Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Family’

433. No particular place to go

In Education, Family, people, Stories on May 12, 2019 at 2:20 pm

For the first time ever I’m starting a post with nothing particular in mind. It’s a cold, rainy Sunday, and there’s a pile of student papers waiting on my feedback. It wasn’t on my radar that rain was forecast, so when I woke up the cushions on the outdoor furniture were soaking wet and I’ve brought them indoors to dry on a tarp and turned the heat on for the first time in a couple of weeks. There’s laundry to do, and a long To Do list. But the past two days have had more highs and lows packed into them than I can process, so after a Sunday morning lie-in I’ve made a pot of tea, eaten the last Digestive biscuit with my first cup, and am sitting at the dining table looking out at the raindrops dripping off the pine needles and onto the ivy.

Andrew just texted a Mother’s Day message from a family breakfast in New Jersey. He and my sister-in-law Vera will soon be heading back from the funeral of John, Andrew’s dear cousin Juliana’s lovely husband, who passed away earlier this week. I rode down with them on Friday for the wake, and rode back with Nikhil and Melissa for my nephew Tyler’s graduation from UMass Amherst. It was a fittingly overcast Friday in New Jersey for the wake, and a fittingly glorious early-May Saturday to celebrate our graduate with all the trees on the campus dressed in their Spring finery. So, two days of sharing rites of passage; first with Andrew’s family—all his siblings, Juliana, her beloved and dearly remembered sister Nadia’s two sons, Matt and Phil, who were there to support their aunt every step of the way, Nikhil, who had his car totaled at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel on his way down and had to get it sorted and then drove down with his girlfriend Melissa in her car. Thank goodness no one was hurt. So many memories, since Juliana and John’s wedding 45 years ago was one of the first big occasions I celebrated with Andrew’s family, and Juliana and John had held the family together, always inviting the elders, hosting Easter feasts at their home, and meeting at Mount Olivet cemetery on Cemetery Day (the first Sunday after Orthodox Easter) where we would visit all the graves on both sides of the family. Yesterday Andrew and the family, including John’s two brothers and their families, drove from the funeral home to the church for the funeral, then the church to Mt. Olivet for the burial ceremony, then out for a meal together, and finally back to Juliana’s house. As the Ukrainians say, Memory Eternal!

For our part, Nikhil, Melissa, and I took our leave on Friday night for a long drive back to Amherst in the rain and a few short hours of sleep before heading down to the Mullins Center the big indoor stadium at UMass where justly-proud parents Sally and Kevin had saved us seats, a brass band was playing and everyone was in celebratory mode. We cheered Tyler as he processed in in his robes and accepted his diploma in Environmental Resources Conservation (with a minor in Environmental Science) and then went on to celebrate at a department reception, a last lunch at his dining hall (the food at UMass Dining was deservedly voted #1 in the country), and finally basking in the afternoon sun on our terrace with the Man of the Hour popping a bottle of bubbly for a toast. Mum and Dad would have been so proud and so happy to see us all together.

Now I know why I don’t start my blog posts with no particular place to go (thanks, Chuck Berry). I wrote and posted a piece almost every day throughout the month of April, hoping that it would jump-start my blog again after it had been lying fallow for more than two years, since my parents’ deaths. I’d like to return  to writing a new story every week; but for now, I’m still sitting here at the dining table looking out at the rain and my first cup of tea has gone cold.

It is Mother’s Day, and a day to honor my dear mother, who passed away a little more than a year ago. I spent an hour in bed this morning looking through photographs of Mum to post on my Facebook page, but eventually gave up. Instead, I’ll light a candle for her and remember her sweetness. Her Easter cactus, a gift from Kimberly, is blooming, and on Friday Andrew picked a posy of flowers for me, including some of Mum’s primroses, which come up anew every year.

Now I know why I started writing this morning, although it took me a while to get here.

Love you, Mum.


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418. J is for Journey

In blogs and blogging, Books, Family, Immigration, postcolonial, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 13, 2019 at 1:22 am

I have just received the sad news that dear Nana, my paternal uncle, just two years younger than my father, has passed away in India. He was the last of my seven uncles to complete this life’s journey, four on my father’s side, three on my mother’s. Nana was a high-court judge, who commuted to work by train on Mumbai’s fantastically busy locals for years, long after most people retire. One day, during catastrophic monsoon flooding, he went to work but didn’t return. He was in his eighties by now, mind you, and the family were beside themselves with worry. Nearly 20 hours later he called from a family member’s house many miles away. He had had to get off the train and walk for hours in chest-deep water.

