It’s all in the crunch

celery Oma, my mom, watched me chop celery.

“So nice,’ she sighed.

“What is?” I asked.

“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?”

“No, what?”

“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.”

Too pretty to eat
Too pretty to eat

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?

Oma admiring her rose garden.  This photo was taken when she was much younger.
Oma admiring her flowers. This photo was taken when she was much younger.

“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?”

“Alright”

“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. 

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Shona Patel’s debut novel “Teatime for the Firefly” (Harlequin/Mira) slated for release  October 1, 2013 is currently available on pre-order (with guaranteed delivery by 24th September) from major retailers in several countries. You can read the Synopsis and First Chapter here.

People-pleasing: where do you draw the line?

If a man does not keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Henry Thoreau

My parents in their mid 30’s

My mom (Oma) was a natural beauty. Scrubbed face, no makeup – not even lipstick. All she wore were a few dabs of sandalwood lotion on her skin. Once her English friend presented her a with a lipstick and begged her to wear it to the cocktail party they were going to that evening. Oma reluctantly put it on only to please her friend. According to my dad (he had a wicked sense of humor!) Oma had her mouth pursed like a goldfish that whole evening. She was too uncomfortable to talk, smile, eat or drink. Finally, half way through the party, she had had enough and the lipstick came right off.

“You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.” 

Ricky Nelson

Oma in her 50’s

As she was getting older, Oma’s hair started turning grey. One day sis and I decide to spiff her up. We took her to the beauty parlor and got her hair colored. Oma dropped fifteen years, right then and there. Even she was surprised. Then she glanced at the bill she let out a loud wail. “Eeeesh! How much? 450 rupees! Daylight robbery!”. (450 rupees if you must know, is the equivalent of 10 bucks. It was more back in the 80’s– maybe 25.)

Several weeks later the hair color started to fade but Oma was too cheap to spend that kind of money again. Not that she could not afford it.  It just irked her to pay someone to put dabs of paint on her head.

“What’s there to it?” she said. “Why can’t I do it myself? I will buy the hair dye from New Market and paint my own head.”  (FYI  back in the 80’s there were no imported color rinses available in India: hair coloring was a tedious and messy job that wrecked your bathroom.)

“Please Oma, “ we begged. “Just get it done professionally. We’ll pay for it.”

Oma glared at us. “No need to show off your money,” she said tartly. “It’s is not about your money or my money. This is daylight robbery. I can buy 4 kilo mangoes with 450 rupees!”

There was no arguing with her, so Oma went and bought the hair dye from New Market and spent a half a morning in the bathroom coloring her hair. She was very pleased with the results.

“How do I look?” she said, “ Quite professional, no? Just like the beauty parlor.”

We were surprised. It actually did look pretty good. Then she turned around …

“OMA!” we shrieked, “You did not do the back! It’s still completely grey!”

“Where?” said Oma twisting around to look at the mirror. “Where? Where? I can’t see it.”

“But we can can see –other people can see it. Oh Oma, It looks completely crazy!”

“Well, then it’s your problem and other people’s problem,” said Oma. “As long as I don’t see it, I’m fine. That’s all I care.”

And that ended the argument.

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If Oma was alive she’s kill me for sharing this. There is a lot I learned from her. Oma was fiercely individualistic and a feminist well ahead of her time. She was also adventurous, inventive and a barrel of laughs. Funny stories about her abound in the family. Here another post about Oma from my KARMA CHEF cooking blog.

Please share your thoughts: How much do you compromise to please others? Who are your role models? What made you who you are? Cheers!

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Layla, the protagonist in my debut novel Teatime for the Firefly is a fictional character but embodies many traits of my mother, Oma. You can read the synopsis and first chapter HERE. Teatime for the Fireflywill be published by MIRA BOOKS. Release date will be announced soon!

Stretching truth into stories

A cabin in the woods. So pretty by day and so creepy by night!
Oma when she was eighty, just before she died.

I love a good ghost story, don’t you? So gather around folks and get yourself some tea because I am going to tell you one. It happened  to my mother: we call her Oma. This story got written up in a Bengali magazine and made Oma a minor celebrity. She told it over and over to an expanding circle of fans, right up to the time she died. She was eighty and almost completely blind, by then. The story is called The Apple Pie Ghost.

The historic town of Julian is located 50 miles northeast of San Diego.

Oma visited us in America in fall of ’96 from India. We took her on a road trip to California and spent a night in the tiny historic town of Julian, 50 miles northeast of San Diego. Julian is a postcard-pretty town, famous for its apple orchards. There are big pine forests and lovely lakes. We rented a cabin in the woods which we booked through the internet. The cabin looked rustic and comfy in the photos. There was a tree growing out of the floorboards and right through the roof of the front porch! It was so quaint and charming. We paid the owner (a Mrs. Fisher) with a credit card over the phone. She lived in San Diego and we could tell from her voice she was an elderly lady. “The keys are in the bar-b-que inside a coffee can, ” she said. “Put it back in the same place when you leave.”

Julian, California is famous for its apple orchards

The cabin was in a dense wooded area, rather difficult to find as the road was overrun with bushes and the marker hardly visible. It was a creaky old thing, badly in need of repair. When the wind blew the entire structure (thanks to the tree growing out of its roof) shuddered and groaned.

We had lunch in town and went for a walk. Mom got worn out and wanted to nap so we dropped her back at the cabin and hubby and me took off to fish in the lake. The sun was just sinking over the treetops when we packed up. We stopped en-route to pick up pizza before heading back to the cabin. When we arrived we found the lights blazing and Oma waiting at the door. She looked wide-eyed and anxious.

“Quick!” she said. “Something happened.”

