My Indian Mother-in-Law’s Gift

Biji cooking

Biji always got up in the dark before dawn, quickly wrapping a simple cotton sari round her–the front hiked up to cover her ample belly. She’d tuck in the loose end at the waist, out of her way. In the kitchen she’d light the single gas burner to boil the water for bed tea. Everyone in her family took their bath before breakfast. And before they took their bath, they liked a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar.

By seven or eight, everyone ate breakfast. Husband, sons and daughters still living at home, visiting sons and daughters-in-law, grandchildren. Omelet, toast, parathas (homemade fried whole wheat flat breads), more tea. Biji would prepare it all in her simple kitchen, sitting on a stool only inches high, close to the concrete floor. She had only two burners, one gas, one charcoal. She didn’t own a western style stove or cupboards. She stored all her ingredients, pans, and tools near her on low shelves or in containers on the floor. She kept her few spices in a masala dabba–an old wooden box divided into compartments, one for each spice. She didn’t have a refrigerator: every day someone would shop for fresh vegetables, fruit and meat from the bazaar.

By ten, Biji was cutting up fresh fruit. Her husband was fond of declaring to all, “Fruit in the morning is golden; fruit in the afternoon is silver; fruit in the evening is brass.”

By about one p.m., everyone was ready for a big midday meal. Lentils or beans, yogurt, vegetable dishes, maybe rice, maybe meat, always chapatis (another homemade whole wheat flat bread). Everything was made fresh and took a long time to cook. Biji–with help from other women in the house–cooked everything.

She worked almost all day long in the kitchen, except for a little rest in the heat of the afternoon. When her daughters or daughters-in-law or friends joined her in that tiny room, they would talk and laugh. She had a deep, hearty laugh that rocked her short, plump body.

If she sat outside the kitchen with the family, she would keep busy, perhaps making homemade pasta with her fingers, piece by piece, or setting wedges of salted lemon in the sun to become pickles. Always, it seemed, she was cooking.

By four everyone would be ready for afternoon tea with snacks and sweets. Sometimes friends would stop by, ready to be entertained–and fed.

By eight, it would be time for dinner, another big meal not so different from lunch. Perhaps she would add a dish or two. She stayed in the kitchen preparing fresh hot chapatis while the men and children ate.

Hospitality apparently demanded many complicated dishes that required long cooking times and much attention. Her husband believed that home cooking was best and she vigorously, passionately agreed with him–even though she was the one doing the cooking.

Before bed, at ten or so, everyone drank sweet hot milk. Biji cooked and served it.

Biji was my mother-in-law. I first met her when I was twenty-one. My new husband Inderjit and I went to India soon after our marriage. He was eager to go home for a visit after years of graduate school. Would I be welcome? His family (and mine) had only reluctantly accepted the idea of our marriage.

And what would be expected of me? My father-in-law had suggested that I emulate Biji, a “perfectly submissive wife.” All this made me perfectly nervous. Submissive was not on my self-improvement list.

Still, even if the trip turned out to be difficult, at the end of it, I would go home to Canada, and I was excited about travel to an exotic, faraway land.

How much harder it must have been for my mother-in-law!  Her beloved son went to graduate school in the West and, like so many others, decided not to come home after graduation. Then he had married a Canadian girl. Her grandchildren would grow up far away, speaking a language she didn’t know.

Maybe she believed the 1960s Indian stereotypes about Western women, stereotypes based on Western movies. (In those days, relatively few Indians had traveled to or settled in the West.) We were brassy females who drank too much, smoked too much, and were–promiscuous.

I could only smile and hope for the best.

At my first dinner in Chandigarh, bowls of food were put on the table for everyone to share. But one was placed in front of me and meant for me alone. Biji had heard that Canadians like simple food, not spicy. And we had a particular fancy for potatoes.

On my plate was one large potato. Peeled and boiled. Plain. Unseasoned. Cold.

I was touched–and depressed. I wanted the spicy, interesting dishes the rest of the family was eating, but I knew the potato was the gift of a generous heart. Biji had wanted to give me something for dinner that I could enjoy. I ate that potato and other food besides. When she saw me eat with gusto the spicy family dishes she served that evening, she must have relaxed: she never served me another plain potato.

Too soon, the few weeks of our visit were almost over. In a day or two, we would leave for New Delhi and our flight home.

On my last full day in India, Shashi, one of my sisters-in-law, came to talk to me. Shyly she told me that Biji had a request. Shashi told me that when a new bride comes to live with her husband’s family, she isn’t asked to do any  chores for thirty days. Those days are meant to give her time to relax and get to know her new family. At the end of those thirty days, she is asked to make a sweet dish. After that, she takes her place as a full-fledged member of the family.

Biji wanted me to make dessert. Would I come now to the kitchen?  I went.

I knew nothing about cooking Indian desserts. Nothing at all. I wasn’t sure how I’d get through this one.

In the kitchen, Biji was making halva, a delicious concoction of Cream of Wheat, sugar, butter, and nuts. Biji gave me a spoon and I stirred the pan. Once around. That was enough. She took the spoon from me, smiling broadly and chattering in Punjabi. I didn’t understand anything of what she said. She hugged me. Then she ran into her bedroom. She came back with a gift for me: a lovely rose pink sari. I understood.

