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Jaclyn Moyer

 

 

 

My grandmother stands in the doorway at the end of a long hall. The light is dim, but I notice her right away because I’ve been watching that door, waiting for it to open. “Jackie,” the old woman calls, squinting into the darkness, unable to see me curled into the corner of a couch at the far end of the living room. “Come here please, I have something to show you.” I walk quickly down the hall, then step into her room, and my grandmother sweeps the door closed behind me. The carpet purrs beneath the wood, the latch clicks shut.

Inside, the air is thick, laden with the musk of cumin seed and black tea. The overhead light is off and the curtains are drawn. One bedside lamp glows orange. Though it is just the spare room of my parents’ house, usually filled with mundane clutter—extra blankets, piles of file folders, and boxes of wrapping paper—the room has been transformed by my grandparents’ presence and I feel far away from home. Unfamiliar items fill the space: Folded scarves drape over the back of a chair. A string of prayer beads hangs from then bed post. A framed painting of a man with a long beard and a white turban leans against one wall, his face serene, palm raised.

My grandmother sits cross-legged on the floor with her bare feet tucked into the folds of her traditional salvar kameez. A suitcase spreads open in front of her. I am seven or eight years old, dressed in a pair of jeans and a cotton T-shirt. I lower my body onto the floor and cross my legs too, trying to sit exactly like my grandmother as if mimicking her posture might make me feel less out of place inside the room. My grandmother pulls a garment from the bag and hands it to me. “Jackie, you like?” I unfold the shirt, lay it flat on the carpet, and spread the sleeves smooth with the palm of my hand. A hundred button-sized mirrors reflect back a distortion of my face. Between the mirrors, orange threads weave a tight pattern against black linen. The sleeves are finished at the wrists with gold embroidery. By the time I get a good look at the shirt, my grandmother has laid out two others. She presses them flat against the carpet with her palm just the way I had done.

One of the shirts is pink, my least favorite color, with complicated embroidery covering the chest like a bib and sleeves made of mesh. Another, cherry red and long enough to reach my knees. “From India,” my grandmother says. “You like?” She looks at me eager for an answer, and the thick frames of her glasses magnifiy her eyes.

I pick up the red shirt. Tiny flowers rim the neckline, raised off the fabric like Braille. “Yes,” I say. “They’re pretty.”

Aahcha, very pretty.” My grandmother beams. “You take them all then, haanah?” When she leans forward to speak, I smell the coconut oil she rubs into her hair each night.

My grandmother sweeps the shirts to the side and pulls a lunchbox-sized Tupperware from her suitcase. Her fingers burrow under envelopes and tiny cloth bags until she finds what she’s looking for and holds it out to me. In her palm a bracelet coils like a tiny snake, gold and glistening in the lamp light. I cup my hand and my grandmother pours the bracelet from her palm to mine. The gold seems to glow fainter against my pinkish skin than it had against the leathery brown of hers.

I close my fingers around the bracelet and scoop up the pile of shirts. I know I’ll never wear these clothes, never be caught dead at school in the fancy tunics or gold jewlery. Instead, I’ll keep them folded on the top shelf of my closet, occasionally I’ll take them out to run my fingertips over the plastic mirrors or fasten the bracelet around my wrist. I’ll press the fabric to my face and take a breath: cloves, warm milk, dust.

When I step out of the room into the hallway with a bundle in my arms, my mother is there shaking her head. She looks at my grandmother. “She doesn’t wear that stuff, Mom. You have got to stop bringing her gifts like that, it all just sits in the closet.” My grandmother casts her eyes away and murmurs something in Punjabi. I clasp the bundle tight to my chest, wait for my mother to return to the kitchen. When she does, I look up at my grandmother. “Thank you,” I say and run to my room.

 

*

 

At some point over the many decades since my mother immigrated to America as a teenage, she lost her Punjabi accent. These days her voice sounds as Californian as mine, with one exception. The v and w sounds remain switched in her mind so that windshield wiper comes out vinshield viper and wisteria, visteria—one remnant of India my mother was never able to shed.

