thank heaven for little girls

Walter Dean Myers is an African-American author of young adult literature, but at least one of his books, FALLEN ANGELS, a coming-of-age novel set in Vietnam, was placed on The American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged books because of its adult language and realistic depiction of the war. He’s a prolific author of more than 50 books, including non-fiction and the book of photographs and verse from which today’s featured verse appeared in 1993. I like it because it’s such a dead-on portrait of a child and makes me think of my granddaughter who will soon turn seven. She’s been giggling from an early age, just as little girls should.

Jeannie Had a Giggle

by Walter Dean Myers

Jeannie had a giggle just beneath her toes
She gave a little wiggle and up her leg it rose

She tried to grab the giggle as it shimmied past her knees
But it slid right past her fingers with a “‘scuse me if you please”

It slipped around her middle, it made her jump and shout
Jeannie wanted that giggle in, that giggle wanted out!

Jeannie closed her mouth, but then she heard a funny sound
As out that silly giggle flew and jumped down to the ground

Jeannie caught it with her foot just beneath her toe
She gave a little wiggle and up her leg it rose

family get-togethers to remember old times … by one o’the nine

Well it’s 2012 already but it feels about the same as the old one what with the Republicans still campaigning since they started around the end of 2008. I don’t make resolutions for the new years. Don’t believe in them. Like dieting, they don’t last long, so I don’t even bother. I did decide to work on a list of things that need doing soon. Like cleaning my half of the office. I’m prompted to do so because I can’t find my plugin for my (old-fashioned, outdated) Ipod. It took me two weeks to remember what the container I hid it in looks like. Now, with any luck, I’ll round it up in a few weeks so I can update and charge it and take it to the gym with me–I NEED the distraction! No matter what they tell me, exercising does NOT make me happy. No resolutions there–just a sincere effort to change lifestyle. That does work. I can tell already. The other big item on my list is to clean up my Wintersong archives–I’m sure there’s a lot in there that would embarrass me now. In fact, I’ve already been rewarded! Back in ’09, before the big C days of 2010, I put in drafts of many one o’the nine posts from my story-telling uncles (now deceased) down in Florida. Lots of people seem to like them, and I thought I’d used them all up and forgot they were there in the drafts. There are very few left now–here’s one I hope you like. With the holidays just past us, I expect some of you have your own stories to tell from your family gatherings. I’d enjoy them if you care to leave a comment.

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009_9-2

Last week I ate supper with all of my brothers who are still living except one. While we were eating, one of them–named “Speckle”–told me he wanted me to write a retraction on something I had written about him. About three weeks ago, I wrote about Speckle sitting in church winding his 75¢ pocket watch. Now the reason he was winding it was so people would know he had a watch. He wanted me to correct a big mistake about him and watch. He informed me that it cost 79¢ and he didn’t want people to get the idea that he was some kind of cheapskate that would buy a 75¢ watch. Well, here is the retraction, Speckle, but it sure looked and sounded just like a 75¢ watch to me. We had a wonderful time together at supper talking about the good old days when we were children growing up on the farm. We only have a chance to get together once in a great while, and when we do you can bet we always have to talk about the good old days.

There were nine of us boys and one girl. The dining room table was a long, homemade table with benches that sat on each side, also homemade. I well remember the good food my mama used to put on that old table for us younguns to eat. There were peas, potatoes, lima beans, cornbread and raw onions. There was all kinds of greens with pot likker. In case you don’t know what pot likker is, it was the juice or liquor that the vegetables cooked in. There is nothing better than a bowl of pot likker and a big chunk of Mama’s cornbread. We also had a big glass or fruit jar full of buttermilk or clabber to go with our meal.

While my brothers and I were together that evening, my brother we call “Goat” asked me to write a story about the times we went chinquapin hunting and also tell about the sassafras tea we used to drink. Well, I would mention it now, but I can’t spell chinquapin or sassafras. I will assure you when I learn to spell them I will tell you all about it.