In 2007, the year he turned 80, when my father was 82, Nana came to visit, with Tarakaki my aunt, and their 13-year-old grandson Prathamesh. In all the years Dad had lived out of India, Nana was only the second of his seven siblings to visit him, and Dad was overjoyed. He waited on him hand and foot and delighted in serving him fresh, local corn-on-the-cob, which Nana loved. After dinner, they would sit side-by-side, reading the newspaper—they were both avid readers—thoroughly content.

The last time Dad had travelled back to India was in 1996, the year my nephew Tyler was born. On his previous journey back, 12 years earlier, he had missed his first grandchild’s birth, Nikhil having arrived a couple of weeks before he was expected; this time he was determined to return in good time, so as not to miss this second birth. Before returning, though, he was able to participate in the celebration of his brother Nana’s grandson’s second birthday. As it turned out, it was his last trip to India. He was 72 by then, and India, especially the cities, had changed quite a bit since 1984. Dad was deeply shaken by the whole experience and when he returned he said that it would be his last visit. He never fully explained why, but said that it was the noise and the crowds and the pace of life, and the pollution. He had taken a videocamera with him to film the family and when he returned we were eager to see what he had recorded. To our disappointment, the screen was completely black. “What happened?” I asked, with dismay.
“Shhh, listen,” he said, impatiently, as he did when I made gratuitous comments while he was watching TV; “Can you hear the bird singing?”
It turned out that he had risen in the dark to sit quietly on the back verandah to record a bird that sang before dawn.

I kept asking Dad if he would return to India with me, promising to take him directly from the airport down to his peaceful family home; he shook his head decisively.
“But don’t you miss your family?” I asked insensitively.
“Of course, I do,” he replied, annoyed that he needed to explain to me at all. “But I have made my life outside India. If I thought about how much I missed my brothers and sisters all the time, I would only be miserable all the time. How can one live like that?”


Reading, my lifelong passion, is, happily, essential to my profession as well; and transcontinental journeys feature centrally in many, many works of postcolonial literature. “The Third and Final Continent,” the last story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Interpreter of Maladies, has always been my favorite. In it, an Indian man arrives in America in 1969 at 36 years old to start a job at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had left India to study in England five years before, right after cremating his mother. Then he had returned to India briefly, to get married, before leaving again for the States. For the first six weeks he rents a room in the house of an ancient, idiosyncratic old woman, who, despite her crotchetiness, becomes family of a kind. When his wife receives her green card she joins him, almost a stranger, since they had been married only a few days before he had left for America. They get to know each other, alone in this new country. With her, he makes a home in the States, has a son, and grows old. The old woman dies, “the first death I mourned in America.” All the rest of the elders in India die too. This country is his third and final continent. It is a quiet, sad story, but it always touches me deeply. It ends like this:

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the last. Still, there are times when I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.


Dad’s journey, Nana’s journey, each long and noble. Both were highly intelligent, independent-minded men, but also family men. Both had two children and two beloved grandchildren. Both had strong, loving, highly capable wives who took care of business every day so that they had time to dream a little. I don’t know if Dad was amazed and bewildered by the ground he had covered in his lifetime, but whenever I think of it, I certainly am. Everything was harder then; tickets could not be booked with the click of a computer key; you had to go and stand in line for hours. Take-out could not be ordered carelessly if you didn’t feel like cooking; you couldn’t afford it, and even when you could, you wouldn’t dream of wasting your hard-earned money on it. That money he saved for his and my mother’s old age, and to pass on to us when the time came. But now the time has come and he is no longer with us in person. His journey, this stage of it, at least, is complete, and he has passed the torch to the next generation.

Rest In Peace, dear Nana-kaka.
Heartfelt thanks to our parents’ generation.


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396. Missing Ted

In Family, people, places, poetry, Stories, United States on March 18, 2017 at 2:56 am

My father-in-law Theodore (Ted) Melnechuk passed away on March the first, at the age of eighty-nine. There is a void where he once was, and we cannot fill it. Science writing was his profession—neuroscience writing in particular, but his interests and expertise were broad and eclectic. Poetry was his avocation, and he loved form in verse, from sonnets to limericks, which he wrote daily, for years, thousands of them. He wrote a poem for every occasion in our lives, on my mother-in-law Anna’s birthday and their wedding anniversary and, also for Anna, every Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. He was kind enough to read and edit all my writing for years, and I still follow his rules about the serial comma, the adverb following the verb, the title of an essay stating its thesis. Gently, he pointed out some of my tendencies to verbal excess, noting only that a second adjective tended to cut the impact of the word in half rather than doubling it. Once, wistfully, he expressed a wish that I would evaluate literary works for their intrinsic beauty, the way he had learned to do, rather than merely interrogating them politically.

