He sat at the breakfast bar, pencil poised in his tiny hand above a worksheet. A plate of chocolate chip cookies sat next to his glass of milk at the edge of the counter, and I instinctively moved it away from him. I have cleaned up spilled milk too many times as a parent, and at 8:30 on a busy school night, I was not about to do it now.
Pushing his glasses up on his nose, with his tongue peeking out of his mouth, my son carefully printed his name at the top of his paper. The lines were dark and almost etched into the paper in places. I watched him (actually adored him) as he worked like a big boy on his homework, “just like his big brothers.” His light brown hair was mussed up on one side, his eyes drooped, and his mouth gaped wide with a yawn. My baby…the one child who looked like me…was doing homework, growing so fast.
My husband patted him on the back.
“How you doing buddy? Need any help here?”
“Nope. I’m good.”
I loaded the dishwasher, my husband ate his late dinner, and we chatted about our day. Then, out of the blue, my son asked, “Daddy, what’s it like to be Indian?”
My husband and I stifled our laughter…big boys don’t like to be laughed at… and my husband answered with a squeeze of my son’s shoulders.
“I don’t know. You tell me. You’re half Indian…what’s it like to be you?”
“I know,” he groaned and rolled his eyes, just like his teenage brothers do, too often, at us. “But, I’ve never been to Africa or India. I only speak English. So, what’s it like?”
“Well, it’s different, I suppose.”
And with that, my son’s tongue slid back out of his lips and he went back to work, bearing down his pencil with each perfect blocky letter. The cogs in his brain kept spinning on, and the subject was forgotten.
Ba and Dada left for South Africa three months ago after the sudden passing of their son-in-law, and in that time, my son’s connection with his Indian side has been whittled away. And we have carried on with our daily lives…school, sports, homework, and work…school, sports, homework, and work. But, what I think my son was really asking is, “Daddy, who are you? I need to know so I can know myself.”
My kids have always been curious and proud of their Indian side, and I have guilt that we haven’t fostered it more. But, although they live in Georgia, submersed in my southern culture, they don’t truly know where I come from either.
Daddy speaks several languages, he is browner than most people around us. As a child, he played soccer and cricket, and had servants, and has countless aunts and uncles and sisters and cousins around the world. Daddy bravely left his home at 13 to study in the U.S., and melded both cultures within himself, emerging into the unique man he is.
Mommy only speaks English, and burns like the dickens after 20 minutes in the summer sun. As a child, I cleaned my own bathroom, and did my own laundry…no servants for me. But, underneath a vanilla coated life, Mommy has a unique story, too. Mommy traveled the country, living in regions of blizzards, and of tornadoes, and made countless new friends in the process. Mommy was a ballerina, a budding artist, and spoke German, too. Mommy wrote short stories, that are now stashed away in boxes, and worked her way through college, aspiring to be the next Margaret Mead.
Mommy has a large family, out there somewhere, though she does not know many of their names. Mommy’s two brothers and parents alone were her life growing up, and they were…enough. And now with only her mother and one brother with her today, Mommy’s small family was gold to her.
And when Mommy married Daddy, she melded both his and her cultures within herself in many ways, emerging into the unique woman she is.
After my son was tucked into his bed, my husband and I stood a few moments at his side. I found myself gazing at his pink cheeks and closed feathery fringed eyes, just as I had done with each of my children when they were newborns, swaddled in their bassinets. My husband’s hand squeezed mine, then let it go, and we walked separately out of the room.
I carried my story within myself to the laundry room and folded clothes. This is the image of me that my children will always have of me. I’m their mom, that’s all they’ll really know.
Later, when I went in the kitchen to turn off the lights, I glimpsed at the homework sheet that my son had been working on. The heading on the page was “All About Me,” and below it was a blank outline of child’s body, to be colored in as he saw fit.
On the first line, in perfect block letters, he’d written simply his full name. And the blank face had been filled in with a huge smile. I turned out the lights and slipped into my bed, with a smile on my own face.