Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

506. The Loudest Voice

In Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, people, reflections, singing, Stories, women & gender on December 14, 2021 at 3:19 am

After all these years, only now am I listening to this luminous story by the late Grace Paley. In 1998 she read it out aloud on Vermont Public Radio for the holidays, and there it still lives, her voice issuing forth at the press of a button and conjuring up a time, a place, and a child’s innate self-confidence. She was 76 when she read the story, one she had written 40 years before, and her voice was still clear and well-modulated. Oh the sly humor! Chosen for her clear, strong voice, the very voice that parents, teachers, and neighbors are always admonishing her for, the Jewish girl in a Jewish immigrant community attending a Christian school delights in narrating the school’s Christmas pageant. She has no feeling of being an outsider. She simply filters the entire story through her own consciousness, whence it issues utterly–and wonderfully–transformed. And her voice, the loudest voice, comes through with flying colors.

I met Grace Paley several times during the 1990s. She certainly didn’t need to raise her voice to command respect and perhaps she never had. At our first meeting I had no idea who she was. I had gone to a reception for the campus visit of the late Edward Said, and didn’t know anyone there. An elderly couple were in the room and so I struck up a conversation with the husband, who was standing a little apart from the others and wearing faded denim jeans like any old Vermonter straight out of the back woods. His wife wore a bandanna around her messy hair like a Russian grandmother. When I told him I was in the English department he said mildly, “my wife does creative writing, too.” I was curious about this wife. I introduced myself to her as well and listened to her for a while, as she talked about this and that. It must have been when I heard her casually refer to her conversations with women during a trip to Vietnam that I suddenly had a prickling feeling at the back of my neck and asked her whom I was addressing. “Grace Paley,” she replied matter-of-factly, and I wondered why I hadn’t realized this from the start. Her voice was not loud at all, but it was by no means self-effacing either.

The Lamb, Songs of Innocence and Experience

I had a loud voice as a girl, like my father before me. My parents, bless them, never asked me to tone it down or hush it up. My classmates teased me for it but didn’t ask me to change. My teachers did, though, as evidenced by my earliest report cards. By age 8 I already had a reputation to live up to; it never occurred to me that it was something I might have to live down someday. Passing through England on the way back to India at age 9, I was chosen to recite a poem by William Blake—The Lamb, I think it was—in school assembly. It never crossed my mind for one moment that I might have been chosen as a token “Other”; in fact, I was told the reason was that I was the only child in my class “without an accent.” Ironically, this girl who had grown up outside of England spoke unselfconscious Standard English, or R.P. (Received Pronunciation), as it is called nowadays: the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England. A year or two later, my father’s students organized a show in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to raise money for people affected by the drought in Bihar and asked me to be the emcee. What fun it was! I was the only child up on the stage, introducing all the university students’ performances. I was fearless at that age.

Two things happened to my voice as time went on. As a university undergraduate, where I felt like a fish out of water, I lost it for a time. One bad experience of being verbally attacked after having made what I thought was a perfectly innocent remark in class silenced me for years; not at home or among friends, but in the rarefied atmosphere of the classroom. Throughout my twenties I still felt perfectly at ease with public speaking in the outside world, though. And returning for graduate study in my thirties, my girlhood confidence returned and stood me in good stead. I knew who I was and what I wanted to say, and had no hesitation in saying it.

Then came the life of a junior professor, when one is made to learn one’s place. Those years didn’t do any favors to my voice. A decades-long habit of speaking unnecessarily loudly without breathing or hydrating properly made me develop a throat nodule. I had to learn to moderate and modulate my voice in ways that were utterly new to me. It was interesting that the voice class I attended was full of professors, many of them senior faculty, all seeking to recover their authentic voices after years of suppressing, silencing, second-guessing themselves. They–we–had to reach deep inside and learn to trust ourselves again. With these classes and vocal therapy at the UMass Center for Language, Speech, and Hearing, my throat nodule receded, enabling me to lecture and to sing again, but not to speak extemporaneously with the same innocent self-confidence as young Shirley Abramowitz, narrator of the Christmas pageant.

As noted earlier, I have my dear father to thank for my loud voice, my father whose normal speaking voice was a gentle bellow. Saying, “no need to shout” would infuriate him. He’d shout louder: “I’m not shouting; this is my normal voice!” There were only two options when faced with the full-throated power of Dad’s voice: either to lower one’s own, or to raise him one. For better or worse, I must have done the latter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now I am the one whom people ask to moderate my foghorn. Add to that my increasing deafness, which makes me unaware of the volume at which I’m speaking, and the need to teach wearing a mask, which requires me to project, enunciate, and bellow. After that successful voice therapy 20 years ago, my throat nodule appears to have returned with a vengeance.

Bill Barnacle bellowing in frustration at Henderson Hedgehog, Horticulturer (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding)

What prompted this reflection was listening to Boston Public Radio last week on my way home from work. Margery Eagan and Jim Braude’s daily news program is an enjoyable mix of serious news and analysis, with comic banter and a call-in component that invites the public to join the fun. On this particular day the subject was men’s loud voices. Apparently men are greater COVID-19 spreaders than women because their loud voices spray more virus farther and wider. Then followed some light-hearted banter with a sharp edge to it, with Margery accusing Jim and men in general of using their loud voices to bully others into submission and Jim, quite uncharacteristically, acknowledging this tendency in himself with some shame. They were inviting public comment when, driving into the reception-free flood-zone of the North Quabbin region, I lost the signal. But I continued to think on the subject, and wondered about how much I had silenced the people around me with my loud voice. How much was the negative perception of loudness gendered? If I were a man, would my unnecessarily loud voice be considered appropriately assertive? But why did I feel the need to assert my opinions, already strong, so forcefully? (In graduate school, much to my eternal shame I had a verbal run-in with a famous writer whom I revered and who shall remain unnamed. He used great restraint in the end-of-semester comment he put on my grade: “Inclined to hold strong opinions.”) These were questions to which the answers only generated more questions.