When her family came to California, my mother was fifteen. My grandfather, a machinist, had received a work visa allowing him entry into America and moved his wife and four children to Los Angeles. It was 1970, and though the Indian Diaspora in the United States would eventually grow to more than 2.6 million and Los Angeles would become home the fourth largest concentration of Indian immigrants in the country, at the time there were few other Indians in the area. But my mother was young, and she adapted quickly to life in America. She thrived in school, earned a scholarship to UCLA, and pursued a PhD. She met a white man and married him despite the cultural prohibition of a non-arranged, interracial marriage, became a pharmacist, and settled in a small town in northern California where she had no history and knew no one. She gave my sister and me American names and taught us to speak only English. Once, I heard my mother refer to herself as a “non-practicing Indian,” as if her Indian-ness was something she could simply opt out of as easily as a religion or a profession.

Before my parents were married, my father, a white hippie with long blond curls and a mustache, called my grandfather to ask for permission to marry his daughter. “I’ll just talk to him and explain we’re happily in love, he’ll have to understand that,” my father assured my mother, who, I imagine, only shook her head. My grandfather did not understand. Instead he said, “We don’t do that,” hung up the phone, gathered his car keys and the machete he used in his yard, and drove north to my parents’ home in San Francisco intending to kill my father. My mother’s sister called with a warning, and my parents fled. They hid with friends for a few days, until my mother knew her father had given up his search and returned home to LA.

I heard this story of my grandfather’s quest to kill my father with a machete many times growing up—the tale was part of my family lore, told with laughing head shakes to wide-eyed guests—but no one ever said much more about it than that, and I’d never thought to ask. But as I got older, I began to wonder about the rest of the story. One evening, years after I’d moved out, I visited my parents for dinner. After the meal, I helped my mother clean the kitchen. I wiped down the counters while she loaded plates into the dishwasher. The house was quiet except for the clinking of plates, and I asked what had happened after my grandfather failed to find my mother and her white fiancé all those years ago. “Did he just get over it?”

My mother didn’t answer right away. “Well,” she said, then paused as if the question had stumped her. She dried her hands and walked out of the kitched, disappearing down the hall toward her bedroom. A moment later she returned carrying an envelope. With the cream-colored paper pressed between her fingers, she explained that when she returned to her apartment she found a note stuck to the door. She’d read it, folded it up, and placed it in a drawer.

The note survived thirty-five years, long enough for my mother to slide it out of the envelope that evening and show it to me. The note is handwritten on a ripped sheet of lined paper. The letters are jagged and the words are written decidedly in English, though badly misspelled. The message is clear. The note tells my mother that she has shamed her family name, destroyed their reputation. The only Punjabi word on the page hovers above the signature. I asked my mother what it meant. She paused, trying to find an equivalent English word. “Doomed,” she said after a moment. He’d signed the letter “your doomed father.”

After she found the note, my mother called her sister to see how her parents were doing back home in LA. It was then she learned that while her father had been away, her mother had stopped eating, stopped getting out of bed. I imagine my grandparents’ home during those days, my grandfather missing, my grandmother lying motionless beneath a wool shawl. A pot of dal molds on the stove. A stack of buttered roti grow stale inside a tin lined with a towel, a stain of oil darkens the cloth. Atop the counter a dusting of turmeric lingers like pollen dropped from a flower.

My grandmother remained in bed for several days, my mother told me, refusing food. Soon she complained of voices in the room, evil spirits in the house. Eventually, my grandfather took her to a hospital and she was placed in a psychiatric ward.

But even the news of my grandmother’s nervous breakdown did not sway my mother’s resolve to marry my father. Eventually, my grandmother was prescribed anti-psychotics and released from the hospital. Shortly thereafter, she boarded a plane to San Francisco and took a taxi to my mother’s home, carrying beneath her arm a rolled up mat. When she arrived at my mother’s house, she stepped into the living room and unfurled her mat across the floor. Here, my grandmother sat crossed legged, pulled her scarf up around her head, and settled in. She pleaded with my mother, begged her to cancel her wedding plans, informed her of the many qualified Indian grooms she knew, and refused to move. My grandmother remained on that mat for two days. But my mother declined to cancel and eventually dragged my grandmother to the airport and boarded her on a plane home. My mother was promptly disowned.

