Both my mother and sister would cry together at the school bus stop, my 6-year-old sister standing out in a sea of blue jeans and backpacks, in her floral dress and frilly socks and my mother standing out in her Indian red shalvar kameeze and chiffon scarf. My sister’s grief was spurred by going out into a new world while my mother’s grief was caused by being trapped inside of an old one, their poetic tears wasted on a landscape of graffiti walls and incomprehensible Spanish conversations.
Samina would go to Kindergarten everyday and take her usual place by the building blocks and construct a wall or house of some sort. Unable to communicate with any of the children or teachers, my sister jokingly recollects how these blocks were her only stable interaction at school. My mother would walk home from the school bus stop to our empty basement apartment. Our home didn’t belong to my mother – rather, she belonged to it. At the mercy of the characterless furniture and national liquidator carpets she tried to squeeze in any remnants of a colorful, past life. A jewelry box filled with her wedding jewelry, a stack of old Bollywood magazines and an envelope under the bed filled with money to fund a trip back to India were the only material vestiges of her past life.
In a way, my sister and my mother were suffering the same loss of social structure. There were no servant girls for Samina to play with, no grandfather to buy her pastries, no grandmother to wash her prized, aristocratic skin with sandalwood soap. My mother suffered the same isolation, except unlike my sister; she would always remain partially trapped in this purgatory of ignorance and social discord. No matter how many social connections my mother would gain throughout the years, this country, just like our first apartment, would never belong to her. It would not give her that sense of entitlement that she and my father had been raised with; she would not laugh as loud here, speak to people with the same authority or have the same confidence. Only on our trips back to India would I see my mother become saturated again.
My father would ask my mother why she cried at the bus stop. I have often seen my mother cry in the face of our pain. She cried when I came home upset from being teased at school, when I went away to college and got a 104 fever, when my 3-year-old self asked her why my father worked so much that I would never see him at night. Parents are supposed to be stable pillars, authoritative and knowing. But my mother was helpless. She cried because she didn’t know how to help us, she didn’t know that in America kids got teased for everything and anything, that going far away for college is a common occurrence here and that later on I would learn to honor the sacrifices my parents made.
Sometimes I get irritated at my parents, angry that they still haven’t adapted quickly enough, annoyed that I still have to call IO digital cable service because my mom gets nervous speaking English on the phone to strangers. But mostly I feel protective over them, looking at them as a stagnated version of my 6-year-old sister, fragile as she once was, as they continue to build their own house and life with building blocks.
The day before I took the SAT I jokingly asked my father, who had just come back from Friday prayer, if he had prayed for me. In his characteristically straightforward tone he answered simply “Who else would I pray for?” I should have been happy, thankful for the unconditional love that my parents had once again shown me. But I knew my father’s answer had so much veracity that it was painful, the way that absolute truths can be harsh in their rigidness. My father – who had traded his brightly colored shirts for sober ones to blend into America, whose characteristic mustache was graying at the edges and whose weary face had once been lauded in his family as handsome, had nothing else to pray for. All of his dreams and sacrifices were for my sister and I, manifested in a land that would never be his but that he hoped would be ours.
The sacrifices that my parents made were worth it. As my sister and I learned to navigate the social hierarchy of school; we learned to trust America in a way my parents never would. But I sometimes wonder, as my father nostalgically talks about the honor of his family name and as I see my mother’s jewelry collecting dust in a safe box, whether it was worth it for them.