Rainy day. Good for writing. Good for contemplation. And I’m doing more of… guess what?
There’s a fragile glass ornament hanging from my floor lamp. It’s an ostrich feather enclosed in an oval glass bubble. I love this piece. It makes me think. The sunlight from my window makes every furry tendril of the feather come alive. It lives and breathes. The feather wants to fly.
My biggest challenge as a writer is learning how to contain the story. I am chock full of stories. They roll right off the top of my head. No problem there. To harness the stories, thread them on a central vein (the theme) and keep my writing airy and alive takes work. The enclosed glass form holds everything in. That is the form of the novel.
Hopefully with a little luck I can pull this off. What a miraculous feeling it is to get the feather inside the bubble. How do you contain a story? There are tricks and techniques, but most of all, it takes hard work. That reminds me– time to get back to my writing.
Mother’s Day has come and gone but not a single day goes by when I don’t remember my Oma. Oma loved flowers. She grew them, she studied them, she painted them. She was curious and imaginative. She delighted in nature. Today when I see the colors of a fallen leaf, study the bark patterns on a tree and thumb through Ansel Adam’s photographs…. I remember my mother.
Oma was an avid gardner. Back when we lived in the tea gardens she won many medals at the Annual Flower Show at the Cacher Club: once 10 in a single year (1958). That year she took Best of Antirrhinum, Dianthus, (I never heard of these flowers I had to Google them: Antirrhinum BTW is another name for Snap Dragon – who knew! ) Pansy, Gladiola, Carnation, Dahlia, Gerbera, Lettuce, Brussel Sprout and Celery! Quite a remarkable feat considering she was the only Indian memsahib competing against British ladies who are passionate, skilled gardeners and fiercely competitive! My mother gave them a run for their money by walking off with all the medals that year. Dad said everybody got tired of clapping. These medals are old and tarnished. Today I will give them a good scrub. I googled “how to clean silver,” and came up with this method using baking soda and aluminum foil. Let’s see if this works.
After mom passed away. I brought back her favorite book with me to America: Flowers of the World by Frances Perry. It’s a hefty authoritative volume and mom’s copy is much thumbed and covered with gift wrap for added protection over the dust jacket. Mom would put homemade dust jackets on all her favorite books to protect them from wear. Sometime she used pictures from old calendars. I was reminded of this many years ago when I loaned a book to a Thai friend of mine, here in Arizona. She returned my book covered with a homemade dust jacket with a picture of an Arctic wolf. I will never forget that. It touched my heart. That kind of care and reverence for books belongs to older cultures. We don’t see that in America.
Here is a small ceramic dish my mom made by molding clay over a glass form. I fired it in my kiln (I used to be a ceramic artist back then) and my mom painted a sprig of chrysanthemum in deft free-hand brush strokes completely from memory! Today I use this dish for my guitar picks and I remember my mother as I drink my cup of tea every morning.
Have a wonderful weekend, dear friends. Please remember to make time for the ones you love. I have to constantly remind myself of this. It’s so easy to forget. Cheers!
Last Saturday I was in Ajo (pronounced ‘Ah-ho’) a wee mining town– a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Ajo is as cute its name (population 3,500). The other Arizona town that rivals Ajo in its teeny name is the town of “Why”. I learned from the folks at Ajo the residents of “Why” wanted to name their town “Y” because it is located at a Y-shaped intersection – but the post office does not accept a single letter for a town name and that is why Why came to named Why! So much for trivia.
The “Friends of the Ajo Library” – a volunteer organization had invited me to give a talk. Ajo is a 2 hour drive from where we live, and what a beautiful drive it was through a highway lined with wildflowers. I wished I had stopped to take pictures but I worried I’d be late, so we drove straight on. The quaint little Ajo Salzar Library is located right in the middle of the town plaza and the Friends of the Library gave me a very warm welcome. After my slide show and Q&A there was small reception with the most delicious baked treats and tea. We drove around the town and up to see the big open pits and a cute little historical museum. Here is a picture of me in my rather loud dress standing outside the mining museum. What a gratifying day! Thank you Ajo!
“The celery,” she said, “ makes a nice koch-koch noise when you cut it. So fresh.”
I shrugged. “It’s just celery.”
“You should see the celery we get in India,” Oma said, “thin and stringy, like lizard tails. Everything is so healthy in America. The people with big, white teeth saying “have a nice day.” Even the garbage man who drives the truck with the crab claw to lift your bin, smiles and waves. And do you know what that carpet cleaner man said to me yesterday?”
