Archives for the month of: January, 2013

On this coldest of winter days, I am remembering a phone call that interrupted our summer. I was nine years old and my grandfather had died. It was hard to know how to feel. He was so far away and we hardly knew him. My brother, sister, and I thought we should feel sad. But mostly we acted sad because we did not know what else to do. We had not lost anyone before. Now, in losing someone, we were learning what it was like to have him.

The phone call landed on a summer day,

our summer day of bragging about camp,

of dares and exaggerations.

It came from Thailand and

our grandfather had died.

The news fell on the adults heavily,

but for us it sat uneasily,

not knowing how to feel,

and spoiling our day.

We had not known this grandfather.

Now we did.

Before, Thailand was faraway

and fleeting:  ice cream and

cousins I would soon forget.

But, hidden on the steps,

listening to the adults whisper,

I felt the presence of others

of my tribe whispering, too,

beyond the walls of

our Midwestern house.

Loss and gain, both at once.

Who was this grandfather,

whose permanence

in my life had come at death?

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I was fascinated by my parents’ grown up rituals — shaving, make-up, getting ready for their adult world. I reached for the mystery of it, so present in my daily life, yet so far away from my own childhood routine. Religion was the same in my family’s experience. I observed my father’s prayer practice, hands cupped around his Buddha charms, moving with his breath as he kneeled. When he wasn’t looking, I fingered his display of small Buddha statues and ragged postcards next to his bed. My parents observed my world, too, taking me to Catholic mass on Sundays. Somehow, our different experiences came together, shared but not shared, connected by our interest in each other. 

In the mornings,

I watched my father shave.

Perched on the edge

of the toilet seat,

I studied the glide of metal

over skin,

cutting rows through

white cream.

 

And my mother,

with her dots of lotion

and colored powders.

Opening eyes wide –

like an upright doll –

for the wand of inky mascara.

Lips stretched,

smacked,

dabbed.

 

I reached into their adult world

in the same way I reached for prayer:

watching the blur

of my father’s praying hands,

the quick slip of Buddha charms

inside his undershirt,

where they beat

alongside his heart.

 

They watched, too.

Perched on the edge of pews,

they watched over the

prayers of my world,

committed to observation,

and something more:

to reaching toward my life

a little, to stepping

just barely inside –

not into knowledge or

understanding,

but simply into view.

For immigrant families, starting a new life also means leaving something behind. My family, like so many others, left names. When my parents became U.S. citizens they dropped our long, difficult Thai name Komutdang and adopted the shortcut my father’s students used. “Mr. K” they called him. So we became Kays. My birth certificate has the old name crossed out, but still visible beneath the line, and the new one typed in next to it. My maternal grandfather had also been an immigrant, leaving India for Thailand. He chose a Thai name to match his new home. Though my name, a mix of our Indian/Thai roots and our new American identity seems completely mine, I recognize the fragility of both name and identity.

It rained on my birthday,

so they named me rain.

And, along with my father,

Komutdang,

I might be a red lotus,

floating on quiet water.

But with birth

comes assimilation

into the world,

where tiny feet

are pressed into ink,

onto paper,

and planted in

the soil of new life.

The lotus does not grow

on the Great Plains.

Here, rain comes dark

over the horizon,

with the rumble of thunder.

So the image evaporated,

sky slowly swallowed water,

leaving behind

just echoes of sound,

shadow of letters,

the fragile inheritance

of names.

Do you remember the feeling of the swing set, legs pumping, head tilted back, heart beating? I remember it well, and the moment of daring, of jumping off and flying through the sky, not knowing exactly how I would land. That memory  inspires this poem, but another memory as well. I was just four years old and I remember my mother telling me we would travel soon to Thailand to visit our family. We were standing at my bedroom window, looking out at the night and the swing set in our backyard. At four, that swing set was the edge of my world. I must have known that night that those borders were about to change.

From my bedroom window,

long past goodnight,

I watch the metal chains

sway in the moonlight.

Creaking the sound of air on steel,

bending lazily in the invisible wind.

I remember the power

of a summer afternoon

and take off:

the ground paces slowly at first,

then slides below me.

Legs pumping, heart beating,

I tilt my head back, look up:

the sky blurs by,

a sparkle of blue and sunlight.

Close my eyes –

fly through this life.

The arc of the swing is this world’s

revolution.

Air streams by, brushing against skin,

my stomach soars, then dips.

I jump off,

waiting for the moment

when body is at the edge of the sky,

suspended above my whole world,

and I decide where to land.

I traveled to Thailand, my parents’ homeland, several times as a young child. To me, home was a small white house in Omaha, Nebraska. The only people I knew who looked like me were my own family sharing that house. So Thailand was both foreign and familiar, and waking up there after sleeping through a long plane trip, was like waking to a dream.

 

My eyes opened to a sun-filled street,

a river of movement and color,

and noise:

honking cars, tinny bicycle bells,

and voices calling.

 

A current of people pushed by,

pulling with them

nets of string bags

filled with shopping.

Children, too, were pulled

into the current,

hands hooked to hands.

 

And in my dream,

the children looked back at me.

Our dark eyes met.

Our scalps, hair pulled tight into pigtails,

tingled with recognition.

 

I wanted to keep looking,

but the current was so strong,

it pulled me, too.

Aunty plunged into the traffic,

gripping me with one hand,

the other hand raised to stop the flow.

 

I knew then that I would wake soon,

to the rules of traffic,

and to the world I knew,

but did not recognize.