We had a wonderful time together talking about good times, and may I suggest that you call all of your brothers and sisters and get together again and talk about the good old days. It doesn’t matter if you were raised on the farm or in the city, I’m sure you can find something worthwhile to talk and laugh about. A good laugh will do you more good than a dose of Castor oil.

Postscript: Speckle was my father, although I was not aware at the time that he carried that particular nickname. The reference to “cheapness” is right on. He bought everything according to price tag. My poor mother was never able to just buy something because she liked it even if she could afford it. That explains the plastic panels with garish flowers printed all over that we used on all the windows and called curtains. And the mohair couch we sat on to watch the wonder of the technological age of the times–television! When it was new it scratched your legs (girls were only allowed to wear dresses then) something awful! Does anyone know what Chinquapins are? They seem to grow all over the states, and even in Japan. Some species grow into large trees, but around the swamp land we lived on, they were more like large shrubs and the “fruit” looked very much like chestnuts covered with a protective, prickly bark. I never ate any that I remember because you need special expertise getting them out of the covering. However it’s spelled (Chinquapin seems to be preferred), Chinkapin is the English name. I’ve indulged in a lot of Sassafras tea since it’s something Mama would brew when we were sick and you could still find it in the woods for free, and of course I drank a lot of pot likker in my time. Now if you’re one of the few left who know what clabber is, you get an A and moved to the front of the history class! Cornbread was also legendary in our southern country home. My son-in-law, who grew up in Germany, thinks corn is for pigs, but I don’t care. I’m glad he refuses to touch my melt-in-your-mouth creamed corn, since it leaves more for me to enjoy. But the world, she does keep a-changing, doesn’t she! Don’t forget the family stories!  

time for counting blessings

No, the deer and cat in the picture aren’t ours; that’s a photo a friend sent in an email a few years ago. But “our deer” have begun to appear from the tops of the mountains along the Wasatch to stimulate and annoy the dogs next door. Hubby saw some last week outside the fence surrounding our back yard. We expect to see the coyotes anyday now. We’ve yet to see the little weasel that likes to winter over under our deck, but every now and then a flock of birds stop by to have breakfast as they pass by on the way to someplace warmer.

Every year around this time I’m reminded how hard it’s getting to keep the holidays simple. In spite of what TV commercials imply, the holiday really isn’t about the “gimmies.” It’s my fault. I’m watching too much TV and subjecting myself to too many confounded commercials. There’s so much pressure to “give that perfect gift”. When I was one, kids waited for Christmas to come because that’s when Santa might visit–if you were good–and leave you something really special that you knew your parents could never afford. And whatever you did wake up to Christmas morning–even if it wasn’t exactly what you’d had in mind–was something you probably wouldn’t get any other time of the year. You learned to like it and use it even if you never did exactly love it. There was always hope for next year.

These days, most people have the wherewithal to buy for themselves whatever they need and lots of stuff they don’t. They don’t have to ask Santa or anyone else to get it for them. It make giving gifts a bit difficult to say the least. I decided to make my gift buying simpler by attaching either the receipts or gift receipt to the package, so the burden is on the recipient if the choice is neither needed nor the right one. Of course some families don’t have it so good…and every year the numbers seem to grow. I wish Santa could do something about that but I guess the world doesn’t work like that.

I hope no one will mind another re-run from One o’the Nine during these busy days. I originally called it “When is Enough Enough?” I admit to slight editing in order to tone down the didactic tone my uncles favored in their depression memories, but I think the essential message in this particular piece is timeless. It was written by my Uncle and published in that small Florida press in the mid-1980s. I’m struck by how much worse conditions seem this year than they did two years ago when it first appeared here. Some things never seem to change do they? I thought it especially appropriate at this time of year, since so many families are having or facing some of the hardest times of their lives, losing jobs and homes, sometimes not having enough to eat. I don’t regret being brought up without the focus on materialism that most American children–in fact most of us–fall victim to today, because I know that the best things in life don’t come with price tags.

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Back during the depression (of the ’30s) when no one had any money, and many didn’t have enough to eat and wore patched britches–because that was all they had–we learned to make-do with what we had and appreciate anything we got. We never threw away much because we didn’t have anything to throw away except maybe a spool when Mama had used the thread from it. Back then spools were made of wood and very seldom thrown away. Spools had several uses other than holding thread.Two of those uses that come to mind are handles for doors that had no knobs, and as toys for us to play with.