For more than 40 years he marked, clipped, and sent me and many others articles of interest from The New York Times, which he read religiously every morning. He read the print issue, of course, and if for any reason it was not delivered he would fret, fume, make phone calls, and eventually drive down to the newsagent’s to pick up a replacement copy. Only then would his day take its proper shape.

Ted loved words, puzzles (crossword and jigsaw both), word games, games of all kinds. Puns, anagrams, acrostics, homonyms, palindromes, all endless sources of pleasure. He loved playing games with his children and together they made up their own idiosyncratic rules for them. In the ten years after his beloved wife, my dear mother-in-law Anna, passed away he had taken to organizing a games day on the third Saturday of every month, when all four children joined him for lunch followed by an afternoon of high jinks and tiddlywinks, Melnechuk-style, followed by Scrabble in teams. Ted always kept score, meticulously, and the family not only kept them in perpetuity, but compared their new scores to old ones, delighting in besting themselves. But the older he got, the less Ted, once super-competitive, cared about winning; he simply enjoyed finding good words, a place to put them on the board, and the company of his children.

Still, as much as he loved his children, my father-in-law had his priorities. He did move up his daily nap time on games days to accommodate the special schedule, but even Games Day had to give way to big football and baseball games; sometimes he would peremptorily announce that it was time for us to leave. Other events that could not be missed: all three of the horse races that make up the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes (on television of course). For every one Andrew and I would receive a cordial invitation to join him half-an-hour before the race began, when we would be given a photocopy of the line-up and invited to pick our first three choices for the winner. Ted would always pick the horses with the best odds of winning, while Anna would pick the names she liked best. Another must-watch ritual was the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day—mostly, I think, because it was held in his native New York City.

Ted loved New York. As a son of Ukrainian immigrants, he was born (in 1928) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended high school at Brooklyn Tech (where even then he brought the arts to a science and technology high school as Editor of their literary magazine), and college at Columbia, where he studied science, took literature classes with Mark Van Doren and wrote poetry with classmates Alan Ginsberg and John Hollander. Although he left New York for Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he followed the New York scene avidly and, as long as he was able, used to travel down to the City with an old friend once a year to go to the opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Amherst he was a member of a group called the Ex-New Yorkers, who used to gather once a month to reminisce about their hometown, choosing a different theme every time.

Also every month, from the very beginning of his stay in Amherst, Ted held a men’s poker game on a Friday night—low stakes, high seriousness. He cancelled the game only once that I recall— the month after Anna’s death. In the last month of his life he moved into assisted living in Amherst, and one of his poker mates moved in soon after. But they didn’t have time to get Poker Night going again in the new venue.

So many daily, weekly, monthly, annual rituals, now all gone. Will any of us ever manage to be as faithful to them? Which of them will we keep up? Now that I no longer receive my regular envelope of clippings from the Times, I must subscribe on my own, though mine will have to be the digital edition. Nights, when I am at a loose end, I will play Canfield’s Solitaire, Ted’s favorite, though I won’t keep a running score as he did. When I need to soothe my soul, I must remember to play music, like Ted, who always listened to classical music on the radio or CD player as he worked at his desk. And on Saturday mornings I will visit the Book Shed at the Amherst town dump to see if there’s anything of interest; but I won’t get there as often, or keep my eyes peeled anymore for British murder mysteries, Ted’s favorites (he went through hundreds of them, some of the best ones many times over, since he claimed that he always forgot whodunit).

His house is empty. This weekend Andrew and his siblings are clearing his room at the assisted living place, where he stayed for only six weeks. He had insisted on continuing to live in his own home, resisting home help, remaining independent to the end. Here is the obituary that he wrote himself; a shorter version will run in his beloved New York Times this Sunday.

Rest in Peace, dear Ted.

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To Dad, with Love

In Notes on October 3, 2016 at 2:24 pm

My father has passed away. It is much too soon for me to write about him; I can’t find the words. But over the years he has figured in many Tell Me Another stories. Taken collectively, I think they convey something of his character, personality, and presence. Here is a hyperlinked list of these stories (with favorites in bold), interspersed with some songs Dad loved and some of mine.

To Dad, with Love

The Yogi of Beals Street

Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam

The Kurta Joke

Hai Apna Dil to Awara

Sucking Lemons and Quoting Shaw

Dhitang Dhitang Bole

So Many Things Have Disappeared

Yeh Raatein Yeh Mausam



Jaggery Coconut, Nectar of the Gods

Mexican Home

The Bay of Biscay and the Gully Gully Man

Ichak Dana Bichak Dana 

Dolls I Have Loved (and Lost)

Aa Jao Tadapte Hain Armaan

The Long Journey

Can’t Buy Me Love

From a Railway Carriage

Lady Madonna

Greece in the 60s: Expats and Other Animals

O Ymittos

Learning to Swim

`    Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki

Cookbooks, Immigrants, and Improvisation

Mera Joota Hai Japani

Avoiding the Plague

Aaj Jyotsna Raate


Lively Up Yourself

Riding Like the Wind

Pre-dawn Adventures

Utha Utha Sakala Jana

Waste Not, Want Not

On Not Knowing the Signs

“Heuch, Heuch!” (and other family lingo)

The Silver Hairpin

What’s in a Name?

