The snow whirls thick snowflakes over the houses, and the bare trees resemble silver pins in a downy cushion. The icy gusts of wind that rattled the shuttered windows throughout the night, have since died down. It is late morning. The heavens touch the shingled rooftops, bloated and heavy. It is the week of the worst snowstorm the city has seen for years. The snow spills and spills on buildings and houses and streets and people and sheds and gardens. From inside the house, the entire world appears to be suspended in a snow globe: a white bubble of silence.
We’re all gathered together in my dad’s childhood home, the mud brick house with walls three feet thick and double windows. We are all together – my dad and his six siblings, their spouses, the children – all gathered around the open gleaming casket of my grandmother. She is oblivious to us, her eyes shut, her hands folded on the white silk of her blouse, the blouse she had commissioned from the seamstress for just this purpose: her death, her burial.
We are not alone. There are people everywhere, in this room, in the next, in the hallway. They have come to pay their respects. They come in their Sunday best, with polished shoes, and starched collars.
Manners aren’t forgotten in a time such as this, no matter the weather. They sit and stand and cry and say a word of kindness. They lightly kiss the offered hand of the women, with a quiet: “I kiss your hand madam.” They embrace the men, and kiss them on the cheek. Their voices are hushed, their eyes downcast.
They come with homemade bread and chicken soup and pork sausage. They clear the tiled front steps and shovel the pathway from the courtyard gate to the front door. They chop wood, stack it, and feed the orange mouth of the fireplace. The air is stale with their smell: with the smell of sweat and garlic and sausage.
Grandmother’s sons howl outside the door like little children. They slobber into each other’s necks. Why did their mother have to die? What will they do without her? Who will they run to with their problems – for a word of advice, acceptance, their favorite mutton stew?
In the beginning of it all, when the doctor gathered all six of them and their sister, in the cold blue and white tiled hospital hallway, when he told them to take their mother home, that there was nothing he could do, they seemed prepared. They had the front room cleaned out from top to bottom, dusted the heavy furniture, cleaned the emerald green brocade window drapes, beat the rugs. They ordered the most expensive coffin, packed the pantry with pickled green tomatoes and cucumbers, and called the minister to come and anoint her head for the transition.
They butchered a hog and threw a party, invited family from near and far. Grandmother said her goodbyes unhurried, in a civilized manner, amidst tears and smiles and cakes. Her children sat with her and waited, moistened her parched lips, held her trembling hand, fed her tiny spoonfuls of soup, and positioned her frail body.
But something must have happened to them when she crossed the threshold from the known to the unknown world. Because something in them is out of whack.
They walk in circles and press white-tipped fingers into their temples. They hold on to each other. Their eyes are wild. Their hair stands on end. They moan and rock on the balls of their feet. They are unashamed in their sorrow. They are not the fathers we remember. Their pain scares us. They scare us. They do not see us anymore. They do not see their wives or their friends. They only see each other. They only see their dear mother.
When the adults leave to relieve their cramped legs and bursting bladders, when their stomachs rumble for the world to hear, begging to be fed, the children sneak into the room. We make our way to the coffin, peer into our grandmother’s face. We dare each other to touch her, we move the lips to see if they really are held together by a pin, we imagine we see her eyelids quiver, we giggle nervously that we are so daring near the presence of Death. We run out into the hallway terrified when a loud knocking comes from where her feet should be, and collapse into tears of relief when one of our older cousins admits that he hid under the table to scare us. We get our ears pulled by one of the aunts for our lack of disrespect, get sent into the kitchen to wash the dishes and clear the tables.
Outside the window the falling snow blurs the edges of the acacias across the street. The crows and the ravens begin to croak. The room slowly empties. The fire in the tiled fireplace has died. The crying has stopped. The inevitable moment is here. The horse-drawn glass hearse has arrived. It is time to line up for the funeral march. The minister sends everyone out of the room. This is the uncles’ final moment alone with their mother. They shut the door after themselves. Shut everyone else out.
My sister and cousins and I glue our ears to the cold panel of the door. We hear muffled voices and then, much later, the tap-tapping of the lid being nailed down.
Our mothers seize our arms and pull us away. They bundle us in layers of wool and feathers and send us outside.
Helping fingers point us to where we should go.
Our breaths are smoke in the frozen air, our noses and lips turned to marble. We touch them with gloved hands from time to time, to make sure they are still there. The snow settling on our eyelashes prompts us to imagine ourselves as old people.
We hunch our backs and lean on imaginary canes. We get a fit of giggles and feel guilty for them. So we imagine ourselves old and dying, dead already, and we are serious again.
Family, friends, neighbors, and what seems to be the entire city, are packed on the narrow cobblestoned street, shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to accompany grandmother’s soulless body to its hole in the frozen ground.
“It took all night to dig the hole.” The whisper passes through the crowd. The whisper tickles our ears but makes no sense. We haven’t met Death before. We don’t know he likes to take the bodies with him into the ground.
After the coffin is secured inside the hearse, after the uncles remember to take their places next to their wives, after the wives account for the children, after a moment of silence, we march through the icy streets, led by a brass band.
All children have expectations of their parents. The seeds of expectation are planted in a child’s infancy, by the first cry. From the first: I am hungry, feed me; I am wet, change me; I am scared, protect me; I am hurting, love me, expectations are watered daily, and they grow. The roots go deep. Far into the earth. And whatever the outcome, disappointment follows.
I know all about disappointment, dashed expectations. Mines were dug out, set fire to, and destroyed soon after I turned nine. That’s when my childhood stopped. One day I was a child and the next I wasn’t.
It wasn’t anybody’s fault.
When my parents came to the United States in 1981, with five children clinging to their legs ranging from two years old to nine, they worried more about what things to bring in their allotted two suitcases, than about how they would function in this country. Functioning in the United States, in fact, was never an issue. To their minds they were not the first immigrants and they would certainly not be the last. Besides, they had family here, to secure them a furnished rental house, an automobile, even a job for my father. Within a year or two, with hard work and many economies, they would even be able to buy their own home. So many immigrants with a strong work ethic did it. They would too.
And they did. My father had two, three jobs at a time. He worked from four in the morning to eleven at night. Monday through Saturday. Week after week after week. For years and years. He did this while my mother raised us five, gardened and cooked and drove us to school and to church and to wherever else we needed to go. All because they were determined that their children have a better life than they did. That they’d have better opportunities.
But it was the lack of English skills that they bumped against every single time they stepped out of the house: at the grocery store, at the bank, at the doctor’s office. And as the oldest child in the family, I became their interpreter. A parent to them, in a sense. Their confidant. The one privy to all their secrets and moles and blood clots and financial situations. I had more control over their lives than I understood. And maybe even more than they understood.
While my sisters and brothers chased each other in the rows of vegetables and fruit trees, while they splashed in a plastic blue kiddie pool in the shade of the backyard pomegranate tree, or read books, or played with bits of wood they imagined as dolls and action figures and cars under the scented lemon trees of the front yard, I was translating insurance forms or waiting on the line for the electric company. That’s when the seeds of responsibility were planted. One. By. One.
I did not know any better. I was raised to respect my elders.
If there was any resentment toward them, if there was any resentment that I didn’t have the freedoms of my siblings, it was buried deep within my body, somewhere in my toes, I think. It was the toes that always itched to run away when I heard my name called.
But I never ran. Responsibility had become a vine and I was ensnared within it.
When I was a young child, the summer days stretched endlessly from dawn to dusk. Mornings were always my favorite time: the bright sunshine, the cool air, the quiet. I would fluff up my pillows and open my book. In our overcrowded and busy family house, the best time to read was when everyone else was asleep and no artificial light was needed.
Breakfast was usually a hurried affair of cold cereal and toast, as the day awaited and we all couldn’t wait to get going. The playground awaited. Visits to family friends awaited. Lakes awaited and picnics awaited and barbecues awaited and laughter and fun awaited. There was always something going on. And when there wasn’t, lazy days of reading and sunbathing in the backyard awaited.
No matter how censured I felt as a child and young adult, both by my parents and the church community, my parents did their best to create for us a childhood and youth filled with happy memories and free of financial worry. We weren’t rich. Far from it. My dad worked hard, often three jobs at a time, so that my mom could stay home and take care of us. And it wasn’t easy. I knew it then, and I know it now; being a parent myself, I find myself pulled in all directions. Work. Family. Books. Guilt I’m not at work enough. Guilt I’m not with my family enough. Guilt I’m spending money on books I don’t have time to read. Always on the phone… Or checking my messages… Or sending texts to my employees, reminding them what to do. The list goes on.
Excuses. All of them. I’m sure that on my death bed, the only thing I’ll regret are the days and times I’ve spent away from my kids. These summer days my goal is to be with them as often and as much as I can, and to provide them with a legacy of golden memories. What about for you? What are your goals?
I am sure it wasn’t so, but for some reason I remember all the Easter Sundays of my childhood as sparkling and bright. The long grasses we had picked together with our dad the day before, had been turned before bedtime into fluffy nests, and we found them the following morning to have been visited by the Easter bunny who brought sweets and treats all the way from America. I remember holding hands with my sisters, skipping on the cobblestone sidewalk in front of the house, waiting for our parents to lock up so we could go to church. In my memory, all our Easter dresses were variations of pink or purple, all our Easter eggs were red, and all the hymns sung that early morning in the coolness of the church, sent shivers down my spine.
My family loved keeping to tradition the Friday before Easter, slaughtering the baby lambs we played with and loved, allowing them to silently bleed to death, then turning them into stews and roasts. To this day, none of my siblings like the taste of lamb meat. They had spent too much time chasing a little lamb friend across the yard. We remembered too clearly the horror of their silence as the blood trickled down into the damp spring earth. Children do not recognize the importance of a symbolic ritual, no matter how often they may hear the story repeated.
The family gatherings after church were the best part of Easter Sunday. Uncles and aunts and cousins and close friends, everyone dear, together. The cracking of the colored eggs, the stories told of far away places and long ago days, the silences of stories not dared voiced, the laughter, the desserts. And somehow the sun was always shining and the food was plenty, and the later it got, the greater was the sadness that the day would have to end and Monday would come, and we would miss the togetherness and the memories we had made.
Photo courtesy of hubpages.com
It’s snowing out. From my kitchen window it appears that the lawn furniture and the rose bushes are dusted with a fine coating of powdered sugar. The world is glittery and shimmery and white. I can hear the wind singing in the trees, and despite the cozy room and my hot peppermint tea, I can’t help but shiver at its mournful tune.
Thanksgiving is two days away. I love this holiday, possibly even more than I love Christmas. I love that it isn’t commercialized, and that the focus isn’t things, but family. The hours spent in the company of my loved ones are a retreat for my soul. The pleasure of being together, the savory turkey, the delectable pumpkin and pecan pies, the glow of the stories yet again retold, the moments of calm and grace in the midst of laughter, the innumerable blessings in my life… It is pure joy! And for that I am thankful.
You know those families that only get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Well, our family isn’t one of those. Our family welcomes any opportunity to gather up and sit down for a loud, opinionated meal, and we make all sorts of excuses to come up with a next meeting. Unless, someone is out of town, our family Sundays start soon after noon when church let’s out, and they last for a good four to five hours. We meet in our parents home, the house we grew up in, ushered in from the outside cold by the aroma of soup on the stove and a roast in the oven.
The lady of the house (my mom, or sometimes myself, as I go earlier to help) is responsible for the soup and the main course. The rest bring the bread, the beverages, the salad makings, the dessert, and the flowers. We set the table, without skimping on the details, and sit ourselves down with much deliberation as to who sits where. Somehow we always end up in the same seats we had occupied the Sunday before.
After generous compliments to the chef and a word of grace from the oldest grandchild, we start our meal. And what do we talk about? All sorts of things, really, but we especially love politics. Some of us are liberal, others more moderate, and yet others conservative. However, we agree to disagree because we love each other, and regardless the heat generated by our discussions, we respect the other enough to listen and concede when the other is right. The one thing we all cannot stand though, is the moronic repetition of the closed minded. Every subject brought up needs to permit logical scrutiny. There’s enough unexamined thinking everywhere without adding on more to that pile, isn’t there?
A couple hours into the meal, we retire to the living-room where we deposit our stuffed selves on the velvety couches and chairs, or prop pillows under our heads and roll ourselves out across the floor, cushioned by the thick persian carpets. The discussion by this time is much lighter. We recount stories of our childhood and jokes, and grandpa (my dad) hands out a weekly allowance to the grandkids that has been in effect since the first grandchild was old enough to know what money’s for. The little kids are quite enthralled with grandpa’s method of throwing money up in the air. They scramble this way and that to get their little hands around the floating dollar bills.
It often appears that time has quite stopped while our laughter and merry voices ring out the opened windows. And when it’s time to leave we do so with a bit of sadness. These intergenerational repasts sustain us all in the week to come, and as we leave and pack ourselves in our respective autos, toting plates of leftovers, and buckling children into their car-seats, we call out to each other, “What are you doing this week? Let’s get together for coffee!”
I would like to announce that this Mother’s Day Sunday, my house has officially become the Sunday dinner house for us all. I am so very lucky that my husband does the majority of the cooking. He is really one of the most naturally talented cooks. Ever. Thank you, baby!
The witch lived a few houses down the street. She had red hair, a loud laugh, and her eyes commanded to be looked into. As a little girl, my mom warned me against her. I was never to speak to her, let alone meet her eyes. The woman had placed a cursed hair in the walls of our house. That was why my parents argued far into the night. That was why mom cried and cried. That was why no baby boys were born.
When I was five we moved to a blessed house. A house on the opposite side of town, on a pretty cobblestoned street, with a private courtyard no one could peer into. It had a well in the middle of the back yard, with a pail attached to a chain, a pail my dad lowered twice a day to get our drinking water. There were also rows upon rows of vines my grandfather had planted when my mom was a little girl, and they produced the sweetest grapes.
The awaited baby boys were born there, one after the other, and my dad was proud that he had the heirs needed to carry the family name. The arguing between the adults diminished. My mom came out one day and watched us at play and she was smiling from ear to ear, and although I was only six, I stopped in my tracks and stared at her surprised. I had not seen my mom smile before.
The cursed house continued to curse its inhabitants with sickness and poverty for many years. One early morning it caught on fire and a group of party goers on their way home from a night out, rushed in and saved the family before the roof collapsed.
Slowly the house was rebuilt. It was blessed and its walls prayed over, and the family within it who had lived for so long without so much, suddenly found themselves wealthier than they ever imagined. They bought luxury cars, and even an airplane. They grew and they prospered. The spell had been broken.
Since my mom had been diagnosed with cancer, it had become my duty as firstborn to prepare the Thanksgiving day dinner. With a few years worth of experience under my belt, and the misguided sense of confidence that brings, I no longer worry whether the turkey is moist enough or cooked through.
I have learned one thing about becoming the new family cook, and that is to never vacillate. If the meat is a bit pink, it is so because I meant it to be so, and not for any other reason. There are always a lot of cooks in my mom’s kitchen, and you can bet the opinions fly. Thankfully, no one has gotten food poisoning as a result of my time spent wearing the apron of honor.
Thanksgiving this year has been poignant as my youngest sister and my youngest brother could not attend. Based on our collective recollections, this has been the only Thanksgiving that we didn’t celebrate together. As my nephew said grace and prayed for their safety, wistfulness took over and we spent the better part of the meal reminiscing about other Thanksgivings gathered together around my parents dining table. And perhaps because they were not there, we decided to forgo the pie eating contest at the end of the meal.
Regardless, it was almost three hours later that we pushed our chairs back and retired ourselves to the family room couches and chairs where more of the same talk of politics, relationships, literature, religion and good times continued, while golden pools of light from the lit lamps shone on the blessed faces of loved ones far into the night. Outside the cozy and comforting embrace of our childhood home it was cold and drizzly, a sort of desolate world of wind and water.
And as everyone said their goodbyes and goodnights promising to meet again in the new day, I offered up a little prayer of gratitude for those people that mean so much to our lives, whether they be family or friends, that we cannot imagine a life without them.
Our little family has a ritual on Saturday mornings. Waking up early, the kids crawl in our bed and proceed to wake us with kisses and tickles. We linger in bed, all of us beneath the sheets, laughing and hugging and talking about what dreams we dreamt. Without fail, our daughter’s dreams are about Hello Kitty. Our son’s about some sort of invention, or if not an invention, an alien. My husband’s dreams are about things he can’t remember but little snippets of, and mine about all sorts of crazy and unrealistic things - such as gorging on croissants and losing weight instead of gaining.
After much analyzing of what they could mean, and a few more kisses and hugs, we get up and get ourselves ready to head out to a hearty breakfast. We need fortification for the morning calls for walking and more walking. We are lucky to be able to live within walking distance to some of the best restaurants and shops in the city. And so we walk, whenever the weather and little legs permit. In the Pacific Northwest, sunny summer mornings are the most glorious of all.
I always end up having either an omelette with sauteed wild mushrooms in butter, or a fantastic oversized waffle with fresh berries and cream. Deciding between the two is the most difficult decision of the day. Sometimes I order both and - and as much as I hate to do it - split the waffle with my husband. Because it’s Saturday and ice cream is allowed with breakfast, the kids order chocolate chip pancakes with vanilla ice cream on the side.
And then, because we have to work off all those calories - and really, who wants to spend such a splendid day in the gym? - we head to the Farmers’ Market in the University blocks. What a sight! Baskets of vibrant dahlias in every color. Fragrant lavender tied with ribbon. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries… berries, berries and more berries. Cucumbers, radishes, green onions. Earthy, aromatic wild mushrooms that smell of pines and oaks and damp forest grounds. All of them tucked between stalls of breads, cakes, cookies, and pastries, and those of cheeses, sausages, and wines.
Despite still digesting our breakfast, the pervasive smell of fresh herbs and root vegetables stir at our appetites, and our stomachs begin to rumble in anticipation of the next meal. And being the gluttons we are, we find a shady place to spread our blanket, and give in.
Most of what I know about life, I learned around the kitchen table. Much to the dismay and embarrassment of my teenage self, ours was a family that ate all its breakfasts and dinners together. And while our parents rarely chastened our behaviors in public, home was an altogether different territory. Not only were we repeatedly reminded by the adults to sit up straight, take small bites, thoroughly chew our food, keep our elbows off the table, and not speak with our mouths full, we liked to remind each other as well. Sometimes the younger ones made a point of it, by shoving each other. After which, they were made to stand in the kitchen corners with their arms raised, backs to the room, as a reminder that hands were not given to us for hitting or shoving.
As the years went by everything was discussed around that table our father built, from the Sunday morning sermon (with beloved Tanti Marie doing perfect impersonations of the preacher) to current fashions to whether it was necessary that I get my starter bra. My mother’s traditional upbringing guaranteed us three course meals every day – soup, main course of some type of meat with two sides, one of potatoes, or rice and the other a salad, and to finish it off, dessert. This meant that instead of the normal 45 minutes, it took us an hour and a half to get done eating.
In fact, most of my childhood was spent either eating or learning to cook what we were about to eat. The kitchen was always a hub of activity, and countless times I couldn’t go to where I wanted because no one could give me a ride as they were all busy working on the next meal, or canning, or making preserves, or pickling. Besides that, the three of us girls were needed around the table to shell the peas, or peel the potatoes, or stuff the scooped out tomatoes with whatever stuffing mixture was prepared.
Because they were younger, my sisters got out of it pretty quickly and escaped to the yard with its lemon and orange trees and their dolls and dollhouses made out of shoeboxes. I, on the other hand, had to stay. “How do you expect to get married, if you don’t know how to cook?” My mother, or Tanti Marie, or grandmother would ask. I was only twelve, yet they had a point. Getting daughters married was a goal for my mother’s generation, and I was constantly reminded of it. So I stayed and did my part, and listened to their chatter.
I learned to read expressions and sudden silences. Certain words coupled with certain looks, meant certain things. I wonder if they ever suspected how much they were giving away. Or if they cared.
While I have become a bit more modernized than my mother, and share the cooking with my hubby, I still hold sacred the ritual of eating our meals together. All the essential lessons: good manners, love of family, love of life, are learned around the family table. I hope that this is a tradition that I will pass on to my children, and they to theirs.