A piece of string was threaded through the hole in the spool, tied together and the toddlers pulled it around the house. If we were lucky enough to get someone with a sharp knife to whittle the spool in two pieces, we would put a stick through the hole and sharpen it down, making a top (or spinner) out of it.

Other toys I remember making and enjoying as a depression child was a button with a string strung though two holes, tied together, then pulled back and forth making the button spin back and forth to make a buzzing sound.

Another was just a plain piece of twine tied to make a loop, then through manipulation of the thumb and fingers, making a “Jacob’s Ladder.” With that same piece of string and a different manipulation of the thumb and fingers we would make a see-saw–sometimes called a sawmill. I still remember how to make a Jacob’s Ladder and a see-saw. In fact I just recently made a string see-saw with the help of one of my grandsons, and I believe he enjoyed see-sawing almost as much as I did when I was his age.

I find that in this throwaway–discard– computer age, that children can still be amused by simple things. All they need is someone who will take the time to show them how to make the simple toys, and they will thoroughly enjoy them, sometimes more than some expensive technical toys.

It is too bad, I believe, that fathers and mothers can’t take the time to spend with their children teaching them how to enjoy the simple things of life. It is much too easy to buy some expensive toys, give them to the children, then leave them alone so that mother and daddy can do other stuff without being bothered by them.

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Postscript: Back when I was  a kid, around this time of year, I was so mindful of Santa’s elves sneaking around unseen and making notes on how I was behaving, I was a veritable angel, ‘though I’m sure my parents would tell you the opposite if they were here. Christmases were lean enough as they were–in the ’40s and ’50s when the Depression was supposed to be over–that I couldn’t afford more than one or two transgressions between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Kids aren’t cowed by elves anymore, at least not my grandchildren. One day last weekend, our 7-year-old Grandson had at least two tantrums in one single afternoon–one of which resulted in his first–and hopefully last–running away from home caper. His mother, who–as a psychologist–has studied enough child psychology that she was prepared enough to wish him good luck and tell him goodbye, was confident enough to wait it out. He left–only to circle around and come back home long enough to get his shoes which he couldn’t find of course, so he left again, barefoot. This time he was gone a bit longer, and it wasn’t easy to resume the wait–this time closer to half an hour before he got too cold and came home.At least part of the reason he felt compelled to run away was that his parents were awful people who never bought him anything. Never mind all the expensive Lego toy sets or the expensive electronic gadgets and almost any kids’ DVDs you can think of including Starwars, it’s just never enough. I have no answer when his mother asks “how do you deal with a problem like this?” I wish I had a magic formula–if I did I wouldn’t sell it, I’d GIVE it away. Because I know our grandson isn’t the only child out there who has never gone without his needs being met who still expects more. His parents are looking into some way to make him understand that there are children all over the world who have real needs, who have no toys and not enough to eat. I hope Santa has some ideas.

Stealing Christmas Trees

Deck the halls with boughs of holly! And don’t forget the re-runs! Hope you enjoy this one of Christmas in a simpler time. Hope you’re having a magical season!

This is about the time of year that, for many years, my sister and I would take off for our long, once a year walk through the piney woods of the neighboring farm where we grew up in north Florida. Since I was six years younger and “the puny one”, my job would be to “lookout” for people–more specifically interfering grownups–while my sister scouted around looking for the perfectly shaped eastern red cedar to grace our living room for Christmas.

It wasn’t often that she included me in her adventures–that privilege was usually reserved for my brothers, nearer her age and older–so for several years it was one of the rare times I felt connected as a sibling. Most of the time, she had little use for a snot-nosed little sister who had come along and snatched away her notoriety as the only girl in the family. Naturally it was a highlight of my year, and even though there was a sense of urgency that kept my stomach in knots during those quick and yearly excursions, I didn’t call it stealing. I guess that’s exactly what it was.

