple of runs he asked me to stand there by the window because he was afraid someone or something might jump out at him. My heart melted. Just in case I forgot (how could I possibly have forgotten?), he reminded me, but I was already standing guard, with the blinds lowered and a hand out to speed up his turnaround. Once again he bested his previous record.

When Grandma said it was nearly his bedtime, he didn’t make a fuss. Just one last game of carrom was all he asked. As he said goodnight after having come up from behind to a surprise victory, Dylan mock-ceremoniously shook hands and cheekily called Andrew “Madam” and me “Sir”; I returned the joke by addressing him as Your Majesty.

We were tired after he had left, but oh, so switched on. I marveled at the energy required of parents (good job, Ellen and Jason!) and the energy we must have had when we were young parents ourselves. But much more than that I marveled at the electric aliveness of children, noticing every little thing, immersed wholly into every activity, their imaginations constantly on the go. I fell asleep last night thinking of the visit, everything Dylan had said and done, and most of all, his alert state of being. After not having been inspired to write a new story for nearly two months, I woke at dawn today and decided not to go back to sleep. Instead I came into the living room and just started writing (dear Andrew following soon after and bringing me a mug of tea). With less than a month of my summer left, I resolve to be like a child and live every day of it, wide awake.

P.S. A few years ago the Bodleian Library held a competition for new gargoyles designed by children, unveiled in 2009 by author Philip Pullman. Full of life and mischief, how different they are from the miserable old men on my trivets!

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431. Y is for Youth

In blogs and blogging, Childhood, Education, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2019 at 8:43 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles and today the letter stands for youth.

Youth is an estate from which I would be far removed were it not for my work, which gives me daily contact with undergraduates. As an oldster but a woman, at times I exert less authority than I might like, but most of the time I am grateful for the easy, if somewhat quizzical, familiarity between us.

 first-time voters in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s Easternmost state

But enough of the chit-chat. As I age, along with the world’s population, what role are the youth playing in the current zeitgeist? Where do they stand with respect to immigrants, refugees, and exiles?

It depends, of course, where they stand. Refugees and asylum-seekers are getting younger, with children making up 52% of the world’s refugee population in 2017, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). White supremacist groups and ISIS alike woo alienated youth, hoping to recruit impulsive young people seeking a sense of belonging. As instability and economic crisis increases, youth unemployment and despair rises, and the average age of suicide bombers and child soldiers falls, as groups like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram forcibly recruit younger and younger children. In the United States, aging Baby Boomers, now in their sixties, decry the apathy of the youth, who are much less likely to engage in electoral politics than their elders. But leaders can rise and fall based on the youth turnout. In India’s 2019 general election, now underway, out of 900 million eligible voters, 84.3 million youth are eligible to cast their ballots for the first time, including 15 million who are 18-19 years old.

While it is easy, as one slides into senescence, to bemoan “the youth of today,” in fact many of these youth are showing us the way forward. In the United States, in contrast with the sensational media images of young men joining white nationalist groups in droves, there is the quieter evidence in opinion polls that on the whole, young people are much more liberal and open-minded than their parents and grandparents. In a heartening January 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans polled said that immigrants strengthened the country, but while only 44% of the “Silent Generation” (born 1928-1945) agreed, a whopping 75% of Millennials (born 1981-1996) weighed in with a Yes. In a Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey also conducted by Pew Research, the young were much less likely than the old to say that birthplace was very important to national identity. In the U.S., only 21% of 18-24 year-olds felt that it was important to have been born in the country to truly belong, as against 40% of those 50 and older. The poll revealed an even greater generational difference when the respondents were asked about the importance of observing national customs and traditions to national belonging. Among the Americans, only 28% of the 18-24 age group thought that “sharing such cultural elements was important to being truly American”, in contrast with 55% of those age 50 and older.

Increasingly, as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Border Patrol (CBP) are ramping up detentions and deportations of children and more aggressively separating children and their parents, as the current administration is attempting to do away with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) making it harder and harder for undocumented immigrant youth to get access to an education or a decent job, the youth are mobilizing to fight back. As evidence and inspiration, I give you SIM, Student Immigrant Movement, the dynamic Massachusetts-based immigrant youth-led organization. Go to their website: it is a happening place.

SIM’s mission: We fight for the liberation of the undocumented community through the development of a network of immigrant youth organizers in high-density immigrant communities. We organize youth, ages 13-30, and provide political education, leadership training, protection, guidance, mentorship, and safe healing spaces.

SIM’s vision: Our vision is that all immigrant students have equal access to higher education, are not discriminated against based on their immigration status, collectively realize their full potential, define their own identity and become fully engaged in every aspect of society that affects their lives.