 

*

 

After my mother’s blasphemous marriage, my grandmother pulled her traditions close—wrapping them around herself like a shawl. Every day she made roti, mixed the dough with cupped hands and spread butter across the surface of each bread with her fingertips. She cooked dal and subji in giant steel pots and carried the food to the Sikh temple. She quickly arranged marriages for two of her remaining three children, and refused to let her youngest daughter so much as mention a boy from school. But the arranged marriages didn’t last in America, and eventually her son and daughter both filed for divorce. Her youngest daughter never married. Only my mother remained with her husband.

My grandmother made more dal, cooked bigger pots of okra. She chopped hundreds of lemons and packed them into gallon jars with ginger and cayenne to make achar—spicy pickled relish. She boiled milk for fresh yogurt, and ground coriander and cloves into garam masala. She had the back deck of her house remodeled, the walls sheetrocked and the floor carpeted, to create a room devoted solely to prayer. Every morning she carried an offering of hot paratha and cha into the room and prayed for hours. Over the years since she’d arrived in America, the community of Indian immigrants had burgeoned in Los Angeles and my grandmother talked almost solely to other Indians, she shopped at the Indian market, visited with Indian friends, had an Indian doctor. She continued to study the classified section of India West under the “Brides/Grooms’ heading, determined to find her divorced children new partners and refused to recognize my mother’s marriage, waiting for her daughter to return home and agree to a nice Indian husband.

 

*

 

Eventually my grandparents came to tolerate my mother’s marriage and accepted her back into their family, but by then my mother lived a full day’s drive away. Growing up, I didn’t see much of my grandparents. When they did come to visit, every few years, I watched the pair with wonder. I coveted the scent of cumin and cloves that linger on everything they touched—on the furniture where they’d sat, and in the ceramic tea cups they’d clutched between their palms. I put my ear against the wall of the bedroom where they slept to listen to the Sikh prayers my grandfather murmured every morning, spellbound by the indecipherable syllables.

Once, my grandmother waded into my parents’ pool fully dressed while I sunbathed nearby in my swimsuit. I watched as she lowered herself slowly onto the first step. She didn’t appear to care that the water soaked the hem of her pants, and for a moment I mistook her behavior for a streak of boldness. I remembered the time my family and I, on a drive in the mountains, had pulled over at a lake we hadn’t planned to visit. No one had brought a bathing suit but my sister and I couldn’t resist the water so we plunged in wearing our jean shorts and T-shirts. For the rest of that drive we couldn’t stop giggling with the exhilaration of having broken a rule.

But now, watching the pool water tug at the hem of my grandmother’s pants, watching it creep up the rose-colored silk like a shadow, I didn’t dare giggle. The old woman stepped down onto the next stair and the water reached her knees, I guessed, though it was difficult to know where exactly her knees were beneath the many folds of her pants. It occurred to me that I’d never seen my grandmother’s knees. I imagined they looked like my mother’s; two apple-sized ovals a shade darker than the rest of her legs. My grandmother continued into the pool until the water rose to her chest. The tails of her crimson scarf floated to the surface, tinting the water red as if the pool were filled with wine. With her back to me, my grandmother leaned slightly forward and cupped her hands together to splash her cheeks, then patted a wet palm across her forehead. When at last she turned to walk back toward the steps, the scarf swirled behind her and I lifted my towel to cover my own bare shoulders.

Another visit, I sat at the kitchen table doing my homework—long division. After finishing a page, I look up to find my grandfather standing across the kitchen with a screwdriver in hand. His hunched back faced me so that I could make out each notch of his spine beneath the white linen of his shirt. He moved around the kitchen hardly making a sound, opening cupboards and pulling out a tea kettle, two pots, and a large pan. Only the pads of his cloth slippers whispered against the tile floor. I held my breath and let my pencil hover over the page, afraid that my breathing or the scrape of lead on paper would destroy the quiet my grandfather carried into the room. I watched him examine the cookware, gently wiggling the wobbly handles. Then he began to bend brackets and tighted screws until each handle was firmly attached; he did not allow the tools a single bang or clap as he worked. At last my grandfather turned a screw one degree too tight and the wood handle released a squeal. I let out my breath.