In the rituals of food and cooking, family ties are created. And a loving, cooking woman can bridge a sea of cultural differences.

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Belt and Necklace (Gürtel und Halsband)

threeplumsAfter my last post, several people (mostly storytellers) asked for another of the tales collected by von Schönwerth–tales that were forgotten in a Bavarian archive for a century and a half.

I’m so grateful to my friend, Sigrid Kellenter, for translating them from Prinz Rosszwifl, a recently published selection of those stories.

Sigrid’s interest in German fairytales goes way back. She  taught a popular college course in German folktales for years. I was once lucky enough to work with her and her students on their computer presentations of those stories. What fun. Recently she and I did a presentation on German fairytales that was conceived with the news in 2010 that the stories had been found.

Enjoy the story. It’s odd and abrupt–it’s a literal translation–but I think you’ll find it intriguing.

Belt and Necklace

A count had a daughter. She was, however, very ugly and thus disdained by all. This hurt her deeply and she kept mostly to herself.

Once, alone in her room, when she wept about her fate, a tiny man all of a sudden stood in front of her and offered her three plums. “Go to the water,” he said, “and throw in one of the plums. Two mermaids,  glistening like the sun, will rise up. Then throw in the second plum and one of the mermaids will step out of the water and come to you. Try hard to get her belt. Then throw the third plum into the water and the other mermaid will come and join you. Seek to get her necklace. Adorned with belt and necklace, you will be the most beautiful woman, bright like the sun. If you put them on the wrong way around, you will become invisible. Take care that you do not lose belt and necklace or carelessly take it off. Whatever may come, I will always help you.”

The count’s daughter did as she was told. She went to the water, threw in one plum and two mermaids rose up, so beautiful and shiny, one could hardly look at them. She threw in the second plum and one mermaid stepped out of the water and offered her her belt with the promise she would become queen but would have to let her have her third child when it turned three years old. The daughter threw the third plum into the water and the second mermaid came to her and offered her her necklace if she promised to give her her most beautiful child.

Adorned with belt and necklace the count’s daughter became the most beautiful woman and soon was made queen.When she walked in her garden she was resplendent like the sun and the garden resembled paradise. When she gave birth to her third child, it was a little boy, equally as beautiful as the first two. When this boy was three years old and the maid took him for a walk near the water, a mermaid appeared and pulled him down into the water.

Again she gave birth, and the sixth, another boy, was more beautiful than any of his siblings. The king loved him more than his own life. The queen gave strict orders to keep this child away from the water. One evening an old woman, her head covered with a white veil, came and asked to be given a bed for the night. Her wish was granted. When everyone was asleep, she took the boy and fled with him.

Messengers were sent everywhere but they returned without having found the boy. Then the queen confessed what had happened to both boys and, full of anger, the king  had her thrown into the same water from where she had received her belt and necklace. The water did not hurt her, however. She did not even get wet. She sank down into the magnificent palace of the mermaids and met her two children there.

Once, when the mermaids rose up to the surface of the lake to enjoy a swim, the mother saw an opportunity, turned the belt and necklace the wrong way around and fled, invisible, with her children who already had webbed feet. The mermaids raged terribly and made such huge waves, one could believe everything would be destroyed. But the joy was greater in the castle of the count.

****

Translated in 2013 by Sigrid Kellenter.

The Flying Little Box, one of the lost tales of von Schönwerth

They were forgotten, locked away for a hundred and fifty years, not in a tower like Rapunzel or in a forest like Sleeping Beauty, but in boxes and file cabinets in Bavaria. Fairy tales. Hundreds of them. All collected by a contemporary of the Grimm brothers, well-respected in his timeFranz Xaver von Schönwerth.

In 2010 they were rediscovered. When I heard the news, my heart was all aflutter. (Truly.) Though the world is awash with fairy tales, more than I will ever be able to read, I wanted to get my hands on those lost stories and read them.

Not easy. They are not yet available in English, and I don’t read German.* Fortunately, I have a good friend, Sigrid Kellenter, who taught a course in folktales when she was professor of German at a nearby college. She and I put together a presentation for a lifelong learning group. She talked about fairytales; I told them. The presentation was a great success. Much of the credit goes to Sigrid; her talk was wonderful.

I have to confess…I asked a lot of my friend. She not only had to prepare her own half of our presentation, she had to read the only collection available of von Schönwerth‘s tales, Prinz Rosszwifl, summarize many of them for me in English, and translate a selection for me to tell. I am so grateful: I got to read and tell these fascinating stories.

Now if you, too, love the idea of reading these forgotten tales, here is one of the stories she translated for me. Sigrid has not made changes in her literal translation. We want you to get a feel for how the story was originally transcribed, without all the changes that come over time. She made no attempt to make the story more plausible, more literary, or more politically correct.

Even the Grimm brothers had cleaned up their stories to make them more acceptable to their nineteenth century readers. Von Schönwerth had not.

Enjoy.

