Her small hand presses the light brown wheat dough as she sits in a chair, her fingers married to kneading. The pressure of her palm makes small imprints in the soft dough that look like tiny veins of tree branches. The kitchen smells of yeast as it lingers in the space. She recognizes that air because it whispers the spices of street vendors outside her childhood home and of her own mother’s poetry.
She is my mother, but I don’t know all of her stories, the ones that she lived as a youth with her parents, two brothers, and two sisters. I look at my mother, as my gaze shifts to my daughter who is playing with beads, trying to string them on a pink shoestring. I can imagine my daughter years from now wondering about her past and asking questions of me about her grandmother.
To capture the current of the moment, my own curiosity prompts a question: “Mom, as a young girl in India, what did you play and who did you hang out with?” She speaks of the almond trees her legs climbed as a little girl near her street and her best friend R., who accompanied her wherever she went, playing hopscotch out of the courtyards outside their homes. They still talk once every two weeks, although over twelve time zones separate them.
Every time I ask my mom a question about her past, I’m surprised. I learn a little more each time. Just last week I learned that my maternal grandmother gave birth to four children who each lived until age two or three and then subsequently died. It’s hard to imagine that grief, the repeated succession of losing one child after another. She channeled her grief into poetry, often scribing lines of lyrical verses on anything that could be considered a writing surface. She, as my mother says, was very beautiful, the flesh of her face beaming as though she carried the pregnancy glow even when she wasn’t harboring a child.
My grandmother died when I was seventeen years old. I spent a handful of summers with her when we visited India. I remember following her around everywhere, her presence giving me immediate comfort. Her ritual always included slicing up Indian fruit called sitapul (sugar-apple) or bananas as I woke in the morning. But our relationship wasn’t dependent on conversations, but of caretaking. She would care for me, my pillow was her lap as she stroked my hair. When she would sleep and when I couldn’t, I remember playing with her skin on her forearm, pushing it back and forth like it was a swing. I didn’t know of the questions to ask then, because I didn’t realize how dependent I was on the answers and of the history she carried with her.
Part of that realization makes me sad, having lost all four of my grandparents, not knowing the riches of their soul. Sometimes I don’t know why I gravitate toward piano music instead of the drums or why Emily Dickinson appeals to me rather than Salman Rushdie, or why I have a disdain for rice, but harbor a secret love affair with the Indian street food pani-puri. I suspect it has something to do with where I came from, the things that I know and don’t, but are shaped even when I am not paying attention.
I’m dependent on my history, the part that is completely lost and the one that lives in my mother. I think we are all dependent on the veins of yesterday.
Do you think of your veins of yesterday? Do you probe your parents or grandparents of their memories? Do you gravitate toward certain interests even though you may not understand your propensity toward it?
Image by worak