“He said ‘take care’. Take care.”
I looked at her, puzzled. “He finished his work and he was leaving. So?”
Oma shook her head. “You are not understanding me. He did not say bye-bye. He did not say ta-ta. He said take care. Now isn’t that nice?”
I snorted. “That doesn’t mean a thing, Oma. It’s like saying bye-bye or ta-ta. That’s just how they speak here.”
“Not at all,” Oma retorted. “Take care is what you’d say to your old auntie or grandmother. It shows love and concern for an elderly person. I thought it was very nice of him to say “take care,” but then the poor fellow was in such a hurry, he forgot to drink his tea.”
“That’s the other thing I want to tell you,” I said, “don’t go serving tea and Marie biscuits to workers. They don’t have time to drink tea and chat about their family. Also I overheard you ask him all kinds of personal questions. You don’t ask “are you married?”, “how many children do you have” etc. He must have thought you were being terribly nosy.”
“What’s so wrong? In India, the garbage man, the driver, the newspaper man– whoever comes to my house are given tea. I know all about their families and everything. The driver’s mother-in-law has a goiter on her neck–-”
“People don’t talk about their mother-in-law’s goiter in America. Everybody’ s in a big hurry. Time is money.”
Oma threw up her hands. “Too much hurry, hurry here. You have everything. Big house. Machine for this, machine for that. Small, small gadgets that go peep-peep, ting-ting. You have blacktooth and blueberry, i-ping and you-pong, but what’s the use? Nobody has any time! Why? You don’t even have to get out of your car to open your garage door. If Rekha, my maid saw that garage door open by itself, she would think it was a ghost and run screaming for her life.”
I laughed. It was true. Automatic garage doors are still uncommon in India.
“The other day, your dear husband forgot where he parked his car in the mall,” continued Oma. ” Now, what will you do, I asked. Don’t worry, Oma, he said, I will call the car and it will answer me. “Hey car?”, he called, just like that, and the car honked back and even winked its lights. Imagine a car answering a human? In India even humans don’t answer humans. Too much noise.”
“He’s pulling your leg, Oma. He must have pressed the car key in his pocket.”
Oma ignored me and waved at the fruit bowl sitting on the countertop. “Look at all this nice fruit and nobody to eat it. No time, No time. Hurry, hurry, hurry.”
“Why don’t you eat some?”
“How much can I eat by myself? Too many different things to eat in this house, I get confused. I sit down to cut an apple and you say eat the grapes. Then your husband says, eat the melon, eat this, eat that. Before you know it everything gets moldy and you have to throw it all away. Then back we go again to Costco and load up another shopping cart the size of a rickshaw with more fruit.”
“That reminds me there are strawberries in the fridge. Don’t forget to eat those.”
“I know. I took them out of the box and looked at them.”
“What? Have they spoiled already?”
“No, no, the opposite. They are too beautiful to eat just now. I just like to look at them. I will eat them when they get a little soft.”
“What is the point in getting you fresh strawberries, then?
“Feasting is for the eyes as well as the stomach. I have never seen such big, perfect strawberries in my life. I just want to admire them for a while. They are God’s miracle.”
“Man’s miracle is more like it. I hate to disillusion you but those strawberries must be full of the steroids, hormones or whatever junk they put in them.”
“What is steroids?”
“Something that makes you look healthy when you are not.”
“How can you look healthy if you are not healthy? Sickly people you can always tell. They are thin and malnourished. They have no energy. They look like the lizard-tail celery.”
“Here the sick people look like the strawberries, the healthy ones are thin and stringy like your lizard-tail celery.”
“That makes no sense,” Oma frowned. “I hate to say this, but America has made you into a very cranky person. All the time, this is not right, that is not good, grumble, grumble, never happy with anything. You should hear yourself sometime. Crease marks are appearing on your forehead. It is not very becoming.”
“I am just telling you the facts,” I said, glancing at the clock. I pulled off my apron and grabbed the car keys. “I must run to the post office. I’ll be back. Why don’t you eat some strawberries?”
“And ….” I turned and waved, “take care!”
NOTE (updated 19th June, 2013) Sadly, the following year, Oma departed for her orchard in the sky. These are my fond recollections from her last visit to the US and our lively conversations in my kitchen. Oma was eighty when she died.