 

*

 

When I was in my early twenties, and I joined my parents for a weekend trip to Los Angeles. They were headed down for a friends’ wedding, and planned to stay with my mother’s parents. I hadn’t seen my grandparents in several years, and wasn’t sure when I’d have another chance to visit, so I decided to go along. We pulled up to my grandparents’ house after eight hours of driving, and my mother shut off the engine. I unbuckled my seatbelt and my parents did the same, but no one reached for the door handles. Instead we sat quietly, just staring out at the pale siding of my grandparents’ house. Everyone, it seemed, needed a moment to prepare for the visit.

My mother gestured out the window to the house next door, explaining that another family from India had recently moved in there. The house was nearly identical in size and style to my grandparents’. In front, a flowerbox held three eggplant bushes and a line of overgrown cilantro plants frosted white with flowers. Also like my grandparents’, the driveway of this house was swept clean, free of any evidence of life inside: no toys left out, no shoes on the stoop, no shovel leaning against the garage.

The door in front of us cracked open, and my grandmother’s face appeared in the opening, a chuni draped over her head. “Jaswant?” she called, pushing the scarf back until it fell across her shoulders. My mother waved, and the old woman hurried outside. She hugged each of us quickly, before ushered us inside where I knew a meal would be waiting.

After eating, I returned to the car to collect our bags when a woman emerged from the house next door. She looked to be about my age and wore a turquoise salvar kameez. Black hair fell down her back, and lipstick pinked her mouth. Penciled lines traced the edges of the woman’s eyes and her lids glimmered gold behind a sweep of dark lashes. She waved, then said, “Sat sri achall.” I replied with the same greeting, just loud enough for the woman to register a response but quiet enough to hide my flawed pronunciation.

My mother and grandmother walked out of the house at the sound of our voices. The woman next door smiled and stepped across the strip of grass that separated her driveway from my grandparents’. As she neared, I could see the woman was pregnant, her swollen belly bulging against the silk of her shirt. My mother chatted with the woman for a moment and then introduced me. She must have explained that I did not speak Punjabi because this time when the neighbor looked at me she said “Hello.”

The three women continued talking, and I looked from face to face as they spoke as if I were following the conversation. But the words were fast between them, and I understood nothing. I felt suddenly out of place, as if this woman were the granddaughter and I were the acquaintance, the neighbor, the stranger passing on the street.

 

*

 

The next morning I woke disoriented. Unaccustomed to mornings in the city—drapes drawn, the sun concealed behind buildings, the murmur of traffic humming constantly like an vacuum left on—I tried to rub the sleepiness from my eyes before stepping out of the guest room where I’d slept. I opened the door and took a step toward the kitchen. In front of me, there was the pregnant neighbor crossing my grandmother’s hallway. She wore a pink scarf wrapped over her head, so sheer I could see the glow of her gold earrings beneath the silk. I wore a jean shorts and the same t-shirt I’d slept it. The woman nodded at me before slipping into my grandparents’ prayer room. She slid the door closed behind her and I hurried into the kitchen.

No one else was around and I put a pot of water on the stove for tea. At home I’d have made coffee, but I knew there would be none in this house. Waiting for the water to boil, I stepped to the edge of the kitchen, and picked up a copy of India West. Holding the paper in front of my face, I lifted my eyes toward the prayer room’s sliding glass doors. Inside, the woman knelt in front of the alter, her head bowed under her scarf. Only the woman’s feet stuck out from the folds of silk that covered her body and I could see the hardened skin of her soles. Behind the glass door the woman looked like a statue on display, an actress at the final scene of a play, frozen in place waiting for the curtain to drop. I’d rarely entered my grandparents’ prayer room, and never ventured inside alone. Occasionally I followed my mother in and copied her movements, laying a borrowed scarf across my head the way she did, folding my legs like hers, placing the dollar bill she handed me atop the alter. I envied the ease with which the neighbor woman entered the room, how effortlessly she seemed to fit into the world that existed inside my grandparents’ house.

At the sound of a door opening, I dropped the paper and returned to the motions of making tea. My mother emerged from her room and joined me in the kitchen. I poured tea into a mug and held it between my palms as I examined the contents of the kitchen walls: a calendar with the months and days of the week written in Punjabi beneath a photo of the Taj Majal, a list of numbers and notes scribbled on a sheet of paper tacked above the phone, a framed poster of an image of a frying pan with the words “To make an omelet, you must first break an egg” written below. I stared at the poster for a moment, wondering where it came from, why it hung on this wall, in a kitchen where I doubted an omelet had ever been made. As part of their Sikh practice, neither of my grandparents ate eggs.