I have always loved singing and taken pride in bursting into song on the slightest pretext. But I have damaged my voice by singing too loud. A singing voice ought not to be harsh and raspy like a portable loudspeaker; it can be soft and sweet. It is much harder to sing high notes softly than to belt them out. I had always prided myself on my ability to hit the high notes–even singing the descant when there was one. Now my voice was cracking less than an octave above middle C. I would have to learn to harmonize and sing the alto part rather than the tune which I had always sung. My whole identity was going down the tubes. What was I to do?

Instead of answering that question, I listened to the 76-year-old Grace Paley reading “The Loudest Voice.” With a broad tolerance and affectionate humor she affirmed that young girl’s confidence. And she didn’t have to shout to blow me away.

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503. Five Years Out

In Aging, Family, Immigration, India, parenting, Stories on September 17, 2021 at 3:57 pm

It has been five years since my father died. There is so much that I have yet to understand and to process about this remarkable and complex man, and I have to accept that there is so much that I will never and can never know about him. In the immediate aftermath I wasn’t able to sit with my thoughts and feelings, mostly because my mother was still with us and with Dad gone she needed my attention all the more. We had the memorial only 10 days later, and that time is a blur. The teaching year had just begun and for some reason I took no bereavement leave, simply carried on. In fact, I conducted my evening class on modern Indian literature the very next day, and only told the students at the end of the session, dedicating the rest of the seminar to him. Six months later my father-in-law passed away and eighteen months later my mother breathed her last. A year after that my sister and I sold our parents’ house. After Mum’s death, Andrew and I moved to a new house, his siblings sold their parents’ house and, just last week, we finally sold our old one. All that time is another blur. Now, five years on, there are still a few loose ends to tie up with our parents’ estate taxes, which I dearly hope will be finally done with this year. But as the late Agha Shahid Ali put it, Rooms are Never Finished. Somewhere, somewhere, from in amongst the detritus of life, from under the endless burden of paperwork, one has to make a start.

Dad would start working on his taxes in January, dedicating a chunk of time to the task every day that Mum was out at her day program. He didn’t enjoy the process and wasn’t particularly good with numbers and figures, but knew it had to be done and had a horror of lateness. He would painstakingly copy out long columns of figures in his distinctive architect’s hand, adding them up and checking them twice on a pocket calculator before passing everything on to the tax accountant. The accountant told me after his death that even in his 90s Dad was by far the best prepared of any of her clients, that the material he sent her was complete and meticulously documented.

Dad was stoic about pain and loss. He didn’t make a habit of talking about his health problems, even when he was struggling to draw every next breath. Only Mum knew when he had a toothache or something heavy on his mind, because flashes of bad temper betrayed it. To me he only remarked, just once, “growing old is not for sissies.” He didn’t dwell on the loved ones he had lost or left behind, either, but that didn’t mean he loved them any less. Every year he sat down to write Christmas and New Year’s greetings cards to every single member of his family in India and the United States, checking with me to make sure of the addresses for those who had moved and for the names of all the grandchildren whom he had never met. Only the occasional comments betrayed his true feelings, as when he would ask from time to time, in some exasperation, why he never heard back from them, why only his elder sister Kumud faithfully kept him abreast of family news.

One November, the arrival of a large package via courier from Mumbai, sent from his niece Meena and grand-niece Sucheta, was nothing short of miraculous for him. We opened it to find it full of traditional Diwali sweetmeats and savory snacks, all perfectly fresh and utterly delicious. For days Dad fully savored every single one, between sips of tea and reminiscences. That one delivery brought him so much joy that it revealed the depth of his unexpressed feelings.

                                   Diwali treats

He hated phone calls. This was understandable for someone coming from an era in which long-distance phone calls were rare, wildly expensive, hard to hear through the static, and likely to bring bad news (See TMA #181, The Silver Hairpin). But once most of our relatives had excellent phone service in their homes and could direct-dial their international calls, once I had a calling code that allowed me to make calls to India for pennies a minute, I felt that Dad had no excuse not to phone his family from time to time. One day, while trying to talk him into calling his beloved younger sister, I asked him in some frustration whether he missed them all. That was hurtful and unnecessary, I realize now. But he stopped everything and tried to find the words to explain. “Of course I miss them,” he said. “But I have made my life outside India. If I allowed myself to miss them too much I would be miserable all the time.”

Dad was not by nature a man to wallow in misery. He believed in getting on with life and in the joy of living, taking great pleasure in the natural beauty around him, in his art, in reading, and in the visits of friends and family. He was an optimist by nature, and this habit of optimism persisted, even when he was very ill. In his last decade, visits to the emergency room by ambulance were almost an annual affair, until the very last year, when he had four hospitalizations. But each time, upon admittance, when the ER doctor came in and asked him how he was, the answer was, “Fine.” It fell to me to contradict him and explain the seriousness of his condition and the nature of the emergency. During the last visit, though, when he was breathing with great difficulty, one of the myriad healthcare workers asked him, in that infuriatingly cheerful way, how he was feeling. In the exasperated tone that those who love him know so well he snapped back at her, “How do you think I’m feeling?”