Prior to these years, neither set of grandparents nor my family ever had Christmas trees as far as I can remember. And it wasn’t until my sister was old enough to take care of the details herself that we enjoyed one in our house. Even though my father was tight fisted with his money, if anyone could make him relent, it was me and she knew it.

So she would whisper to me what to beg him to buy the next time we were in our Uncle’s general store in Providence. That’s how we came to own one strand of exactly seven lights, and one box each of silver icicles and angel hair that we re-boxed and re-used every year. Our other decorations we made ourselves–from yarn-wrapped dried hickory pods or pinecones–and colored glass balls salvaged from used Christmas corsage available in McCrory’s dime store for around 50 cents.

Our neighbor planted white slash pines. They take about 30 years to reach saw-timber size, but trees should ideally be thinned out at an earlier stage and sold for use as pulpwood. On a good site, a well-stocked stand of slash pine can also produce about two cords of wood per acre per year. It was a good investment if you had a lot of land or didn’t like to do a lot of work, so there were acres of it growing in the two to three miles distance along a country road between our home and his.

There were also several big NO TRESPASSING signs posted along the way, but for some reason this was where all the best red cedar trees grew wild, scattered in an around the growing pines.

On the appointed day my big sister would take my hand in one hand and a handsaw held close to her front thigh in the other, and we’d sett off together on foot. To casual passers-by, we were just two sisters out for a walk on a Saturday afternoon. After we’d walked a distance where the trees began to grow thicker, we’d climb over a barbed wire fence, and disappear among the trees and begin to breathe a bit easier in our cover of foliage.

“There,” I’d say when I spotted my first cedar tree. Then, seeing another possibility, “No, there!” But my sister had her own idea of what constituted the perfect tree. When she found it, even if it was five- or six-feet tall or more–as it usually was–she would select the top 24 inches or so to saw off, leaving behind the carcass of a headless tree. She knew we couldn’t have managed getting a larger one back home. Even if we could have, we neither had lights, or icicles, nor angel hair enough to decorate it. She always had a penchant for insisting the smaller the tree, the prettier and more magical it looked.

Passing cars or trucks were usually few, and always far between along that country road, so we’d stand the tree upright against the barbed wire fence if we saw any coming into our view. We’d wave at whoever was driving by, and continue down the road after they were gone.

Once we were safely back home, we’d “root” the tree in wet sand in a small tub we used for washing feet. Then we’d set it on a small table in the middle of the living room window. Then we’d go to the barn and dig out the small but growing collection of Christmas decorations we hoarded from year to year to see what the rats had left intact. Being the oldest, of course my sister took control of the decorating. She put the lights on first, then she’d point to where I could hang each of the ornaments, and together we’d carefully drape the silver icicles evenly over the tree–until the very ends that were too short to drape. I’d fling those on and let them fall where they may. Decorations were far too sparse to leave any off.  When everything else was done to perfection, my sister would pull the angel hair from its box, and stretch it very carefully so that it enshrouded the entire tree.

When she finished, we’d plug the lights into the wall socket, then wait for darkness to fall so we could go outside and see how it looked to anyone driving by. From outside, the lights were enveloped with tiny halos–very like those around the virgin Mary’s and Christ child’s head in nativity scenes. Every year for what seemed like my whole childhood, though on reflection I know it couldn’t have been so, she and I created this magic again and again.

Naturally, then, my sister is on my mind every year around this time, especially since she died of breast cancer in March of 1995. She was only 59 years old. For many years since then, I’ve tried to scheduled my yearly mammogram during the month of December. I like to think it’s what she would want me to do now that I have a tall plastic tree to decorate each year now that it’s practically impossible to steal trees anymore. And while it’s beautiful with the fancier decorations I’ve collected between the years passed and now, a part of me has to admit it that plastic Christmas tree doesn’t hold nearly as much magic as those tiny little trees of long ago.

searching the proverbial woodpile for links to ireland

While we were sitting poolside with our friend ML in India, chatting about discoveries we were making and my becoming more familiar with Hubby’s family and seeing how they live rather than just attending weddings, ML remarked to Hubby that our next trip should be to the countries of my origin. Hubby is always ready to go all the time, so he announced right there that come fall we were going to parts unknown as yet to England, Ireland and Scotland. First it would require a bit of research in between posting our adventures of India for family.