Decorations as incongruous as this poster peppered my grandparents’ house, adorning walls and tabletops like props set for a play. In the guest bedroom where I slept, a picture frame sat atop the nightstand displaying the stock photo it had come with, a pink-cheeked blond toddler smiling into the camera. On a table top Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Techniques and Recipes by Julia Child. I wondered how these things entered my grandparents’ house. Were they gifts, or had my grandparents bought them? Had my grandmother set the items about the house, nestled the picture of a stranger among her family photos and paintings of Sikh saints, hung the poster of an omelet above the tubs of pickled lemons and sacks of chickpea flour stacked on her kitchen floor, placed a book of recipes by a famous American chef on a table where it would go unopened, a film of dust and the scent of coriander laced across the cover?

When I turned from the egg poster, my mother had left the kitchen and the neighbor woman stood at the counter. I hadn’t heard the sliding of the glass door, or the murmur of bare feet moving across the carpet. “Good morning,” I said. The woman smiled, the corners of her eyelashes knitting together for a moment before pulling apart again when she spoke.

“My son,” the woman said, “He needs help with his homework. Your mother told me you have been a teacher?”

I nodded and the woman bent to retrieve a packet of papers from the floor next to where she had removed her shoes. I noticed her toenails were painted paprika red, her feet carefully manicured.

The woman held the papers out to me. “This is his language homework,” she said. “He did all the math already, he is very good at math.” I flipped through the stack of worksheets, mostly vocabulary practice. On the first page words like carry and once and around lined up across the top and a list of sentences followed. Each sentence contained a blank space that the child needed to fill in with a word from the top.

I began to explain the worksheet to the woman. She nodded as I spoke, but I noticed a growing reticence in her mannerisms, a shyness replaced the confidence she so easily exuded when talking with my grandmother in the driveway and I realized her English vocabulary was far more limited than I had noticed. I turned to the next worksheet, hoping this one would be easier to explain.

As I skimmed through the directions, the kitchen door opened and my mother stepped inside. “Sat sri achall,” both woman said, and then began talking in Punjabi. The neighbor motioned to the worksheets in my hand. I hadn’t noticed how quietly the woman had been speaking. But now, in Punjabi, her words came out swift and loud and I realized she’d been nearly whispering before, in the same way that I whispered my Punjabi greetings to disguise my flawed pronunciation.

My mother spoke mostly in Punjabi, but phrases of English slipped into her sentences, likely for my benefit. She turned to me. “You can go next door after the boy gets out of school to help him, right?” I nodded, grateful for the chance to be of help. The neighbor woman beamed, one hand on her swollen belly, gold earrings glinting through strands of coal-black hair.

“Thank you,” the woman said, slipped on her shoes, and left.

 

*

 

Later that morning, my grandmother sat at her kitchen table peeling ginger root with the back of a knife. I pulled up a chair beside her and asked if she would tell me about her childhood in India, of which I knew almost nothing. She smiled and started to talk, still peeling. Then she paused and called for my mother. “I don’t know the right words in English,” she said. “Your mummy can translate.”

And so it was through my mother’s translation that she and I both learned the details of my grandmother’s marriage. My grandmother had lived in a small farming village called Pharwala until she was married at age sixteen. Upon learning the identity of her husband-to-be, my grandmother told us, she had cried for days. But she knew her tears were useless—her marriage had been arranged when she was just nine years old. “I wanted to marry another man, a pilot,” my grandmother said in Punjabi, my mother translating, “I wanted to run away, anything not to marry this man who seemed too old with his thick black beard.” Three months after the wedding, my grandfather returned to Nairobi where he’d found work as a machinist, leaving his new bride alone in India. Seven months later, my grandmother gave birth to my mother. “I hadn’t wanted a child, I didn’t know what to do with the baby—I hated it.” My mother spoke calmly, as if she were a stranger translating someone else’s history, as if the story had nothing at all to do with her.