Join SIM today as a youth (ages 13-26), an ally/supporter, an immigrant or refugee (temporary or permanent, documented or undocumented). You can also become a monthly DREAM sustainer to help immigrant youth protect their communities. Just looking at a group of SIM youth gets my mojo and my metabolism working. When youth are at the leading edge of positive change, the only thing to do is to work with them.

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405. Not So Grinchy

In Books, Childhood, Food, Music, seasons on November 27, 2017 at 1:10 am

Perversely, I’ve rather prided myself on being a Grinch at Christmastime. The adult I, that is; as a child I loved the whole season, from St. Nicholas’ Day to Twelfth Night, when the tree came down and we stopped singing carols: the anticipation, list-making, decorations, card-counting, opening each new window of the battered Advent Calendar, carol-singing (Good King Wenceslas with Dad roaring “Bring me flesh and bring me wine”), Mum’s sausage rolls and shortbread on Christmas Eve, waking up before dawn on Christmas morning, the  tree (magically decorated overnight), the specially embroidered (by Mum) pillowcases that were our stockings with whole walnuts and tangerines (rarities in India in those days) down at the bottom. It was Mum who made Christmas, though Dad was her willing helper, Mum who maintained a childlike delight in it and passed on that delight to us. I kept up her Christmas spirit, or tried to, throughout Nikhil’s childhood; but in recent years, now that he and his generation have grown and gone and all seasons are the same to dear Mum, it has become more and more of a strain, and I find myself wishing, with hardly any feeling of guilt, that I could just take off on my own and hide away until it’s all over.

Nowadays, as the frenzy of the season gets underway, I resist it actively. Some of that resistance comes from sheer hatred of shopping and consumerism; some of it from sheer busyness: with end-of-semester grades due a couple of days after Christmas and my biggest annual conferences just after New Year, it is an extremely hectic time for me; and I can’t deny that some of it is down to a mildly depressive frame of mind in which I question the point of it all—Christmas, that is, not life itself.  Nevertheless I persist, trying, albeit in small ways, to quiet the cynic within and quicken instead a sense of wonder.

This year had been no exception. I resolutely shut my eyes to the holiday hype that began even before Halloween. Then, after Thanksgiving as always, came the weirdly-named Black Friday, the day the Christmas shopping season officially begins, and one on which I usually observe the buy-nothing rule. This year, for once, I did venture out, with Andrew for support against the feared onslaught of Black Friday shoppers; but it was all very low-key (though admittedly we didn’t stake out a spot in line at midnight or darken the doors of any big-box stores), and I surprised myself by not only not hating it, but actually beginning to feel downright cheery.

We made a beeline for our favorite thrift store, the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, all done up for Christmas. I browsed at a leisurely pace, picking up a hundred things, putting down 95 of them, and coming home with a handful of treasures—nothing especially valuable, but little things that made me smile, like a soap dish for the olive-and-argan-oil soap that our old friend Tamara brought us back from Crete. The place was crackling with Christmas cheer, with a retinue of volunteers carrying in large, colorful gift boxes reminiscent of scenes from A Christmas Carol after Scrooge’s transformation.

We kicked it up a notch and went into the discount store, T.J. Maxx. Andrew was tasked with checking out their supply of Christmas crackers, but we rejected them all in the end because of the miserable quality of their prizes; still, we did find one thing we needed there, and emerged unscathed into the bargain.

Trader Joe’s was our last port of call—just for food, nothing more. It wasn’t particularly crowded but there too the atmosphere was electric, with everyone wreathed in smiles, scents of fir, rosemary, and pine, piping hot coffee on the go, and the shelves groaning with spiced cider, specialty cheeses, and boxes upon boxes of chocolates and pannetone. Despite my innate Grinchiness, I was moved. Not to buy anything, you understand; that would have been an unrealistic transformation. But I came home with a spring in my step, put the soap in the new dish and washed Mum’s new baby-blue flannel sheets with snowmen on them.

Come to think of it, the season had actually begun in earnest the previous week with my favorite church bazaar, always the weekend before Thanksgiving, where in the past I have been known to find most of my Christmas presents (which pleases me, but not necessarily my hapless victims). This year I picked up only a few little bits and bobs (as my Auntie Angy would say), but the big find was at the jams, jellies and pickles table, where I bought a small jar of shimmering violet jelly and a larger one of pear mincemeat with nuts and rum from a courtly old gentleman who told me that the violets were from his garden and advised me on how to make the mince tarts. He had just sold his last jar of Madras eggplant pickle or I would surely have borne that home as well.