I prevailed upon my brother to mail me a genealogy chart he’d been working on that led me back six generations, to 1733. Unfortunately the information gets scanty at this point. I know the birth year, but nothing more. Presumably, these are the forebears that link me to Ireland and Scotland, but I feel a little like a swimmer on a great ocean being bounced about on the waves in my efforts, seeing as how I don’t actually know what I’m doing–YET. Enough has surfaced in my rather amateur attempt to get started that I know now I should have heeded the warning I read on a website I uncovered several weeks ago. It said:

WARNING: GENEALOGIAL RESEARCH MAY BECOME ADDICTIVE! THERE IS NO KNOWN CURE FOR THIS DISEASE.
“The following symptons may occur: burning, itching eyes; tired feet; lack of sleep; confusion; temporary loss of memory; hallucinations; writer’s cramp; rapid heartbeat; uncontrollable urge to visit courthouses; inordinate desire to walk through cemeteries; longing to speak with the dead; tendency to live in the past; habitual inclination towards excessive questioning; unnatural desire to take long trips; frustration; exhaustion; and telephonitis. If symptons persist, contact a professional genealogist.”

The quotation comes from a book by Michael Andrew Grissom, “Southern by the Grace of God” (as in American by birth, Southern by the grace, etc.). In case you hadn’t already figured it out, southerners are often accused of living in the past at best, or accused of ancestral worship at worst.

This same genealogical website contains information about my great- and great-great grandmothers, or  my paternal grandfather’s mother and grandmother, and therein lay my first link. The website host is apparently connected to me in that my great-great grandmother was his g-g-grandmother too. Our connection is through Lavinia (Taylor) Koon, (my great-great grandfather Absalom’s wife). Their daughter (Francis Melissa) was my great-grandmother. See how confusing this stuff gets?

If the facts posted are correct, in about 1859, Viney (as she was called) moved from South Carolina to northern Florida with her husband, Absalom, to live near her brothers in Columbia County. They brought along their six children. Three more were born after the move. Absalom joined the Confederate Army during the civil war and fought in the battle of Cold Harbor, VA. He entered the hospital and died on a bitter cold winter’s day in January 1865 while the nine month siege of Petersburg was still going on.

Lavinia,  or Aunt Viney, as she was known there, was apparently a shrewd business woman said to have bought up a lot of land and what is now Union County in Florida. Supposedly she owned most of the county in time, and continued to live there until her death in 1906. There were many stories handed down in my family about how “bossy” she was. The puzzle pieces falling into place here indicates that she was 37 (or 40) when she was widowed, and had a very large family–many of whom were probably still living with her, including Francis Melissa (my great-grandmother). This tells me that she had to be a strong woman, and maybe bossy too. She used to demand whatever man–white or black–she saw walking past her house to “come on in here and chop me a stack of wood.”

Viney’s daughter (my great-grandmother, Francis Melissa) is shown here with her husband, Tristram (called Truss). Either she looked a great deal like her mother, Lavinia, or this photograph posted on the website was incorrectly identified. This picture is in my own family album  She died in March 1942, two months before I was born in her house which only weeks before had become our new home. We lived there for only a couple of years until my father was drafted in WWII. My uncles (who were boys themselves at the time) called her a witch (maybe she took after her mother with her contrariness?) and wished she would die. Not long after she did–aged about 79 years. They harbored guilt for a long time afterwards, convinced they had caused her death. I like to think of her as an early feminist though.  She did produce the large family women were expected to those days (free farm labor) and that produced many more descendants including me!

The problem with trying to solve family puzzles and mysteries about beginnings sometimes brings up information you’d just as soon not know. I’d always assumed my forebears were too poor (except in owning land) to ever have owned slaves. This made me feel good. When I turned up estate records for William Taylor, my g-grandmother Francis Melissa’s grandfather, I learned he left an estate considered fairly wealthy for the times. In perusing the list of his personal goods I was astounded to find the biggest ticket items on the list included various mules (Peat, Kid, Tom, Sal, Jenah)  worth just under $300, two Negro men, Jack and Reuben, at $600 each; two Negro females, Lucy ($400) and Esther, who was perhaps a child (only $200). They reckoned the wheat still in his fields at the time of his death to be worth $25.

