Surangaw / Getty Images, Anna Buckley

How a care package from my mother in India helps me find home in America

November 13, 2018 1:00 pm

It often starts innocuously with “I was going through my cupboard” or “I was in the city last week.”

Nothing matches my mother’s anxiety of transporting a package from her doorstep to mine, no matter how many times it is done. This process is long. She plans over a few weeks, sends someone off to source a large corrugated box from a recycling shop in the town nearest to her countryside home in India. She fusses over the misshapen box, stuffing it to the brim to justify the impending shipping charges and maximize the volume, her actions limited only by its physical size. Packing and repacking this box, now christened package, she checks for torn or weak corners that may give during the long journey ahead, reinforcing as much of it as she can with clear tape.

The package takes a short road trip first, then a ferry ride, another road trip, and possibly a train ride before it reaches the FedEx office, where it is checked again, prodded, its value declared on an international packing slip, resealed, and stamped to make its way to my doorstep. Despite the tracking, we never know when it will come or what to expect in it until it arrives. The tape may survive but the package often will bulge past its seams. Our anxiety builds in the days before its arrival as my mother admits, in increments, how heavy her package actually is.

The true reason the package becomes heavier than the measured weight or monetary value declared on its packing slip lies in the unspoken conversation between us. When it finally arrives, we clear the floor of our living room. This is an event several months in the making. The first layer in my mother’s package is crumpled old colorful Indian newspapers serving as weak cushions. I see the familiar problems of my old hometown speckled with snippets of celebrity gossip, all measuring the pulse of a city far away, captured as headlines and phrases, voices from a different time and place that emote subtle familiarities. Trapped aromas escape into my home: spicy, warm smells from my mother’s home and kitchen, the damp salty air mingled with fragrances from the garden around our home in India. They had managed to hold still and find me in Georgia. But tucked around a few boxes of special eats is the true reason my mother has meticulously shipped this to me.

Encased in many clear plastic bags are her memories. Some new, some old. My mother’s package includes at least four or five clear plastic bags holding several yards of either a soft silk saree, a crisp cotton saree, a bold saree showing off the artistry of Rajasthan, bandhej or bandhani, or an interesting and colorful Ilkal saree. Most are from my mother’s own collection, some that she inherited from her mother, my Nani, others that she picked specifically for me. They are her precious yards of wearable, handcrafted art. But more than that, they are her memories, her stories, her treasures.

Katsumi Murouchi / Getty Images

The most recent package I received contained a bold black and white cotton saree. Still clinging to it was the distinct aroma of it returning from the dry cleaners, its cryptic tag intact, marking an awkward sense of belonging to a nameless, faceless laundromat. As I unfolded the saree, I became eight again, my nose buried into my Nani’s grey steel Godrej cupboard when she was not looking, nuzzling into her soft and “broken in” sarees, now crisply laundered, the colors and patterns from the half-inch-wide linear bars of fabrics dancing in front of my eyes, all packed tightly against one another. An old Crompton ceiling fan would slowly creak above me, providing the soundtrack to my stolen moment, allowing the fragrance of her cologne to mingle with the smell of her garden and incense from our family altar, all diffusing ever so slowly into the familiar smell of her just-cleaned sarees.

Together, they would softly embrace me. I would feel as though I was reading the titles of books in a library, imagining the magic their pages held. The texture, color, weave, or zari was Braille barcode, and all I had to do was to slide my fingers across them to read them all.

But I was too far behind in the line of children and grandchildren to wish for a keepsake from her. So I kept the memories instead—they were mine alone. Nani passed away nearly 15 years ago, her house and garden are gone and so are her cupboards. But her memories remain as fresh as from my childhood, only now they are trapped in sarees that remind me of her.

I’ve lived in the United States for exactly half my life and in metro Atlanta for half that time. In the many times I’ve traveled back and forth from India, I’ve brought back many sarees, taken with my mother’s permission, to keep. Within their folds I deliberately trap their stories: a dusky pink crepe silk saree that I begged her to purchase from a neighborhood artisan vendor when I was nine because its delicate silver thread embroidery resembled an rose English garden, now slightly dull and faded; an aqua-blue georgette saree elegantly covered in tiny metallic silver stars that she wore to a wedding and that made her look like a movie star; the saree from her own wedding picture when she stood confident and in love next to my father; and those she purchased for herself for my wedding but would never wear again.

I grew up seeing many of these sarees neatly hung like ribbons of color in my mothers’ own Godrej cupboard—they too trapping stories, events, memories of special people, and verbal care instructions within their pillowy folds, much like the sarees in her own mother’s Godrej cupboard. Packed near my mothers’ sarees have been blouses to pair with them, stacked one on top of another like bookmarks of bygone eras and styles. They have been reminders of the old and trusted family tailors, and seeing them I feel as though their shapes hold on to the silhouette and essence of the woman who tucked these stories around her waist, wrapping them close to her heart, carrying the weight of their past against her body. Despite my age, I don’t feel that my shoulders will ever be mature enough to wear those blouses.

My mother inherited her own mother’s love of elegant handcrafted sarees, and I am now inheriting those yarns, dry cleaned and shipped in a box, or ceremoniously and carefully added to my carry-on luggage to hang in my own wooden wardrobe in the United States. Yards of yarn are shipped to me or come with me, piece by piece, chapters of a book. When I unfold them in my suburban bedroom, I get to read them all over again. But this time I am retelling their tales to my teenage daughter as we make a home in a place that sees us as foreign. She will inherit the pleats, folds, and aromas of those sarees from me, and perhaps one day they will arrive in a package I’ve sent her.