Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘reflections’ Category

509. Proceeding by Indirection

In Aging, Books, reflections, Stories on March 17, 2022 at 5:53 am

Samuel L. Jackson in The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray (AppleTV)

I have just watched the first two episodes of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a collaboration between Samuel L. Jackson and Walter Mosley based on Mosley’s 2010 novel of the same name. In it, an old man with Alzheimer’s Disease and unfinished business gets a chance to emerge from the brain fog and recover his memory, but only for a limited time. I recognized and appreciated all the little details that Mosley, who also wrote the teleplay, gets just right. Both he and Jackson have lost loved ones to Alzheimer’s, and it shows.

Given my dear mother’s history with the disease, I suppose it’s natural that I’d be anxious about developing it myself. I can’t help but notice the frequent long pauses when a name escapes me—sometimes in the classroom—and the number of times I mislay my phone. And there is something else I’ve noticed that may or may not be a sign of impending dementia but is nonetheless disturbing: as an idea takes shape in my mind, rather than attending to it until it fully reveals itself, I notice my mind sliding away from it. The idea remains unformed, as when one wakes from a dream one can’t recapture, except for a lingering feeling that refuses to coalesce into anything discrete.

Rather than straining again and again in vain to capture a nebulous idea and give shape to it, I find it works better to simply float with it. As the mind shies away from what is difficult, gently bring it back. Instead of forcing it, play tricks on it. I’m no Freudian but have lived long enough to know the number of times I’ve said exactly the opposite of what I intended to do, put my foot in my mouth enough times that it was clearly no accident. So rather than recapturing a memory by head-on attack, why not do it by stealth, by association, like Freud’s methods that reveal memories the conscious mind prefers to keep buried.

Rather than labeling my tendency to go off on a tangent as an attention deficit, perhaps I can re-frame it an asset. For my mind has always worked best by digression. Take The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey: there’s a character in it named Coydog. The very day before we watched the first episode, Andrew was out walking with a dear friend who is an old Vermonter and the conversation turned to—what? Coydogs. Apparently this is the name Vermonters give to Eastern coyotes, who have interbred with both dogs and wolves. Not having read the novel yet, I don’t know how well the character fits his name, but it’s interesting that the word cropped up twice in two days when I don’t recall ever having heard it before.

Ptolemy Gray has stacks of old magazines all over his cluttered apartment, magazines that used to delight the children who would come over to the house decades earlier, but now are piled so high that they are taking over the living space and making it difficult to navigate. Boy, do I ever recognize this!

As I said earlier, Ptolemy Gray has reasons to clear his head, unfinished business that haunts him. Coydog is one of those warning voices in his head, a figure from his past who keeps showing up with an admonition, though what it is has not yet been revealed. Then there is Sensia, a beautiful woman who is dead but also keeps showing up everywhere. These two will not let Ptolemy go gently into oblivion. They keep making demands of him, demands that he cannot meet in his current condition.

Coming back to my aging brain, and how I might rethink its characteristic functioning in my favor, I remember something I once read to the effect that as we age we may grow fewer new brain cells but the branching of dentrites and connections between different areas of the brain increase. Our reflexes may not be as rapid, our cognitive function not as sharp, but we do have different kinds of intelligence to contribute: insights, structures of feeling, compassion for our younger selves, even something we might venture to call wisdom. After all, we are now the elders, and both individually and collectively we carry the experiences of our generation and of the ones who came before and entrusted theirs to us.

Doris Lessing as an old woman

No one sees the world quite as I do, and that vision is what I have to contribute. This is true for us all, of course, not just me. There is plenty of detritus in amongst the treasure, and that we must clear away. But the treasure is there, and it is the rest of our lives’ work to enable it to be revealed. The dangerously teetering piles of old magazines, the wakings from half-remembered dreams in which someone is trying to tell me I know not what, the haunting howls of coydogs may all just be my own voice reminding me that there is work to be done. But the old means of powering on through will no longer work for me. Henceforth I must proceed crabwise, by indirection.

 

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507. Marking Time

In Aging, Nature, reflections, Stories, Teaching on January 23, 2022 at 11:39 pm

As this Spring semester of 2022 gets underway, every day is necessarily going to bring a succession of ‘lasts’, each one unnecessarily freighted with significance. For I have made the decision to retire. Never having believed in counting down the days before, I hardly know whether I dread getting to the last ‘last’ or whether I can’t wait. My last first day of classes is already history, and already I’ve found myself thinking about the very last meeting of my very last class. Will I tell the students and bring in Indian sweets to share? Or just slip quietly out and away? Can’t allow myself to think about it now.

