Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

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.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

Advertisements

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.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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:

IMG_2826

IMG_2832


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.

IMG_2831

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.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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.

P1070656

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

051-16th-Century-letter-p-q85-187x200

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.”

ProofCaliforniaJobCase

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:

e005

 

“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

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

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

IMG_0642

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.

IMG_0644

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.

IMG_0646

IMG_0641

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

292. No Returns

In Books, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on December 13, 2014 at 12:56 pm
The White Rabbit (John Tenniel, 1865)

The White Rabbit (John Tenniel, 1865)

As children—and it’s still something we do from time to time—we always aimed to be the first to say A pinch and a punch for the first of the month! This had to be followed up swiftly with White Rabbits and No Returns! so that the unfortunate recipient of the former, who had also failed to secure an entire month’s worth of good luck, would be prevented from retaliating in kind with A slap and a kick for being so quick! Come to think of it, it was quite a nifty one-two punch: the first part securing one’s personal fortunes by violent means and the second ensuring that no negative consequences redounded upon oneself.

imagesThat childhood magic spell would come in handy right now. Looking at my To Do list, I have quite a number of returns to deal with. There are the literal returns, liabilities all, items I purchased or ordered but didn’t fit or suit me, or broke immediately, and sit around taking up space until I get around to finding the original receipt or warranty, re-packing them to ship back to the company, or sallying forth to do battle at the store where I bought them.

Then there are the more complicated returns, also consequences of my actions and decisions. Some of them are less tangible, but no less necessary to dispatch. There are the Incompletes granted to delinquent students in a moment of weakness, which always result in late work being submitted, sometimes months after the course is over, requiring me to locate the records, inevitably buried under piles of papers, and to take time out from my current teaching tasks to recalculate the final grade and resubmit it to the Registrar’s Office. There are favors to return and long-overdue promises to fulfill. Inevitably, postponements come due again at some later point in time, knocking ever more insistently at one’s door. Oh, for “White Rabbits and No Returns” and a clean slate!

In Vedanta philosophy this world of name and form is ruled by the Law of Cause and Effect. It is a simple law of nature and there is no sidestepping it: one acts, and results ensue. Wisdom may give one deeper insight into what constitutes right action at a given time, but no wisdom in the world can control the results. In other words, there is no such thing as No Returns.

Even this eminently rational philosophy has an escape clause: transcending the dualities of the world allows one to override cause and effect. But that is a trick involving a magic I know not how to invoke. For all my desire to defer, I must deal with returns; I know no other way.

© Norman Taylor

© Norman Taylor

But wait: there are other Returns, ones that we welcome. As each successive birthday circles back around, we wish our friends and family members Many Happy Returns. Even as we know that this world must involve sadness and loss, we never stop wishing that Love will make it all worthwhile. When Nikhil was a teenager and final exams loomed, he and his friends would cram themselves on the couch in the den to watch and re-watch Moulin Rouge!, a classic romantic story of unrequited, followed by fully-requited love, and finally, tragic loss, redeemed only by love. But the line that recurs in it is:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return.

All the lesser returns are a pain, nuisances we simply have to deal with; but the greatest is this freely-given and received Gift, with no expectations of return.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

290. Krishna’s Butterball

In Childhood, Family, India, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases on November 21, 2014 at 11:22 am

photo

You wouldn’t guess it looking at him now, but when Nikhil was a baby he was delightfully chubby (as babies should be)—moon-faced, roly-poly, and altogether round, except for his chubby little feet, which were as close to square as feet can be, almost as wide as they were long. Like most babies he had many lovingly bestowed pet names, and each of our friends called him something different. Some of my favorites were—from Dr. Harrington, our family doctor—”my little block of granite” (situated as we were on the southern border of New Hampshire, The Granite State), from our old friend Reva, Nanook of the North, and—from our friend Jim—Krishna’s Butterball.

Krishna's Butterball (© Procsilas Moscas, Wikimedia Commons)

Krishna’s Butterball (© Procsilas Moscas, Wikimedia Commons)

Now, to many Americans, particularly as Thanksgiving approaches, “butterball” probably conjures up the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving feast, but put that image right out of your mind and replace it with this one. Andrew and I had visited Krishna’s Butterball at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, in January, 1984, on our honeymoon trip to India. Jim, who had lived in India, no doubt had in mind the well-known story from Lord Krishna’s childhood, when his own mother first realized who he really was. You will find the story frequently retold, represented, and re-enacted in India, a favorite in children’s books, in bharatanatyam dance performances throughout India and the diaspora, and on wall hangings for the home. The one above, made from inlaid wood, is on the bedroom wall in our house.