Now it’s nose to the grindstone until classes are over and final grades are in. But now I am committed to washing my face and making mince tarts with custard. You’ll be seeing no transformation (to quote Fagin) but I can think I can report with some confidence that the plans for stealing Christmas are officially off. It’s beginning to look a little less Grinchy.

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401. More Than Enough

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Nature, places, Stories on July 24, 2017 at 2:23 am

Hampstead No. 1 Pond (photo: J. Rege)

I ought to have known as soon as the ATM at the Hampstead branch of Barclays Bank swallowed up my debit card on the morning of my return flight; when the taxi driver who drove me to St. Pancras to catch the train to Gatwick took me to the wrong station; when the airline found my painstakingly-packed suitcase 5 kg. overweight; when the price of an overflow carry-on bag rivaled the excess baggage charges; when, after my rush to the airport, the plane was delayed by nearly an hour; and when, to add the ultimate insult to injury, I was told that my two precious jars of Marmite would now have to be confiscated because I had transferred them from the overweight suitcase into my carry-on bag. As I fought back the tears of fury, frustration, and self-pity that sprang to my eyes, I told myself that I ought to have known the universe would conspire to make my last day in England a disaster.

But all along the way, felicity had trumped misfortune. The Hampstead walk that last morning was an experience that no bank or ATM could possibly take away from me; the guide who led me astray was set straight by another one who knew the way; at the airport, those who would exploit hapless travelers were rendered powerless by an open-hearted stranger; the delay was rendered delightful by tea and an M&S custard tart, sprinkled liberally with nutmeg; and even the loss of the Marmite, tragic to be sure, was not total: while two were confiscated, a third made it through, with a lot more besides.

It was a compressed trip, as highly charged as it was fleeting. In just over a week I had travelled up to the West Midlands to see my dear Uncle Ted, back down to London to see regal Auntie Bette, the matriarch of the clan, and Auntie Angy, who had not let marriage into the Sharp family (Sharp by name and sharp by nature) rob her of her sweet disposition. Time had not permitted me to travel up to Norfolk to see my cousin Susan and her brood (including a new grandbaby), or to Bristol to see my old friend Cylla (who had become a double grandmother since my last visit), or to Hoddesdon to see Barbara, or to visit Robin, who had become a widower since the last time and Savita, my old schoolmate from India, who were based in London itself; and I had missed two cousins altogether. But, to quote my sister’s favorite Rolling Stones song, “You get what you need.” I had got plenty.

When they told me, at the airport check-in, that I could either incur 45 pounds in excess-baggage charges or, at the conveniently adjacent luggage store, that the smallest bag I could contemplate buying would coincidentally also cost me 45 pounds, I almost gave way to despair; but this Kafkaesque double-bind was to give way to a singular sweetness. At the airport outpost of Boots the chemists, where I attempted to buy their largest plastic carrier bag, the young cashier asked me if I would prefer a cloth bag. “Yes,” I breathed, “yes please. Do you sell them?”

No, they didn’t, but if I could wait a few moments, she had one that she could give me.
“Don’t look so surprised,” she said, as I stood open-mouthed at her generosity, “it’s nothing.” And sure enough, the sweet young angel stepped out and returned with a bag whose capacity rivaled the £45 offering at the price-gouging luggage shop. I was overcome by gratitude, but my heartfelt thanks only embarrassed her, so I left to find a set of scales where I could off-load some of the heaviest items in my suitcase (including, sadly, the large and ill-fated jars of Marmite).

Earlier that day, the sinking feeling in my stomach when the Barclay’s ATM on Hampstead High Street swallowed my debit card threatened to plunge me into the Slough of Despond, as I wrangled in vain with the bank clerk, all the while watching my last free hour in London ticking away. But as I continued my walk down Hampstead High Street, the feeling of well-being returned from my walk across the Heath earlier that morning. I walked past the Oxfam shop at the top of Gayton Road,  where Andrew, Nikhil, and I had lived for six weeks in 1997, while I was participating in an NEH Summer Seminar on postcolonial literature and theory, and where I now picked up a pair of bone china mugs and paid 5p for a recycled-plastic carrier bag that bore the heartwarming slogan, “Be Humankind.” Hurrying down Downshire Hill, into Keats Grove, past the poet’s house and gardens, I reached the 24 bus terminus at South End Green at last, in good time.

