Archives for category: Motiram

I favor second-hand and consignment shops, partly for the bargains, but also for the little bit of extra history clothing that has been worn by another human being holds. Even if I do not know the people or the stories, I like how clothes that others have lived in now fit me just right. I have some things of my father’s that still smell a little like him, even seven years later. And because of those leather jackets and wool sweaters, he is not quite gone. The grandfather I hardly knew becomes a little bit known to me when I slip on his old gray sweater. Just clothes, we might say, easily acquired and easily passed on. Or we appreciate the comfort of an old sweater on a chilly morning all the more.

 

I reach for it in the dark closet and imagine

you wore it on cool evenings, taking the dogs

out, and maybe mornings on your walks

to the temple.  You held the children, my

mother, wearing this, walking back and forth

in front of the house until she slept.

 

It holds these things now – the knit

stitches moved with you, expanding

with your presence, resting with you, too.

The fibers – might they hold bits of you,

skin cells, strands of hair, a scent I would

not recognize?  I slip it on, and step into

the cool morning.

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So much of what I know of my family in Thailand has been told to me in stories. Every so often, a story is more alive with sounds and smells that I can imagine. In this story of my grandfather heading home at the end of his workday, it is the smell of jasmine rice (a scent I know well) and the plunk of a watermelon (imagine a heavy stone landing in water). And we all know the sight and taste of a perfectly sweet watermelon. These small sensory windows into a long ago time and a home I hardly know, connect me in the best possible way to my grandfather. Even now, 35 years after his death, we can share an experience across generations and place.

 

It was the end of an ordinary day,

the close announced with metal clacking

of the gate along its tracks, the click

of a key, pedaling away from the dark

shop.  First, a stop at the market to pick

up a watermelon for his family at home.

It was easy for him.  Long ago, he had

worked at a watermelon farm and

knew the color and heft of one that

was just right.  He pedaled home,

the melon in the basket in front,

moving through the traffic and

crowds of people also going home.

He spun into the next part

of the day, maybe thinking about

the work day behind, the home

life in front, or the places off to

the side that pulled at him, too –

his temple, the hill tribe people

he had come to know, the poor

to whom he offered food on

Tuesdays.  On those days, he

was sure to offer sweets, which

gave such pleasure, and he knew

fed the place in our spirits

that needed beauty.  He was

close to home now.  First, the dogs

knew, waking from naps, stretching,

ready to play.  The noises the

children made grew louder,

some laughter, and some arguing,

too.  Even the jasmine rice on

the stove knew it was time to be

ready, releasing its fragrance

into the air.  And how do I

know, so many years later,

imagining this ordinary day?

I hear the plunk of the

watermelon he dropped into

the cool depth of the well in

back.  His youngest boy would

fish it out with a bucket after dinner.

It would be cut wide open on the table.

It would not be disappointing.

It would be red, glowing,

its juices spilling out, its

black seeds punctuating the

flesh in a steady line.

“Plunk!” went the melon.

The noise from the house

stopped for a moment.  His

family knew, with that familiar

sound, that their father was home.

The story I heard was of my uncle’s wedding day. My mother, then a little girl, was excited to be going, riding the train to the nearby town, wearing her white dress. When she dropped a heavy pail of water on her foot, and cried in pain, my grandfather came to help her. Her foot was red and swollen, threatening to ruin her day. She was too slow to walk, so Grandfather put her on his bicycle handlebars and rode to the train station, just in time. I was not there, of course, but the stories my mother and others tell of Grandfather have a mythical feeling to them. His otherness in the world comes through in so many ways — his dark Indian skin in a light brown country, his kindness to fellow outsiders, his small but significant heroics. I did not know him long enough or well enough to say I loved my grandfather. But I can say I love who he has become to me and my family.

At the train station, it was just another morning:

the sunlight cut through the cool air,

swirling into a glowing haze.

A train was preparing to depart –

inside, people were finding seats and

stowing bags.  A few stragglers were

hurrying to board.  Then, out of

a warm beam of sunlight, a man

appeared, running the length

of the platform.  He was darker than

most others, and he wore a white

suit that glowed in the light.  In

his arms, he carried a little girl,

also dressed in white.  As the train

began to move – the sound of metal

on metal tracks, the smell of oil –

the man ran faster, so that he

was a blur of brilliant white,

and reached one hand for the

handle on the side of an open door.

He jumped on board, one foot, one hand,

and “thump!” both feet

landed inside the train car.

The passengers looked up, unable

to keep from noticing the glowing

man and the girl who had arrived.

It was many years ago that my sister and I would pull down a small black box in my mother’s closet. Inside were just a few pieces of jewelry, but in our family, they were rare and precious.They belonged to my grandmother, and they were our only physical connection to her. Few things came to America with my immigrant parents. This box was one of them. Out of this box of jewels, we made our own imaginary grandmother.

 

On the floor of the closet,

sitting with shoes and boxes,

clothes brushing our heads,

we opened the black leather box.

Even with the little light in

our dark cave, we saw

the glint of metal, the sparkle of stones.

And more – when we slipped

on rings and bracelets, we knew

the warmth of long-ago skin,

the echo of laughter,

the reflection of beauty in stone,

an imagined life long lost.

