Dog Week

This week I’ve received doggie emails from three friends, two of them, after having lost a beloved dog, announcing the adoption a new rescue—an adult sheltie and a terrier mix puppy. The third—our busy Beaver Island Cindy Ricksters—has posted a new memoir piece about her dogs: Artifacts to Memories: Bunny Rabbit. I‘m reminded of the day four years and five weeks ago that I adopted my min pin Gracie, an indulged whim that turned me into someone who can talk about dogs for as long as friends go on about grandchildren. Good on ya, wonderful dog people! Go for it!

Kicking Against the Graces

Our family arrived in Lahore just two years after the horrific and bloody 1947 Partition during which over a million people died as Muslims, leaving India for Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs, fleeing Pakistan for India, clashed. After a period of sectarian violence said to be worse than the Nazi death camps, things in Lahore began to settle. For the nearly five years that we lived there, I found our large compound—home to Forman Christian College, United Christian Hospital and their associated students and staff—an oasis so peaceful that, until the end, I was oblivious to chaos. While my father spent twelve hours or more a day attending to desperate medical needs, Mother took charge of our social life, a delicate task involving missionary families from “The States,” Pakistani families who might come to dinner and the British.

As we children were rarely included in the world of adults—in Lahore we were usually fed by servants and put to bed before the grown-ups dined—I can only assume that my mother, placing high value on acceptable behavior and schooled by the experienced and always generous Theresa Vroon, overcame the local cultural challenges with a minimum of offense. And if the remnants of the British, who though booted out of power still hung around, were snooty, my mother could out-snoot them, equipped by my Sheffield-born grandmother with sufficient etiquette to dine with the queen, skills my mother wasted no time passing along to me. When I’d question how the placement of four forks, two knives and three spoons would benefit my life, my mother would reply that one never knew when one might be required to eat inconspicuously at the White House.

My mother’s obsession with etiquette exceeded that of anyone else I knew and provided a tiny crack in her composure. During Sunday dinners, when children were allowed to join the adults—and no misdemeanor went uncorrected—one of my first rebellions was switching my fork into my left hand and my knife into my right, mashing potatoes and green peas onto the back of my fork and hoisting the load, British style, into my mouth, a maneuver my mother found intolerable. If, however, we happened to have British guests, she could say nothing until later, when I would argue the injustice of being forbidden to eat the very way her English mother had.

Until my twenties, when I joined the Peace Corps in Eastern Nigeria, I often ridiculed my mother for her insistence on table manners. At “home” in Michigan, the whole family found them a source of high entertainment. Even Mother had to smile at the extravagant sweeps of our soup spoons AWAY from us (never toward) and our insistence that everyone wait while we’d thoroughly chew and swallow a chunk of steak before speaking. My father, equally amused, frequently regaled us with gory descriptions of that day’s surgeries while we dug into plates of Chef Boyardee. “Ralph!” my mother would chide. “Ralph!” we’d mock as we begged for more.

Imperceptibly, despite kicking against the graces, I became them. Even as a young woman, I seemed to inspire in some of the people I encountered a reserve similar to that I had observed around my mother. Others, of course, dismissed my inherited need for civility—both my ex-husbands ignored my pleas for inaudible farting and unobservable mastication, ridiculing me exactly as I had my mother. 

I have never eaten at the White House, nor has my mother—who has had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt—dined with the queen, but both of us have discovered that meticulous manners, though perhaps at first off-putting, curiously help bridge cultural differences and can earn one mysterious forgiveness for even the worst faux pas.

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A WORKSHOP NOTE:  I never put much value in my memories—like most people, I’d ask, who’d want to read about me? I’ve had a rougher version of these Pakistan pieces for almost twenty years and never shown them to anyone. They turn out to be a gift to my siblings, two of whom were too young to remember much and the other, my brother Dewey who is only a year and a half younger than me, an unexpected excursion into his own childhood. My mother, who clearly stars in my early life and has written her own memoir, at 97 is done with email and has not yet read these posts. When I’ve finished, I will print them out for her.

As to you who are actually reading all this—writing has always been a lonely art. Thank you for your welcome responses.

Choreless in Paradise

My mother was at best a responsible housewife and reluctant cook, but now we had servants: David to bake and cook the meals, Nunu to serve them and do the dishes, Annie to look after us children, Fatima to do the laundry, a mali to tend the garden and a sweeper to clean the floors. For the first time in her life, my mother was freed to develop her talents, to homeschool not only her own children, but the those of others as well. Thanks to colonialism, with a little help from the caste system, I grew up without chores.

To critics who observe that such a retinue was hardly in keeping with missionary nonmaterialism, my mother would explain firmly that she would have liked to have done with far fewer, but although her servants were Christians, not even she could fight the centuries-old system of caste. The cook wouldn’t do dishes, it was beneath the bearer to tend the garden, the ayah refused to do laundry and only an untouchable would stoop to sweep a floor. And stoop he did, speaking to no one, his haunches rocking from one calloused heel to the other, as his short-handled brush hissed like a snake across our glossy floors.

David and Annie James, our cook and ayah—my favorites—accepted me with unusual kindness. Annie was a small slim woman who wore white cotton saris with bright borders, her dark hair pinned into a neat bun at her neck, a patient smile on her face. Her whereabouts were always known to me, musically betrayed by countless glass bangles. She never took them off, not even to sleep or wash. She’d have to break them to remove them, she told me. I begged for glass bangles like Annie’s. Tempting displays were frequently arrayed like rainbows on a cloth in the driveway by a wallah who’d unpacked them from the huge bundle he’d carried in on his head, but my mother forbade them. They could slit my wrists, she said.

