Change With The Times

“Hair unclasped and cascading down their backs,” my aunt said to me. “But who am I to pass judgement?” My mother’s 78-year-old sister was talking about a recent betrothal at which most of the young south Indian girls had not worn their hair bunched up inside barrettes or braided or coiffed up in any way. 

I told my aunt that the times had changed. She chuckled and waved the stubby fingers of her right hand and continued to talk about the mores of the present day. My breath caught in my throat. Once again, after eleven years, my mother had waddled into the room from the land of the dead. She was looking askance at the trend of the times, pulling a face at girls who did not apply coconut oil in their hair anymore and, instead, used this vile fragrant syrup called “shampoo” which left their hair unprotected and all “paraparaaa” while seducing them with voluminous promises of fragrance and body.

“But who am I to say anything about today’s girls?” my aunt wondered, laughing, even as her deceased sister dissolved into the walls. Then she went on to tell me how, in the sixties, my grandmother had lamented to her husband that three of her married daughters had begun draping themselves in six-yard saris. 

“Why won’t they wear nine yards as per Brahmin custom?” my grandmother had asked. To that, her husband, a man who often fed scores of the poor in his outhouse (while flinging colorful epithets into the air when people of a certain community walked down his road) had only one thing to say: “You must change with the times for this is the modern way.”

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Mothering

 

I’ve been appalled that my son’s bank in the US has been unable to replace a deleted debit card. On a recent visit to Berlin, I discovered why nothing had happened even after my son’s complaints to the bank. He was being overly polite.

One evening, I heard my boy talk to the bank rep. He sounded as if he were at a confessional. I grabbed the phone from him, ambushing the gentleman at the other end of the line.

 “This here is the boy’s mother,” I said. “I’m sick of this runaround! Did you hear me? I’m sick of it.” I proceed to tell the man just how furious I was with the delay and ineptitude. I used bombastic words. I threw dates. I spat facts. It wasn’t enough that they would not deal with me in America because the son was not a minor anymore. Now that I was in Berlin with my son, I was still being given the runaround, I said.

Ten minutes later, I handed the phone back to my  boy, satisfied that I’d dragged the clerk through the coals. “And that’s how you deal with these people, baby,” I said. I felt proud.  I deserved the Distinguished Service Medal in Mothering.

 My son demurred. He said I had been unpleasant and rude to the clerk.

 I told him he needed to bone up, that he needed to stop sounding as if he were on his first date. I told him he needed to pretend he was being evicted or extradited or something nasty like that. “You need to learn to yell as if you are on your last euro.”   

“But the clerk is merely a cog in the wheel, Mom,” the boy said. “They have rules, you know. The bank guy told you exactly what he told me. You didn’t change the outcome.”

Days later, we were still at an impasse, even after my son mailed them a letter with the requisite information and a signature. Today, two weeks after my return from Berlin, I called the local bank. The accounts manager at the bank, Mike, told me to calm down, that nothing could be accomplished by yelling.

 An hour later I walked into the bank with a copy of my son’s letter. Mike was as calm in person as he had sounded on the phone. His eyes were sky-blue. He had a day’s stubble. He looked like a young philosophy grad who had arrived at his job as a last resort. “Let me check your son’s signature,” he said.

I wanted to tell Mike there was no need. No signature had more cachet than a mother’s testimony. Mothers were always right. We were privy to conversations about warts, fears, girls, dreams—and signatures. No bank or physician’s office could take that away from us just because our child was past 18 years of age. Yes, my son wasn’t a minor anymore. But my major was Mothering, first and foremost, and so I could also weigh in on the point of signature comparison.

I warned Mike. “If you check his current signature against what it was four years ago, I bet it will be quite different.” I told him that college transformed a young man’s outlook as well as his signature.

 Mike looked up and smiled. He asked about Berlin. After looking through the folder they had on file, he nodded.

“Yes, your son’s signature has changed since 2011 and I’m unable to verify it. But you know what? I’m going to help you out. This has gone on way too long. You’ll have a new card in the mail next week.”

I thanked him. As for all the spit and rant over the issue—which will end only when my son receives the card—I believe it was justified.

 My son needs to know this: A little shouting may not open doors but it certainly unlocks a window.

The Telephone Grizzly

People don’t realize that the telephone is the first lifeline that snips when a parent takes ill. When my mother’s cancer seeped into her brain, she didn’t know to ask for her black diary. That’s where she stored my phone number and those of all the people she called every day for something or other.