I miss you, Dad. I pray that I continue to learn from you. I promise to screw up my courage to call your dear sister, my dear Mandatya—for I, too, fear phone calls. I promise to send New Year’s greeting cards to our family in India this year, all the more important while it is still not possible to simply hop on a plane. And I promise to do my best not only to take care of the business of life (to finish those damned taxes) but also to engage more fully in the joy of living.

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502. Farewell, Old House!

In Aging, Family, places, reflections, seasons, Stories on August 31, 2021 at 11:10 pm

It was on a night like this, in late August thirty-one years ago, with the cicadas and katydids in full-throated chorus and grasshoppers and crickets abounding, that Andrew, Nikhil, and I slept in our new house for the first time, bedding down together on the floor in the same bedroom while the other rooms were being painted. (I say ‘new’ because it was new to us, but the house was already 75 years old when we first moved in.) The following week Nikhil was to start kindergarten in a new school and a new town. Tonight, on the verge of selling our old house and of starting a new academic year that might well be my last, it feels like a time of endings—or at least, of tying up loose ends.  

On the morning of his first day of kindergarten Nikhil insisted that Andrew light a small fire in the fireplace so that he could toast a marshmallow. We couldn’t have done that in our old house because we only had a woodstove. Over the next few years Andrew collected the sap of the maple trees in the back yard and boiled it down to make maple syrup; he also set up a cider press and he and Nikhil made apple-and-pear cider. The following year Andrew’s parents bought the house next door and moved back from California, and two years later my parents moved  to a house less than two miles down the road. A huge expanse of woods across the street, the Amethyst Brook Conservation Area, made up for the loss of our old country life in Winchendon, and over the years we hiked and biked and built dams and played Poohsticks there.

Out back, Andrew built a large raised-bed garden with a blueberry patch. Over the years he grew everything, strawberries, potatoes, garlic, hot peppers, butternut squash, and even corn, before he lost the long war with the woodchucks. A vine of Concord grapes sprawled over the old foundation to the south of the house and he made grape juice, grape jelly, and stuffed grape leaves. Now wild blackberries and black raspberries have overgrown his extensive earthworks, along with the pervasive poison ivy that has dug in and taken over.

The house became a gathering place for friends and extended family on both sides. Every birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ukrainian Christmas (two weeks later), Ukrainian Easter, and not to forget those dissertation defense parties, we put both flaps in the trusty old dining table and brought out all the folding chairs while everyone contributed a dish to the feast. In the summers we had outdoor parties, with music, badminton, basketball, and massive quantities of food. In the winters, fast and furious games of darts, tiddlywinks, and Running Demons, endless movie nights, and those very welcome snow days when I curled up in bed with a book and a bottomless cup of tea while Andrew shoveled us all out.

The house also became a gathering place for Nikhil’s friends. Play dates, sleepovers, study sessions, parties, heart-to-hearts. In those years, young people continually flowed in and out, chattering, laughing, eating, eating some more. Parents came to pick them up and lingered to chat with us as the friends said their long goodbyes, unable to tear themselves away from each other.

I can’t count the number of times friends came over for tea (Lopchu Darjeeling), when I made scones (never as good as Mum’s) and salmon cakes. For parties my speciality was a large pot of chhole–chickpea curry–and an equally large batch of pullao rice with peas, topped with caramelized onions and roasted cashews.

In mid-August Andrew’s father Ted would remind us of the Perseid meteor showers. One memorable night we all rose in the wee hours and walked over to the field across the street where Ted sat on a folding chair and the rest of us lay on our backs on blankets, gazing up at the heavens.

Andrew’s dear mother Anna would invite us to dinner one night a week so that I didn’t have to cook. In later years her health didn’t allow her to be as active as she would have loved to be, but every Saturday she would go down to the farmer’s market on the Town Common and bring us back bean sprouts and Chinese vegetables from the Chang family farm. She soon made friends with the owners of the Greek pizza place round the corner where they would sell her trays of frozen spanakopitas at the wholesale price and send home a bag of Greek pita bread for her grandson. At the Asian grocery story two doors down she must have been the most faithful customer. She  provided Nikhil with a steady supply of nori, paper-thin sheets of dried seaweed, for his school lunchbox. When the store had to close Anna came close to buying up their entire stock. When Nikhil grew tired of me on some tirade or the other he would slip out and over to his Grandma Anna’s, where I would find him in her kitchen watching Emeril or re-runs of The Galloping Gourmet.

When I think of the old farmhouse I will forever remember my father’s words whenever he came over. After browsing the bookshelves he would settle in with a good book and a cup of tea, looking up to survey the contours of the place with his architect’s eye and to pronounce, “This is a good house.” Mum, accustomed to being the hard-working host, would ask what she could do to help and when I insisted that there was nothing to do, would give herself over to the rare pleasure of being fussed over and waited on.

Now that stage of our lives is long over and only the memories linger. Fireflies on a summer’s night will always remind me of the quiet of our old back yard. But on this last night of August, as I prepare for my first day of fall teaching and we prepare to pass the house on to a young family, I can hear the chorus of cicadas and katydids at our new house, and feel in my bones the effort it has taken us to sort and clear the accumulation of thirty-one years. It’s the longest I have ever lived in one place and surely, at this point, the longest I ever will. Along with the inevitable pangs will also come a strong sense of relief: that’s done at last. Farewell, old house!

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501. The Small Things

In Books, Childhood, culture, Family, parenting, people, reading, reflections, Stories on August 15, 2021 at 12:36 am

Dad would read Anatole and the Cat (“Quelle horreur!) in his inimitable French accent.