Well Passage, Hampstead

All that morning a feeling of homecoming had accompanied me every step of the way, as I strode confidently and alone down Mansfield Road, where my cousin Lesley had once lived, and up the steps to the Heath, where morning dogs and dog-walkers mingled and meandered at their leisure. This was where my mother and her brothers had rambled in their youth, where my parents met and courted, and where I had been born. There was a moment, walking down the narrow Well Passage, when I might have been my mother in a sepia photo c. 1952, in which she walks, swinging her arms, with her brother Ted and his best friend Curly, in a circular gypsy skirt with a wide cinched-waist belt and a dimpled smile on her face as if the world was new and she and her mates owned it. No bank nonsense could dislodge that feeling.

(from michaelhaag.blogspot.com)

On the long summer evening before, Cousin Lesley and I had taken the 24 bus to South End Green, walked onto the Heath from South End Green, and stood overlooking the pond and the row of houses beyond. It was in one of those houses, in South Hill Park, where we had stayed for three months in 1963 with Auntie Dorrie and Tamara on our way back from Greece to India, where I had walked to nearby Gospel Oak School every morning with Lesley, where I first saw the Beatles on television, where I first saw television itself (see British TV, Fall of ’63). As we watched children watching the ducks and the swan and its half-grown cygnet, Lesley asked their mother to take our picture. We walked on, to the bathing ponds where Mum and her brothers and their friends had passed many long, happy hours in their teens and twenties. I passed and photographed a fallen horse chestnut branch, with the not-yet-ripe fruit still in its prickly skin. Come September, children would prise the glossy nuts out of their burst casings and play conkers, if children still played conkers today. But now was now. I was here, and on my last day in England, it was more than enough; it was plenty.

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385. On Two Girls Running

In 2010s, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, parenting, Stories, United States, women & gender on July 7, 2016 at 12:05 pm
young_horse_lineart_4_ms_paint_by_kokamo77

by kokamo77 (deviantart.com)

The other day I had the same experience twice within the span of half an hour. It was a warm summer’s evening, the Saturday of a holiday weekend with July the Fourth coming up on the Monday, and our usually-quiet neighborhood was humming with activity. When we first moved to this area it was a combination of retirees, empty nesters, and young families. But over the years, as we ourselves have aged, many people have moved on, one way or another, and a number of the once owner-occupied homes have become student rentals.

There is another category of home on my regular walking route up the hill and back, especially after crossing the town line, which has always been a bit of a mystery to me. These houses have always appeared to be empty, even abandoned, as if they were summer homes, or as if their owner had died some years back but the family had not yet gotten around to clearing and selling them. The signs of emptiness are an eerie quiet, absence of light in any of the windows, canvas-covered cars parked in the driveways, overgrown banks and walkways, crumbling stone steps. It is in the front garden of one of these mysterious houses where the untended quince bush lives, the one I always pass on my route, flowering in the spring, and producing a small, hard fruit that I watch developing, ripening, and eventually shriveling and drying out, unpicked. Every now and then, at the end of the season, I pluck one and bear it home with me, feeling a little guilty, but mostly indignant on the quince’s behalf as it persists year after year, valiantly coming to fruit with no one nourishing or pruning it, or appreciating its efforts.

by kokamo77, deviatart.com

But I digress. On this particular summer’s evening, I was driving up the hill, nearing our house, when a young woman  suddenly burst out of a side street not far ahead of me, running at full tilt, and sprinted athletically across the road without slowing down at the curb and with nary a glance to left or right. My heart began to beat fast at the close call and I didn’t know whether to be relieved, angry, or admiring in the face of her youthful abandon, her confidence and invulnerability, her evident muscular power.

Soon after getting home I set out for my evening walk further up the hill. I usually turn around at the town line, where the sidewalk ends, but on this particular evening I continued on a little further. As I approached one of the houses that usually lies empty, I heard music and laughter, and saw holiday lights strung all around the front porch. The overgrown steps had been cleared and swept and the grassy bank was newly mown. Suddenly and without warning an adolescent girl bolted out of the house. Déjà vu! Hadn’t the same thing just happened to me not half an hour ago? But just as I began to tense up in anxious anticipation of her darting out into the street like her predecessor, she pulled herself up short, as if she had hit an invisible electric fence, then meandered leggily round to the back of the house and out of sight.

young_horse_lineart_4_ms_paint_by_kokamo77

This girl aroused even stronger emotions in me. I found myself wondering what had propelled her out of the house as if shot from a cannon, and what had made her come to such an abrupt halt. Instead of the annoyance I had felt toward the earlier runner, I felt sympathy and approval; instead of admiration, I felt protectiveness. Who can forget those times in adolescence when one feels so stifled in a roomful of adults that one must get some air immediately or die, those times when every instinct tells one to get away as fast as possible, no matter where? Then, too, every girl can recall the times when one longs to burst out, but Reason points out that there is nowhere to run. Instead, more often than not one simply settles for some time alone, to simmer down and prepare oneself to face the fraught family atmosphere again. This girl, her family new to the neighborhood, may have bounded outside and then realized that she was in unfamiliar territory; so instead of breaking through into the unknown, she put on the brakes and walked slowly and thoughtfully into the her family’s new back garden.