The Flying Little Box (Das fliegende Kästchen)

from the collection by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth
translated by Sigrid Kellenter, 2013

boxA carpenter, who was being kept in a dungeon, sent word to the king that if he would let him live, he would build him a treasure the likes of which no one in this world had yet seen. It was done. The carpenter brought a little box to the king, sat down on it, and it began to roar and lifted off and carried the carpenter out of one window and back into the room through another. The king kept the little box in his treasure room.

The king had a son to whom the servants had ever to bring new toys. Since he broke every one of them and there was nothing else, they brought him the little box. The boy hammered around on it and wanted to make a little wagon for himself from it. The maid brought a rope, attached it, to pull him around in it. Hardly had he sat down firmly, when it lifted off and flew in the direction of the open window and out, no matter how hard the maid pulled on the rope, and disappeared.

It was quite a journey, until the rope got caught in a tree top and the flight was halted. In the tree was an abandoned stork nest, where the boy rested for a while, and he left the little box behind, when he descended from the tree to go to the next town, nearby. He passed a shoemaker who needed an apprentice and entered service with him.

This city had a king who had not been able to have children. It was prophesized he would have a daughter who would bring shame on him when she grew up and took up with a stranger. So when the king eventually did have a daughter, he thought for a long time about what to do and he came up with the idea to build a sky scraper tower with a little room for the princess on top. And thus it was done.

The young shoemaker, who was still wearing his beautiful red shoes from home and had not torn them, heard the story about the princess who lived high above the clouds, and was beautiful to boot, from other shoemaker apprentices. So one day, he took off and went back to the tree with the stork nest, climbed up, sat down on his little box and flew off and into the princess’s tower window. And he did that every day after work, until he was suspected of doing it.

The king became mad about this. He had the window sill covered with birdlime (a heavy glue) in order to catch that “bird man,” and it so happened that a shoe was found glued to the sill. By the king’s orders, the shoe was passed from hand to hand and foot to foot. A high reward was promised to the one who would fit into the shoe. It was never claimed until finally the shoe came to the young shoemaker as old leather. He did not pay attention to the trap, slipped into the shoe and was caught and sent to prison.

The princess, when asked the name of her lover, pretended she did not know and lied, but she gave away her secret when she was told the shoemaker would become her husband and the king was already preparing their wedding bed. However, the king was preparing a funeral pyre on which he planned to burn the couple.

handsPeople ran to see what was happening. A big crowd assembled. All cried and bemoaned the fate of the unhappy young couple. They, however, sat on the wood pile in an embrace and looked cheerful. The moment the wood began to crackle and smoke, the young shoemaker pressed down on his little box under them; it roared up like a horse with wings and flew through the smoke and flames high up into the air. The king and the crowd were left with nothing. When the prince got home to his parents, he married the beautiful princess.

***

*One of von Schönwerth‘s stories has been published in English, “The Turnip Princess,” but it’s not one of my favorites. Maria Tatar, from Harvard, points out that copies of many of the tales have long been stored in Harvard’s Widener Library.

 

Few Words

Picture of father and daughter

My father, Charles Marston, home on leave during WW II, holding me

My father was a quiet man.

Every weekday morning, he got up early, and in the silence and emptiness of the morning, he slowly, methodically polished his black shoes and the brass buttons and belt buckle of his Canadian army uniform. I never knew what he did on base. He never talked about work.  Years later I would joke that he must have been a spy. He would have made a good one, my pale, thin, ordinary-looking father who knew how to keep secrets.

On warm evenings, he sat alone on the front steps, smoking a cigarette, gazing somewhere off in the distance. I thought him wise. Better, I thought, to think deep thoughts in silence than to reveal oneself with absurd chatter, like my mother. Still, I puzzled over what he liked…who he was…if he loved me.

The summer I was sixteen I was away from home for six weeks, working as a mother’s helper. I didn’t talk to anyone in my family all that time. The evening I came home, my Dad said “hello” to me; then, during dinner,  “please pass the beans.” That was all.  Years later I made it into a funny story, except that he should have said more and someone in my family, anyone,  should have heard the stories of my first time away from home alone.

But I was quiet too.  My mother liked to tell a story of me when I was four. A friend of hers had come to visit. I did not speak a word. After some time, the woman asked, “Can she talk?” My mother sputtered, “Of course she can talk. She just won’t, that’s all.”

I  believed my father cared for me,  though he never said so. I saved up bits of evidence as my mother saved snippets of string to tie together.

He and I rode together when I was a girl. He would talk enough to say where we should ride and how we should ride and take care of our horses. But we didn’t chat. Once I asked him, innocently and out of the blue, what a gelding was. He gave a brief, honest answer. My mother would have been evasive. Though I didn’t say another word, he cared  about me, I decided, because he answered my question.

When I was a senior, my parents took me shopping for a prom dress. My mother and I were ready to settle on a so-so dress for twenty dollars. He said no, it wasn’t pretty enough, and he suggested a beautiful dress, aqua with embroidered chiffon layers.  It was  thirty-five dollars, a lot of money in those days. Proof again, I decided, that he cared about me.