In spite of this disillusionment in a descendant, my progress thus far shows one of the six counties of northern Ireland, Armagh to be where my great-great grandfather (William W. Taylor) was born. He came to this country in 1808 when he was 11 years old, and became a citizen at age 25. There’s a lot more researching to do, but we have a beginning, although it’s an indirect connection. It’s fascinating to try and find the puzzle pieces. After that, it should be even more fun (and frustrating) to get the pieces to fit. I hope I don’t find any more about owning slaves. There’s lots more to look for from another branch (that g-g-g-g-g-grandfather I mentioned at the beginning, William,  born in 1733).

Meanwhile, anyone reading this who has experience and/or has suggestions for databases or how-tos, please let me know in the comments. (Thanks Grannymar in northern Ireland for the link you provided.)

Next destination for Wintersong posting will be the eastside Lake Song Resorts in Kerala, India.

Having a Wonderful Christmastime

It really has been a wonderful Christmastime this year, and I’m not even thinking of Christmas presents. Funny how they don’t matter so much anymore. I hate hearing Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” because the lyrics always get stuck in my head and I HATE that! The fact I haven’t heard it even once this year so far adds to the pleasure for me, but at the same time I can’t think of a better lyric to sum up my feelings about the holiday this year, so I’m jotting them down here to remind myself and my readers: whatever I’ve gone through this year has been perfectly balanced by what I’ve gained in perspective as a result of it all.

The moon is right
The spirits up
We’re here tonight
And that’s enough
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

Hubby joins me in wishing all of you
a simply wonderful Christmastime and the happiest of new years, too!

 

love and hate springs from the same passions . . . separated by the merest of threads

Sometimes–like today for instance–when confronted by hideous stacks of folders filled with papers with tabs like “ideas for development”, I hate myself for being unable or unwilling to throw stuff away. I have narrowed it down now to one room–my office–and at least once every two years I go through and get rid of some. Always I promise myself, when I get back (from wherever we’re headed, usually a trip of some sort that takes command of precious time needed to ready for the trip rather than devoting to search and destroy projects, and why is it I’m inspired to do it at those times?) I’m going to really get rid of this junk. And just as often, sometimes–like today–I’m really glad I don’t.

Today’s continuation of my India 1980 re-capturing was to have been devoted to the train journey commencing in Delhi to our destination in Madras, where Hubby’s mother lived and where he spent much of his childhood. As I’ve explained, however, this series of reflections based on my first impressions has come about through notes jotted on a kitchen calendar. There are just enough notations that I’m able to partially reconstruct much of the events of each day in an orderly fashion. While I remember what I felt much of the time about so many new experiences coming all at once, obviously those feelings have been tempered over the years by other visits when I was less “new” and knew what to expect. I keep thinking that it’s too bad I didn’t write these in a journal DURING, not 30 years AFTER that trip.

The following is almost as good as a first-hand journal, as it captures more succinctly than this series does my love-hate issues with India. I found it–it appears to be a draft of an essay–in one of those old yellowed folders. It’s printed on fold-out paper and the print is dot-matrix and looks so ancient, so I’m pretty sure it was something I wrote for a University of Ohio writing class, which I believe had to be around 1985 or 86. It’s untitled and I have no clue as to the theme I was trying for, but it is quite revealing, I think, about the person I was at the time. Although it’s putting the horse before the cart in a sense–as it winds up with a paragraph of the visit to my mother-in-law’s cottage I intended to share after this one–I decided to post it here as it was originally written. The next post then will re-cap, with a little more emphasis on what it’s like to travel a long length of Indian countryside in a sleeper train–an experience I now treasure. I hope you enjoy seeing this as much as I did! Like a long-lost version of myself.

