One of my earliest memories, perhaps my earliest one, is watching the snow fall from the sliding glass doors to the balcony of the small apartment my family rented in a Boston suburb. Each flake following its own chaotic path, collectively burying the short blade-like green leaves of my favorite yew bushes in white. Were the yews also laden with those precious crimson berries I loved picking and pulling apart to reveal the small, green-black acorn-shaped seed inside? I’m not sure. The sky itself was heavy with clouds and yet hued with that intoxicating shade of blue I’ve come to hold so dear after all these years, somewhere between cerulean and cobalt, a particular way the sky looks during a blizzard.
I can’t remember, anymore, what that balcony looked out on. A courtyard, I think. We might have a photograph of it, somewhere, but sometimes I prefer the vagueness of my memories, because it’s a reminder that this particular recollection was important to me and not to whoever took those pictures. I’ve held onto it all these years, because I myself had imprinted the image into my mind.
Was it real? I can’t say. A snowstorm in Massachusetts certainly isn’t a novelty. But I have so few other details around that specific moment. When was it? What day or month or year?
And that’s when the storytelling begins.
Sometimes, I fancy, it was my birthday. It very likely could have been. Sometimes, I wonder how much my love of cold weather and snow stems from this association I’ve built over the years, tied to this one nebulous memory. Sitting at the table where we ate, looking out the panes of those glass doors, at the snow falling relentlessly, beautifully, enchantingly on that balcony. Was that table even near the balcony? I don’t know. Did my mother prepare feasts of Indian specialties for our birthdays at the time, as she did in later years? I’m not sure. We certainly didn’t buy ice cream cakes from Carvel — was Carvel even a national chain then? — that was a ritual that started later, the closest thing to a “tradition” my family ever really had.
Was it the year my parents bought me a three-dimensional puzzle? Those had become all the rage, storming through the inescapable, holiday-themed commercials on our snow-laden TV screen. I don’t know how old I was when my parents bought that gift, but I certainly wasn’t older than seven. I can’t remember what monument the puzzle was supposed to turn into, but the squishy pieces were a slightly grey off-white, like the color of a snowbank in the fading light.
I do remember that I never even attempted it because, after my parents struggled to put the puzzle together, they returned it to the store. I know I shouldn’t blame them for this. Scarcity, after all, was the defining feature of both their childhoods and young adult lives, of my family’s first several years in the States. But there’s a tinge of bitterness I just can’t let go.
“The Holidays” were something I had to learn, Christmas not yet having fully dominated Decembers in its circuit around the world in the late eighties, when I was born, and early nineties, when my family immigrated.
In those early years, my family never celebrated any of them. The most basic understanding of Thanksgiving is a feast centered around a turkey, but my family was strictly vegetarian. I don’t know that my parents ever said this explicitly, but I can imagine that, for them, the notion of celebrating Christmas might have been personally offensive: a seemingly Western holiday and India having fought hard to win its independence from the British after two hundred long years. But perhaps I’m projecting my own feelings about colonialism and Christianity onto the past; I can’t say. In any case, we didn’t celebrate it. There was something of a Jewish community in a few of the places we lived, so Hanukkah was at least mentioned in school, and Kwanzaa was paid lip service in early nineties television, but both of these seemed equally foreign, entirely irrelevant to my Hindu, Indian family.
The alienness of American holidays isn’t the only reason why, though. Diwali often falls in November as well, and my parents did say prayers for it, lighting all the fixtures and placing candles in every room. But I don’t remember my parents making a ritual of going to any of the (relatively) nearby temples or connecting with other Hindus to celebrate it or any of the other holidays we observed at home. My parents’ religion was a solitary practice, or so I remember it, followed with a strict solemnity that detached us not only from our non-Hindu and American peers but also other members of the South Asian diaspora whose traditions seemed, at times, similarly removed from what my parents were looking for.
My sister tells me it wasn’t always quite this way. She has memories of small celebrations with our neighbors and relatives in India, from before my family came to the States. But immigration is often a lonely experience, after all. And loneliness can grow into a habit before you know it, a way of living that becomes so routine everything seems worse for want of a forever unattainable more.
For the entirety of my childhood my parents only went through the motions of seeking out personal connections, and even then only sparingly. Instead, they bought a string of multi-colored Christmas lights to decorate a small shrine that my family moved to every apartment and house we lived in, which to this day adorns the sanctuary of Hindu icons that takes over a full third of a spare bedroom in my parents’ house in Maryland.
In many ways, they had set themselves up for perpetual isolation. Family was the only thing that mattered, or so my parents always said, but they had left all of theirs behind, half a world away, hoping to return but never quite managing to see that through. And in that time, India changed, and, though they’d never admit it, every subsequent trip back made them strangers in a strange land, strangers among their own siblings and parents and nieces and nephews. What they wanted was to return to a place frozen in time, a place that no longer exists and, perhaps, never really did except for in their memories.
It was impossible for my family to not be touched by the culture all around us, though. At some point, I don’t remember when, I don’t remember why, we bought a red tinsel Christmas tree garland and a few ornaments. Possibly, we even had a small plastic tree — my memories around this are imprecise. I imagine that the allure was hard to escape, even for my penny-pinching, religious parents, after years of watching the ever-cynical Garfield soften in the spirit of the season and Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree perk up with a little bit of love.