But when all the ‘lasts’ are behind me, when the inevitable tears of sadness and relief have flowed, I hope there will be a period of blessèd emptiness—before this overactive mind of mine starts in on the ‘nexts.’  

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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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505. My Cup

In Aging, Music, Nature, reading, reflections, Stories on November 11, 2021 at 5:22 pm

   Lu Hersey (Pinterest)

Remembrance Day, 11/11/21. How many dear ones have gone these past few years, and the pace at which they have left has surely picked up, what with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ageing of my generation, and the ageing-out of my parents’ generation. Each one of them a shining light who brought joy to my life. Each one with something for me, a gentle admonition, a pointed joke, a vote of confidence. There is the fear that sitting too long with them risks drowning in a bottomless well of grief. But perhaps there is a different way to think about that well.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the usual busyness of an academic semester, with deadlines advancing toward me in an unending column and the list of unfinished tasks looming ever-longer even as item after item was checked off the top, I was urged to sit for a minute and go inside. How was I feeling? My first response was bewilderment–what a question! I hardly knew, hardly dared to know; even if I wanted to, I didn’t know how. But I gave it a try.

The next thing I knew I was overcome. Everything welled up in me, brimming, and threatening to spill over. Was I about to drown in grief, as I had feared? Dismissing the question, I tried to keep on feeling. This was different, and I wasn’t drowning. As it went on welling up and washing over me, I could only describe it as fullness. Fullness. So much, so rich, this life. So many more that mingle with mine.

This week my class finished reading Toni Morrison’s luminous novel, Beloved, which is ultimately about healing, even from unspeakable grief. (Don’t listen to the haters. This is a novel for the ages.) In it, Baby Suggs, holy, tells the people struggling to reclaim their newly-freed selves, “love your heart. For this is the prize” (86). Not an easy task for people haunted by horrific “rememories” of enslavement (43): for characters like Paul D, who had a “tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut”; or Sethe, for whom every morning began anew the “serious work of beating back the past” (86). And they certainly couldn’t do it alone. 

Letting yourself feel, fully, does risk everything welling up. But with the grief also comes unexpected joy, and immense gratitude for the inexhaustible wellsprings of life.

My cup is running over
And I don’t know what to do
                        (My Cup, Bob Marley)

 

[Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Random House, 1987, 2004.]

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504. Things are looking up

In Books, Food, reflections, seasons, Stories, Teaching on October 13, 2021 at 2:31 am

It was a horrible evening that was looking ahead inexorably to a horrible night. Grading, comments on rough drafts of student essays, and deadlines, deadlines, deadlines, as far as the eye could see. I was already sleep-deprived, and my eyes were burning and heavy with the dull pain of a bruise. They still are, but somehow, despite the long night ahead, things are looking up.

Funnily enough, it started with the stink bug in the hallway outside my office. When I stepped out to get myself a cup of tea from the thermos, there it was, looking young and sprightly, antennae waving airily. My heart sank; it was that time of year. The stink bugs were coming indoors for the winter and, with my luck, they would duly settle in amongst the books and papers in my office, one inevitably materializing on my computer keyboard during a late-night work session and strutting about as if it belonged here. I couldn’t face it, but sidestepped the issue and went down for my refill of tea. It was still there upon my return, but I shut myself into the office and huddled at my desk, insect-like, antennae well drawn in.

I should tell you that I’m starting to teach Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in my World Literature class tomorrow morning, so insects and transformation were on my mind. After a few minutes of huddling, I could distinctly feel my exoskeleton hardening. I could allow this mood to get the better of me or I could do something about it. Taking a plastic tumbler from the kitchen and a square of card stock from my office, I stepped smartly out into the hall again and in one decisive action, swept the young bug into the cup, clapped the card on top, and deposited it outside the front door. It clung to the walls of the cup when I shook it, so I left that outside too; it might need the shelter overnight.

Back in my office I thought about what might relieve this sense of unending gloom. Thankfully, I didn’t have to think long. Today on my drive home from work I had stopped in at the Petersham Country Store and picked up a fresh loaf of locally-made, multi-grain sourdough bread. An open-face Marmite-and-tomato sandwich! Five minutes later, back at my desk with the same workload ahead of me, things are looking decidedly brighter. The stink bug has been dispatched to where it belongs; so has the Marmite-and-tomato sandwich. And oh yes, I chopped a small green chili onto the hot buttered toast before adding the other ingredients.

I wonder what my students will make of The Metamorphosis tomorrow, of a man waking up on a workday morning to find that he has been transformed into an insect overnight? For my part, I feel more human already.

 

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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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