It’s the small things I remember these days, but they seem to come all the more freighted with meaning. Things that might have irked me at the time are endearing now, and I long to hear them just one more time: Dad joking, when we children protest at his insistence on reading to us in a pseudo-French accent, that he can’t help it, he has been speaking like this ever since he visited gay Parree. My Uncle Ted insisting on teaching his one-year-old grandson Jon to jump with glee into muddy slush-puddles, shouting “Splash”, when his exhausted young mum has just finished washing and drying his snowsuit. Bob, beloved partner of my dear friend Cylla, teaching our five-year-old son to say “bottle” with a Cockney glottal stop (“bo’l”). Mum crying out with a pang of loss when I first pronounce an ‘r’ American-style. All of them gone now. All of them larger than life in my memory.

I remember those loved ones who are grown and gone, one in particular whose childish charms lit up my life for a spell. When being dressed for bed in a new all-in-one sleepsuit, a little toddler’s voice chirping, “ Is it one hundwed pooercent cotton?” (For once it wasn’t, and he could tell.) When it became clear, playing his first board game at age 3 or 4, that he was about to lose, I remember him sweeping all the pieces and players off the board in a fit of fury. But when, ten years later, mother and tween were playing a truth-or-dare-style board game and the youth answered a question about his mother’s maturity with ruthless honesty—”she is immature”—this adult role-model proved it by ending the game then and there in a fit of petulance. On the only occasion this indifferent cook made calzones—with two different fillings, on a real terracotta baking stone, mind you—the appreciative young teen declared that it was the best thing his mother had ever made, filling her with guilt about her distinctly unmemorable performance in the kitchen for the past 15 years. (She has never made them since.)

 

Memories of watching movies as a family, two in particular. The violent fight scenes, filled with stereotypically racialized bad guys, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) sending the older boy-next-door bouncing off the walls in paroxysms of manic glee; whereas our son the budding film aficionado, no older than seven, seemed hardly to notice them, commenting instead on words of wisdom uttered by the Turtles’ mentors.

Watching Amadeus (1984) at about the same time, he had to leave the room, so upset was he by Salieri’s murderous envy of the young Mozart’s virtuosity. As he put it, “I would feel happy for Mozart; why couldn’t he?”

Some of these memories are glorious, some ignominious, all of them infinitely precious. Small things, but so telling.

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500. Late-Summer Morning

In Family, Nature, reflections, seasons, Stories on August 10, 2021 at 9:33 am

I’ve been waking and rising earlier this past week or so, as July has advanced inexorably into August and the start of the new academic year looms ever-larger. Now, as a three-day heatwave looms as well, I’m driven not just by dread but also by desire for the feel of the evanescent cool on my skin as I sip my morning tea. I go out to the terrace to check the progress of the chillies, jalapeño and cayenne, grown noticeably larger overnight, and to water or weed for a few short minutes while the tea is steeping. My To Do list is here, longer by the day, but there’s not much to be done until offices open at 8:30 am, so it can be set aside for now as I savor these moments of quiet.

Most mornings I open the doors to the terrace and courtyard so as to run a breeze through the house. This morning, though, it was already warmer and stickier outside than in, and the living-room carpeting was swelling and billowing underfoot, so the doors are closed and the dehumidifier running.

In the world outside, cases of COVID-19 are surging again, driven by the so-called Delta variant and throwing the fall outlook into uncertainty. I was to return to conducting most of my classes face to face, but now, especially with my hearing loss, doubts assail me and I quail at the prospect of trying to teach fully masked in a classroom that will no longer be socially distanced. My once-enjoyable ritual of shopping for a back-to-school outfit has been replaced with online research into voice amplifiers and the best masks for teachers.

Billowing out from my personal concerns, the planet’s climate woes are worsening visibly. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its latest report yesterday, and it was the direst yet; but anyone can read the signs of the catastrophe all around us. The other night, after Andrew and I had watched the evening news, I realized that every single news item— the surging global pandemic, devastating floods, raging wildfires, and the refugee crisis—had been related  to climate change.   

Back at home, I remain acutely aware of the distances between me and my far-flung family and friends, both in the United States and around the world. I wonder what they are all doing and  thinking, how they are feeling. My heart reaches out to them, telling them that I love them, that we will be together again, one day, soon. Simultaneously aware, as always, of multiple time zones, I think of dear ones in the Eastern U.S., just waking up; in California, still sleeping; in England, Germany, Spain, having lunch; in India, enjoying the cool of the evening, in Australia, asleep again; while my own day beckons, and then collars me: the alarm goes off. Time to be up and doing.

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499. Thoughts on Fathers and Fatherhood

In Childhood, Family, parenting, people, reflections, Stories on June 20, 2021 at 5:33 am

As the hour clicks over into Father’s Day I can’t help but think of the fathers in my life, especially my dad and Andrew, my husband and our son’s dad. I can’t gush about them Hallmark-style, though; I love them both too much for that.

It is hard to be responsible for another person’s life. Fathers have long had to bear the responsibility for supporting their families financially, for literally keeping a roof over their heads; but in addition, many fathers provide so much more security for their children by their loving presence, the quality of their attention, and the model provided by their active parenting. Both my dad and Andrew provided that kind of security, each in their own distinct ways.

My father did everything wholeheartedly, with tremendous energy and conviction. He sang me to sleep, patting me rhythmically on the back as he did so. He read to my sister and me, throwing himself into each of the characters—voices, accents and all. He always believed us when we told him of a wrong done to us at school. When the nuns told me that left-handedness was a sign of an untidy mind and tried to make me use my right hand instead, he marched right over to set them straight. If we wanted something he would make it for us in secret—stilts for me, a doll’s house for sister Sally, Christmas cards for our mother to send to her family. Although Mum disapproved of my reading at the dinner table, Dad set an example for me by doing so, and I gladly followed his lead. He taught me how to swim by making me jump off the end of a jetty into the sea. He raised his voice when he got animated, agitated, or argumentative and inadvertently taught me to do the same.

