Monday, March 31, 2008

my mother would be proud.

Back in June 2007, I began a story. I completed it in July. It is called “Opposite to Widower.” It’s the first piece of fiction I’d written in years. Some of the language in it is beautiful. Some of the scenes, one – a man washing his ailing wife’s back with a warm, soapy sponge, can reduce you to tears.

Back in June, I didn’t know that my dad would be married in October. But I had the fear of a new wife lurking in my psyche. A replacement bride. I wrote about a widower and his search for a new bride. I wrote it first in first person, the widower narrating. Later, I revised it and switched it to an omniscient point-of-view.

In the story, a marriage prospect asks him, “Tell me, what is your definition of a ‘family man.’” He responds by offering, in threads, the story of his relationship with his deceased wife. Throughout, you catch glimpses of his interactions with this prospect. The way they move from discomfort to comfort with one another. You get a very small bit of background about this woman. You know that she divorced many years ago, that she has a grown son, that she lives with her sister and brother-in-law and works for an accountant as an office manager – a position she worked up to starting out as a cleaning lady.

Eventually, the point of view shifts (which is one of the story’s weaknesses), and you begin to see things from her perspective. She finds herself falling in love with the widower. Imaging what life could be with him, versus the difficult life she’s led to this point. On the night before she is to leave town to return home, she has a dream in which she sees herself wearing a wedding set that belonged to the widower’s deceased wife (she discovers the set tucked away in a dresser in the guest room in which she is staying.). The story ends with this woman stealing the wedding set on the morning before she flies home. On the plane, considering her theft she tells herself (this is directly from the story): I am not a young girl now, she reflects. I am a woman entitled to happiness. Nothing feels foolish. Nothing feels wrong.

My readers have felt betrayed by this ending. They’ve said they wanted something good to happen to the widower, that he is the hero of the story, and I gave the ending over to her when I had not spent the time to make them sympathize with her early on.

This story has sat with me. For many reasons. Because I expressed some of my worst fears in it. Because the main character is quite clearly based on my father. Because I invented parts of the widower’s relationship with his wife – the way I imagined things between my parents before I was ever born, before my sisters were ever born.

Driving home from Houston on Saturday night, I committed to something I’ve been toying with. I decided that I am going to use my time in grad school to develop this story into a novel. I know what I want to study – some of the greatest, most magical and epic love stories. Right now Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude stand out in my head. I know there are others. I’d like to look at Latin American and Indian literature. In subtle ways, I plan to blend magical realism into the novel. I recall a scene in One Hundred Years when yellow flower petals rain down from the sky after a funeral. I have always carried that image in my head.

TX State feels more and more and more right. I have two cousins in Austin (one from my mom’s side, one from my dad’s side). I have a cousin in Dallas. Lots of cousins and aunts and uncles in Houston. I guess I’d like the chance and access to ask them what our own family stories are, our own folklore over generations – things I'll blend into my novel. In doing so, I guess I see myself connecting more to a family that, for many old, little pains, insecurities and fears of my own, I’ve distanced myself from over the years.

The History of Love is another novel I’d study, though it’s neither Latin American nor Indian. Anyone out there have suggestions for me?

I’ve got a clear set of goals now about how to use this time – revise and submit my short stories. Get myself published in journals over the next few years. Complete my novel and get it out to agents in my last year of school. I see myself traveling to India at some point. Maybe it will be in my last year (when we don’t take classes); maybe it will be over some summer. It’s going to be a healing and cathartic time.

I’m not embarrassed anymore about calling myself a writer. This is what I am. This is what I always have been, what I was supposed to be from the very beginning. I used to worry that my parents wouldn’t be proud of me. Wouldn’t understand this endeavor. I hear myself, in my head, asking a lot lately, Mom, are you proud of me? I never truly knew that this was something I worried about when she was living. But since her death, it has nagged me.

On Saturday night, my dad called from India. He thought I’d still be in Houston, and he, all the way from India, wanted to congratulate one of his youngest nephews on his marriage. I had to disappoint him by letting him know that I’d actually had to drive back home to Baton Rouge because my husband had an art opening. He asked how it was going. “Great,” I said. “He sold 8 out of 9 pieces.” “Did he make a lot of money?” he asked. “Yes,” I told him. When I said the number – he burst out with pleasure, “That’s GREAT! c. is an ARTIST.

Then he asked, “What have you decided about schools?” I said I’m still waiting to hear from one other place, but that I think no matter what, I’ll end up at Texas State. He said, “Did they offer you money?” “Yes,” I said. I’ve got an assistantship that covers all of my expenses. Again, he burst out, “Oh! GREAT.” I thought: My dad is proud of me.

Something unsettling happened next. He said, “d. wants to say hello to you.” We both paused, he, waiting for a response from me. I felt paralysis in my throat. What could I have said? I’m just not ready? I’m not ready to speak to that woman who is your wife and not my mother? Then, she was on the phone. “Hello.” She said. “Hello,” I answered his new wife. “How are you?” “I’m fine,” she answered. “How are you?” “I’m good,” I responded. My dad came back to the phone. “That’s it,” he said. “Limited English. You’ll have to teach her more when she comes.”

Her voice rang in my ears, and I was afraid I would never get it out. A song stuck in my head. My mother’s voice was more beautiful. I tried to think of the way, on the phone, she used to say, Hello, sweetheart.

In Houston, seeing my family – my dad’s side, it struck me for the first time that my dad’s marriage is hard for them too. My oldest sister asked my dad’s youngest sister, my Bua-ji, “So, what do you think of your new sister-in-law?” I saw polite embarrassment and sadness in my aunt’s eyes and smile. Relief swelled inside of me. I’d been mad at his family before – thinking that they had all accepted so easily that my dad remarried. Then, I said to my sister, “Why don’t you ask m. what you asked auntie.” She asked my cousin, “What have you heard about d.?” My cousin paused. Thoughtfully, she said, “Well, my mom [who is in India] says they seem happy. That they talk to each other like they’ve known each other a long time. I talked to her. I called my mom in India one day and she was there. She came on the phone. She talked to me like she knew me. Like she was very familiar with me.” m. didn’t have to finish. I could see that it made her uncomfortable. That she had thought to herself, Who is this woman? To speak to me like she knows me. She’s not my Tayi-ji (the wife of her mother’s older brother). Again, comfort swelled inside.

It’s not that I want to reject her. Or that I want anyone in our family to reject her. It’s that I don’t want anyone to forget my mother. Who she was, how she mothered and advised and taught so many of us – her daughters, her younger siblings, her husband's younger siblings. Nieces and nephews. I found in Houston that these people, my dad’s sisters and brothers and their children, had loved my mother. Love her. I needed to know this.

I’m ready to go to Texas now. To tackle something I've wanted to tackle - which is learning how to speak Punjabi. To grow into my family. To discover our histories. To record and embellish and pass on those histories. To be the writer and daughter and sister that I am.

SONGS: Oh Sister, Andrew Bird and Oh Sister, Bob Dylan

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