First in a new series.
Trigger: 8 year old K informs me that she can hear me coming from the sound of my bracelets.
The summer I turned sixteen, I spent a month in my grandmother’s house in Calcutta, convinced I was going to die. As in, die right there, not make it home. I had traveled there on my own from Long Island, NY, where I had spent the previous month nearly dying of boredom in a musty, dark, pre-fab type house in a soggy and wooded depression near Brookhaven National Lab which suffered from its own miserable micro-climate. (I think I also visited some colleges then, but the dank house left much more of an impression on me.) But the “I’m dying” feeling I had in Calcutta the following month was much more real as it involved fevers, vivid and bizarre dreams, and endless trips to the bathroom.
The long journey began smoothly enough, insofar as departures from JFK International Airport are smooth. The overnight flight deposited me in Paris around 6 am, and as my next flight, to Delhi, wouldn’t leave until the evening, I had the time to take the commuter rail and subway into the city, stop in at our home to water the plants, sort through the mail and make sure all was well between the two month-long sublets, meet a family friend for lunch, and head back out to the airport.
The troubles began on the second flight, to Delhi. I’ll spare you details. Suffice it to say that I was exhausted, doubly jet-lagged, and feeling the beginnings of panic in the pit of my stomach by the time I landed in the smoggy humidity of Delhi. Thankfully, another family friend met me at the airport amidst the push and shove of the throng right outside the arrival doors, and ushered me, in his air conditioned car, to his serene home where I slept for a couple of hours before heading out, yes, to another flight. The final leg, to Calcutta.
Most of my month-long sojourn at 9A Little Russell Street that year is a blur, but a couple of memories are vivid, and one is the following: Lakshmi, faithful employee (still referred to as “servants” back then) of my grandmother for decades, sitting on the floor by the side of my grandmother’s bed to which I was confined, fanning me when the load-shedding caused the ceiling fan to come to a halt. No matter what time I awoke, no matter how many or how few times, she was always there, a quiet but reassuring presence in the dim room. Quiet, but not entirely: the jangle of her thin gold bangles up and down her arm when she moved was what told me that she was there. And it is what told me that I was not alone, and that perhaps, after all, I would not die during that visit.
Toward the end of my stay, when I began to recover from what was probably the double whammy of a bug of some kind combined with an unfortunate reaction to anti-malarials, my grandmother presented me with a blue velvet-covered jewelry box. The velvet was thinning in places, revealing the bald box below, and the clasp was a carefully wrought one, a silver latch that caught onto a very small knob. Inside was a set of three thin gold bangles, the middle one decorated with delicate pieces of ruby. It was the first of many such boxes of her jewelry that she gave me that summer, and probably the one of least monetary value, but when I slipped them on that day, I felt as though those bracelets were giving me an almost magical type of power, to one day bring the sound of reassurance to someone else. I’ve worn them every day since then.
A few days ago, when I entered K’s room to wake her for school, treading carefully so as not to impale my heal on a stray Playmobil personage, K rolled over sleepily and said: “I can always hear you coming by the sound of your bracelets.” I smiled in the dark, both surprised and not that she could hear their thin tinkle through her closed door. “Is that a good thing?” I asked her. She nodded. I brushed her forehead and gave her a kiss, glad that I’d been right, all those years ago. So when, a day later, she announced that from now on she wanted to use her alarm clock to wake her up every morning, I felt a sudden sadness. Ok, I told her, if you want. Because when your child wants such an easy piece of independence, you give it to her. I showed her how to set the alarm and turn it off.
Friday morning, after I slunk past her room without waking her, heading straight for the kitchen to pack lunch boxes and make breakfast, I heard her bedroom door open, the bathroom door close, and I knew she’d managed to get up on her own. The end of an era? But then she traipsed down the stairs, and the first words out of her mouth were: “That alarm clock is much more unpleasant than I expected.” I laughed. “Beep-beep, beep-beep!” I said. “No, don’t, it’s horrible! And it’s hard to turn off, and then I was worried I’d wake up S, and I didn’t like it one bit.” So I asked her if she’d rather go back to Mom waking her up, and she nodded. Whew!