An Immigrant’s Reflections on Independence Day

The Mango Room

Across the Miles

The Taste of Home

Doing it Themselves


Slow Food from Way Back

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276. India: Day 5

In Family, Food, India, Inter/Transnational, Nature, people, places, Stories, travel on June 4, 2014 at 7:44 pm


Already five days in India and almost everything I have seen so far has been through the grilled windows of a private home or the windscreen of an air-conditioned car.

banyan through grillework

On these sweltering June days before the coming of the rains it is advisable to rise early, in the relative cool of the morning; to bathe and take one’s first cups of tea with birdcalls and the ringing of the temple bell the only accompaniment. For the first three-four days I was a pampered guest, with special dishes prepared for me and nothing to do but sip tea, chat, and take frequent naps, sleeping in air-conditioned comfort and unconcerned with the work of everyday living. On the fourth day I had to start taking care of at least some business for myself, buying a mobile internet device for my laptop (which I am still struggling to set up) and a SIM card for a mobile phone (still no joy), arranging to get clothes washed and ironed, and venturing out into the pre-monsoon heat on a series of errands.

Today, having eaten breakfast at my youngest atya’s (paternal aunt’s) house, I sit under the fan doing nothing while she cares for her elder sister, now nearly ninety-two years of age and needing almost everything done for her. I recognize all the signs of exhaustion in my youngest aunt, now nearly eighty herself, who does this work out of love, but needs to be persuaded that it’s not more trouble than it’s worth to go through the process of finding a competent and reliable caregiver. Soon I must make my way out to the main road again, to find a coffee shop with wifi (the SIM cards for my mobile internet and phone not having been activated yet) so that I can send an email message to Nikhil before he leaves for the airport and to family members and colleagues in both India and the U.S. who will be wondering why they haven’t heard from me for a few days. I will need to purchase a towel (Indian, not Turkish, so that it can dry quickly), some mangoes while the season lasts (untreated with chemicals—apparently hard to find these days), and sensible sandals that can pound the streets of the city without hurting the feet. I will probably be dissuaded from setting out until after lunch and the hottest part of the day, so that it is likely to be past four pm before I finally manage to get going.

My youngest atya is a fount of folk wisdom. Just now, going into the kitchen to get a tumbler-full of cold boiled water from the bottle in the fridge, she (who takes her drinking water at room temperature) admonishes me, “not to drink while standing up.” But the cleaning lady is washing the floor in the room where I had been sitting, so I sit with my senior atya, who is scratching the prickly heat on the nape of her neck with the tines of a plastic comb. I stop her, blowing on her neck to soothe it, and feeling the skin on my forearms prickling sympathetically.

Atya’s house, which she has lived in for nearly fifty years now, is a many-layered palimpsest (see TMA 219) of family history. Piles of old newspapers, literary magazines, and exercise books (she is a retired high-school teacher), mildewed khadi towels and bedcovers from our family home (sold three years ago), and things I left in her safekeeping six years ago, on my last visit, because I could not accommodate them in my luggage. It is reassuring, if claustrophobic, to be reminded that, in our family as in India at large, nothing ever goes away.

rickshawrideP.S. 6:15 am, Day 6: Against my better judgment I did set out on a quest for a coffee shop with wifi, but returned home defeated, with near-heat exhaustion. (That will teach me not to go out in the noonday sun in June.) However, later, in the cool of the evening, we were successful in a more important quest, finding a reputable dealer with some of the last of the season’s Ratnagiri hapus (Alphonso) mangoes. We returned home triumphantly in a rickshaw, weighed down with two varieties of mango, lemons (for nimbu-pani), small onions (for their cooling properties), and handloom towels (for frequent baths). And I have a “dongle” (a mobile internet device that attaches to my laptop) that is finally registered and coming through with an extremely weak and intermittent internet connection, but a connection nonetheless. Time for my morning tea.

P.P.S. 8:00 am: It’s raining!

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268. Variations, Variety, Vocab

In Britain, Family, people, storytelling, travel, Words & phrases on April 26, 2014 at 4:18 am

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Visiting many different members of my family this month, I have been struck as always by their similarities, since there are traits (generosity, the gift of the gab, short fuses, long memories, hot tempers, no flies on us, worrying, not suffering fools gladly) and tastes (Nature, music, language, learning, books, word games, sweets) that most of us seem to share to some degree; yet, oh, the variations among us! Some of us love our beds while others are virtually sleepless; some of us have learned to accept the things we cannot change, while others of us still stubbornly refuse to do so, even if it means banging our heads against a wall.