 HERE IS OMA’S VERSION OF WHAT HAPPENED When I woke up. it was dark. I called out your names wondering if you were back. When I heard no answer, I groped my way to the living room and tried to find the light switch. Something in the living room made me feel terribly uncomfortable– like there was somebody there– a presence of sorts. Thank god I found the switch and turned on the lights. The room empty. I decided to watch some TV so I picked up the remote but when I went to sit in this big blue chair, I felt like somebody was pushing me out! I tried to sit again and I felt once more that violent resistance. It was most odd so I just went and sat down on the sofa. Suddenly I noticed a strong smell  permeating the room. It was cinnamon and apples– the smell of freshly baked apple pie! I opened the oven and peeked inside. The oven was cold and there was nothing there. The windows were closed and there were no other houses around, so the smell could not be coming from outside. I was puzzling over this, when I heard a  scratching on the kitchen screen door and saw a cat yowling outside trying to get in. It was all very bizarre. First that ‘thing’ not letting me sit the blue chair, then the smell of fresh apple pie and now the cat! To calm myself, I closed my eyes and tried to meditate. Next thing I knew you two were back.

Mom and me at the rickety cabin the morning after the apple-pie ghost incident. Nobody got much sleep that night!

Hubby and me did not know what to make of it. (FYI Oma does not believe one iota in ghosts. She’d probably smack a ghost on the nose if she saw one) But given that she was alone in a creaky old cabin in the middle of the dark woods, it was  possible her imagination went a little awry. I told her so.

“It was not my imagination,” she retorted indignantly, “And don’t treat me like an old woman.” So we left it at that.

OMA’S VERSION (continued): “The next day before we headed out to San Diego we stopped downtown for early lunch at this old-fashioned American diner. It had black and white linoleum checkered floors and antique bottles decorated the windows. The waitress was a chatty lady who urged me to try a slice of their famous apple pie. She asked where we were staying.

“Fisher Cabin,” my son-in-law replied, “up by the lake.”

“He died recently, didn’t he ? Mr Fisher?” The waitress asked.

We didn’t personally know them, we told her.

“They were a nice couple,” the waitress continued. “Regulars at this diner.  Mr. Fisher loved our apple pie. He would always take a whole pie home with him.”

(This ends Oma’s version of The Apple Pie Ghost story. Add some twilighty music here if you like!)

As The Apple Pie Ghost made its rounds, Oma’s fan base grew and the story plumped  a little. The night became moonless and foggier, the cabin creakier, a few owl hoots got thrown in and the cat turned into sinister black feline with monstrous yellow eyes. Oma’s  daughter and son-in- law (hubby and yours truly) were described as a rugged. National Geographic type of people with a penchant for extreme adventure who had gone mountaineering (not nature rambling to pick pine cones, ladies and gentleman) leaving a brave old lady alone in the cabin. The brave old lady –who did not know fear, having encountered leopards and tigers in her tea garden days– had just returned from an evening walk (not woken up from a snooze, excuse me). The story got more layered and delicious until it was practically falling off the bone. The audience was drooling. Plenty of tea was drunk in the course of this story and cups lay helter-skelter on the floor. When Oma delivered the punch line (Then the waitress said “Mr. Fisher loved our apple pie. He always took a whole one home with him) – she did it with the élan of a sous chef flipping a large omelette in a very tiny panthe fans gasped en-masse and a delicious shiver went through the group. Oh yes, Oma knew how to tell her stories. She left her audience reeling.

(Added on 5/26) Since we are talking of ghosts, I had to include this pix: “The Ghost of the Hoogly” sent in by friend Rahul Dey who writes, “May I remind you this is not photoshopped as I don’t have Adobe. It’s the real one! This  ghost often hops from boat to boat to look for the boatman who killed him and ran away with his  wife.”  Shona’s disclaimer: BELIEVE AT YOUR OWN RISK FOLKS! I can’t say I am convinced!

When I reread the story in the Bengali magazine long after she died, I thought, wait a minute, this is all too pitty-pat, too tidy. I wonder what really happened? By then I had  Oma’s version buzzing in my brain and the real facts of the case had fizzled out. I did not want to be the big killjoy and add a spoiler:  after all, The Apple Pie Ghost was Oma’s path to stardom– it made her a celebrity. All her audience really wanted was the razzle-dazzle of a magic show, not a deconstruction of the sets backstage.  But I had to find out, just to satisfy my own curiosity.

So I consulted my hubby who, if you must know, is not prone to wild imaginings like the womenfolks in my family. Here are bones of the story as verified by him.

Oma was left alone in the cabin (TRUE). She felt uneasy for some reason (TRUE). When we returned she told us about the apple pie smell and the cat at the door (TRUE).

(Flash forward to the diner scene, if you will.)

The waitress mentioned Mr. Fisher had just died (TRUE). The Fishers were regulars at the diner (TRUE). The diner was famous for its apple pie (TRUE)

(Now here is the dubious bit).

The waitress said Mr. Fisher loved their apple pie (FALSE). Mr. Fisher always took home a whole apple pie (FALSE). The truth was the waitress asked if we wanted more coffee and left and Oma pushed around the apple pie on her plate, piecing together a story.

If mom was alive she would kill me for botching The Apple Pie Ghost. Now why would I want to do that? Why would I trade so much joy, so much tea, such sweet bonhomie and such shivers of excitement for few grains of truth? Oh pleeze….

So cozy up folks, let’s get ourselves some tea and let’s share stories. Have you ever stretched truth into fiction? Please take me with you. I will happily suspend disbelief and sign up for the ride.

Cheers!

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST
The very best Apple Pie recipes 
Tourism information about Julian California

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If you like tea, ghosts and stories you may like my upcoming novel Teatime for the Firefly. You can read more about it HERE.  I am represented by April Eberhardt Literary.