One part of me—the parent, probably—applauded the girl’s good sense, while another part felt a little sorry that she didn’t have the boldness, and no doubt the foolhardiness, of the earlier, older runner who had so startled me a little earlier. Sure, there was time for her to gain that confidence in herself, but time is not always on the side of adolescent girls; as often as not, they lose, rather than gain confidence as they advance into their teens.

On the other hand, thinking back to the older runner, I found myself wondering what her parents were thinking. Had they not warned her to take care when crossing that busy road? Or perhaps she was in college, living with a group of other students; if so, she was old enough to know better. Even as I admired her athletic physique as against my woeful lack of muscle tone, my exasperation was stronger, since she had potentially endangered her own life and mine. Was my disapproval of that fearless girl greater than my approval of her younger counterpart’s cautiousness? And weren’t all these feelings of mine deeply gendered, despite my feminism and my own rebelliousness at their age?

Adolescent and teenage girls have so much power and potential. They need experience in order to develop maturity and good sense; but we are afraid to give them that leeway. In the name of protection, we continually underestimate them, rein them in, and hold them back, as parents and as a society. And as grown women, we hold ourselves back as well.

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343. European Border Crossings

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, travel on September 16, 2015 at 11:12 pm

Greece-train-map

In August of 1963 my father and mother, three-year-old sister Sally, and I traveled by train from Greece to Belgium and then by ferry across to England. The journey took three or four days and is all a pleasurable blur in my mind now, from the long bus trip from Athens to Thessaloniki (the first trip by automobile when I did not get car-sick) to the lurching ferry ride across the Channel to Dover, and finally on to London. It was a student train which my thirty-something parents had somehow managed to get on, and the noisy, polyglot young people adopted the nine-year-old me as their mascot, taking me into their compartments as they talked, sang, and laughed all the way across Europe.

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

I was in a kind of dream throughout, as we rocked our way through the days and nights in the self-contained world of the train. I was aware, though, that we were passing through Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia. From there we crossed into Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and finally, England and the bosom of our mother’s family. I remember riding through long stretches of countryside with the train running parallel to a wide, slow-flowing river (I felt sure that it was the Rhine, but never really knew), and remember pulling into a grand train station at Frankfort. But besides the spectre of Skopje that hovered dimly at the edges of my consciousness, there were the grim, grey overcoated border guards who boarded the train periodically in the night—in what must have been Yugoslavia and again in Hungary. I knew nothing then of the Eastern Bloc or the Cold War, and thankfully there was no need for me to have any dealings with them nor they with me, but I felt the chill of their presence in contrast to the carefree merriment of the students returning from their summer holidays.

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (by Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (“She will always remember this journey”: Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

That long-ago journey has returned to my mind again and again over the past few weeks, as thousands of displaced families have braved perilous Mediterranean crossings from Turkey to Greece and on foot to Hungary, where they have waited day after day for a train to take them across Europe. The memories of the children in these families will be so different from my sunny recollections of the Sixties youth culture, as I rode through the days and nights in the students’ boisterous embrace, moving from country to country with only the slightly jarring awareness of the border guards to remind me that we were crossing a national border.

In 1963 the European Union (then the European Economic Community (EEC)) included only six countries; Britain was still hemming and hawing over whether or not to join and wouldn’t do so until 1973, ten years later; Greece, not for eight years more, in 1981; Austria, not until 1995; and Hungary still later, in 2004, when the Eurozone swelled to include ten more countries. Yugoslavia was to go through a protracted and bloody breakup in the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by economic restructuring, crusading Serbian nationalism (remember Slobodan Milošević?), and violence against ethnic minorities. But back in 1963 Yugoslavia had just been renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Marshal Tito was firmly in power, holding it all together—for a time.

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

The European Union sought to unite Europe as a regional economic community, doing away with separate passports and working to develop a culture of inclusion. But with politicians and anti-immigrant groups whipping up panic over ‘barbarians at the gates,’ Europe has developed a siege mentality and is shutting down its borders again, fearful of the ‘swarms’, ‘floods’,  tide’ of refugees, most of them non-Christians. As writer after writer reminds us in Granta Magazine’s timely special issue, The Refugee Crisis, Europe itself was torn apart by war not so very long ago, thrusting out thousands upon thousands of refugees seeking asylum elsewhere, many of them non-Christians as well.