When I went away to university, he wrote me only once. In fact, it was the only letter he wrote me in my entire life. It was odd. He said that he was being sent to Moncton, on the East Coast. On the way home, he’d be changing planes in Montreal, spending several hours there between flights. He didn’t mention the airline company or the time and flight number, and he didn’t write about anything else. I read the letter several times. Since he had never written me before, I felt certain he must be telling me he’d like me to meet his plane to spend time with him at the airport.

I didn’t have a car and the airport was far from the university. But I was able to get there very, very early in the morning by taking several buses. I met the first plane that landed from Moncton that day. I watched as every passenger got off the plane. I met every other plane that landed from Moncton, scanned every face until it was night and no more planes were scheduled to land. He did not come.

I made my way back to the dorm, arriving late at night. I was exhausted and confused. Why did he write the letter if he hadn’t meant for me to come? Where was he? Had I somehow missed him? I don’t think that I ever felt so much like an abandoned waif as I did that long day in the airport in Montreal.

In the weeks that followed, no letter came from him or my mother explaining what had happened. I never mentioned it either. If I had misunderstood, if he had not meant for me to go to the airport, I might make him uncomfortable by bringing it up.

Years passed. I never mentioned it, ever, to my father, but I never forgot it, either.  I never mentioned it to my mother until the last months of her life.

“Do you remember the time  Dad wrote me a letter saying he’d be coming through Montreal?”

She remembered.

“What happened?”

“Well…,” my mother said casually. “As I recall, his plans got changed.”

I didn’t say anything else to her. But something didn’t quite make sense. Why did my father write that letter in the first place? And why did he never explain what happened?

Frankly I don’t pretend that I ever guessed what my father was thinking. I knew even less about his feelings. I clung to that image of my father as silently thinking lots of deep, wise thoughts. Never did I think of him as a man who brooded or felt insecure, and surely it wasn’t shyness that prevented my father from talking to me.

Long after my father died, I had a thought sharp as a stab wound. Had my father  written that letter hoping for a letter back from me to let  him know that I wanted to see him, that I wanted to meet him at the airport, that he could plan on my coming? Had he expected me to ask him what time he’d be arriving? And when he didn’t get any letter, had he changed his travel plans?

Perhaps he never mentioned it to me in the years before he died because he was too embarrassed or annoyed or hurt by what he took to be my indifference? I had not even responded to his letter.

Or maybe he did what I had done: never mentioned it because he didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable by bringing it up.

Like father, like daughter.

I was such a quiet girl.

Home to Plaster Rock: In Search of Stories

I have lots of stories about trips gone awry. About falling in a temple pond in Kyoto, losing my purse the first day of a cross-continent trip, car troubles in Maine and a night with strangers.

It’s the joy of being a storyteller. Mishaps, absurdities, and everything unexpected can be transformed into story.

This morning I’m on the road again. And I’m hoping for and expecting new stories before I’m done.

There’s my destination, Plaster Rock, a village in New Brunswick, Canada. It is not one of those quaint fishing villages on the Bay of Fundy. It’s deep in the interior, not far from Caribou, Maine.  A place of potato farms surrounded by vast stretches of forest.

The town is having a homecoming for all those who left for more prosperous places, like Alberta, or Ontario, or the States.  For sure, I’ll go the parade on Saturday afternoon. Maybe I’ll stop by the dance Saturday night. I expect loud fiddle music and lots of beer. The last time I went to a Plaster Rock dance, fifty years ago, a stranger swung me round so hard and fast my feet left the floor.

My father’s family has lived in New Brunswick for more than 200 years. My father was born on a farm near Plaster Rock and his father before him. We go back to the 1700s, when Abraham Marston left the United States after fighting in the American Revolution–on the British side.

I’ll meet my cousin there. Wayne grew up in Plaster Rock. Life was tough, and his was tougher and more tragic than most. Our grandfather had hanged himself when our dads were kids, and they grew up poor. The Depression didn’t help. My father left when he was a young man. but Wayne’s father stayed behind. Wayne now lives in Ontario…and he’s a member of Parliament. How did he overcome such hardships and why does is he going to the homecoming too? I want to hear his stories.

My brother’s wife, Patti, will meet us there too. She’s visiting her mother in Saint John and they will both drive over to meet us, a four hour trip. Turns out that Patti is a distant relative of Wayne’s mother. Good company and more stories.

We’ll visit graveyards and homesteads and talk to the old people who stayed behind. Erv from Bangor will meet us. I think our grandfathers were brothers. More stories.

And I expect a few good stories about the journey itself. Today I’ll start the 600 mile trip north to Montreal, past Quebec city, along the Saint Lawrence River to Riviere du Loup, and then over through the deep woods of the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick to our family’s home.

The last leg of the car trip is on a road voted one of the ten most dangerous in Canada. It’s twisty and hilly, built mainly for loggers. The soft soil and big trucks mean the road is always in need of repairs.

“At least there’ll be no snow,” Patti said over the phone.

“But you must watch out for the moose,” I heard her mother say. “Whatever you do, don’t drive after dark.”