My grandmother looked tired, her cheekbones glistened slightly with sweat and the corners of her lips curved downward. She returned her attention to the burl of ginger on the cutting board in front of her. My mother stood, as if released from a spell, and hurried to the bathroom.

I remained at the kitchen table, flipped through the copy of India West and pretended to read. I glanced across the pages at my grandmother’s face, now focused on the ginger peelings. I imagined her sitting on her mat in my mother’s apartment thirty years earlier, her features set with the same intent focus, demanding that my mother call off her wedding. Now I understood that when my grandmother gathered her mat and flew to San Francisco, it was not the first time her loyalty to her family’s reputation, to the customs of her culture, had been tested. It was not the first time she’d defended tradition over desire.

My grandmother finished chopping the ginger. The foam soles of her chupla—the flip-flop sandals she wore inside—padded against the linoleum as she walked into her kitchen. She lifted the lid off a pot of dal boiling on the stove. For a moment, a cloud of steam obscured her face and she slid the ginger into the pot. I wondered, all those years ago when my grandmother sat cross-legged on my mother’s apartment floor, had she harbored one secret grain of hope that her efforts to stop my mother’s marriage might fail? Amid her cries of grief and desperation when my mother carried her out of the house and drove her to the airport, had my grandmother also shed one tear of satisfaction at the knowledge that her daughter would abandon the tradition that she could not?

 

*

 

The next morning, my grandmother asked my mother and me to join her for prayer. Though I wouldn’t be able to understand any of the words, and my mother abandoned Sikhism long before I was born, we agreed to sit and listen. My mother pulled two silk scarves from a cabinet in the hallway, wrapped one over her shoulders and passed the other to me. I slid the silk from her hand and draped it over my head, as is customary when entering a Sikh place of worship. My grandmother smiled, proud, perhaps, to see me wrapped up in her own scarf, and motioned for me to enter the prayer room. Just then my father, who rarely came along for visits to my grandparents house, came lumbering into the hallway. He stood a foot taller than the rest of us, with his long blond hair falling into his sleep-muddled face. “Ah,” my grandmother said. “You come too, aahcha?” My father looked to my mother as if she might offer some way out of this invitation. But my mother only grinned and tossed him a scarf. My father laid the cloth on top of his head and it drooped down into his eyes.

In the prayer room I sat on my knees and listened to my grandmother read. In English her words often came out awkward and uneven, but when reading the prayers my grandmother’s voice lifted and fell with ease—as if she were singing rather than speaking. I remembered an uncle once telling me that in her youth my grandmother had been a great singer. People would come to the temple in her village just to listen to her voice. But after her marriage, my grandmother quit singing. This was the closest I’d ever come to hearing her voice.

The phone rang. My mother stepped out of the room to answer it and shut the door behind her. A moment later my grandmother closed her prayer book. In the absence of her voice, a hush filled the room as if someone had opened a window and let in a draft. My grandmother cleared her throat and returned to English. “Daniel,” she asked my father, “are you a Christian?”

I stared at the floor. Neither of my parents participated in organized religion, and I didn’t know how my father could answer this question without offending my grandmother. My father spoke slowly, as if talking to a young daughter instead of his mother-in-law. He explained that he did not follow one particular religion, but he believed in people treating one another with kindness.

For a moment, my grandmother didn’t say anything. Then she nodded. “Yes,” she said. “I believe that too.” She curled her fingers around the prayer book and added, “You are good man, Daniel.” The skin around my grandmother’s eyes and across her brow began to crumple into tiny ripples the way the peel of a mango wrinkles when overripe. Her eyelids welled with tears.

I’d never seen my grandmother cry and wanted to sprint out of the room to get my mother, but I didn’t dare move. “I don’t know what to do,” my grandmother said, “I tried to raise good children, to give them good marriages, but I failed.” My grandmother did not lift her hand to blot the tears that dragged slender ribbons of eyeliner down her cheeks. Her eyes locked onto my father’s face and she spoke directly to him, as if his removal from her culture allowed her to confess things she could tell no one else. Digging her nails into the cover of the prayer book so that her fingertips turned white, my grandmother continued to speak. Her role as an Indian mother was to be a good wife and to marry her children well, to make paratha each morning and keep her hair dyed black as coal even as it fought to go grey. Hadn’t she done all these things? Hadn’t she kept her traditions alive, even here, in this tract house in a suburb of LA? Hadn’t she managed to preserve her customs even though she herself had hated her own fate? Even though she, too, had wished for the choice to marry freely instead of being promised to my grandfather at the age of nine? Hadn’t she been good? Hadn’t she stopped singing?