A decade later, when my father, the late Daddykins, dissolved into his illness, he stopped going to the phone. Instead, it went to him. It went to him through the person of the deputy secretary of homeland security, Vinayagam.

The young man would take the cordless phone to the rust-orange sofa by the window where his boss sat, newspaper on his lap, buried in the fog that separates the dying from the living.

“Saar, it’s your sister!” he'd say to Daddykins. “It’s your sweet sister from Kerala, Saar.” And my father would intone into the phone, fielding my aunt’s endless questions like an iPhone Siri, incapable of a laugh, a cry, a chortle, a snicker, a squeal, a surprise, a chuckle or a point of view.

Those of us who have lost a parent know that the day of demise isn’t the day of an actual, physical, blood-congealing death. It’s the day following which the parent will not come to the phone. It’s the day the parent is taught, by someone else, to greet the child.

For me, the telephone, especially my landline, is a grizzly monster, a demon that screens and permits incoming calls only from those on earth. For instance, it didn’t ring the morning of my birthday when, like the Times Square ball, Daddykins’ call would be the first one to drop so I could begin my life anew.

But I know one man is trying hard to keep my father alive. When I called Vinayagam today, four days after my birthday, he did what Daddykins always did. He sang into the phone exactly the way his boss used to, like a broken record. He sang the first two lines: “Happy Birthday to you, Kalpana. Happy Birthday to you, Kalpana.”

For those eleven seconds, for exactly those cadent but unmusical seconds, Daddykins was alive, again.

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Ticked Off By Liftick

Yesterday, I noticed that my lipstick was eroded to a stub of coral red. It hurt when I ran it over my lips.

Today I was at the drugstore to replenish my trusted color: “752 Classic Wine” by L’Oreal which ranked sixth among the best lipstick brands in the world. Who knew that someone out there cared to rank lipstick? How did they rank lipstick? By its staying power? By the marks it left on wine glasses? By its gloss? Its wet look on the lips? By the way it felt to the kisser or to the kissed? Or to both?

A man will never understand how a woman of today may never be seen anywhere without lipstick in her purse and on her mouth. My mother could not grasp the fashion statement—or pronounce fashion-related words—until the day she died. She fussed over grooming but she looked askance at lipstick.

In the India of the 70s and 80s, especially in conservative Chennai, lipstick was a sign of wantonness. At the sight of lip color on me, my mother’s mouth curved downward. I remember how she used to watch me from her designated spot on the sofa as I flitted about the house, a girl of 21 with a red stain on her lips.

“Come here,” she said. She didn’t broach the subject of coquetry implied by my mouth, not yet, anyway. She told me to turn around so she could take in the shock of my hip-length hair held by a barrette. She whined that it was windblown. “Why don’t you braid it?” she asked. “It looks like hay. No coconut oil. That’s what all this new-fangled stuff called shyamboo does to beautiful hair.” Then she got up. She walked around to examine my face. “You need more talcum powder on your nose.” Finally, her eyes swooped down to my lips. “High society lady,” she tsk-tsked. “Look at you! Liftick and all.”

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FIR, BIRCH AND US

Mar 18, 2017 7:44am

FIR, BIRCH AND US (a post from March18, 2015)

A couple of years after my mother and my sister-in-law passed away, we had to let a fir tree go in our backyard. The tree specialist said it had been dead at least a year. By the time it was felled, it was brown, all thirty or forty feet of it. I hadn’t ever noticed—although the tree was visible from my bedroom, my kitchen, my sunroom and my family room. I told the man I didn’t want the stump ground and so, for the last ten years, a little wood-fashioned gravestone remains of that tall beautiful tree. Still, I hate to see a phantom tower of emptiness where it once stood.

This morning, we let go of the birch out in the front yard. Whenever I sat in my red Gigi chair inside the living room reading the paper, a shadow would cleave the open sheets in some way, depending on the time of day. On a windy day, I heard the tree's chiffon leaves rustle (through our double pane glass window). 

When I returned home from India last September, three months after we cremated Daddykins, I didn’t see the tree at all. The birch must have been dying over the last year but I noticed the fact of it only in the last few weeks when I took to walking around the neighborhood. 

Walking daily opened my eyes a little more with every day. I learned to notice the progression of things: The way Japanese maples first swung open at the ends of branches, how birds of paradise preened, as if they were looking, brow raised, over the fence, into a neighbor’s yard and also that tulips were either perfect and pretty or perfectly ugly, with no uncertain stage inbetween. 

Looking was not ever enough, I realized this afternoon, staring at the new, filled-in hollow where once the birch had stood. I had missed so much. And now I missed it so much.