Dad wasn’t afraid of trying new things, traveling to places where no one in his family had gone before, where he didn’t know a soul. He shared his adventures with us by taking us with him wherever he went. How can I ever forget the trip to Bhutan that we all took together in 1964, when I was ten? He emigrated to the United States from India when I was fifteen and Sally ten. Unsettling as that move was, we made it together, and Dad plunged into our new life as he did everything else—unafraid of meeting new people, doing things he had never done before from cross-country skiing (actually, Mum made him do that) to barbecuing, and teaching Americans things he knew and they didn’t.

My father was a teacher and an urban planner by profession but also an artist—a talented painter. His work involved interactions with all sorts of people, and he was a good communicator and a social animal. But his art was a personal passion and he followed it alone and single-mindedly, never forcing it on us unless we expressed interest in it, in which case he was delighted to share it. Same with all his pursuits, from tennis to swimming to leatherwork to orchid-collecting to weight-lifting to yoga. He practiced them avidly but didn’t impose any of them on us—except when he took up Maharashtrian cookery; then we were glad to be his guinea pigs as he worked his way through the cookbook.   

Thinking back to Andrew as a young father, he plunged into the new and unfamiliar role even before our son was born, attending birthing classes with me and driving me to the hospital in the snow with a midwifery manual in the back of the car. He gave Baby Nikhil his first bath—I was too afraid that I might scald or drop him—and pampered me so much after the birth that I didn’t have to change a single diaper for at least two weeks.

When we lived on the farm Andrew always played actively with little Nikhil and Eric, making building blocks for them and building teeteringly tall towers with a string tied to the bottom block for the boys to yank gleefully and cry out, “Accident!” Guess who picked up all the blocks every time only to build them up all over again? (It certainly wasn’t me.) In the winter he helped the children make snowmen and a built a Zamboni to smooth the ice on the pond so that we could pull them around and around on sleds. In the early spring he took them with him to tap and collect the sap from the maple trees; and in the summer he trundled Nikhil to the garden to pick tomatoes in the little red wagon. He built an easel that was permanently set up in Nikhil’s room with a fresh sheet of paper and watercolors at the ready, where Nikhil drew his first stick figures and, after watching 101 Dalmations, a terrifying painting of Cruela de Vil with fingernails almost as long as her hair.

Later, when Nikhil was a schoolboy, Andrew carved and decorated wooden swords and shields for him and, at one memorable birthday party, made a sword for each and every one of his friends. When he had map-making or model-building homework for school or Cub Scouts (which were notorious for assigning complicated projects like go-carts that only the parents could make), Andrew was right in there with him, problem-solving and thinking it through systematically. He assistant-coached when Nikhil was in Little League baseball and again, in high school, for Ultimate Frisbee. I don’t think he missed a single one of his games.

My first job after completing my graduate studies was too far away for a daily commute, so for several years I had to spend two nights a week away from home. During those years Andrew was responsible for getting Nikhil up and off to school on time. The task became progressively harder, since teenagers are notoriously sleep-deprived. Because Andrew couldn’t bear to jolt Nikhil out of bed he would invariably let him sleep a little longer, missing the school bus. In senior year of high school I don’t think there was a single day that Andrew didn’t drive him to school in the morning, even though the bus came to the door.

how to cut a pomegranate (az cookbook.com)

Looking back, I see that Andrew was the laid-back parent where I was the anxious one. When I fussed and fretted too much over homework, a messy room, troublesome teachers, or college applications, Andrew would find a way to defuse the tension. During the seven months we lived in India while I was doing my dissertation research, Andrew played cricket with Nikhil and his cousins, bought and filled brass pichkaris (super-soakers) for playing Holi, learned and showed Nikhil how to break open a pomegranate into a perfect star-shape. I, on the other hand, was making sure that he addressed all his aunts, uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles correctly or that he ate using his right hand (hard, that, since he was left-handed).

While I graded student papers or sat for hours at the computer, father and son would play boisterous games of darts and watch movies together (some of which I might not have approved of had I been there). Later, when Nikhil was a budding filmmaker his dad was his biggest fan and supporter, always on hand to make or repair anything that needed his carpentry or design skills, taking on every project as if it was his own; later still, reading his screenplays and giving him feedback; or dreaming up his own movie plots and sending them to Nikhil; or making bound notebooks for every member of the cast and crew.

As a father, Andrew was very like my own dad in one respect: he would never force his child to do the things he himself did, especially chores that involved hard physical work. While many fathers would make their sons mow the lawn, shovel snow, chop firewood, or work on the car, Andrew would quietly go out and do all those jobs himself, giving Nikhil the time and space to develop his own interests and skills.

This Father’s Day, I honor my own father and the father of our son. Even at times when they themselves may have been struggling, they remained loving, active, and supportive presences in their children’s lives; they both gave of themselves unsparingly without pressuring their offspring to follow in their footsteps; and they both took tremendous pride in their children’s accomplishments. It’s going on five years since my father passed away, but hardly a day passes when I don’t remember something he taught me or smile at one of his exploits, sayings, or quirks. It’s going on fifteen years since our son grew up and left home, but I feel sure that he could say the same of his dad.