The wrinkles on my grandmother’s forehead deepened. She released her grip on the book and it fell to the floor. She didn’t bother to pick it up, but pressed her hands into one another, wrestling for the right words in a language that was not her own. I tried to imagine how her life could have been different. She could have tossed out her salvar kameez for jeans and polyester pants. She could have learned to drive and taken classes at a community college. She could have stopped cooking Indian food and instead bought packages of dried pasta and cereal from the supermarket. She could have given up trying to find Indian grooms for her daughters, a bride for her son. She was just thirty-one when she moved to California, she could have left her own arranged marriage, gone to school, learned to sing American songs.

My grandmother stopped speaking and turned her face downward. She lifted her chuni to blot her tears, then flipped the tail of fabric over her shoulder and stood. I could see inky eyeliner stains smudging the pink silk as she stepped out of the room.

Later that day, I found my grandmother in the kitchen chopping onions for dal. I cleared my throat. “Naniji,” I said, hoping my accent did not mangle the word for grandmother, one of the few Punjabi words I used. “Can I watch you cook, so I can learn how to make Indian food the way you do?”

My grandmother looked up from the bloom of cauliflower she’d been chopping. Her eyes, still red, grew wide and lit with a glint of mischief. She whispered, “Jackie, I didn’t go to school like your mommy, you know, I didn’t go to college like you.” I stepped closer, opened my mouth, then closed it. “But look,” she continued, “I know how to do other things, I know how to cook everything. I can make paratha and dal, all of it.My grandmother lifted her hands toward the stove, spread open her palms as if in offering. “Look.”

 

*

 

Several months later, back home in Northern California, I drove across town to my mother’s house to help her cook. A group of Buddhist monks was visiting our region from a monastery in India. The monks spoke Hindi, but the language is close enough to Punjabi that my mother could understand it fine. This made her one of the few people in our town who could talk with the visitors without a translator, so she offered to host the monks for dinner one night. My mother planned to make a traditional Punjabi meal: black lentils, rice with peas and cumin, sautéed cauliflower and potatoes, fresh yogurt, and roti.

When I arrived, my mother’s kitchen was already a flurry of activity—pots simmered, cutting boards cluttered the counter, bits of ginger peels and garlic skin confettied the floor. My mother stood holding a halved Serrano pepper to her nose, smelling for spice. She wore an apron with a cordless phone stuck in the front pocket. “How many cups of rice do you think I need to make for twelve people?” She asked.

“I don’t know, six?” I guessed, “Seven?”

My mother looked up from the pepper. “No way,” she said, and pulled the phone from her apron, pressed a button, and pinched it between her neck and shoulder. “Sat sri achall, Mom,” she said, and without waiting for a reply greeting, launched into a stream of Punjabi. A moment later, she slid the phone back into the apron. “Three,” she announced and measured out the rice.

A few minutes later my mother reached for the phone again, this time to ask how much cardamom to stir into the burfi batter. From where I stood a few feet away, I could hear my grandmother’s voice spilling from the phone, her words fast and assertive. My mother nodded. “Aahcha, aahcha,” she said, one hand stirring.

My mother hung up the phone and motioned to a line of dough balls waiting to be flattened into roti. “Can you roll those out?” she asked. I picked up a ball, dusted it in flour and began squeezing the edges flat while turning it between my hands like a wheel the way my grandmother had taught me. My fingers moved slow and clumsy like a toddler’s and the disk came out lumpy. “Here, let me show you,” my mother said, crumpling my flattened disk back into a ball and placing it in line by the others.