Among the mothers I remember today — Mother’s Day — is my grandmother Chansom. I never knew her. She died of cancer when my mother, the youngest of eight children, was still in high school. She is a ghost to me. The spirit world in which she lives is one that I have had to imagine from the handful of stories told to me by my mother and aunties, along with an old family portrait of her surrounded by her children. She, like so many who die young, has become the most beautiful, graceful of ghosts, gliding through a world I imagine.

 

This lives and moves

in imagination:  a black and white

story to match the photo

from which she steps out

and into the rest of the day.

 

My grandmother walks

the streets of Chiang Mai,

surrounded by her eight

children.  She is not

harried, but serene, beautiful,

dressed in a blouse, straight skirt,

high heels.  Some of the

children are already young adults,

ready for the world.  They

shepherd the younger ones,

including my pig-tailed

mother, five years old.

 

My grandmother will die young.

But on this day she glides along

the busy sidewalk, pointing to

the things she wants the oldest

children to buy from the street vendors:

meat, vegetables, sticky rice.

Crowds part, bicycles and motorbikes slow

to let her cross.  She floats through

the gate and into the house that,

years later, will be gone, lost in fire.

Sadly, we hear of bombings every day, usually in far away places. Today one terrified many people in Boston. When stories like this come close to home, we begin to relate to the panic and fear that violence creates. Hopefully, we feel more human in our need to connect with people and find the goodness in each other, even in the midst of such terrible acts. This is a story of a bombing that happened in Chiang Mai during World War II. Many years later, my Aunty learned that she was born just before this bombing and that in the confusion, her birth certificate was not recorded until much later. No one could remember her true birthdate. The one she has is just a good guess. Even more significant than losing track of her birthdate, was her family losing track of her, a newborn baby, in the panic on the day of the bombing. This story is how I imagine that day, the blessings to be found in it, and the things we can count on even when the world seems to be falling apart.

 

Imagine this, now, in your comfortable life:

A family preparing for a faraway war

to come crashing into theirs.

They did not want this stone of fear.

Preparation comforts some:

an underground shelter, food, a plan.

But when the rumbling came anyway,

imagine the panic.  Scurrying

underground, taking meaningless

things, forgetting the important.

Among them, a baby, newborn, nameless.

When the mother had gathered all

the children underground, and then

realized what she had left,

she turned.  The ground shook

and children cried.  Imagine

the choice – when have you

had to make such a choice?

When it grew quiet, they all emerged

into air and light –

these things were still theirs,

and the baby, too, alive.  But

what she had seen above, they

had all missed in their dark hole –

that though the ground shook,

her small view of the sky remained the same,

that from where she lay, the

sky stayed true.  Imagine, then,

the square of sky the baby girl watched.

It, more than anything, you can.

My grandfather Motiram settled in Chiang Mai, working first at a watermelon farm and saving his earnings to purchase the beginnings of his small business in textiles. He started very small, and took his bolts of fabric to communities that were not used to commerce and opportunity coming to them. The people of the hill tribes around Chiang Mai became his loyal customers and also his friends. I believe they — Motiram and the hill tribe people — must have shared an understanding of what it meant to be outsiders, immigrants, people in search of community and home.

 

His idea came in a flash,

the momentary blindness that

comes from looking at the sun,

even just for seconds.  When

the spots of light floated away,

he saw what he could do.

His investment:  three bolts

of cloth, one under each arm,

one tied to his back, and a

shiny pair of scissors, hung

by a string from his waist,

catching the sunlight as they

swung back and forth.

 

When they saw him coming,

leaning into the hill, arms

full, something shiny

dangling along, they

were curious.  And when they

understood that he had

brought this cloth to sell,

they were surprised.  He was

not asking for anything –

no food, no shelter for sleep,

no favors at all.  He was

bringing something.  No

one did this.

 

The villagers ran for

their money.  Hidden

away, buried in the dirt,

rarely used.  They gathered

around the man.  As he cut

the fabric with a zip of his

scissors, the women’s eyes

sparkled with the vision of

children darting about, bright

clothes swirling, of husbands

in fresh shirts, even of themselves

draped in flowing color.

My grandfather Motiram left far northern India when he was a very young man. He came from a poor family and was seeking a better life. He was a Hindu, and the part of India where his family lived later became Pakistan. Many in my family have told the story of his travels to Thailand, looking for a new home. It sounds like an epic journey, one that defined who my grandfather would be for the rest of his life. What he did not know was that the journey also defined his children and grandchildren and how we see ourselves in the world — as people who came from somewhere, even if we are still seeking a place to call home.

Motiram had travelled far,

and he was tired.

He had carried his pack –

everything that was his –

over mountains, across

salty ocean, farther and

farther away with each step

from what he knew.  Would

he see India or his family

again?  He met whole

worlds of people along

the way.  They had their own

language and food and

laughter.  They were kind.

But in the black night, he

listened to the rustle

of bats and the hum

of mosquitoes, and felt

the empty pit of loneliness.

What Motiram did not know

was that the next morning

the sun would rise and he

would set out again.  That just

over the next mountain

was a place he would someday

call home, people he

would call his community.

Looking back, he would not

be able to point to a day

when this happened. It did

happen.  And though he

could remember the lonely

night before, it was the many

happy days at home that

slipped so quickly by.