My mother-in-law died eight years ago. It could be eight months, eight days, eight seconds. We were as different as two women could be, joined first by our love for her son, and then our love of my children. I've been writing down snippets of memories of her, of us, of our family. This is the first ...
Persona no grata
Vivek’s mother had called again. I watched him pace a quick circuit around the tiny two-room studio, floorboards creaking beneath the stained gray carpet, cell phone held in the crook of his neck. Outside, the Tenderloin thrummed-- shouts, sirens, and car horns. And downstairs, our neighbor haltingly began the opening chords of Pink Floyd’s Money once again.
I sat cross-legged on the bed, twisting the Afghan’s yarn around my index finger, pink flesh darkening to red, listening and wishing that I wasn’t.
“Work’s fine, Ma.. … Yeah, I’m still driving to San Jose… No, I haven’t called Raju Uncle… I’ve been busy... That’s nice Ma, but I’m not interested… No, I don’t want to meet her… I’m sure she’s a nice girl, Ma, but no…”
He sighed and slammed his foot to the floor as our neighbor missed the 10th note and began again. “I’m sure you won’t die before having grandchildren… You do have more than one child. Why don’t you bother Vidhya?”
I could hear the musical hum of his mother’s voice, no words, but the tone persistent.
This was a conversation I knew well, at least one side of it, and I was heartily sick of the “there’s a nice Iyengar girl you should meet” chorus. I mouthed V’s responses involuntarily as he said them, his flat anywhere-American accent, slowly rising and falling to match his mother’s soft sing-song.
“It’s just how she is, Tam,” he’d say when he hung up. “ She’s just a typical Tam Bram mother.”
And I’m the white devil, I’d think.
We’d moved from Baton Rouge to San Francisco the year before, after only dating a few months. I think my parents thought I was insane, and looking back, nothing about that decision was logical. But I had been on my own, living a day’s drive from home for nearly 5 years, and was full-on “adulting” before it was cool. (Unlike my siblings, who still had Mom make their dentist appointments well into their 30s.)
I’d applied to the Ph.D. program since I was nearly done with my MFA except for thesis hours. So maybe, not quite adulting. But, then I got the form letter announcing I’d been wait-listed for admission, and a whole world of possibilities broke open.
I’d never left the South except for a brief internship in New York. But my neighbor had been everywhere it seemed, moving to Lousiana from San Francisco. She’d regaled us with stories about her job at the Booksmith in the Haight, meeting authors and having drinks before alleyway art shows and punk shows at Bottom of the Hill. “It’s the Island of lost toys,” she would say to me. “Everyone fits in there, everyone who doesn’t fit in anywhere else.”
And that was it. No matter how different we were, both Vivek and I felt like misfits in our families. We piled what we could fit in his white Honda Accord, sold the rest, and took off across the south and the southwest to San Francisco.
I’m sure my mother would have liked to have lectured me chapter and verse about the move, especially once she discovered that Vivek’s parents didn’t know I existed, and wouldn’t for years. But for some reason, she never did. And looking back, maybe she knew, the way I sometimes know what will happen when I shouldn’t.