And I promise not to. And coming home, I’ll come the other way, down through Maine. I’ll  see new places, and, of course, I’ll stop at the L. L. Bean outlet in Freeport. Even for someone who loves stories, sometimes it’s just about the shopping.

Five Tea Cups

cupRemembering a friend’s birthday, I wanted to share a story I wrote after her unexpected death several years ago.

A few days ago, I came home from Edmonton after visiting my mother. Each time I see her, she presses me to take a few of her good dishes, the ones with the pink roses and gold trim. I decided upon the cups and saucers. I wanted to serve tea to my friend Mary in delicate cups. Mary has difficulty holding full mugs because her hands are swollen from rheumatoid arthritis. And Mary likes to have just enough, not more, in tea and in all things.

A snowstorm had buried Saratoga. Tea might have to wait. I put away the dishes  while I listened to my messages. A sobbing friend had asked me to call. While I’d been wrapping dishes the night before, Mary was driving off the road coming home from her daughter’s house; Mary was dying.

I had thought that we had many years yet to drink tea, to visit museums, to talk about books, religion, our families, our lives. I had thought we would become old ladies together.

These words are my gift to her memory—or, more likely, these memories are her gift to me.

She loved the beauty of little things: three little vases on her kitchen table, five pieces of pottery lined up on her bookcase, more on her work table.  She said it was a leftover from the time she’d lived in Japan, a love, I suppose, of sparse and orderly beauty.

She was a painter though I never heard her call herself that. She painted mostly flowers, often lined up in those neat rows, often with blurred edges. Bright colors bloomed on the walls in dozens of  pictures in her serene, white home.

She was a gentle spirit. At election time, she changed churches because she couldn’t bear her minister’s passionate rhetoric—though she shared his liberal convictions.

Sometimes we went on nature walks.  Our favorite was Bog Meadows in late spring when May-Apples and trillium bloom in the damp places. She adored the yellow water lilies and  red-winged blackbirds; I loved the noisy frogs.  I  picked wild strawberries, but she fretted about eating the casual offerings of wild places. I checked my flower identification books.  She took notes or drew tiny sketches. We vowed to learn the names of every flower. Mostly I forgot. But Mary studied at home.

She wrote notes on little pieces of paper.  Suggestions for books she—or I–should read. Lists of arthritis symptoms, medications, her reactions. Memorable quotations.

She read mostly serious stuff: Dickens, Thackeray, Plato,  Dante. Books on art.  Poetry. A biography of Winston Churchill.  A book about the Middle East that she highly recommended. I meant to read it, but didn’t.  When she was too weak to lift heavy books, she read Elizabeth George paperback mysteries. After her death, her daughter showed me a thin, worn copy of Shakespeare’s poetry still in her  handbag. Waiting in doctors’ offices, she memorized sonnets.

Her favorite book, though, was Winnie the Pooh. She thought of herself as Piglet, not strong, vulnerable. She confessed to improbable fears, such as fear of bears in the park. Bears?! I didn’t take her fears seriously—probably because she never retreated from life. In the too short time that I knew her, she was often weak and  in pain. She might visit me only to rest on my sofa until strong enough to drive back home. Often she could not eat. Still, she lived with courage, love, and grace.

She tutored English, took it seriously and had an abiding affection for her student, a man from Thailand.   Yesterday I drove him to pay his respects to her daughter. As he sat stiffly, in a new suit, in Mary’s living room, his eyes filled up with tears.

The last time I saw her, she played Chopin on the piano for me.  She was trying to get over her fear of playing for others. We talked about the need to do what we loved, whether we were good at it or not.

We had plans. We were going to go to the Unitarian Church together. Maybe we’d find spiritual enlightenment at last. We were going to visit a Russian monastery, meet for lunch on Mondays before taking classes, walk new trails. I was going to have another piece of her Apple-Cranberry Crisp.

Last week I brought home some china from my mother’s house. Six saucers and five cups. One teacup is broken. And my dear friend Mary has died.

for Mary McCarty, who died on January 25, 2005.

Copyright January, 2005.

Fraidy-cat

My father and I riding. In this photo we're visiting the Crippled Children's Hospital where my brother was staying.

As a child I was afraid of cows, dogs, kittens, chickens, and bugs. Anything that moved might bite, sting, kick, or scratch me.

I was afraid of water; I might drown.

I was afraid of death. Definitely afraid of suffering, death, nothingness.

I was afraid of people, all of them. This drove my tough, feisty mother crazy. When I was a preschooler, she complained to anyone who would listen about my scaredy-cat ways. Once I hid under the bed when a friend of hers came to visit. Another time I sat solemn and silent until her friend gave me a long, pitying look and whispered “Can she talk?”

My mother shot a withering glance my way, “Of course she can. She’s four years old! She won’t, that’s all.”

I can’t say that my parents ever tried to soothe my over-sensitive little psyche. Instead, they exhorted me to acquire gumption. (An approach that doesn’t work, by the way. And I don’t think it’s what child psychologists recommend.)

By the time I was eleven, we lived in Calgary, Alberta. We owned two horses that we boarded in the Army stables, and almost every day my father and I went riding. I liked riding and spending time with my father. He was a mostly silent man, but that was all right with me. I was a mostly silent kid.