Annie’s husband David wore a white uniform and sometimes even a chef’s hat when he worked, his creased, good-humored face hovering over steaming pans atop a mud, coal-burning stove. The kitchen often lured with new-to-me fragrances of baking bread, boiling buffalo milk and banana cream pie. One day, I found David outside on the back kitchen stoop plucking the feathers out of a chicken, the bird’s severed head lying in a nearby puddle of blood next to his ax. He had a firm grip on the bird, I noticed with relief—I’d once watched our dinner escape and run headless around the vegetable garden, a sight so disturbing I’d thrown up under the banana trees. As I’d never seen a half-plucked bird do that, I sat beside him, assuming the squat Pakistanis preferred to chairs. Why, I asked David, were he and Annie so unusually dark and small? David took no apparent offense. He and Annie were from Bombay, he said, a very hot city in southern India where many people happened to be small and dark like him.

If Annie and David felt any resentment at their own quarters—one room and a mud-walled courtyard behind the house next to the kitchen garden—they never took it out on me. I often escaped our silent house to squat between that wall and the row of sweet pea vines that lined the path to the servants’ quarters. I could hear the pungent spices sputtering over the open fire, smell the olfactory fireworks. I would bury my face in cool mounds of pink and purple, white and blue, and listen to the lively chatter of Annie and David’s six children on the other side of the wall.

Now in my seventies, I still blame my unkempt house on a childhood absent of dishes and dusting, when little more was required of me than attention to rules for my safety and, of course, good manners.

My Mother’s House

I doubt my mother was as enchanted as I was with our new life—surely five years in what was then referred to as an “undeveloped country” was not quite what she had in mind when she married my doctor father, whose Dutch Christian Reformed Grand Rapids family was not known for stints in the French Foreign Legion. However, my mother stepped into her formidable new life with stunning competence.

She began at home. The houses in our neighborhood, occupied by professors, missionaries, nurses and students, looked pretty much alike: six or seven white-washed one-storied rectangles circling a grassy field where cobras were frequently scythed to death and boys, white and brown, played cricket with plank-like bats. Driveways led from the road that framed this field to each hedged house, fed by a wider street that threaded the campus of a nearby college, through which I cycled to my father’s hospital and the house of my new friend Marty Vroon, daughter of the doctor who had lured us to Lahore with his imploring letters.

In our home, as in those around us, metal fans whirled steadily below each remote ceiling. Cool, faux marble gleamed on the floors. Gauzy white nets hovered like ghosts over all the beds. But there the similarities stopped. My mother wasted no time replacing the clunky Mission-style furniture I saw everywhere else—one-by-four lumber frames stained always maple and fitted with square cushions interchangeable with any other in the British Empire on three or four continents. Our chairs and sofas were custom-built from mahogany with slender legs and subtle curves. An upholstered billiard-green Simmons Hide-a-Bed with invisible metal guts was arduously shipped to Karachi, trucked to Lahore and moved into my parents’ bedroom where, opened only at night, it sat all day like a jade throne. And while our home was not without the usual oriental rugs, brass teapots and carved elephants, the damp-skinned geckos big as feet that scuttled across everybody’s ceilings and walls, in our house darted behind abstract paintings by one of my mother’s sisters.

Slowly, our missionary dwelling acquired an eccentric, unslottable ambiance that tended to disorient first-time visitors. Not British, Pakistani, or even American in feel, it became the first of many houses my mother has transformed into her personal castle. My father did not object. He must have been relieved to see his wife adjust to a potentially problematic life with such alacrity.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP NOTE: Since you asked, I am following up my last entry with more of my Enchantments. They are requiring substantial rewrites, so I’ll share them a bit at a time.

Pakistan

A NOTE TO MY READERS:  I know I said I’d only post new work, but yesterday, as I was pawing through my closet of unpublished manuscripts—shelves of rejected, unfinished, abandoned, or forgotten pages—I came upon a memoir I wrote twenty years ago! I spent the next several hours reading the sixty pages. Each chapter describes a place, person, object, or activity that has sometime during my long life held me under its spell. So bear with me, friends, while I share page one.  Let me know if you’d like to see more.

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All my life I’ve been a sucker for enchantment, an often delicious, sometimes catastrophic tendency I trace to a day in 1949 when I stepped from a two-engine Swissair plane into a wild new world. I was seven, oldest child of a plastic surgeon who had brought his family to Lahore, Pakistan, so he could help start a hospital there. The place was pushy from the word go, urgent heat and sunlight rushing into the plane’s just-opened door. Our family of five and my aunt emerged into the smothering embrace of air almost liquid with excrement, sweat, and rot. A crowd of eager welcomers approached with garlands of spicy, perfumed flowers.

As I looked around me, the world I remembered paled. I’d never seen such violent pinks, delicious oranges, startling reds, embroidery in silver and gold. I’d never seen so many men in white, never heard such a cacophony! Everyone seemed to be shouting.

I shed my life like a rag. Like an amnesiac, I forgot my boxy brick Chicago school. I forgot the color of my yesterhouse and the row of cool green trees that lined our street. If my friend Janet had not given me an I.D. bracelet engraved with both our names, I might have forgotten her too. I snuggled into the damp, sweet garlands piled around my neck and rode to our new house, my head pillowed in roses and marigolds.

The whitewashed bungalow, draped in fuchia bouganvillea and appearing from behind a thick, green hedge, made anywhere I’d ever lived seem grayer than gravel. Slim green parrots screamed from rose-colored beaks. Pansy-winged butterflies flirted with strange-smelling shrubs. Brassy wasps sang tiny circles around their papered niches in the creamy high corners of the porch.

It was better than paradise: it felt like home, as if I’d awakened from a dream in my own bed. Falling in love with Pakistan is my oldest remembrance of joy, my first memory of pleasure, a birth and a seduction.