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Making it Home

My grandfather the physician

“A second chance doesn’t mean that you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder. You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”

from Severance by Ling Ma

The handsome, square-jawed, and plush-haired physician in the middle of the featured picture is my father’s father. Or he was. When clearing out the family homestead in India last fall, Dad discovered Naina Thatha’s death certificate and handed it to me. Date of Death: February 1963 at the age of 59. Fifty nine. It is unfathomable to me that this man of family legend didn’t make it ten years beyond the median age of most of my friends. My grandmother was in her late forties at the time, with seven children in varying stages of young adulthood. Dad was already living and working as a banker in Kuwait, sending money home as eldest sons did, with every expatriate worker’s dream of return. Thatha’s passing solidified Dad’s position as primary breadwinner and an extended stay outside India. Extended. Sixty years later, he hasn’t moved back, only farther away.

My parents have now lost two homes and make their third as American midwestern retirees. I count my mother’s life in quarter-century chunks. The first twenty five years in India, the second in Kuwait and the third in the United States. A queen of self-discipline, she maintains the same strong values and rituals possessed and honed since childhood, but each chapter has seen her a different person altogether. Moving, relocation, dislocation – these aren’t just changes in places but also self that often require a painful shedding of skin and even more painful reinvention. The offensive categorization of American vs. “foreign” identity aside, this is mainly why I scoff when people ask “Where are you from?” or “Where’s home?” It’s not a simple answer for anyone, not even for the person asking, and is really pointless. It’s like asking “Who are you?” (An infinitely more interesting question, but one that requires serious soul-searching and conversation, not meaningless one-word responses to an unimaginative stranger in a crowded public space.)

NPR recently published an opinion piece entitled An Appeal To Youth To Face Coronavirus With Self-Sacrifice, Not Selfishness. My immediate response to this was “No need to self-sacrifice. Just stay the f— inside.” Self-sacrifice. Do words no longer have meaning? Dad throwing aside his dreams of becoming a botany professor to provide for his family back home in India. My spouse’s blight-impoverished Irish and Belgian-Dutch ancestors who sent their children to the New World never to see or hear from many of them again. Parents across the United States who now have to walk miles to their workplaces with their children in tow, if they still have workplaces. The scores of people who left and leave the comfort of the Known daily to live, die, fail, or succeed in the dark and great Out There. When I ask my parents to remember and feel about their stories, they quickly and constantly sum it up with “We didn’t think about the whys and hows of these things. It’s what we had to do, and we did it.” That’s self-sacrifice.

Today is Day 16 of self-isolation and the last day of the first quarter of 2020. I watch LinkedIn as energy industry colleagues are laid off by the tens, no thanks to the combination of COVID and the sustained low oil price. There isn’t much to spend on and for these days besides the very basics, but “penny pinching” and “career switch” are terms I have begun to hear used more often and in full sincerity by people with money and savings. As a hurricane approaches, we hunker down or evacuate and wait. For something inside the range of imagination. It passes. We get on with the cleanup and rebuilding. What we are in now is something else, strange, and it’s going to take us a long while to re-emerge. I wonder: Where will we be from? And where and who will we be?

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