My dear Auntie Rene loved her cozy bed so much that during the Second World War she refused to go to the air raid shelter with everyone else when the air raid sirens sounded: nothing and no-one would deprive her of her sleep. Mum has always tended to fall asleep early in the evening (apparently she snored through half of her first date with Dad) but to awaken before dawn, unable to get back to sleep and impatient to be up and doing. Of an evening Auntie Bette won’t answer the phone on principle, even if she is wide awake.

Mum and her two sisters shared a fierce generosity, sometimes to a fault: Auntie Rene, the soul of generosity, was a pushover because she was so soft-hearted; Mum would try to solve everyone’s problems (whether or not they wanted them solved or even thought they were problems); Aunty Bette wouldn’t—still won’t—allow anyone to put one over on her or hers: woe betide you if you cross her.

We all love music. Some of us will sing in dulcet tones; others at the tops of our voices and at the drop of a hat, much to the consternation of our children and all those around us. Uncle Len loved folk music—Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly; so does Uncle Ted, though his taste runs to the more lyrical ballads of a Burl Ives. Auntie Bette is Johnny Cash all the way; Mum, Harry Belafonte. Us cousins are the same, willing to go to great lengths to see a favorite singer or band. As a teenager, Cousin Sue braved the crowds seeking tickets for the Beatles Royal Command Performance in 1963; her strategy, as she told me, an awed 9-year-old, would be to make her way through with a pin. “What if you accidentally pricked one of the Beatles?” I asked. “I’d frame the pin,” came her swift reply. But alas, it was not to be. Cousin Lesley has always made sure that she gets tickets to see the musicians and bands she loves: too many to list, but Eric Clapton is one of her favorites. Back in 1978 my sister Sally prevailed upon Uncle Ted to drop her at the gates of the Watford Football Club in the hopes of seeing Elton John emerge after the match. Her patience was eventually rewarded. When Andrew and I lost out on tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, I wrote to Mick Jagger, with amazing results (see TMA #157, The Day Mick Jagger Called).

Variety is the spice of life. It takes all sorts to make a world. Both no less true for being clichés. We all love language, and between us, our favored vocabulary spans almost a century. Fab and brill are favorites (for some of us more than others!); and for the older generation, so is cockney rhyming slang. Insults and personal remarks are traded freely, mostly in good humor: “you’d make a better door than you would a window,” or “he was behind the door when the good looks were given out.” We’re all made of the same stuff, as Doris Lessing once wrote: variations on a theme, and for me, endlessly fascinating—and lovable.

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245. Welcome Home

In Family, Stories, storytelling, women & gender on February 26, 2014 at 12:43 am

Some five or six years ago I had a dream that left with me a feeling of comfort and reassurance that I had not felt since I was a child and have not felt since. I tried to capture it in writing before it slipped away forever, but where that piece of writing is now I cannot say and the details remain shadowy in my mind’s eye. Let me try once more to approximate the atmosphere, to conjure up even the contours of the scene.

il_340x270.337978823It was a dreary day, late afternoon, and I was out on an interminable round of errands. The row of small, independent storefronts told me that I was in neighboring Northampton, though the daunting prospect of crossing the Connecticut River and finding a place to park usually deters me from going there to shop.  Tired of traipsing, I found myself pausing and lingering at one of the shop windows, which was covered in white sheets as if someone was hanging out her washing indoors. Did that someone invite me in, or did I enter unbidden? I can’t remember. But open the door I did, and stepped in.

Inside, the shop didn’t look like a store—no counter, no cash register, in fact, no goods—but neither did it look like a private home. It was sparse, almost like a stage set, with a single armchair and those white sheets draped about. But it wasn’t bleak; on the contrary, it was the most welcoming place I have ever entered.  The air was warm and moist, but neither stuffy nor humid; fresh, but not draughty or unnaturally perfumed. I paused and looked about me, quietly expectant.

A young woman entered the room with a baby on her hip. She was pleasantly rounded and dressed simply in a white cotton dress, covered by a white apron. Her hair was pulled back softly, dark tendrils escaping in little curls all around. Smiling at me with her open, moon-shaped face, she greeted me as if we were family, gesturing me toward the armchair and moving lithely over to the stove to put the kettle on. Baby beamed.

