My grandmother’s home was at the top of a two-story wooden stairway in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. When I visited, I was always a small child, starting at the bottom of an endless stairway leading to a landing I could see only when I reached the tenth step. My father would follow me, laden with suitcases, my mother bringing up the rear. When my foot reached the landing, my grandmother would be standing there, stout legs bound in some sort of black cotton hose, her round softness leaning down to engulf me in a tent of pillow and fabric, smelling of sweat, something a bit acrid and something that smelled like the moment you pull a carrot from the earth.
There would be hugs and wafts of conversation above me, some in a language I didn’t understand, some in the language I did but that sounded mysteriously like the language I didn’t. This mass of movement, weight and flow would go through the old screen door, smelling of dust and wood without paint, my grandmother’s hand, sticking in my memory, pushing on the aging gray wood around the ancient screen, and we would be suddenly inside in her kitchen, my father taking a bag up the stairs at the back near the stove to the rooms above.
My mother would sit for a moment in a cracked, padded chair at the kitchen table, with its red oilcloth hanging over the edges. I might lean against her, absorbing the smells of the house, the blackness of the huge coal stove that dominated the back corner of the kitchen, cold at the moment, patient, the counter taking up the whole of one wall, lined with objects covered with patterned dish cloths, still sending out muffled odors of meat cooked with potatoes, onions and carrots, warm pastry, vinegar, and the rich smell of cakes made with filbert flour. I waited, breathing, while they talked about the trip and the health of Mr. Djingalevski, the storekeeper who lived below.
I waited patiently, fully at peace, for my grandmother to come over to me and take my hand. Then she would lead me across the kitchen, up the narrow stairs and into her small bedroom. There I could see on the feather bed a new, small stuffed horse, always the same simple pattern, made of colorful fabric, mane, tail and eye made of the same yarn. I climbed into the bed, boosted by my grandmother’s softly fat arms, to take possession of this new member of a growing herd. With my gift clutched to my chest, we would go back down the stairs where my grandmother would sit heavily in her wooden rocker and pat her lap for me to come up as my father came back down the stairs to join us.
There I would stay while she rocked with one arm around my shoulders, my head between her bosoms where I could hear the hollow reverberation of her Polish-English and breathe in her rich, earthy smells as she talked with my father. He would be unpacking, with some ceremony, the bag of gifts we’d brought her. He’d first pull out, with dramatic flair, the old blue glass face cream jar he always carefully re-filled with white Jergen’s face cream, offered as a new jar of some now unattainable favorite. Then a bottle of vodka, maybe a dress my mother had picked out for her, meat, some fresh vegetables if they were in season. After the ritual, we’d sit and talk as she left me in the rocker to get plates of sweets from the sideboard, with milk from a bottle that always tasted so different from the milk I drank back at home, and coffee and maybe a vodka for my father. She arranged it all on the oilcloth-covered kitchen table. Always more food, there would be sandwiches and fresh cucumber pickles with dill and sour cream until we couldn’t eat anymore.
Then she would take us down the wooden stairs to the back yard to see the garden. As we walked, she would stoop once or twice to pull something from the grass, always a four-leafed clover she would reach back to hand me, with a slight smile I could catch only quickly as she turned away. If it were still late summer or early autumn, she would pull me a huge orange carrot, break off the leaves, rub it on her apron and offer it to me to eat, the smell of earth and taste of earth and orange sweetness mixed with the pungent fragrance of turning leaves. Over the houses in the next yard, over some trees in the mid-distance, loomed glowing mountains of black stones, smoking and steaming, sending up some strange smell of rotten eggs and smoke. Sometimes I remember a crow, calling from the tree in the back corner of the yard, somehow part of the background of misty emanation, the voice of the slag heaps with their steaming fumes.
This afternoon I stood at the kitchen sink and watched several small mobs of birds fly around over the field, back and forth, up and down, each individual a part of a whole guided by wind, following the movements of their nearest neighbors, swooping up and down, back and forth in patterns of unison. As I watched, I knew it must generate a kind of ineffable and inherent joy.
And now I’d like to tell you another extraordinary ordinary thing. Many, many years ago, I spent a summer in Ithaca, NY, caring for the child of a Pakistani woman, Saadia, who was studying for her Ph.D. at Cornell. I lived with her, her three-year-old-son who had named himself Sana, and her auntie, Bibijon.
The three months I spent there was for me a kind of retreat, a pause. When I arrived, I knew little about this small family other than Saadia had known a man called Samuel Lewis, a Sufi master and great teacher who had died the year before in San Francisco. In the days that followed, Saadia told me more of their history, how Bibijon, although an aunt just a few years older than she, had taken on her guardianship, care and protection when Saadia’s parents had died suddenly when she was still a teenager. She told the story of how, when Bibijon herself was three, she had fallen from a second story window when her Ayah was distracted. She had barely survived and was left with a partially paralyzed left arm that became withered over time and a limp on her left side. As a grown woman, she was like some beautifully made marionette whose puppeteer held one side slightly crumpled in against her body with a skillful twist of his hand. Then, around the age of six or seven, she had fallen into a well whose cover was accidentally left partially open. With her functioning arm, she managed to grab a cross bar inside the well as she dropped. She hung on with that one arm for over an hour, yelling for help, before she was finally rescued. For all this, she never complained, only took care of those she loved.