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498. Remembering Mum on Mother’s Day

In Aging, Family, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work on May 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm

                Mum’s bleeding hearts

On this glorious early-May Mother’s Day, I sit in bed with my second cup of tea, thinking of my mother, who passed away three years ago. Though she is still very much with me, I so miss the quality of her active presence in the world—my world. As I contemplate retirement and feel overwhelmed at the very thought of all that must be done to prepare for it, I think of Mum, who plunged into every task and saw it through with determination. She worked so hard to make life for our family easier than it had been for her and her brothers and sisters when they were growing up, and even when she could have sat back and rested on her laurels she couldn’t let go of the lifelong habit of hard work. The house my parents bought at retirement was the biggest one they had ever owned, but Mum never even considered hiring anyone to clean it. She did it all herself until Alzheimer’s Disease prevented her from doing it any longer.

Dad told me a story about Mum from the time when they were first courting. Visiting the flat that he shared with another bachelor, she was shocked at the state of it. She entreated Dad to let her clean it for him, and he eventually acquiesced, although he had some qualms about allowing his girlfriend to do such dirty work. But for Mum, work was never dirty, and cleanliness was next to godliness. Dad said that when she was done he could hardly recognize the flat, sparkling clean; and when his roommate returned he was absolutely astounded.

Mum didn’t limit her cleaning to her boyfriend’s digs, but also took on his washing and ironing. Again, Dad said he made an effort to deter her, but I suspect it was a rather feeble effort, because he loved dressing well, and must have found it hard to maintain his own high standards in that tiny apartment in cold, damp, sunless London. Mum took his shirts away with her and returned them to him spotlessly clean—washed, dried, aired, and ironed.

All this Dad told me in wistful tones, as if he hadn’t fully appreciated all Mum’s hard work through the years. Even as the Alzheimer’s took hold, she continued to try to clean the kitchen, tearing off strip after strip of paper towels and wiping down the countertops with an energy born of the frustration that she was unable to do more. At first Dad, thrifty as both our parents were, was annoyed by the number of paper towels Mum was wasting, until I pointed out to him that she was only trying to hold on to some remaining control in her own kitchen, most of which had been taken away from her. As was always his way, Dad was instantly penitent, and never complained about waste again.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before Mum couldn’t even wipe down the surfaces anymore, turning instead to untangling and smoothing down the fringes on the woven placemats as she sat at the dining-room table. For my part I remembered wistfully how, before Alzheimer’s, she would race to wash all the pots and pans before sitting down to dinner while we entreated her to join us so that we could begin our meal without guilt. She did this because she knew that after the evening meal was over and it was time to relax in the living room, she would instantly fall fast asleep, exhausted, even while her tea was still hot. For Mum was a lifelong early riser, up for hours before the rest of us even stirred in our beds. The only exception was Baby Nikhil, also an early riser in those days. Whenever we were staying over at our parents’ house, Grandma Gladys—or GG—would play with him energetically while I, never a morning person, took my own sweet time to get myself in gear.

Mum, detail from one of Dad’s paintings

So here I am on Mother’s Day, looking out at the garden and contemplating my To Do list. Thanks to dear Andrew I have now breakfasted and had both my morning cups of tea. The bird feeder and bird bath are full, freshly-potted marigolds glowing orange in the courtyard, and sunlight streaming in through all the new Spring greenery. Mum would have loved to sit out on the terrace with me underneath the umbrella, bird-watching or doing the Times crossword. To be honest, though, with the exception of her first cup of coffee at the crack of dawn when her mind was the sharpest and she would whizz through even the hardest crossword in record time, she never sat still until, perhaps, late afternoons in retirement. Then she would join Dad under the umbrella in the back garden, her flower garden in full bloom, enjoying a cold glass of her favorite Miller Lite and, finally, allowing herself to look upon her handiwork and see that it was good. Here’s to you, dear Mum!

NB: Lest you get the impression from the above that Mum was all work and no play, nothing could be further from the truth. She had a passion for life and, ever restless with the status quo, longed to live it more fully than ever. Endlessly interested in people, she tended to make friends with women much younger than herself because she was forward-thinking and young at heart. She adored children and never tired of making up games to play with them. She never stopped teaching or learning either. Mum loved music and dancing, as I have written in other posts. And she never could resist a Kit-Kat.

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496. Dancing in the Street

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2021 at 3:26 am

This is the fourth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Dancing is movement and movement is change. Dancing in the street is an inherently liberating idea because it moves from a private, contained space to the public thoroughfare. When people get up and dance, circulation happens, and circulation is anathema to stagnation, segregation, incarceration, a threat to the status quo in any number of ways. Of course, circulation is essential to life, and dancing, more than anything else, is life.  

There are dozens of dance-related idioms in English alone: it takes two to tango, give it a whirl, be or to get in the groove, tread on someone’s toes, step out of line, be footloose and fancy free, light on one’s feet, get off on the wrong foot, sweep someone off their feet, look lively, and strut one’s stuff, just to name a few. None of the above are particularly anachronistic, with the possible exception of in the groove, with its origins in gramophone or phonograph records, which released the sound when the record player’s needle, or stylus, came into contact with the rotating surface of the grooved record (originally shellac, and after the 1940s, vinyl).

How does dancing figure in my personal A-to-Z of anachronidioms?

My mother loved dancing–in fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she lived to dance. My father loved music, but far preferred to tap his feet and watch. In post-war London of the late 1940s and early 1950, before she got married, Mum used to go dancing every week with her best friend Lily. They would go to the movies every week as well, or as often as they could afford, to see American films, mostly, with Frank Sinatra and other heartthrobs of the time. Bill, my eldest cousin and eleven years my senior, remembers jiving with his cool Aunt Glad to Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and the Comets. That must have been in 1956, when, if I was two, Bill was turning thirteen. Mum knew loads of different dances and was always learning new ones. Parties in those days always featured music and dancing—in fact, dancing was the whole point of the party as far as she was concerned. When there was no one at home to dance with, Mum would rub two rags in floor polish, attach them to her feet, and dance, polishing the parquet floor as she did so and, in place of a partner, swinging round the column in the middle of the living-room floor.