This is where even such details as are in my recall go hazy. The scene loses focus and I am left only with a feeling of utter acceptance. Nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. I can lay my burdens down, knowing that they are not burdens to her, but carried lightly, all in a day’s work. There is none of that guilt an unexpected visitor can be made to feel because she has caused more work for the woman of the house. She is genuinely pleased to see me, so pleased that her happiness overflows, permeating everything.

The atmosphere is one of ease without a trace of indolence. A large cast-iron pot simmers on the stove, redolent of onions and of thyme. Perhaps it will soon be dinnertime and someone—a man, Baby’s father, perhaps?—will be home as well, but there is no feeling of haste, none of the anxiety that gathers in a household when supper must be on the table by the time Father gets home.


For me there is tea and company.  At her invitation I have removed my winter boots and curled my feet up under me. By and by I will stretch out my arms for Baby and he will reach out to me in return. I’ll dandle him on my knee while his mother gathers in the billowing sheets, dry now, and airs them, neatly folded, on a rack in the chimney corner. But for now I just sit, sipping tea. There is no conversation, but an unspoken understanding. Nothing need be said, nothing need be done. When I am fully rested, and not a moment sooner, I can enter into the pleasantly ordered work of the household.

Am I mother, grandmother, elder sister, friend? Is this lovely, perfectly unselfconscious young woman, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, my deepest self? I only know that I am welcome, so welcome, and I am home.

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205. Weeping Willow

In 1960s, 2000s, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 27, 2013 at 12:04 am


There is a tavern in the town, in the town,
And there my dear love sits him down, sits him down,
And drinks his wine ’mid laughter free,
And never, never thinks of me.

[Chorus] Fare thee well, for I must leave thee,
Do not let the parting grieve thee,
And remember that the best of friends must part, must part
Adieu, adieu, kind friends adieu, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you, stay with you,
I’ll hang my harp on a weeping willow tree,
And may the world go well with thee.
— F. J. Adams, 1891

I don’t remember having seen any weeping willows in my childhood in India, and knew of them only through There’s a Tavern in the Town, a song my mother used to sing. Although she would never have said so to us children, she was probably homesick for England when she sang these old songs. That hidden emotion and the longtime association of the weeping willow with parted lovers imbued my image of the tree with sentiment, deep, but non-specific.

It was not until we immigrated to the United States that weeping willows became a common feature of the cultivated landscape, and not until we moved out to the farm in Winchendon and started homesteading ourselves that we learned of the practical dangers of planting them anywhere near a house.  Although the tree is beautiful—one of the first to turn a delicate yellow, then green, in the early spring—and useful for preventing erosion, it craves water, and its large, thirsty roots gravitate toward septic pipes and storm drains, work their way in through cracks and crevices, and soon block them.

When my parents moved into their current house, there was a small weeping willow down in the far corner of their back field, in the lowest-lying part of their property. It was well away from the house and its roots would be likely to gravitate down and ever farther away, so they let it be. It thrived there, and now, twenty years later, it has filled out the entire corner and grown up to its full, mature height.

The weeping willow (salix babylonica) is native to northern China. Being highly desirable, it was traded along the Silk Route to south-west Asia and Europe, and has now spread worldwide. The tree at my parents’ is now so large that it can be seen from the other side of the world. Here’s how we found out:

My nephew Pinakin came to the U.S. from India for his doctoral studies. When he visited us for the first time and I was driving him over to meet my parents, he asked me excitedly if he could navigate. “You see,” he explained, “I’ve looked you all up on Google Earth.” Sure enough, Pinakin gave me flawless directions across town. When we drew up at the house, he exclaimed with satisfaction, “It’s all here: the house, the fields, and the big tree in the corner!” That weeping willow can now be spotted from India via satellite! I can’t quite describe what that made me feel: the tree that has so long been a symbol of parting and loss is now a landmark that our distant loved ones can seek out, zoom in on, and find us by.

Earlier this evening, in the gathering dusk, when I gazed on that tree clothed in its delicate Spring green, with the last rays of the setting sun lighting the adjacent clouds on fire, I thought of my mother in India half a century ago, long before the days of satellites, singing of her distant loved ones.  When I was a child, I thought that the woman in “There’s a Tavern in the Town” was singing, “I’ll hang my heart [not harp] on a weeping willow tree.” I still think that my version describes best what we have hung on that tree, that continues to seek water and light wherever it is transplanted, regardless of the human heart.

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131. Across the Miles

In 1960s, 1980s, 2010s, Britain, Family, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on December 4, 2011 at 2:27 am

Piccadilly Circus, from Cousin Sue

Throughout my childhood, living thousands of miles from family on both sides, we treasured every piece of mail, especially at Christmastime (see St. Nicholas’ Day). There was no such thing as junk mail, so every single letter, parcel, or card we received was personal, most often from a family member far away. We savored every single new card as it arrived, identifying the sender by the handwriting on the envelope, admiring the stamps (with me eyeing them for my collection), marveling at the colors, the artwork, and the quality of the card stock, reading and re-reading the loving greeting, giving it pride of place in the living room, and adding it to the running count of the number we had received to date. When I set up a household of my own I began sending and receiving my own cards, and still delight in the tradition and treasure all that it signifies.

