As I pressed the recline button on my plane seat and floated into the wholly balls of snow-white clouds outside my window, my heart filled with hope and excitement. I was going home. A home that I had left behind to move to North America, some twenty years ago, my parent’s home, my home in Delhi, India.
I couldn’t wait to meet everyone. But most of all I couldn’t wait to meet my parents. There was not a day that went by when I didn’t think of how they were doing without me. From my memory’s palace, I saw them living the same way that I had left them.
While growing up, my mother had wrapped her life around me. Dance classes, theatre practice, debating competitions, riding camps, dropping me for school trips, and picking me up from late-night parties. Our house was always filled with activities, laugher, and friends. Life was perfect.
Then, before we knew, the hands of time ruthlessly turned and it was time to leave the nest and move on. My fairy tale childhood was over.
So how happy was I on this journey home! I was going to relive my childhood again; gallivant with friends till dawn, throw tantrums with doting aunts, play messily with naughty cousins, and get spoilt rotten by my parents.
As my plane landed, I immediately spotted them waiting for me anxiously in the arrival lounge. Their eyes were flooded, arms were open, they were greyer and a little more hunched, but still standing. I ran and reached the safest place in the world, my mother’s arms. She rocked with me repeatedly till Daddy nudged us that he wanted in too. It is a feeling that only those who have left a happy home can know.
The smells and sounds of India reassured me that nothing much had changed. God only knew how much I had missed the nauseating traffic and toxic fumes in the squeaky-clean sterility of the West. Oh! I loved it all.
Reaching my parent’s house felt like I had never left. It felt like stepping out of a time machine, back to my childhood.
I threw my bags on the floor and crashed into the familiar old settee with enormous cotton cushions. The smell of cardamom and fresh cow milk made me ten years old again. I lay my head in my mother’s lap.
Gently stroking my hair, Ma told me about all those who had passed away, and others who were almost there. Daddy chimed in on how expensive life was now and how difficult it was for them to commute to the city every day.
But why did my parents need to go to the city every day? Had they not retired?
Just then, our dear childhood housekeeper Ramu, walked in and beamed, ‘Dinner is ready’. For the next hour, I was back to more paradise. Ramu’s cooking made me cry. I obviously overate. My eyes drooped. There was so much more I wanted to know, but it all had to wait till morning.
It must have been midnight when I woke up like an owl. Ah, the incorrigible jet lag!
Instinctively I looked at the phone. Should I call home to find out how things were? No, no, it must be mid-day on the other side of the globe, kids at school, husband at work and the king of our house, Sparky tucked snugly on his leather couch, listening to Beethoven. And why wouldn’t things be okay? After all, it wasn’t even a day since I had left. I had to learn to let go. How difficult was that!
Forcing myself out of the room and away from the phone, I glided like a ghost in the dark. The walls were full of paintings, masks, photos. I recognized some old frames with newer versions of us, our children, and our pets. And then I saw some newer faces of people whom I didn’t recognize. Who were these people in my parents’ life?
The next morning, I got my answers.
Ma was on the phone when I entered the living room.
‘….yes, will reach by noon, with my daughter!…’.
Handing over my teacup, she said, ‘ We are going for our monthly fund-raising meeting, and, its at your favourite country club ..’
I slept some more amongst the heady car fumes. We reached a sprawling colonial whitewashed building. The door man was dressed in full British cavalry attire, a starched red-and-white uniform and the glorious imperial fanned- turban. I immediately recognised his mustaches, a little thinner but as pointed and grand. His eyes lit up with recognition as he opened the car door for me, ‘Welcome!’.
I was back to my second home, a place spiked with the magic of wonder years!
My taste buds tingled and memories of those buttery chicken sandwiches washed down with tall poolside lemonades came flooding in. I remembered everything. The freezing pool water that warmed up after brisk strokes, those hot summer nights in the rose garden under the stars, my screaming friends over the blaring live band, my lost heartbeats watching the sexiest tennis coach play before my lesson, and spicy peanuts from forbidden adult bars that set my mouth on fire.
Mother was marching towards the women’s cloakroom. I wobbled in behind her and found myself staring at another familiar face from the past. Crinklier and sitting on the same cane stool in the corner was our senior parlour maid. Again, puzzlingly she recognized me in an instant. I hugged and tipped her and then splashed some water over my cheeks to wipe the grime and absconding tears.
Despite the candy-striped canopies, the lawns were sweltering in the mid-day sun. Mother’s friends had started arriving. I recognized some of the unfamiliar faces from the wall pictures from the previous night. Their satellite husbands made a beeline for the Chinese food and coconut water stalls. The men seemed content in huddling separately on adjoining tables. They, of course, stayed within a safe distance of receiving instructions from their better halves for any possible fetching task or for when it was time to leave. The women started conducting their fund-raising meeting!
So this was what my parent’s new world looked like!
Surprisingly, after the ooh’s and ahh’s had died down over me, they proceeded in a very professional manner. They even had an agenda. I strolled away towards a cluster of banyan trees, an enclave of sorts within the sprawling gardens. This is where we played hide-n-seek and later kiss-n-tell. It was time to call my friends.
After the third call, I gave up. Did anyone ever sit at home these days! I wondered if I would still have the same connection with my friends when they called back. We had all grown up, but I was hoping we hadn’t grown apart. Yet, was there really something left to talk about between us, or was I just chasing my memories of them?
I looked at my parents still engrossed in their conversations. They looked happy. But there was something more. Yes, I knew what it was. There was peace. Surely, they missed me, but they had found their life, their own life after I had left.
I recognized what was happening. It had never stopped happening. It was change. The same insidious change that had compelled me to grow up and leave. Except, it didn’t feel so insidious anymore.
On the ride back, I reached out to hold my mother’s hand and she cupped it warmly between her palms. The pigments at the back of her hand had turned into age spots over blue veins. But hers were still the same slender figures had braided my hair into ribbons, maneuvered perfect stitches on last-minute outfits, jotted exam notes when I had collapsed with exhaustion, packed lunches, laid elegant spreads for a busload of friends who descended unannounced, pressed the creases of my sari at graduation and wiped my tears at my wedding.
And then I saw the similarity. My hands blended perfectly into hers. Just as my tasks for my daughter were similar to what her tasks had been as my mother. Yes, my life with my parents was precious. But there was something more precious than that.
It was the memories that we had created to last a lifetime. My parents had their treasure chest filled with my memory, similar to how my children were filling up my treasure chest.
Ma and dad had let me go, gracefully and gently. Now it was my turn. It was time to let go of the pain of separation and celebrate the life we had lived. Just as they had found their peace, it was time for me to be at peace as well.
My phone rang. Ah, it must be one of my gallivanting friends returning my call.
A familiar, sweet but somewhat annoyed voice said, ‘ Mom, are you done? ..’
Then the other annoyed voice, ‘ Mom….come home!.. ’