I still had most of my old fears and many new ones as well. I was afraid of being kicked by my horse, Toolie, when I went into her stall. My father had told me that horses need to know when you approach them from behind. Every time I went to groom her, I talked, patted her rump and trembled as I wiggled past. As I put her saddle on, I worried that she might jump sideways and accidentally squish me.

I never talked to my parents about my fears, but of course they knew. Once my father, exasperated, had said “My god, Margaret, you’re gutless!” The words stung. Unfortunately, the few words my father did speak tended to be painfully blunt. Neither he nor my mother had ever learned how to measure and soften their words.I can’t imagine my sons or daughters-in-law ever saying such a thing to one of my beloved grandchildren. But it was a different time and my parents had endured hard lives.

One summer evening he and I went riding, out from the stable where we kept our horses, through the camp on tracks made by Army tanks, to the countryside beyond. My father had warned me that there might be explosives not yet detonated hidden in the grass near the tracks. If my horse were to step on one, we would blow up. Occasionally the massive tanks rolled towards us. We’d trot our horses off to the side and stand out of the way, until the tanks were safely past. At such times I worried about being blown to smithereens.

When we were safely out of the army camp, I watched for gopher holes. If my horse stepped in one, she could stumble and fall. My father had told me so. But gopher holes were hard for a near-sighted kid to spot from atop a horse. And even if I did, how could I get Toolie out of the way in time, especially when she was running? One more thing to be afraid of.

It was almost dusk when my father suggested we race. He would surely win because the big, Palomino gelding that he rode was faster than my little bay mare, and my Dad was far braver than I. But I urged Toolie to run until I was close behind. I still don’t know if I liked to race. I enjoyed the exhilarating feeling of running. But there were those deadly gopher holes. Greater than my fear of gopher holes, however, was my dread of my father’s disapproval if I lacked courage.

We were racing round what my father called a “yes ma’m,” a dip and a curve to the left in the narrow dirt trail, when the Palomino fell and my father with him. For a brief terrible second, the horse was on top of my father.

There was no time for me and Toolie to get out of the way. Before I realized what had happened, she had jumped over both of them. The jump was a first for both of us. I fell off in the unceremoniously easy way of kids and nothing got broken.

My father wasn’t so lucky. His shoulder was dislocated, and he was in a lot of pain. Slowly we rode back to the stable. By the time we got back, it was very late. My father awkwardly eased himself off his horse and sat on a stool near the tack room.

“Margaret, I need you to unsaddle both horses and take them to pasture.”

I did what I was told, took off their bridles and replaced them with halters, unsaddled them, brushed and curry-combed them. I was scared, as always.

“Now lead them to pasture.You can take them both at once.”

Both? At the same time?! I took a halter in either hand and began the walk to the pasture. I could feel the power of the two horses as they nudged my shoulder. I knew they were much stronger than I. What if they pulled away from me and ran away? What if they trampled me?

When I got back to the stable, my father said, “You’re going to have to go get the provost. I can’t drive us home.”

I had never walked through the part of the camp between us and the camp gates, where I’d find the provost, the military police. We lived in the married quarters beyond. Family members never passed through those gates unescorted. And it was very late.

On the other hand, on those quiet streets, no animals threatened, so I was less afraid of the walk to the provost than I’d been of the walk to the pasture with the horses. I scurried to the provost, told them my father was hurt, and they drove back with me to take us home.

My father did not recover for many weeks. When he talked about that night, he was pleased with me.

“Proud of her. She walked all by herself through the camp late at night to get the provost.”

It had not really been the walk to the provost that had frightened me; rather, it had been everything else. But I chose not to tell him so.

That was long ago. I like to believe that my parents’ over-the-top toughness helped me to learn, over and over again, that we do what must be done, despite our fears. And I’ve been lucky, for my fears have gradually shriveled up over the years and mostly blown away.

But I will always remember and treasure the night my father was proud of me, the night he thought me brave.

Family Resemblance

Harold, Dorothy, & Faye1“Got a letter from Edna. Your second cousin,” my mother said. “She lives in Rocky Mountain House. She’s having a reunion of the Marston family. Wants us to come.”

I had no idea that I had a second cousin in Rocky Mountain House.  I had assumed my distant relatives were still living down east in New Brunswick. Apparently we weren’t the only Marstons who hadn’t stayed home on the farm.

We could easily go. It was only a three hour drive from Edmonton where my mother now lived. An easy trip.

I’d wanted to learn more about my family for a long time. I didn’t remember my first cousins, let alone second cousins, third cousins, or cousins once or twice removed. I’d been too young when we moved west. I knew next to nothing about my ancestors, and I didn’t know the family stories.

I was achingly curious. What kind of people were we Marstons? What did a generic Marston look like? How did an ordinary Marston talk? What did a garden variety Marston do for a living? Maybe some had had distinguished careers or were fabulously wealthy or had devoted their lives to the poor and suffering. I’d heard about a few of our black sheep, but I was hoping that some of our stories would be better.