Three dance-related idioms have a special meaning for me, and are anachronistic in the sense that they take me right back to a bygone time. The first calls up my (non-dancing) father and one of his favorite expressions. I hadn’t thought of it for years until I was brainstorming for today’s entry: to make a song and dance. It means to make an unnecessary fuss about something, to make a production out of it. Dad was characteristically short-tempered, and he used this when he was annoyed with someone who, instead of just getting something done, made a song and dance about it, or—another expression of his—a hoo-ha, a big fuss over nothing. (I never got the impression that Dad approved of Mum’s swooning over the song-and-dance men of the silver screen, He certainly didn’t care for Frank Sinatra, and I can’t help think it had something to do with Mum loving him so much.)

The second of my triad of dance-related anachronidioms: to put on one’s dancing shoes. This means, to get into a positive frame of mind or to get ready to party. For me it will always and forever be associated with the summer of 1963, our third and last summer in Athens, when I was nine years old and my parents took us to an open-air movie screening (not a drive-in, no-one had a car) to see Summer Holiday, starring the British pop singer, Cliff Richard (now Sir Cliff Richard–the Queen has a soft spot for him). In it, our hero and his boy band rent a red double-decker bus and drive overland to Greece in it, finding romance along the way, of course. Put on Your Dancing Shoes was one of the movie’s many musical number. I cringe as I watch it today—it hasn’t aged well; but back then, it was pure romance.  

My third dance-related anachronidiom, two left feet,  takes me back to 1967 in Gangtok, Sikkim, and the kind of shame that makes one’s cheeks burn. I was just 13, a particularly self-conscious age, and visiting a school friend over a week-long break when her parents invited some young members of the Sikkimese royal family over for the evening. It was embarrassing enough to be introduced to these princelings in my early-teen clumsiness, but the nightmare began when it was suggested that some entertainment was in order, and that entertainment was ballroom dancing. I froze; the only dance I knew how to do was something called the African Twist, that some exchange students from the U.S. to our school in India had taught us. Somebody put on a record, paired us up, and announced a foxtrot.

I won’t dwell on the awful details. I couldn’t do it; couldn’t even fake it. He knew it and I knew he knew it, although he was terribly well brought up and smoothed things over with the utmost finesse. Of course his princely education must have covered ballroom dancing, but that didn’t help; it wasn’t in my repertoire and it takes two to foxtrot. Two left feet on my part, and some treading on toes into the bargain.

Martha and the Vandellas (Photo: Motown/EMI-Hayes Archives)

There is another category of dance-related anachronidioms: song titles. They epitomize a particular moment in time and their very opening notes conjure it up. Some of them resonate deeply, cutting across nations, classes, ages, races, genders, rising to the status of anthems. When the song’s title is also an idiom, it is all the more evocative. For me these songs would have to include two by Bob Marley and the Wailers: Get Up, Stand Up and Lively Up Yourself and Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul. But the one I want to pay tribute to today is the Motown hit Dancing in the Street, sung by Martha and the Vandellas, co-written by producer Micky Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, and Ivy Jo Hunter, and released in the explosive summer of 1964. Motown was in the business of making hits, not revolution, and they were very good at it. They swore that the song was just about city children in Detroit taking the caps off the fire hydrants during the heat of the summer, and its promotional video featured crowds of young people, almost all white, groovin’ to the beat; but something about the song made it a call to action, despite the best efforts of the record company.

Martha Reeves told the story in an interview during the summer of 2020, when the entire nation was swept by protests following the killings of Armaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Tayor, Jacob Blake, and too many more. According to music critic Jim Farber, writing in the Guardian:

Right after she recorded the exuberant anthem in July of 1964 as frontwoman of Martha and the Vandellas, it became a worldwide smash, selling millions of copies while serving as the song of its summer. At the same time, its lyrical “invitation across the nation … for folks to meet” in the street – matched to a melody and vocal as urgent as a clarion call – soon took on a second, more pointed, meaning. The transformation took place during the long, hot summers of 1964 and 65, “when riots broke out, in every city in the nation”, Reeves recalled. “Just like now, the police brutality and the government trying to control black people, prompted the uprising that was a revolution.”

I first heard Dancing in the Street in 1968, from those American exchange students from Detroit (or was it Chicago?) at our boarding school in India, the same ones who had taught me the African Twist. I had never heard any Motown before that. I had never heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, either, until his assassination was announced at the school assembly one April morning, and Laura and Joanne burst into tears. It was clear that there was a great ferment taking place back in the United States, a country that I didn’t know I was to migrate to in less than two years. By the time I got to the United States and heard more Motown at parties in college, it was the sound of white nostalgia. Inevitably, at a certain point in the party, usually quite late, someone would put on My Girl, and all the merriment would grind to a halt. There would be an almost religious hush, followed by an ecstatic singalong; and I would just stand there, alienated, because My Girl didn’t mean anything to me. It was just an anachronism; unlike Dancing in the Street, which was part of my history, even if only at second hand.

Did I mention that besides all of the above, dancing in the streets is a dance-related idiom? It means being extremely happy. Fully alive.

