August 8, 2008

cultural roots and good tv

One recent Sunday morning, my son, husband and I were gathered around the breakfast table enjoying pancakes. The television was on across the room, and a new show came on called “Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe.” Wolfe, as I learned later, is an internationally acclaimed photographer, and of course the series host. The episode captured us immediately with its imagery of a country familiar to our family—India.

My husband’s father is originally from southwest India, a state called Kerala which is known for it’s lush greenery, tropical weather, beautiful backwaters, and—as locals love to boast—almost 100 percent literacy. My father-in-law Tom came to the U.S. in the mid-1960’s for his medical residency, where he met his future wife Linda, a Chicago native with German and Norwegian roots. Tom and Linda eventually settled in Texas, where they had four children. Their family traveled to India many times when the kids were young. Having made the trip once already with my husband (before we had our son), I have great respect for my in-laws trekking across the world with four young children!

As we watched the show from our table, my husband and I tried to make conversation with our son about the connection he had to the people on the screen. Some were bathing or washing their clothes in the Ganges river, others were riding bikes or driving rickshaws, and still others were engaged in deep prayer in honor of an annual Hindu pilgrimage. We said things like, “Grandpa is from that country; it’s called India.” My husband also told a story about how when he would visit as a child, his family had “helpers” who would wash their clothes just like we were seeing on the show—beating the clothes against the rocks, a rhythmic but effortful job. I was reminded of my trip there, where I felt so fortunate to meet my husband’s grandfather shortly before he died. He had been instrumental in India’s push for independence, a contemporary of Gandhi, and later a Congressman and vocal advocate for education in his home state.

And then something small but meaningful happened. While to me, these people on the screen were fabulously interesting, they looked nothing like me or the family I had grown up with, and so I felt content to know that my son might feel a connection even if I didn’t. But it occurred to me that my husband might feel very differently; so I turned to him and asked, “Do you feel connected to them?” His face grew quiet, serious and almost sad, and he said simply, “Yes.”

I don’t expect that my son will feel the same subtle sadness or internal conflict that my husband and his father feel – a sense of having a toe or a foot in one culture while the rest of his body is in another. However, sensing how important it is to expose our son to his history, his family, and the many inputs that combined to make him who is he is, I see now that raising him with regular reminders about his ancestors is more than just a fun or different exercise. It will be vitally important to the quiet places in our hearts that we don’t always know are there and a deserving tribute to the people who came before us.

Comments

  1. Mimli says:

    I moved to the US from Kolkata, India when I was ten – and I feel that funny homesickness almost every day. Now that I’m raising a mixed heritage daughter, who is already speaking Bengali, I am hoping that she will have that sense of connection that just expands your whole world!
    I really enjoyed reading about your family. Thank you.