We arrived on a Saturday morning at the community hall where a gaggle of Marstons (75 to 100) had gathered. We mingled and we talked. Nothing in the conversations stood out in my mind though I was paying close attention. Nobody said anything brilliant, though nobody was rude or crude or foolish either. We were, I suspected, only middling conversationalists.

We ate salads and beans and chicken and cookies. The usual. Little kids played.

And I looked around at my new-found relatives. I was on a mission to find out who my people were and fix that knowledge in my mind. Everyone here was a Marston or married to a Marston or had been a Marston before she got married. I could find out what we had in common, what set us apart from the other families of the world.

I wondered if any physical characteristics were typical of our people. Noses. foreheads. chins. butts. But nothing stood out.

Nobody was extremely tall, nor very short. No  one was very heavy or very skinny, No one was super fit either.

No one had jet black hair or red hair or pale blond hair. Every last one of us had brownish hair. Dirty blonde, light brown, medium brown, almost–but not quite–black.  Some of the men were bald. What’s the expression? Typical male pattern baldness? That’s it.

No one was ugly and no one was beautiful. In this and every respect, we were all…average. As a clan, in every measure I could think of, we were medium.

We dressed the part too. None of us had worn anything fancy that day. No flashy jewelry. No ultra stylish clothes. But no green hair or visible tattoos, either. Conventional to the core..

All in all, we were not bad. Could be worse. Nice enough. Every last one of us–eminently forgettable.

And so were our kids.  No doubt all the parents thought them special and beautiful, and maybe they were. But the specialness was not visible to a casual observer.

No, wait. I did spot one little girl, four or five, who stood out from everyone else in the room. She was strikingly adorable. Piles of curly hair around a lovely face. A wonderful smile. She didn’t look medium at all.

“I said to someone near me, “What a beautiful little girl.”

And the woman answered, “Isn’t she, though?!

She added, “She’s adopted.”

Challenges in Contemporary Living (kids, chores, & subterfuge)

Tom Sawyer, foisting off chores

In the olden days, kids milked cows and chopped wood. When my sons were growing up, we didn’t own cows or wood piles, but I still thought they should do chores.

The desire-to-work didn’t seem to come naturally to them. So I looked for ways–devious ways–to encourage the impulse.

When they were preschoolers, I paid them–and any neighborhood kids who’d stopped by–to clean. Admittedly they didn’t do the best job in the world, but they were almost quiet for a couple of hours, and it cost me only loose change.

At lunch time, each neighbor kid went home clutching several sweaty pennies in a chubby little fist.

“Guess what, Mommy. I swept their porch and wiped the toys and dusted a coffee table. And look what I got! Seven pennies!”

One good thing about innocent little children–they don’t know the going rate for house cleaning. Their mothers never complained, at least not to me. Why would they? Their kids were happy and out of their hair all morning.

Now I realize that many modern parents find this hard to understand. First, their preschoolers don’t wander over to the neighbor’s house by themselves. Second, modern parents cherish their children and never ever want them out of their hair. What can I say? Some of us were shallow then.

As the kids got older, six or so, I began offering them a penny for every five Japanese beetles they collected from the row of pink shrub roses by the sidewalk. Any kid was welcome to join in. For a little while, the Japanese beetles were under control and the roses flourished. But too soon they decided the thrill of dropping beetles into a bottle was gone. No matter. Winter had temporarily solved the problem.

I wondered what other chore-opportunities I could foist upon them. I reminded them that this was the 1970s. They were growing up in a world where more women worked, so husbands, in all fairness, should do their share of household chores. I repeated this often. I swear to god I was sincere. This was not entirely personal sloth.

Paul, my oldest, turned ten. He was a sweet, bookish kid, ever so slightly gullible. Perfect. I got my supplies in order and sidled up to him.

“Paul. I have this great idea. I call it ‘Challenges in Contemporary Living.’”

I paused to let the fine big words roll around in his head.

“I have these index cards, see? On each card is a chore–I mean challenge–and each challenge is broken down into steps.”

I sped up. I had to get to the good part before he lost interest.

“Each challenge is assigned a point value, depending on its level of difficulty. And here’s the best part….

“As you successfully master each challenge, you earn points. We keep track of your progress. With graphs…drawn with colored pencils..on graph paper!

“And best of all (I paused as long as I dared to build the suspense) you can earn stars. These stars! dumped them out on the table: a tantalizing shimmer of red, blue, silver and best of all, gold.

Paul was intrigued. I was pretty sure he would be. Not only because I knew him, but because I knew about the magic of foil stars. I’d learned to read because my first grade teacher had ceremoniously affixed red, blue, and gold stars on my Dick and Jane reader whenever I read without mistakes. I still like to read, and I adore stars.

Paul learned a wonderful variety of household tasks: to vacuum, to do laundry, to bake birthday cakes for his brothers so creative and impressive that the neighborhood was stunned with admiration. Best of all, he won points, his line graphs ran up the graph paper, and he earned lots and lots of stars.

A few years passed. The challenges had faded from memory. Raj, my next son was now ten. It occurred to me that he could also learn to do useful tasks around the house. And if my system worked so well for one, why not the other?