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

When I see the heartbreaking images of the child victims of this conflict, I am reminded of how fortunate I was to have been given a warm welcome into Europe. My family was taken up into that train full of returning European holidaymakers and transported readily across its rolling green countryside; many of these families were driven from their homes, herded into camps, fleeced by unscrupulous smugglers, and then denied entry as they arrived sick and bedraggled at the fences of Fortress Europe. Europe and the United States are deeply embroiled in that war in Syria. The more than four million people displaced by it are the responsibility of us all, as the solidarity demonstrations across Europe have affirmed, as ordinary people march under banners urging, “Open the Borders,” shaming their governments, welcoming the refugees. As one homemade placard declared: We are One: there is no “Other.”

(Reuters/AFP)

(Reuters/AFP)

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342. Inscriptions

In Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, India, parenting, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, writing on September 6, 2015 at 4:11 pm

My father has trained us to inscribe every book we present him, and if we forget, he never hesitates to instruct us—insistentlyIMG_2830 —to do so. As a result, I too am in the habit of writing a personal inscription in every book intended as a gift, one that I hope the recipient will keep, treasure, and re-read.

It saddens me when I find books left at the Book Shed (aka our town dump) with their flyleaves intimately inscribed by grandparents or (ex-) lovers. I myself would find it exceedingly hard to part with such a book. Perhaps this is part of the reason why inscriptions are becoming a lost art: our throwaway culture demands an unmarked commodity that can be discarded or resold more readily, without leaving a trace of its past.

Here are a few of the inscriptions in my books, books all the more beloved for them. Each one takes me back to a time and a place and reminds me of the giver, what it meant to him or her and what s/he hoped that it might mean to me.

In A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, sent to Kharagpur, West Bengal, India from England (by sea mail via Suez, no doubt):

Sent to India from England (sea mail via Suez, no doubt)

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

bearing the inscription:

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And in this book, at my request, an inscription to Nikhil, from the late great Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, written at his home in Khandala, Maharashtra.

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Did I say that book inscriptions were becoming a lost art? Some of the most beautiful ones I’ve found today have been written by Nikhil and members of his generation. Theirs are inscribed in my heart and I am reluctant to wear them on my sleeve.

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336. Time’s Wingèd Chariot

In Childhood, Food, places, poetry, reflections, Stories, travel, writing on June 26, 2015 at 11:37 pm

“But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” Andrew Marvell (©Tamlyn Teow at deviantart.com)

At seven I believed that I could remember what I had done every single day since I was four. It was probably true, or very nearly so, since I had an excellent memory then. I can still account for just about every month of my life, and certainly every year. For my first fifteen years our family moved around from England to India to Greece and back, finally immigrating to the United States when I was in my teens. Subsequently my movement in space slowed down while my movement in time speeded up, and now I keep track of my life by the decade. My twenties: a decade of activism; thirties, mostly on the farm, were all about baby- and child-raising, and later on, graduate studies; forties: raising (and being raised by) a teenager, completing a PhD, entering a fulltime teaching job; fifties: empty nest, a new job, transitions of all kinds. What will my sixties bring?

At twenty-five I suddenly felt old in a way I hadn’t done at twenty. At 30 I was printing, pregnant, too preoccupied with moving to the farm and preparing for the birth of the baby to care about that milestone. I seem to remember not wanting to celebrate my fortieth birthday because I wasn’t yet done with my PhD. Fifty was a golden birthday, as I awakened on a California beach, rode up the Pacific Coast Highway and was welcomed to the San Francisco Bay Area by my friend Sartaz with a heap of luscious mangoes as numerous as my years. Equally memorable was my sixtieth, during my sabbatical in India, celebrated with my cousin Shubha on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

For our Baby Boomer generation, every birthday, every anniversary, seems to require celebration as some kind of milestone. I remember my mother remarking rather ruefully a decade or so ago, when I was telling her about the surprise party we were planning for my sister-in-law’s fiftieth birthday, that nobody had even remembered her fiftieth birthday. Scanning my memory banks, I realized, to my shame, that she was right. At the time I had been preoccupied with nuclear disaster rather than my dear mother’s well-being, and members of her generation weren’t in the habit of throwing lavish parties for themselves.

I seem to have rather gone off birthdays. Now I’d rather light candles than blow them out. Perhaps I’ll emulate my friend Denise, who, at age 59, took the decision to celebrate her birthday only on odd, alternate years. Perhaps, as my mother did at fifty, I’ll stop coloring my hair and wear my grey locks with quiet pride.