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494. Britishisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Childhood, culture, Education, Family, history, Stories, Words & phrases on April 2, 2021 at 10:57 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Of course one can’t generalize about a country’s idioms. What figures in one’s speech depends on class background, education, geographical region, and age, and a whole host of other variables. Although I only lived in England for short periods of time when I was very young, I also attended the British Embassy School when we lived in Athens, and my parents insisted on my speaking Standard English (along with Received Pronunciation, or RP) at home. So, ironically, my speech was more “English” than many of my British peers who had never left the country.

In school at age 9 I was learning not only decimals—centimetres, metres, and kilometres, grams and kilograms—and British measures: inches, feet, and yards, ounces and pounds; but also, for good measure, hundredweight (cwt) and tons, pecks and bushels. And, of course, until 1971, there was still the good old LSD (pounds (£), shillings(s), and pence(d)). (By the time I returned to India at age 9½  we already had the decimal system of 100 np (naya, or new, paise) to the rupee, but we still used the old system of 16 annas to the rupee as well, so that four annas were equivalent to 25 np.)

Here’s the kind of problem we might have had to solve in my British maths class:

Find the total cost of 2 ½ cwt. of metal at £2 3s. 6d. per cwt., plus a total charge of 4s. 6d. for cartage.

Cartage, I ask you!

But I’m digressing. I was supposed to be talking about anachronistic Britishisms. I ask you (meaning, Isn’t that ridiculous?) is probably one of them.  

Apropos of archaisms, back in the 1960s we were still saying, Give him a inch and he’ll take an ell, and learning what an ell was, just in case, even though “mile” had replaced “ell” by 1900, more than half a century earlier.

Having come from a working-class background—dire poverty, if truth be told— my mother and her siblings were possessed of an acute class consciousness and a strong sense of working-class pride. As such, they also had a nose for anyone putting on airs. When my imposing Aunty Bette put on her best fur coat and sailed out on the town with her head held high, Mum would call her beautiful elder sister “Lady Dunabunk” (though not to her face; she would never have dared). Apparently the more common expression was Lady Muck, with the scoundrel Lord Dunabunk as her male counterpart. The expression dated from the era of the Great War, which is about right, since Aunty Bette was born in 1919. The matriarch of the family, she died just over a year ago, going on 100, on the eve of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

On a lighter note, but speaking of contagious diseases, a Britishism that became popular in the year of my birth, but whose origin is lost in the mists of time is the dreaded lurgi (or “lurgy”). It refers melodramatically to any disease that’s catching but not fatal. My cousins Jacky and Carol used it and must have learnt it from their father, my Uncle Ted. I had rather assumed that it was a family joke, until I looked it up just recently and found that it had been popularized on The Goon Show, in Series 5, Episode 7 (November 1954), Lurgi Strikes Britain. That zany BBC radio comedy show (1951-1960) with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and others inspired Monty Python and a whole generation of British comedians and artists—including John Lennon. The dreaded lurgy is still in circulation in the U.K. (along with a contagious disease that is, sadly, a lot more fatal), but British readers will have to tell me whether you think it’s becoming archaic.

This journey through obscure and anachronistic Britishisms has been scattershot and highly idiosyncratic, but what else could it have been? It’s sad to think that the expressions of our parents’ generation are falling out of use, and yet it’s delightful when they crop up unexpectedly in the strangest places. I miss the expressions that only Mum would use, such as calling someone “slomocky” or a “Slomocky Maureen.” I never asked her to define it but to the best of my understanding it referred to someone who was slatternly, slovenly, unkempt, or uncoordinated. It can be found sporadically in newspapers and books dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s well on the way out.  

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492. Notting Hill Bedsitter, 1950s

In Britain, Family, history, Immigration, Music, Stories, Words & phrases on February 13, 2021 at 10:30 pm

Notting Hill Gate, 1956 (Dave Walker, The Library Time Machine)

One day in the last year or so of his life, Dad told me about digs he’d shared in Notting Hill while he was living in London. I was surprised, because although Notting Hill, a district of West London, was known for its bedsitters, I hadn’t realized until then that Dad had ever lived there. This would have been before the Notting Hill riots of 1958 and well before the start of the Notting Hill Carnivalsound stages, masquerades, revelry—held on the streets defiantly, joyfully, triumphantly, every year since 1966, on August bank holiday weekend.

Notting Hill Carnival: Our History (nhcarnival.org/nhcs)

I knew that the district had been home to many West Indian immigrants after the War, but was not aware that Irish, Asian Indians, and Africans new to England had also found lodgings there. As for my father, I had thought that when he was in England as a young man he had always lived in North London, in and around Belsize Park, near Hampstead, the favorite haunt of my mother and her siblings, and Kentish Town, where Mum was born and lived until she and Dad got married.   

Anyway, Dad’s Notting Hill flatmate was a nice enough fellow, but not someone Dad knew well, not a personal friend and neither a fellow-architect nor a fellow-Indian. He was, however, a heavy drinker. Apparently, no sooner had he finished off one bottle of booze than he would open another, and the empties were all stacked along the walls of the bachelor pad.

One day, Dad invited a friend from work over. As soon as his workmate stepped into the flat, his eyes fell on the enormous pile of empty liquor bottles. He couldn’t help but burst out, in utter astonishment,

“Cor blimey, stone the crows!”

Since Mum was a Londoner, of course I knew the origin of cor blimey, but I had to look up stone the crows. I’m sorry for the eponymous crows, but I think he was just terribly surprised. Sixty years later, and Dad had never forgotten his words. 

I should have asked Dad more about his life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. He was making history, a history which I now study with a more than scholarly passion.

                                     Stone the Crows (phrases.org.uk)

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