Painting by my talented cousin and mixed media artist
who lives art at the speed of life and vice versa!
I can't say I was ever a huge fan of The Divine Secrets of the Ya - Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, but I always smile in sympathy when recalling Sidda's trip home (at age thirty - something) to introduce her fiance to her mother. As they pull into the driveway and her mother comes out, Sidda "tried not to feel five years old. She tried to feel at least eleven" (336).
Nearly fifteen years have passed since I first read those words back in 1999, yet they are still ringing true! How accurately that phrase -- "at least eleven" -- captures my own experience of trying to feel (and act) like an adult when the family gathers and it suddenly becomes so difficult to feel twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, even sixty. Just ask my oldest brother Dave or my younger sister Di, who heard me quoting the phrase more than once this past weekend.
with my sister Di (left) and cousin Alicia (center)
When my oldest brother referred to himself as "a sixty year old man just trying to stand up and say enough," I couldn't help thinking of my favorite story -- "The Third and Final Continent" -- in Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning collection Interpreter of Maladies. In this story, a young, twenty - something, male student from India comes to work at MIT and rents an upstairs room in the home of a very elderly woman. After a few days, the landlady's daughter, also elderly, comes by to check that everything is okay for the new renter.
Here's what happens:
On Sunday there was a knock on my door. An elderly woman introduced herself: she was Mrs. Croft's daughter, Helen. She walked into the room and looked at each of the walls as if for signs of change, glancing at the shirts that hung in the closet, the neckties draped over the doorknob, the box of cornflakes on the chest of drawers, the dirty bowl and spoon in the basin. She was short and thickwaisted, with cropped silver hair and bright pink lipstick. She wore a sleeveless summer dress, a necklace of white plastic beads, and spectacles on a chain that hung like a swing against her chest. The backs of her legs were mapped with dark-blue veins, and her upper arms sagged like the flesh of a roasted eggplant. She told me she lived in Arlington, a town farther up Massachusetts Avenue. "I come once a week to bring Mother groceries. Has she sent you packing yet?"
"It is very well, Madam."
"Some of the boys run screaming. But I think she likes you. You're the first boarder she's ever referred to as a gentleman.
"She looked at me, noticing my bare feet. (I still felt strange wearing shoes indoors, and always removed them before entering my room.) "Are you new to Boston?"
"New to America, Madam."
"From?" She raised her eyebrows.
"I am from Calcutta, India."
"Is that right? We had a Brazilian fellow, about a year ago. You'll find Cambridge a very international city."
I nodded, and began to wonder how long our conversation would last. But at that moment we heard Mrs. Croft's electrifying voice rising up the stairs.
"You are to come downstairs immediately!"
"What is it?" Helen cried back.
I put on my shoes. Helen sighed.
I followed Helen down the staircase. She seemed to be in no hurry, and complained at one point that she had a bad knee. "Have you been walking without your cane?" Helen called out. "You know you're not supposed to walk without that cane." She paused, resting her hand on the bannister, and looked back at me. "She slips sometimes."
For the first time Mrs. Croft seemed vulnerable. I pictured her on the floor in front of the bench, flat on her back, staring at the ceiling, her feet pointing in opposite directions. But when we reached the bottom of the staircase she was sitting there as usual, her hands folded together in her lap. Two grocery bags were at her feet. She did not slap the bench, or ask us to sit down. She glared.
"What is it, Mother?"
"It is improper for a lady and gentleman who are not married to one another to hold a private conversation without a chaperone!"
Helen said she was sixty-eight years old, old enough to be my mother, but Mrs. Croft insisted that Helen and I speak to each other downstairs, in the parlor. She added that it was also improper for a lady of Helen's station to reveal her age, and to wear a dress so high above the ankle.
"For your information, Mother, it's 1969. What would you do if you actually left the house one day and saw a girl in a miniskirt?"
Mrs. Croft sniffed. "I'd have her arrested."
Helen shook her head . . .
Even after sixty - eight years, poor Helen is still struggling to feel "at least eleven" in the presence of her mother. I don't want that to be my fate; and I understand exactly what my brother meant when he wrote that sixty years old is old enough!
1. My dear friend Cate provided me with this excellent mantra to carry in my heart and in my head when traveling to see the family (or anyone else for that matter):
C. K. Ramaswamy Gounder, 1914 - 2002
aka, Swami Satchidananda Saraswati
2. Words of Wisdom from Brian Andreas at StoryPeople:
& I said why do you treat them like adults?
& their eyes opened wide
& they began to laugh & talk all at once
& suddenly everything looked possible again.
Sign up for Story of the Day
3. Favorite dialogue from The Office:
This is my home,
and home is where the hardest.
Oscar: Home is where the heart is.
Michael: Heart is. That makes a lot more sense.
Actually, as is so often the case, I think Michael might have had it right the first time; for indeed, so / too many times, "Home is where the hardest."
4. As I wrote earlier in the summer about my "Ancestors":
become something our parents could not have foreseen."
from the novel Fifth Business (248)
by Robertson Davies
5. Apparently, even the gods must struggle at times to feel "at least eleven":
I wonder now about Demeter and Persephone. Maybe Persephone was glad to run off with the king of death to his underground realm, maybe it was the only way she could break away from her mother, maybe Demeter was a bad parent the way Lear was a bad parent, denying nature, including the nature of children to leave their parents. Maybe Persephone thought Hades was the infinitely cool older man who held the knowledge she sought, maybe she loved the darkness, the six months of winter, the sharp taste of pomegranates, the freedom from her mother, maybe she knew that to be truly alive death had to be part of the picture just as winter must. It was as the queen of hell that she became an adult and came into power. Hades’s realm is called the underworld, and so are the urban realms of everything outside the law. And as in Hopi creation myths, where humans and other beings emerge from underground, so it’s from the underground that culture emerges in this civilization.
by Rebecca Solnit
(Hermes helping Persephone to return to her mother
Demeter after Zeus forced Hades to return Persepone.)
Frederic Leighton, 1830 - 1896
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Wednesday, August 28th
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