Andrew Marvell told his coy mistress that had they “world enough and time” they could dally with each other for ever and a day; but, given the shortness of life, they needed to wrest their pleasures roughly from life and give Time a run for his money. At my back I too hear “Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near” but, rather than speeding up, it makes me want to slow right down, turn around, and look it in the face; and, as I did at age seven, to count life by the day again, or even by the moment.

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319. (Mind your) p’s and q’s

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Childhood, Stories, Words & phrases on April 20, 2015 at 1:12 am

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Font BOE Lowercase pWhen I was growing up, “mind your p’s and q’s” meant, “be on your best behavior” or “make sure to observe Font BOE Lowercase q-1the social niceties.” It never occurred to me to investigate further until I started learning how to set and sort type by hand. Working with mirror images of the alphabet’s letter forms—and upside-down to boot—the expression suddenly made a whole lot of sense. Lower-case p’s and q’s can easily be distributed into each other’s (very small) compartments by mistake unless one pays close attention at all times.

Of course there are all sorts of theories about the origins of the phrase, and you can read about them here. As usual there’s no definitive proof of any one of them, so I can’t be certain that it comes from the printing trade, but for me it’s either a compositor’s admonition or a child’s abbreviation of “mind your please and thank you’s.”

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British manners and mores arose from the feudal class system, in which the various social classes are sorted into tiny compartments, and the aristocrats and the serfs are mutually constructed, so that each is defined as what the other is not. It seems to me that observing the social niceties on the one hand, and sorting two very similar shapes into two separate (and confined) compartments on the other, are not very different at all. That’s British etiquette for you.

In closing, I offer you a little ditty of the same name that both delighted and confounded me as a child and that illustrates perfectly the sheer perversity of social snobbery.

Etiquette

THE Ballyshannon foundered off the coast of Cariboo,
And down in fathoms many went the captain and the crew;
Down went the owners–greedy men whom hope of gain allured:
Oh, dry the starting tear, for they were heavily insured.

Besides the captain and the mate, the owners and the crew,
The passengers were also drowned, excepting only two:
Young PETER GRAY, who tasted teas for Baker, Croop, and Co.,
And SOMERS, who from Eastern shores imported indigo.

These passengers, by reason of their clinging to a mast,
Upon a desert island were eventually cast.
They hunted for their meals, as ALEXANDER SELKIRK used,
But they couldn’t chat together–they had not been introduced.

For PETER GRAY, and SOMERS too, though certainly in trade,
Were properly particular about the friends they made;
And somehow thus they settled it without a word of mouth–
That GRAY should take the northern half while SOMERS took the south.

On PETER’S portion oysters grew–a delicacy rare,
But oysters were a delicacy PETER couldn’t bear.
On SOMERS’ side was turtle, on the shingle lying thick,
Which SOMERS couldn’t eat, because it always made him sick.

GRAY gnashed his teeth with envy as he saw a mighty store
Of turtle unmolested on his fellow-creature’s shore:
The oysters at his feet aside impatiently he shoved,
For turtle and his mother were the only things he loved.

And SOMERS sighed in sorrow as he settled in the south,
For the thought of PETER’S oysters brought the water to his mouth.
He longed to lay him down upon the shelly bed, and stuff:
He had often eaten oysters, but had never had enough.

How they wished an introduction to each other they had had
When on board The Ballyshannon! And it drove them nearly mad
To think how very friendly with each other they might get,
If it wasn’t for the arbitrary rule of etiquette!

One day, when out a-hunting for the mus ridiculus,
GRAY overheard his fellow-man soliloquising thus:
“I wonder how the playmates of my youth are getting on,
MCCONNELL, S. B. WALTERS, PADDY BYLES, and ROBINSON?

These simple words made PETER as delighted as could be,
Old chummies at the Charterhouse were ROBINSON and he!
He walked straight up to SOMERS, then he turned extremely red,
Hesitated, hummed and hawed a bit, then cleared his throat, and said:

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“I beg your pardon–pray forgive me if I seem too bold,
But you have breathed a name I knew familiarly of old.
You spoke aloud of ROBINSON–I happened to be by–
You know him?” “Yes, extremely well.” “Allow me–so do I!”

It was enough: they felt they could more sociably get on,
For (ah, the magic of the fact!) they each knew ROBINSON!
And MR. SOMERS’ turtle was at PETER’S service quite,
And MR. SOMERS punished PETER’S oyster-beds all night.

They soon became like brothers from community of wrongs:
They wrote each other little odes and sang each other songs;
They told each other anecdotes disparaging their wives;
On several occasions, too, they saved each other’s lives.