Saadia had been a young girl, maybe nine years old, at the time of Partition, the British solution to the problems they had created during the process of leaving India. Muslims and Hindus who had lived together amicably for millennia were whipped into incredible acts of violence against each other. She and her family had been among those Muslims hastily packed onto trains so overcrowded that people rode on top of the railway cars. They traveled this way for several days, through dangerous territory, where Hindus were killing and raping Muslims and Muslims performing equally violent acts against their former Hindu neighbors. They were being driven away from their home in India to the newly created Pakistan, to the city of Lahore. Like so many, they did not want to leave their ancestral home. They, too, had had their role to play in achieving Independence. Meanwhile, millions of Hindus were leaving their ancestral homes in what was now Pakistan to move in the opposite direction, sometimes with moments’ notice. Most people left behind everything except what they could carry in a small bag. It is often called the largest human migration in history–an estimated ten million altogether. More than a million people probably died during the violence that resulted from Partition, some in their ancestral home, some on the trip. Saadia spoke little about it.
I imagine the family must have settled well into their new home over the years. They had always been highly respected, devout, well-educated and generous to the community. They built a fine new home which they named Bhallah House. It is clear they resumed their position as respected community members, probably contributing to the creation of a new government in this new country. It is an era of her history, the time she had spent with the parents she’d lost too soon, about which she never spoke. She did speak, however, without vanity, of her beauty as a young woman and her pride in the fact she had been the first Pakistani woman to marry a “foreigner”. She had married a handsome American man she had met during her years of study. He had converted to Islam and they had a wedding of great extravagance and beauty in Lahore, publicized throughout the country. They returned to Ithaca soon after so Saadia could complete her studies. It was there she began to realize with increasing clarity that her new husband suffered tragically from manic depression. That summer, a year before my stay, he had managed to purchase a gun from a local gun shop despite Saadia’s attempts to alert the community to the possibility and shot himself in the head in the woods near their home.
That summer when I was twenty-three, they were continuing to hear this shot echo through their lives every moment of every day, although no one would be able to tell looking in. Bibijon spent her days in the small student housing apartment near the campus, cooking, cleaning, praying and talking quietly and intimately with Saadia. She was a tiny woman. I could embrace her whole frame between my shoulders and gently fold her in as if holding a bird in my hand. Even though Sana was now getting bigger, with a round head of dark, curling hair, and she could not carry him, she would sit with him on the bed when he cried, her good arm around him, thumping him rhythmically on the back with her paralyzed hand, sometimes singing quietly in Urdu. I would watch him respond with his whole body, calming, sinking deep into her chest, his sobs becoming sharp in-breaths. Very soon you could hear the relaxed breathing of near sleep. When mothers visited with colicky babies, she walked them, holding them closely and tightly to the soft part of her shoulder, thumping their small backs in a surprising way, always quieting them when no one else could.
One night a week or so into my stay, Bibijon made a soup based on a rich broth made of lamb livers from the Hallel butcher, seasoned with a mixture of spices only she knew, some variation on the infinite combinations that make up the concept of Curry. Its aroma had filled the house since lunch time, incredibly enticing, inducing embarrassing stomach rumblings even when no hunger was possible. Finally, dinner time arrived. On the one small patch of floor with no furniture, Saadia spread, as usual, a beautiful flowered cloth reserved for meal time. As she and Bibijon laid table settings (I was forbidden, still treated as a kind of guest), I sat cross-legged next to the cloth. Then the brought heaping bowls full of soup and plates of cooked greens from the tiny kitchen area and, laying them on the cloth, came to join me, chatting companionably, pulling their saris around their legs. Sana perched on a bed with a small plate of finger foods near him, Saadia and Bibijon taking turns feeding him broth from a small cup, he smiling and making sounds of satisfaction. After dinner, he was put to sleep with singing and Saadia, Bibijon and I sat talking, comfortably arranged on the beds grouped together in one room, Sana’s breathing like the presence of a small, warm animal.
A sense of completeness, of perfect comfort and peace, had settled with the evening, a feeling of another time, another culture. After talking for a while about their lives in Lahore, Saadia asked me to talk more about my own life, to know each other better she said. What they had spoken to me about their lives had been frank and straightforward. It would clearly be ungracious and ungenerous not to reciprocate. Their lives together had been full both of wonders and of horrendous grief. I was a young woman, raised in the privilege of the American middle class who had taken risks in ways only the secure can take. There were things that had happened in my life in the last year—events that had left me shamed and devastated—I had spoken of to no one outside the circle of my family and my closest friend. With these women from a background so sheltered, so distant from chosen risks, I had kept this world in me hidden, as if it might defile them. But in that moment of infinite capacity, I was conscious for the first time of my thoughts filing past through my mind as if on a ticker tape and for the first time of innumerable times to come, I instructed my mouth, despite its reluctance, to open and speak whatever it would. The words formed themselves and somehow burst their bounds. The story, the details, the emotions, I observed as they emerged as if a story from someone else’s life. As I spoke, Saadia translated softly for Bibijon whose English was rudimentary.
As I told it, the narrative became increasingly clear, and again for the first time, I recognized the volcanic aspect of the experience, how it had vomited forth the entire collection of building blocks I had carefully arranged during my adolescence. Here I was then, without justification, without defense. Bibijon nodded again and again as somehow she began to understand the reason for the tears now running down my cheeks and onto my shirt. Touching her paralyzed hand to the middle of her chest, she motioned to me with the other, patting the edge of the bed beside her.
As if magnetized, pulled, I went to sit close to her, and she, taking me with her strong hand, pulled me gently to the floor, pulling my head against her knees. As I had come towards her across the room, I had seen some light in her eyes, not quite of sadness. Her eyes held me with a penetrating clarity as I had approached her from across the room, only seeing, nothing else. Surrounding my shoulders with her paralyzed arm, she now began to sing softly, holding me firmly against her and patting my back solidly with her other hand. thumping as if pounding some certain note into the enclosure of my body. Saadia, too, began to sing. Any sense of self dissipated as a fog disappears in a light wind. There was nothing to do but sink into the enormity of this stillness as grief opened itself like a dark blossom.
One bird called from some tree in the darkness. All others had roosted for the night.