Stamps from Magical Realms (set of 9), Royal Mail

I wouldn’t dream of imposing any sense of obligation upon people who choose not to send holiday cards, have perforce trimmed down their list, or now send electronic greetings. (This year a dear friend has sent me an electronic Advent calendar, which is bringing me as much delight with each new day as did the paper ones of yore.) I know that my loved ones love me whether or not they send me a card and, given the stress that accompanies the season, have no desire to add to it. Nevertheless, I note the decline of the practice with some sadness, not least because of what it means for the venerable institution of the Post Office.

My season starts at the Post Office with the selection of the holiday stamps, as I weigh the different domestic and international options. The USPS holiday stamps have never been as glorious or imaginative as those from the U.K., but nevertheless one still has the choice between a Christian Madonna and Child, a generic holiday or seasonal-themed stamp, and ones marking Chanukah or Kwanzaa.

Choosing the cards is much harder but also much more fun. I try to choose  UNICEF cards or others made by companies who donate at least part of their proceeds to a charity, but sadly, our town library no longer has its annual UNICEF-card sale and the local stores have a very limited selection of such cards. I can spend hours poring over the options, what with my quirky personal taste and the myriad criteria in choosing cards for all the different friends and family members on my list. If I like the picture on the front, the greeting inside might not be appropriate; the card might be too religious, not Christmassy enough, too ordinary, too American, not American enough, not seasonal enough, or offensive to my aesthetic or cultural sensibilities in some subtle but indefinable way. For many years I chose snowy New England scenes for the New Year’s greetings to our Indian family because I thought that the wintry landscapes might bring with them an agreeable chill (and perhaps would make them glad of the relative mildness of their own winter season). For seven successive years in the 1980s, Eve, Andrew, and I issued letterpress-printed winter solstice cards from Whetstone Press, and every season I search the shops in vain for cards that can measure up to them in my eyes.

Robin Redbreast, from Uncle Ted

Our family in England strive to capture a quintessentially English Christmas for us. Their “Across the Miles” cards liberally feature Robin Redbreasts, pillar boxes, double-decker buses, and blazing Christmas puddings, guaranteed to pull at the heartstrings. Dear Auntie Bette, the family matriarch, invariably sends the biggest Across the Miles card, and often dispatches a second for good measure if she finds one that has a message she prefers or that better conveys the spirit of Christmas Past.

Handmade by Sally (rubber stamps by Stamp Francisco)

A few of our friends make their own cards, and we look forward eagerly to the new edition every year. Friends with small children send us beautiful photos of their beaming faces, and we marvel at how much they’ve grown, thinking fondly back on the days when we still had a child at home. Some, especially the English relatives, send their cards bright and early (Uncle Len’s and Auntie Angy’s was always the first to arrive, making sure to beat the Christmas rush). Others, particularly our Indian family members, send them in time for New Year, and still others, the Ukrainian branch of the family, time them to arrive by January 7th, Russian Orthodox Christmas.

Cross-Country Ski, by Jim Meyer—from Jenny

Every year, no matter how Scrooge-like I resolve to be, the arrival of each new card, carrying across the miles the loving spirit of the person who painstakingly sought it out or created it, ineluctably erodes my Grinchiness, wearing away my resistance until I simply give up and let the magic enter in.

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All!

Dove of Peace, from Imre and Lorna

Across the Miles, from Auntie Bette

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110. The Party

In 1970s, Britain, Food, Music, Stories on May 15, 2011 at 1:28 am

London, early summer, 1974: It was the first party I had ever thrown. My parents had always thrown parties, lively, generous ones with music and dancing and lots of food and drink. At least, they danced in Greece; in the United States, where, to my mother’s disappointment, people their age didn’t dance at parties, they heaped the dining table with enough to feed the guests for a week, served tray upon tray of savory delicacies, and talked animatedly late into the night. When we were children my mother would organize birthday parties for us that our friends remembered for years afterwards, complete with treasure hunts and games like Squeak Piggy Squeak and jeweled jellies wobbling on the plate. Now I was nineteen and all winter and spring I had been living entirely by myself for the first time in a posh studio flat on Albert Street, in the gentrified part of Camden Town. I had promised friends and family alike that before I went back to America I would give a party, and so after my exams were over I set a date and started making preparations.