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How can I not hate India? It is a country of such diversity, such contradictions. It is a brown country, so hot and dusty and dry until monsoon that one becomes filthy traveling across country in trains. Parts of Delhi, Bombay, Madras, and myriad other cities smell like–and are–public urinals. People defecate on the roadsides, the only privacy being in their genetic makeup*.  I have walked in streets strewn with excrement, human or animal, doesn’t matter for it all looks the same, and I have walked on thick Persian carpeting in a home in Simla where the walls were lined with wonderful paintings in ornate frames. The summer home of Mrs. Gandhi.

Make one statement about India, immediately comes to mind a statement–equally true–that completely challenges the validity of the original indictment. Women have no power there. Many are  not educated and thus are doomed to lives of poverty. Many hold higher degrees of education and are held in great esteem as the fabric from which home and family are woven. Home and family is the most important seam in the greater fabric called India. There are many influential and political women throughout India’s history. How can I not love India?

I love the animals. Those forced to live in captivity: monkeys with skull caps and embroidered vests–collared and leashed–that dance in circles; large birds with brilliant splashes of color–reds, turquoises, yellows–as if sprayed there by an artist gone mad. Giant curved beaks, cocked heads, beady eyes looking as if they possess the larger truth of life that I will somehow never find; smaller birds among squatting sidewalk vendors, circling, declaring your future by a single peck on a chosen pebble; temple elephants painted with intricate designs from hoofs upward, garlanded with perfumed flowers of various hues, scantily clad brown skinned bones atop them–their mahouts, or keepers.

I love the animals. Animals living free among the thronging millions: giant myna birds with their incessant caa caas, pigeons leaving their droppings indiscriminately, squirrels balancing aloft like acrobats on power lines; monkeys in tree tops, the females watching out for the babies, giving them as much leeway on tree limbs as possible, then reaching out to rescue them just before they venture too far and fall. They scold them, sometimes resorting to spankings when a repeated reprimand seems to have fallen on deaf ears, just as millions of human mothers have done for eons.

I will never forget the magical moment I saw my first family of wild elephants in the forest on a car trek to Coonor, a mountainous resort villa with quilt-patch tea farm terrain. Actually I was told later that the elephants were probably part of a farm herd used by tractor-less farmers to assist with heavier farming chores. Despite the fact they were required to work for their living and weren’t truly free as I’d at first imagined, how sharply that image I saw and remember from that day contrasts with that of a metal stake in concrete in a zoo . . . a rope leading to an elephant’s rear hoof and attached to an riveted iron band . . . straw and dung scattered over a dusty floor, while her ancient watery eyes seem to look only inward, recollecting a faraway jungle home perhaps.

I recollect other contradictory images of India. My mother-in-law Neelu standing in the doorway of her tiny four room flat. She has been boiling water for tea on the tiny Bunsen burner stove on the floor of her kitchen. There are no table and chairs to sit at, no sink below a window to glance outward at birds while preparing food or cleaning after a meal. We have entered through the front of the cottage, passing through the kitchen area to the room Americans refer to as the “living room.” As the  honored guest, I am led to a single wooden bench, the only furniture except for one or two woven bamboo stools standing nearby. On opposite sides of this room are small lean-tos where Neelu presumably stores things–colorful sarees, blouses, woolen shawls–in old fashioned trunks with brass hinges. Letters and photographs rest in ornate brass and cardboard boxes alike. Neelu is an orthodox Hindu from the highest Brahmin caste. I know that to her I am an untouchable, even though my husband has teased her that I am an American Brahmin, that my family “went to America on the Mayflower (not true, I’m sure). I think she half believes it because she wants to. But I wonder if she’ll scrub the bench where I’m sitting after I leave.

*It occurs to me this might not be understood as it’s written, so I should state that what I meant by this statement is that when you grow up in a country of such crowds, I believe you are forced to move through your days as if you were the only person around. Since I grew up in the U.S. in the country, I was terribly self-conscious for much of my adult life, thinking that everyone must be looking at–and judging–me for being so awkward. Only after a trip or two or maybe three, to India, have I learned not to assume anyone is noticing me. It’s such total freedom I’m glad I finally figured out.]