They felt quite melancholy when they parted for the night,
And got up in the morning soon as ever it was light;
Each other’s pleasant company they reckoned so upon,
And all because it happened that they both knew ROBINSON!

They lived for many years on that inhospitable shore,
And day by day they learned to love each other more and more.
At last, to their astonishment, on getting up one day,
They saw a vessel anchored in the offing of the bay!

To PETER an idea occurred. “Suppose we cross the main?
So good an opportunity may not occur again.”
And SOMERS thought a minute, then ejaculated, “Done!
I wonder how my business in the City’s getting on?”

“But stay,” said MR. PETER: “when in England, as you know,
I earned a living tasting teas for Baker, Croop, and Co.,
I may be superseded–my employers think me dead!”
“Then come with me,” said SOMERS, “and taste indigo instead.”

But all their plans were scattered in a moment when they found
The vessel was a convict ship from Portland, outward bound!
When a boat came off to fetch them, though they felt it very kind,
To go on board they firmly but respectfully declined.

As both the happy settlers roared with laughter at the joke,
They recognised an unattractive fellow pulling stroke:
‘Twas ROBINSON–a convict, in an unbecoming frock!
Condemned to seven years for misappropriating stock!!!

They laughed no more, for SOMERS thought he had been rather rash
In knowing one whose friend had misappropriated cash;
And PETER thought a foolish tack he must have gone upon
In making the acquaintance of a friend of ROBINSON.

At first they didn’t quarrel very openly, I’ve heard;
They nodded when they met, and now and then exchanged a word:
The word grew rare, and rarer still the nodding of the head,
And when they meet each other now, they cut each other dead.

To allocate the island they agreed by word of mouth,
And PETER takes the north again, and SOMERS takes the south;
And PETER has the oysters, which he loathes with horror grim,
And SOMERS has the turtle–turtle disagrees with him.

W.S. Gilbert

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299. Time Travel (Birthdays & Birthday Books)

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Childhood, Greece, Inter/Transnational, Media, Stories, travel on February 7, 2015 at 12:58 pm

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It was while we were living in Greece that I acquired my now-battered copy of Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book, in 1962 or 1963, when I was about eight years old. (The stamp on the inside back cover shows that it was purchased at Pantelides Bookshop which, when I looked it up on the Internet just now, is still in business, is still the largest English bookshop in Athens, and still has the same telephone number!)

IMG_0640I immediately set about asking everyone I knew when their birthday was so that I could enter their name in my new book, or asking them to write it in themselves. After we left Greece for India, I wrote our new address under the old one and began adding new names, first from friends in Kharagpur, then from classmates and teachers in Darjeeling. Five years later, as a teenager in England en route to the United States, I asked my English family and classmates from two different secondary schools to sign in as well.

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By the time I arrived in the U.S., nearly sixteen, my ardor had cooled off, so that only a sprinkling of names have been entered since high school in Brookline. Besides, as the rate of my new entries slowed to a near standstill, the speed at which the years have rolled by seems to have increased exponentially. Now I know several people who share the same birthday, sometimes from three different generations. I wish I had thought to ask everyone to enter their birthdates as well their names, but as a child that didn’t even cross my mind.

My mother was always the one in our family who remembered and made sure to commemorate birthdays. Now that that task has fallen to my generation, I’m afraid that I’m not as consistent. I hadn’t consulted or updated the old birthday book for years, but this morning I was suddenly unsure of whether dear Uncle Ted’s 90th birthday was today or in a couple of days. Climbing precariously on a chair, I retrieved Kate Greenway from a top shelf in my book-crammed office, and confirmed the date. Coincidentally, I found my old Kharagpur friend Robin’s name entered on today’s date in my childish hand, and sent him birthday greetings in London via Facebook.

University of Florida Digital Collections, Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature

University of Florida Digital Collections, Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature

Kate Greenaway was a wildly popular illustrator of English children’s books in the late nineteenth century. Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book was first published in 1880, with a different cover from that of my edition, but with identical illustrations (369 line illustrations and twelve color plates), format, and interior design. The University of Florida has digitized all her works, including her Birthday Book, online and fully searchable.

It is always heart-warming to receive birthday greetings, especially from friends and family far away, even if you know that they only remembered because they received a pop-up notification via Facebook. Last year I looked up and surprised a childhood friend from India with a Facebook message on his birthday, even though I had not had any contact with him for more than fifty years. How on earth had I remembered? It was in my birthday book. Recording birthdays in this way is clearly a fast-disappearing practice. It is perhaps for that very reason that I derive a special thrill from setting eyes on an old friend’s name, in her best handwriting or my untidy scrawl, and instantaneously being transported half a century back in time through the four-inch square portal of one little book.

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