It is said that Krishna was a mischievous child, delightfully roly-poly, and fond of butter. He often tiptoed over to his mother Yashoda’s store of it and helped himself liberally when her head was turned the other way. One day she caught him in the act, scooping a ball of freshly-churned butter into his mouth. When she admonished him and asked him to open his mouth, he refused to incriminate himself and kept it firmly shut. So Yashoda took his chin in her hand and opened it herself. What she saw completely blew her mind. Inside her little boy’s open mouth was not the stolen butter, but the entire universe.

For me, all babies evoke the same awe as Lord Krishna’s mother felt that day. In their wide-eyed innocence, still trailing clouds of glory, they remind us of what human beings are capable of, and fill us with protective tenderness and the resolve to live up to our best selves. That is why so many cultures tell stories like those of Krishna’s childhood, and celebrate the newborn child, as we do at Christmas. For me, this time of year has a personal dimension, since Nikhil was born just before Christmas. (The hospital even sent him home in a large, white-felt-trimmed, red corduroy stocking, with just his shining moon-face sticking out over the top.) My baby will turn 30 this year, and is now, as always, my rock; but he will also always be my little block of granite, Nanook of the North, and Krishna’s Butterball, filling me with awe and inspiring me to be my best self.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

287. Anywhere, anywhere

In 1950s, Books, Childhood, Family, Nature, reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, travel on October 25, 2014 at 4:07 pm
Spring Morning (illustration: E. H. Shepard)

Spring Morning (illustration: E. H. Shepard)

Some years ago Mum told me that one day, driving down a road not far from home, she suddenly realized that she didn’t know where she was. This must have been about the time when she first began to notice that something was wrong. It wasn’t very long before this and other signs of disorientation in time and place gave the rest of the family cause for concern, too, and we began to take steps to make sure that Mum didn’t go out in the car alone. But every time I drive down that road I too have a moment of wondering where I am; I think it is because that particular stretch of road could in fact be anywhere.

photo 2

It is in an area of farmland between our town and the next, with cornfields on either side and wide open sky in all directions as far as the eye can see; no other markers of place except for the tell-tale turning of the leaves in the Fall, and unusual for New England in being a long, perfectly straight stretch of road with no twists and turns or ups and downs, and no houses. Only corn, which, in the late summer has grown as high as an elephant’s eye, leads one to believe that one is in Oklahoma, Kansas, or just about anywhere in the American Midwest. So after my initial panic, I take a deep breath, relax into that timeless moment, and drive on, trusting in the road itself, and knowing that soon, all too soon, I will be back on track, fully re-oriented, and saddled once again with my long list of errands and uncompleted tasks.

Increasingly, every moment of the day is another check mark on the To-Do List. Even on our days off, perhaps especially on our days off, that list seems to be never-ending. A person is seen as unmotivated if she or he does not have clearly defined goals and, in our fast-paced society, being self-directed, “in the driver’s seat,” is considered a necessity, even a virtue. But how much are we really in control when we are at the wheel? More often, we seem to be harnessed and driven by pressures and goals set elsewhere and by others.

When I was five, my Uncle Ted gave me a blue hardcover copy of A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, one of the few books that I have managed to carry around the world with me and still hold and treasure. It has long-since lost its dust-jacket, some of its pages are torn, and the young me dared to color in E. H. Shepard’s classic illustrations. But battered as it is, it is still wonderfully intact. Whatever its condition, the poems in it have become part of me, and give recourse and expression to moods that overtake me as much as an adult as they did when I was very young. One of my favorites is Spring Morning, in which the child, wondering where he is going, knows deep down, that he, certainly, does not know; and furthermore, that it matters not one whit. The world is alive and full of wonder, and she can float through it like a cloud on invisible currents, safe and free. If we all knew this, then we need not panic when we are suddenly overtaken by that strong sense that we don’t know where we are or where we are going. We don’t.

photo

Note on punctuation: In many of the versions of this poem I found on the internet, the punctuation was wrong. A.A. Milne wrote, “Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know. “ Note the period after the second ‘anywhere,’ and the italicized ‘I’: both are essential to the reading of that line, which comes at the end of the first verse and again at the very last.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

 

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: