Memoir Musings: The Blanket

“Can we get rid of this?” Pete asks, holding up a faded pink, patched cotton blanket.  The stitching around the edges is unraveling, the label is faded, almost illegible from decades of use.  I look up from the box I am packing with linens and sit back on my heels.  I reach for it wordlessly, almost snatching it out of his grasp.  “What is it?” he’s puzzled, it’s just an old blanket after all.  Shaking my head, I ball it up in my hands, then smooth it out, feeling the incredibly soft fabric after all those years, the memories rushing back like freight trains, relentless, and I am helpless in their path.

I shake my head again, fold the blanket into a neat square and place it gently with the linens in the box.  The next few hours fly by as we box up our life in the San Carlos house, getting it ready for the new owners.  Our last night here, I think, looking around the living room that evening.  “Go to bed,” he says, “I’ve got a few more things I want to do before I call it a night.”  I nod and walk into the bedroom, gingerly picking my way past the debris on the floor.  As I sit on the large, comfortable bed we share with our two greyhounds and three cats, I reach over to the box closest to me and unerringly pull out the pink blanket.  Holding it close to my face, I draw a deep breath, imagining a faint odor of Old Spice and Brylcream.  Leaning back against the soft pillows, I unfold the blanket and watch it billow slightly as I pull it up and over my face.  The overhead light is now diffused, a pink fuzzy glow that grows and grows until it envelops me in its soothing warmth.  As I lay there, my mind picking through the memories, the light lightens, brightens, changes from the warm pink to a stark yellow, harsh, insistent, painful.

The bed is hard and unyielding under me.  I lie there, motionless; eyes open under the blanket, watching the black spots of floaters chase their way across my eyes.  The overhead light seems hot on my face, through the blanket.  I can hear the low murmur of voices in the distance, the occasional ring of the doorbell, visitors being ushered in, the clink of teacups, the long silences, the solitary sob.

I haven’t slept since my nap yesterday morning.  We had come home from the hospital, exhausted, but happy.  Thatha had shown a few signs of improvement: his face was showing more color, his lips moved, and I had felt his hand twitch under mine.  Feeling hopeful, we took the chance to go home and bathe, change clothes, take a nap, and bring Paati back to the hospital.

When we returned, he was gone.

“Those are the typical signs of imminent death,” the doctor said.  “They always look healthy right before they die.  Color comes back into the cheeks, the breath smells sweet…” he shrugged, looked at us, nodded and then left us there, shell-shocked.  I sat, tears pouring down my face, hugging myself.  My mother and Paati sat motionless, disbelieving.

I don’t remember the ride home.

His body was brought home that evening.  One of his sisters and other female relatives came around the same time, silent, efficient, helping to clear the space where he would lie for the night.  They chose the open space where the dining and temple rooms opened onto, at the base of the stairs, the center of the house.  All traditional Indian homes have a center, marked by a tile, different in shade to the surrounding flooring.  Thatha had designed the house, and he had picked that spot as the center.  A puja had been done by the Hindu priests to consecrate it, and finally, before the tile was set, a handful of precious jewels were placed there by my Thatha and Paati, the priests reciting the Sanskrit verses to bless the house and spread a veil of peace and safety over it.  Over the years, the tile, specked with mica and other stones, had faded to a dull grey blue.  I had whiled away long afternoons, wondering about the jewels hidden there.

The men from the hospital placed him on the floor, centering him over the tile.  He lay there, looking as though he were just asleep.  Paati sat down near his head, a relative on either side, ready to help her if needed.  She sat there, looking at him, dry-eyed, focused.  “He’s still breathing!” she gasped.  Everyone looked at him, then at her, and one of the men said, sadly, “He’s gone, Amma.”

As the men walked away, she sat there, motionless, in disbelief.  Then a harsh loud sob burst from her, followed by a keening, the like of which I’ve never heard before or since.  It drove right into me, punching me breathless, and I fell to my knees.  The women left her alone until she was spent, quiet, hoarse, hunched over by her husband’s head.  Then they went to her, lifted her up to take her to her room, but she pushed them aside, insisting on staying where she was.

They then proceeded to undress him where he lay, oil and bathe him, and then cover his body with the traditional white sheets in which he would be cremated.  I sat at his feet, unnoticed, undisturbed.  When they were done, it was close to midnight.  I looked around and realized that we were all women.  All the men were gone, I knew not where.

One by one, the ladies fell asleep, until the only ones awake were me, my mother, and Paati.  I looked at her, but her eyes were distant, lost.  I slowly reached out to touch his feet, and then started massaging them, one last time, gently pushing on the strong bones, the prominent veins, the soft leathery skin.  I didn’t think she noticed, but then as I was finishing, she said, “He always said you massaged his feet the best of all of us.”

I nodded, then lay down next to him, holding onto his foot, and we stayed there, Paati, my mother, and I, keeping vigil over his body through the night.

Early next morning, the men came, dressed in white lungis, the traditional wrapcloth worn by Tamil men.  His brothers, my father, other male relatives and friends, they all came, to escort him to his cremation site.  I prepared to go with them, but was met with the cold response from the priests, “It is no place for a woman.”  My father didn’t make eye contact with me as I burst out crying, “I’m going with him!”  They walked away, a procession of men, carrying away the only person who truly loved me, and who I loved.  I followed them, out the gates, down the street, crying, until someone, I don’t know who, caught up to me and led me back home.

I follow their path in my mind.

I imagine this is what happens.

My father and male relatives are with him, a caravan of men dressed in white, taking him away, led by a priest, swinging a chalice with smoking ash.  They chant as they go, the monotonous death chant.  Passersby stop in respect, traffic gives way; no one crosses the path of the funeral procession.  They arrive at the cremation site and they place him on the prepared logs of wood.  As he has no sons, my father takes on the role of lighting the cremation pyre.  As he walks up with the oil soaked stick, he starts to cry.  He wonders briefly, is he really dead?  He touches the lit stick to the pyre and then steps back, watching the fire catch, then flame and burn.  He stands there, as close as he can, until the priests draw him away.

I imagine this is what happens.

I wait for them to return.

I wait a long time.

Someone tries to get me to bathe.  “It is bad luck,” they say.  “The spirit is still here.  It doesn’t know what to do.  It wants to stay where it is familiar.  If you don’t wash the mark of death away, the spirit will attach itself to you.  Come, come and bathe.”

The spirit is still here?  He is still here? 

I look around his room.  I’m on his narrow bed, my head on his pillow, my body covered by his blanket.  I wonder briefly at the oddity of a grown man having a pink blanket, and then I look around again.  His clothes are in the closet, his favorite walking stick is by the bed, his spectacles are on his glass-topped desk.

His spirit is still here.  I can feel him around me, I can smell his scent.

“I don’t care,” I say.  “I want him to stay with me.”

They back away, making the signs to ward off evil.  I laugh a little.  As though my Thatha could ever be considered evil.  “He can stay with me.”

I hear them talking to my mother outside the room.  She responds, indistinct through the walls.  She must have told them to leave me alone, because they do not return.  I thank her silently.

I chase a floater across my eye, but it eludes me, staying just on the periphery of my vision.  I close my eyes in frustration, but the floaters remain, my constant companions.  I feel wetness build up behind my eyelids, leaking out the sides, down my face, pooling in my ears.  I turn, curling up, folding myself into the blanket, making it a part of me, soft, filled with his familiar scent: Old Spice and Brylcream.   It is mine now.

He doesn’t need it anymore.

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Memoir Musings: The Chocolates

A memory:  Late summer, 1988.  Thatha, standing at the Borneo House gates, still handsome with a big toothless smile on his face, slightly stooped but regal, one hand resting on his beloved black-handled, rubber-tipped aluminum walking stick, the other hand raised high, waving me goodbye.  He’s wearing a white tee shirt, his lungi- the traditional wrapcloth worn by Tamil men- firmly tied around his waist, and a small bag of foil-wrapped chocolates tucked inside.

I have just given him those chocolates that morning, the last morning of my visit, before heading back to college in the States.  I remember how happy he was to get them, eyes lighting up as he took them from me.  Paati said, “See?  She kept them hidden until now, just so you could have them after she’s gone.”

He nods, glowing with happiness at this meager gift from his granddaughter.

I smile back, taking their praise at my strength of will in keeping the chocolates secret.  I kneel down in front of them, silently asking for their blessings.  I touch each of their feet and then my forehead with my right hand, feeling their ritual touch on my head and then seeing their proud smiles as I stand up, my Thatha’s eyes cloudy with tears.  I hug them both gently, saying the traditional farewell in Tamil, “I am going, but I will return.”

They look at each other in wonderment, amazed at my words, since all they have ever known was my rebellion against anything traditional.  “Go, but come back,” they both give me the reciprocal response.  “Go, but come back.”

The car to the airport pulls away as I twist around for one last look at them out of the rear window.  They are both standing there, waving, framed by the swirling dust kicked up by the car.  I strain to keep them in sight, turning back to face the front when I can no longer see them.  Watching the familiar streets go by, the neighborhood teashops, the food vendors, swarms of people, the stray dogs, I think about the joy on my grandfather’s face when he saw the small bag of chocolates.  I can’t get that image out of my head.

—————–x—————————x———————————x——————————-

I had arrived three weeks earlier, on winter break from college.  I was in my old room upstairs, the one I stayed in for that brief and eventful six months in late 1982.  I looked around, my old schoolbooks were where I’d left them on the little desk, dusty, undisturbed.  Eighties Bollywood actresses stared up at me from old entertainment magazines, stunning in all their airbrushed beauty.  I looked out the windows at the majestic chickoo tree that dominated the front garden, my friend for all those years of visiting my grandparents, a watchful confidant, home to the resident fruit bats that kept me company through long sleepless nights.

Shaking away the memories, I unpacked for the stay, setting aside the gifts I had brought them: a scarf for Paati, Wincarnis tonic wine for Thatha, other little sundries that they had requested from overseas, things that were unavailable at the time in India.  I pulled out a large bag of foil wrapped chocolates, the ones with the gooey centers, the ones I knew he would like. But at the last moment, as I was gathering up the gifts to take downstairs to give them, I tossed them back in my suitcase.  Our favorite Swiss chocolates, Toblerones, were included in the pile of gifts.  That would be enough, I reasoned.

Later that night, as I lay in bed, windows open to let the cool night breezes waft in, listening to the rustling sounds of the bats in the trees, I unwrapped one of the chocolates and popped it in my mouth.  As the creamy deliciousness melted in my mouth, I closed my eyes in guilty pleasure, smoothing out the creased foil paper with my nails, bringing it back to a fragile smoothness.  I tucked the paper away in my bag, and went to sleep.

I ate those chocolates meant for my grandfather, night after night, for the rest of my stay.  During the day, I would watch him set aside his hated dentures, carefully portion out the Toblerone, cutting one triangle into halves, sharing them with me (Paati didn’t want any).  We would eat them together, relishing the nougat, sucking on the piece to make it last.  At night, I would take the same care with eating one out of the stashed bag, taking my time, rolling it around in my mouth until the last bit had melted away.  Then I would smooth out the foil and tuck it away in my bag.

The morning of my departure, I had maybe twelve of the chocolates left.  By now I was slightly sick of them and taking them back home with me seemed ridiculous.  I’ll give them to Thatha, I thought, he’ll love them. 

—————–x—————————x———————————x——————————-

I sit in the car, watching the city fall away, coconut tree plantations and farms slide by, the agricultural college, seeing it all from behind a veil of tears.  I picture his toothless grin, his joy at seeing those chocolates.  I can see them both, in my mind’s eye, standing there at the gates, waving, happy, proud.

“Go, and come back.”

“I am going, but I will return.”

I will return.  And I will make up for this insult, I will bring you bags of chocolates, more than you will know what to do with.  I promise. 

That was the last time I saw him on his feet, conscious, fully alive.

Memoir Musings: The Phone that Rings in the Night

I startle awake, fear coursing like an icy torrent through my body. I look around the dark, silent room, reaching automatically under my pillow for my glasses. As I put them on, the phone rings.

My stomach clenches. I look blindly towards the alarm clock: 3 a.m. I have been trained over the years of living continents away from my homeland, to fear the phone that rings in the night.

The phone rings again. I know it is for me but I can’t move. If I don’t pick it up, the bad thing won’t happen.

Irritated, Jennifer rolls out of the upper bunk, hitting the floor with an angry thud, and walks over to the wall to answer the phone, “Hello? What? Yes, she’s here.”

She hands the phone on its long extension cord to me and climbs back into her bed, falling easily back to sleep.

I hold it with both hands, not lifting it up to my ear, hearing the tinny voice of someone saying “Hello? Hello?”

Finally, I reply, “Yes?”

“Priya? It’s Daddy. Not to worry, everything is okay. Thatha fell. He’s in the hospital. Everything is okay. He’s asking for you. You have to come.”

Thatha fell. He’s asking for you. Everything is okay.

I start crying softly, so as to not be heard by my father, or Jennifer. He hears it anyways. “It’s okay Priya, he’s okay.” But then, before he can control himself, a shaking sob rolls out of him, down the phone lines, across the miles, across the continents, into my ear, scaring me. My father never cries.

There’s silence, as though the sound scared him as well.

Finally, softly, “He’s okay, he just wants to see you. I will send you the money for the ticket. Just come, okay?”

I nod, then say into the phone, “Yes.”