“I know how to do it,” I said, but she ignored me and began turning a ball of dough between her hands, squeezing the edges flat while spinning the disk. Her hands hardly seemed to move at all, but there it was, just a few seconds later, a perfectly round patty. Then my mother reached for the rolling pin and began to move it back and forth across the dough. The patty spun in a circle beneath the pin. This spinning had occured when I’d watched my grandmother make roti as well, but whenever I had tried my patty remained still. I asked my mother to explain how she achieved the spinning, was she putting more pressure on one side of the rolling pin, moving it in a certain way? “No, no,” she said. “You don’t try to make it spin, it just happens.”

I sighed, and didn’t ask to roll the next one. Instead, I turned on the stove beneath the cast iron tuva my grandfather had made. The pan bowed outward just slightly to match the curve of an open palm, and I could see the marks of his hammer hardened into the iron. When it began to smoke, my mother flipped the first roti onto the hot pan. The dough was so thin and circular it looked like it had been cut from a piece of wax paper.

“Okay, you man the stove and I’ll roll them out,” my mother said, though I knew she could do both tasks simultaneously. I watched the roti on the pan change color as the water cooked out, the flipped it over. When the first bubbles began to blister on the surface, I slid the bread off the tuva and onto the open flame the way my grandmother had shown me. The roti ballooned with hot air and I pinched it between metal tongs, flipped it once, and then placed the flatbread in a tin lined with a dishtowel. I rubbed a stick of butter across the steaming bread until it shined.

The monks arrived as my mother and I finished the last roti. We set the food across two tables pushed together, and everyone squeezed around the perimeter to eat. My mother talked with her visitors in a mix of Hindi and Punjabi, the occasional English word peppering the conversation. Then one of the monks looked at me and said something I couldn’t understand. I shook my head, “I can’t speak Punjabi.”

“Your mummy did not teach you?” the monk said, more of a statement than a question.

I shook my head and glanced at my mother. The skin above her brow seemed to crinkled slightly, the lines under her eyes suddenly carved deeper. For a moment her face looked more like my grandmother’s than I’d noticed before.

My mother reached for a platter covered in with a cotton napkin. She lifted the cloth to reveal a pile of diamond shaped pastries, milky white and dusted with cardamom.

“Ah, burfi,” one of the monks said, grinning at the platter. “Did you buy these at an Indian market?” he asked. My mother shook her head and her brow smoothed. “No,” she said, “I made them myself.”

The platter moved around the table, each monk taking one diamond, then another until only a handful remained. My mother placed the leftover pastries on a paper towel, wrapped them up in plastic, and sent the monks off into the night with a package of Indian treats.

After the men left, I washed dishes listening to Neil Young streaming from my parents’ stereo. I reached for the cast iron tuva we had used to cook the roti, its curved surface dusted with burned flour, and began to wipe it clean. I ran a rag across the pan and the wooden handle wobbled in my hand. I noticed the screw that held the handle in place spun loose. I set the tuva on the counter and rummaged through a drawer to find a screwdriver. Then, with the curve of iron pressed into my lap, I sat on a stool and turned the screw until it released a tiny squeal and the handle locked firmly in place.

On the way out of my mother’s house later that evening, a photo atop the piano caught my eye. It was a picture of my parents’ wedding, one I’d never given much notice. I knew the story: The event took place in a friend’s back yard. There was cake, beer, dancing. Women wore sundresses, men, bell-bottomed slacks and long hair. Most of my father’s family was there, none of my mother’s. In the photo, my mother smiles, her black hair shining next to my father’s blond curls. There are no garlands of marigolds. No one has drawn patterns across my mother’s hands and feet with the amber stain of henna.

The scene looks like a typical American wedding—almost. It is only my mother’s dress that stands out, not white like a traditional Western gown, but red as paprika. With the photo in hand, I asked my mother if she still had the dress and she led me to her closet. She slid dozens of skirts and sweaters aside. And there, in the back corner, hung the dress: a hint of red, hardly discernible in the shadowed light. I reached for it and felt the silk slip against my palm.

 

 


Jaclyn MoyerJaclyn Moyer is a writer and teacher based in the Pacific Northwest. Her essays have appeared in Orion, The Normal School, Salon, December, High Country News, Hippocampus Magazine, and other journals. She lives with her partner and three-year-old daughter in Corvallis, Oregon, where she is at work on her first book of nonfiction.  In 2017 she was a Fellow at the Sozopol Literary Seminars in Bulgaria.

 

 

 


 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.