I put the packet together: the directions, the cards, the colored pencils, the graph paper, and the stars. I motioned to Raj to come over. He eyed me warily.

“Hey Raj, I have this great idea. I call it challenges in contemporary living.”

He looked suspicious, but I explained the entire, wonderful system. Then I paused. He took a quick glance at my treasures on the table. Then he spoke, too quickly, in my opinion.

“You’re asking me to do the laundry?!”

It was over: My marvelous system had disintegrated before my eyes, never to be put back together.

The boys, now men, have never forgotten. To this day, Raj will say,

“I’m still glad I didn’t fall for it.”

And they all laugh.

I don’t mind. They grew up to be pretty fair-minded and accomplished, even at home. Maybe subterfuge has its uses.

Getting to America: me, Indians, everybody else, and immigration law

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free....

One gray-haired, elderly woman and I were the only people who’d come to the Indian Consulate in New York City to take the six hour, two part examination in beginning Hindi. We were both married to men from India and wanted to learn our husbands’ language.

At lunch, between part one and part two of the exam, she shared her story with me. She was a physician who had spent most of her adult life in India.  In the 1930s she had married in the United States, and when she did, her American citizenship was taken away from her.

I could not believe it! She had no earthly reason not to tell me the truth–but it was inconceivable to me that the United States, land of immigrants, would take away a native-born American’s citizenship just because she had married an Asian. I smiled and nodded, but vowed to myself to go home and do some research.

She was telling the truth. In 1907, with the Expatriation Act, any American woman who married a foreign national lost her citizenship. In 1922 that part of the law was repealed–but not for American women who married Asians.

After she married, she went to India and lived most of her life there, practicing medicine. That was easier, I suppose, than to live as a woman without a country, here, in the United States, where she was born and raised.

It occurred to me that her husband should have applied for American citizenship before their marriage. Then she could have kept hers.  I was naive: he could not. In 1923 the Supreme Court had ruled that Indians from the Asian subcontinent could not become U.S. citizens. Although anthropologists deemed them Caucasians, the Court decided they were still not white. Only whites and Africans, by law, could be citizens.

Over the years, Congress has often sought to adjust the ingredients in the American melting pot. The Immigration Law of 1924 established quotas on how many people from each country could come to the United States based upon the numbers already living in the US in 1890–before the huge–and unwelcome influx from Southern and Eastern Europe. Preference would henceforth be given to British, Irish, German, and other Northern Europeans. Asians were not welcome at all.

My own immigration story began in the 1960s. It would have been relatively easy for me to emigrate from Canada to the U.S. There were no quotas on people from the Western Hemisphere.

But I had married an Indian who wanted to come to the States. By this time, a new law was in effect, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.  It retained quotas, but got rid of the racial restrictions. Immigration was possible for him…just extremely difficult.

The quota for India was 100 per year. It was also 100 for Pakistan, the country where he was actually born. (In 1947, when India and Pakistan had gained their independence, his family fled to India.) It was also 100 for many other countries as well–the lowest possible number allowed by law.

Other quotas were more far more generous. Of the 154,000 annual immigration visas allowed, Great Britain received 65,700; Ireland, 17,800; Germany, 25,900.

No wonder there were so few Indians living in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s!

In 1965, the year I married, Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration law that abolished quotas by nationality. Immigration laws now favored those with family in the States (my former husband had none) or skills needed by the U.S. (he had a PhD in chemistry). In 1966, he and I and our baby boy drove across the border in our little blue VW bug to begin our new life in the United States.

We were not the only ones who came after 1965. Nowadays several million Indians live and work in the States. Several have won Nobel prizes. They’ve started successful companies, teach in our universities, practice medicine, write novels, go into politics, become engineers and IT specialists. They are part of the mosaic that is the United States. As a group, they’ve been wildly successful and they contribute a great deal.

Their story is like the story of many others who have been drawn here by the promise of a better life.  Still, I worry.

In the 1960s, when I came of age and when immigration laws were changed, the mood in our country, especially among the young, was more liberal than I’ve seen it before or since. Many of us who were young believed all the lyrics in our folk songs:

“Come on people now, smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”

But the sixties are long gone. Laws can change for the better, but they can also change for the worse. We’ve been anti-immigrant before, many times.

We know the story of the Japanese-Americans: well over 100,000 were sent to internment camps during World War II. They were not the Japanese who had bombed Pearl Harbor.  It didn’t matter. Thousands of Germans and Italians were placed in internment camps too. We treated these people badly because we were afraid. We’re afraid now.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, we deported or coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who were mostly legal residents or American citizens to leave the United States.  We did it because jobs were scarce. Jobs are scarce now.

These days, anti-everybody-else rhetoric has reached a fever pitch. Nonsense is fervently repeated until it sounds true. We need  immigration laws, to be sure, but surely they should be based on rational and fair principles.

In Yeat’s poem, “The Second Coming,” written in the aftermath of World War I, he writes

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Maybe, if we believe in liberty and justice for all, it’s time to stand up to all that passionate intensity.

****

Copyright by Margaret French, October 9, 2011