Tuesday, September 4, 2007

walks on country roads

In the last year, the last few months, my dad has adjusted to these life changes: retiring – not working for the first time in maybe fifty years; selling his house and moving to a new state into a brand new house to be retired in; having to start over meeting people and turning strangers into new friends, becoming a part of a community again; losing his wife of forty-three years - facing, as a widower, his entrance into a new decade of his life.

Sunday morning, he got on a plane to fly to Ghana where he will, in October, celebrate seventy with his host family, his young students, the teacher he will be aiding, the other volunteers of the program and all the brand new adventures that will belong to him alone. I am going to miss my brave dad. I hope for his birthday present, he gets a feeling that is loneliness clearing like clouds parting at the end of a thunderstorm, and also a renewed sense of purpose.

Before he left, my sister and brother-in-law spent two nights with him. My brother-in-law sent me a little documentary video of dad preparing one of his favorite dishes on Saturday afternoon – gobi parathas, whole wheat flat bread stuffed with shredded cauliflower and spices. Ten years ago, I don’t think he knew how to make a paratha nearly as well as he could eat one. But it’s one of the things he learned to do with remarkable ease after my mom's stroke. I’m sure that when she was living, there were many times when my mom corrected him through the process as he tried to perfect them.

Dad told me he packed all of his spices to take to Ghana, and that when he arrives, he’s going to show his host, Big Mama, how to make chicken curry. Dad has become, by his own proclamation, "a real chef!"

My mom had two rolling pins – a light wooden one that was large and smooth and sleek, and a dark wooden one that was smaller, thicker and more rustic looking. On Saturday, while my dad used the large rolling pin to make perfect gobi parathas, my little niece, who is three years old, charming and charmed, used the small one to test her own abilities. Seeing this image in the video reminded me of being a girl myself – sitting on a stool at the counter rolling dough into lumpy shapes with the same small rolling pin, while my mom stood on the other side of the counter rolling out perfect circles with the large pin, all the while, saying, "That’s a good one! You want me to cook it?"

While my niece practiced the skill of paratha-making with my dad in North Carolina, I had a cooking lesson of my own. In Baton Rouge, my mom’s little sister showed me how to cook another of my dad’s favorite foods, and one of my own. We made saag and maki rotis, slow cooked and pureed greens with a warm cornmeal pancake. We also made homemade Indian ice cream flavored with pistachios, almonds and cardamom seeds. Just before we ate, we added butter to the saag, and I watched it melt into little pools in the warm spinach. This is just what my mom used to do. Inside, in some small way, I felt like a young girl.

So, on the weekend following the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death, my dad cooked, and I cooked. We made comfort food. My dad got on a plane to fly to Ghana, to move forward in life, because he has a long one to live. He emailed today. He said he is staying in a primitive area.

Sunday morning I woke from a dream in which my mother was alive, but we all knew she was going to die. We had gone to be with her in her last days. We were in a hotel, and she was lying in bed. She couldn’t speak, but she was alert, watching us all move around her while we packed her belongings and made preparations to say goodbye. I got to hug her. I woke up before I was ready. When I opened my eyes, I sobbed.

Today is Tuesday. Again, I dreamed of my mother. This time, I was in school, and my mother was, in spite of her limitations from the stroke, taking a class with me. We were learning something together. She didn’t show up to the class, and I was fiddling in my seat, wondering, where is my mom? Finally, I went to the teacher and said, "I need to check on my mom." I left the room and began calling my dad, my sisters. No one would answer. I became frantic. Then my oldest sister came into the dream, and my dad. They stood in front of me while my sister cried. And I knew my mom was gone. I woke up. I didn’t sob this morning; I stayed groggy and frustrated and melancholy as I started the day. I recalled how, the weekend prior to her death, I had had panicked with a sudden feeling that something was terribly wrong. I called my sisters over and over, and my parents’ house. No one would answer. It turned out my parents had been traveling together.

I took a novel writing class in the spring of 1998, just before graduating. On our last day of class, my teacher walked out to the quad with me and asked if I had a minute. We sat on a bench under a live oak. She said, "You’re a very good writer." She said, "I wasn’t sure about letting an undergraduate into a novel writing class, but M.C. insisted that I should take you." (M.C. had been my mentor.) She said, "I don’t know if it will be this one. Maybe. But whether it’s this one or not, I think you’ll be published one day if you keep at it." Then she said, "Do you know M.C. is sick?" I did. She said, "You should go see him if you want to say goodbye." And I did.

Today, I saw that teacher. I had emailed to ask if we could speak, if I could get her advice on pursuing writing. At one point she said, "I remember your novel. It was very good. That’s why I encouraged you at the time." I had no idea if she had even remembered encouraging me as a writer. But I was pleased she did. I told her about the freelance writing I’ve started, and she said Country Roads is a good place to start, that they do good feature stories and have some respectable writing. She also asked me if I had considered sending my novel to some agents. That was followed with a question, "Was your mother in a mental institution?" I wondered what I could possibly have written in that novel to give her the impression that my mother had been in a mental institution? I also happen to know that the novel I wrote when I was twenty-four is in no way worthy of publication. I know this. But I thanked her graciously.

So, these have been the last few days. Days spent adrift, in a way. My first two articles are due on Friday. One is about the cooking lesson with my aunt.

One of my mother’s favorite songs was "Country Roads" by John Denver. The day in November when we scattered her ashes into the Atlantic Ocean, when we walked back to the beach house we were staying in, "Country Roads" spontaneously started playing on my brother-in-law’s I-Tunes. He’d had an entirely different playlist open, one that did not contain that song. My sisters and I, we looked around the room at one another.

What am I to make of these pieces of past and future? They fit together on a continuum, somehow. I know they exist on a thread that, though it may not be a straight thread, intersects with other non-linear threads belonging to a million other people. I guess I'd like to solve how they all intersect and where everything is on my own continuum.

At this moment, I am sitting outside listening to the sound of the sky threatening rain. Rumbling, groaning. That’s all that happens in Baton Rouge these days. Just the threat of a good summer thunderstorm, just the sound looming, and the gray looming, but never the slaying sheets of rain, never the real thing. The sky’s own procrastination.

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