First I went down to the Friday street market off the Camden High Street, bought pounds of pink, glistening prawns off a man at one of the stalls, and brought them home wrapped in newspaper. Then I procured rice and peas, potatoes and tomatoes, onions, cashews, and raisins and made sure that I had a good stock of spices: cinnamon and cloves, cardamom and coriander, fresh ginger and garlic. Using the recipes for prawn curry and pullao rice that Mum had written out for me before I left for my year in England, I made a huge batch of each, following her instructions to the letter.

I had invited a diverse crowd, including my friend Barbara and her parents Bob and Ruby, our neighbors from the year I had attended high school in the suburbs of Hertfordshire; Cliff and Dot, some of our oldest and dearest family friends, through whom my parents had met; James and Anna, my avant-garde film-maker landlord and his lovely, extroverted wife—an intelligent woman with a certain dizzy, distracted air whom everyone fell in love with; and an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins, even those who weren’t normally on speaking terms with each other, since ours was a close-knit family who loved to feud. I was a little apprehensive about how they would all get on, England being a highly stratified society where people of different classes might live cheek by jowl but would never meet or mingle socially.  But because we were the only branch of my mother’s side of the family who lived out of the country we remained close with almost everyone (I say almost, because even my mother, the peacemaker of the family, was not altogether free of the feuding instinct). But I set my fears aside and instead concentrated on laying on enough food that there would be no risk of anyone going hungry and concocting a prawn curry that would make everybody forget their differences.

The day of the party dawned and preparations went into full swing. My cousin Jacky, who was in medical school up in Liverpool, arrived first. My Uncle Ted, her father, had kept us apart as much as possible, afraid that I, living alone as an occasional student in the big, bad city, might be a bad influence on her, but she disengaged herself from her studies for a weekend and threw herself into cleaning and clearing, utterly disarming my usually taciturn landlord with her openness and charming naiveté.  I changed into my party dress,  a sea-green, clingy cotton-knit nightgown I had just bought from Biba, the fashion emporium on Kensington High Street that I thought the height of sophistication. (Biba was far too expensive for me, but fortunately  I was small enough to shop in the children’s department, which sold the same designs for a fraction of the price.) Finally the guests began arriving, dressed to the nines (especially Auntie Bette) and bearing food and drinks that soon crammed my small fridge and overflowed onto every surface in the small flat, turning my prawn curry and rice into a huge, multi-course feast.

I needn’t have worried about the guest list; soon everyone had shed their coats and their inhibitions, and were all talking at once, huddled on my single-bed-cum-divan having heart-to-hearts, swaying and singing and eating together, filling the kitchen and spilling out into the front hall. The older generation were tolerant and expansive, remembering fondly their Bohemian parties with my parents before my sister and I were born; my relatives flirted with my landlords and my landlords flirted right back. Mothers and daughters chatted and giggled, uncles refilled mugs of beer, and everybody lost count of their helpings of prawn curry, telling me that I had outdone myself and that this batch was every bit as good as my mother’s.

We had music, of course, though I can’t quite remember what we played or who provided the sound system. What we must have sung: surely (Wa-wa-wa-wa) Waterloo, the song by the new Swedish band ABBA that had just won the Eurovision Song Contest a few months before, and some of the older favorites, like Mary Hopkin’s nostalgic Those Were the Days and the Beatles’ mantra-like Hey Jude. I imagine that at a certain point in the festivities the older generation reverted to Cockney rhyming slang and old numbers like (Come, come, come and make eyes at me) Down at the Old Bull and Bush; and I’d like to think that Auntie Bette finally penetrated James’ reserve and showed him how to get up on a table and have a good old knees-up.

At some point the noise, the excitement and, eventually, the fatigue, must have overwhelmed me. I remember only vaguely the first of the guests calling out their goodbyes, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in broad daylight to an empty flat that looked as if a tornado had passed through it. I roused myself with an effort and surveyed the damage. The prawn curry had been completely polished off, but there was still a good quantity of pullao rice and peas left over in my biggest saucepan.  As I cleaned up, a few spoonfuls of it right out of the pot were a instant cure for my morning-after grogginess. (Ever since, a large pot of pullao rice has been a staple at all my parties.)

My tall, handsome cousin Billy came by a little while later that morning and took me out to a full English Sunday dinner at a local pub where, despite the feasting of the night before, my appetite was fully restored the moment I laid eyes on the crisp brown roast potatoes and the delectable Yorkshire pudding. The night before, Billy and his younger sister, my dear cousin Sue—who had been legendary dance partners as teenagers—had jived together, to perfection. My memory of the meal with him is bittersweet, though, because soon afterwards he had a falling-out with the rest of the family and I haven’t seen him since the weekend of that mythic party.

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