That tinsel garland also followed us, from one place to the next, but I want to say this was largely on the effort of my sisters. I have a few scattered memories of my sisters trying to bring us together. One Thanksgiving, we made one of our favorite recipes — baked ziti with spinach, olive and ricotta — and an apple cake. Our mother entertained us, briefly, as we ate in the rarely used formal dining room of our now much-larger house in New York. Our father ate alone while watching TV in the living room, as always.
Whether for holidays or birthdays, the vast majority of the gifts we got from our parents was money we were never allowed to spend. So my sisters took to crafting elaborate presents that we worked on all year. There were beautifully intricate outfits for our Barbies sewn together from scraps of our mother’s old silk saris and inspired by the fantasy novels we read constantly: an overlay skirt made of royal blue silk with gold trim, a lavender ball gown with flower buttons sewn into the border, a hooded cloak of the same fabric I can just barely see in my mind’s eye.
Looking back, I can only admire my sisters’ resilience in creating wonders that brought us so much joy out of so little. One year, we made a hanging mobile decoration from sticks we collected in the yard and carefully painted and folded paper cranes. Eventually, we managed to get our hands on actual origami paper and built delicate landscapes in shoe boxes using guides from library books: a garden with two-toned purple irises, flame-colored lilies and tissue-paper thin marguerites; a jungle with a pair of roaming elephants alongside a little green snake of braided embroidery floss; a cloudy starlit sky with such incredibly detailed dragons you wouldn’t believe they were just folded from paper.
There was a communality to these gifts. My sisters and I often made them together as a joint present for our parents, who had no use for such things and so they became our treasures. When we were older and had money of our own, we tried to buy our parents things they might actually enjoy. But even that would spectacularly and unexpectedly backfire, like the time my sisters and I bought our father a new briefcase, specifically of manmade leather, only to be told he couldn’t use it because a guru reading his star chart once said he should only carry a leather one.
In many ways, it was impossible to know what it is my parents wanted, because I’m not sure they ever seriously confronted the magnitude of that question themselves and because they’ve long been devoted to religious ideals that constantly devalue a sense of self. What was quite clear, though, was that somewhere in those years of self-inflicted seclusion, they had lost the ability to see the present as anything but lacking. Loneliness has a way of doing that, I’ve found.
More recently, as my parents have gained just enough self-awareness to realize they should, in fact, do something for their children, their gifts have been tied to their expectations of what a person should want. Their inability to really see the people that they claim to hold the closest in the name of family has transcended time and place, both. And so the material presents my sisters and I have received from our parents these past few years are either things society has deemed valuable or are tied to stories they’ve built about us based on a scattering of memories they’ve held onto from when we were young — memories that never quite align with our own recollections, carefully editing the parts they don’t want to acknowledge and pretty much always out of touch with who we are, past or present.
For a number of reasons, my family shared gifts in December growing up: the spirit of the Holidays already in the air; the end of the year as a single time to celebrate everyone’s birthdays; the practicality of having a full year and the entire summer break to work on our craft projects. And so my sisters would take those few ornaments and that red tinsel garland out of the closet, draping everything along some unused corner of a living room. No one ever said it, but somewhere in all this, I convinced myself that December was only a time for collective celebration, that my birthday was nothing special.
Individuality was something my parents neither believed in nor fostered, actively tried to stamp out at times. They prepared special food and bought a cake for all our birthdays, but it was often with only token consideration for the things we particularly liked, my sisters’ and my parties largely indistinguishable from each other, save the name written in icing on the frosting.
Even outside of my family, my birthday often fell by the wayside. Any celebration I might have had at school or among friends was curtailed because my birthday, only a handful of days before Christmas, almost always fell during winter break. Besides, after many long years, I had learned that individuality at school had never served me, save to become the butt of jokes and bullying.
So year after year, relentlessly, I convinced myself I didn’t care, that it didn’t bother me if no one remembered, I didn’t want anything anyways. That was what I told myself because that was what I saw reflected in the actions of so many people around me on so many days of the year.
And all the while, I swallowed my disappointment deeper and deeper, when people couldn’t fulfill the desires I worked my hardest to hide from myself and from the world. And as a consequence of that suppression, I also refused to acknowledge the moments of affection and care I did get: from my sisters who at some point started making gifts specifically just for me, from a classmate who spent the day with me our freshmen year of college, from my first boss who bought me a mug and small cake during my shift, and from several dear friends who’ve celebrated with me countless times since.
All I needed, all I wanted, all I allowed myself to cherish was a cold winter day buried in snow and the memory of a toy I didn’t get to play with.
Isn’t it nice how the city gets all decked out for your birthday?
A precious friend of mine made this observation a few years ago as we took a stroll among the silhouettes of trees etched out of the crisp night sky in bright white string lights. I think it was some weeks, still, before my birthday, but I can’t tell you for sure. I know we were in midtown Manhattan, but I can’t say exactly where. Did she say it before or after we had met for dinner and a drink? Before or after we were no longer coworkers? I only wish I could remember her exact phrasing.
My friend’s words were a bright spot in the darkness I had built around myself, and I’ve held onto the memory of them in all its imperfection and imprecision and uncertainty. And slowly, over the years, as they’ve become a part of the fabric of the story I’ve woven for myself, those words have allowed me to begin to take a wider view.
It’s hard, at times, for me to hold my life in the full extent of its depth, nuance, and complexity. Having grown up in a family where feelings did not exist, I’ve needed to take the time to express the depths of my despair. Loneliness is a story I’ve told myself for so long, built on memories that are undeniably real. But they’re not the only memories, and that is not the only story. It never has been.