April 27, 2018
My myth began before I was born. My mother’s version begins with jasmine. Each time she smells that jasmine plant, she tells me the same story:
My parents had two sons and a jasmine plant—they nurtured all three. My grandmother saw how the plant resisted the dry and cold air. She saw how it longed for warmth and sunshine. My mother became pregnant—they would nurture one more. My grandmother noticed how the jasmine plant bloomed. It flowered with a thousand flowers, or so the story goes. My parents wanted a daughter, or so they tell me. And then I was born, born and brought back to the home of the blooming jasmine.
My myth began before I was born. My father’s version begins with stars. Each evening before my birthday, he tells me the same story:
My mother suffered through her pregnancy with me. She had with both of my brothers, too. My parents were uncertain, hoping for the perfect third child to balance their family—a daughter after two sons. My father, helpless to console my mother in her pain, looked out the hospital window. “I saw something weird, something greenish, lighting up the sky, Maya.” Meteors showered down on that evening in late August. That’s when he knew that their family was complete.
I love houses with names. Something about naming a house brings to mind images of cluttered windowsills, unintentionally assigned seats at the dinner table, a drawer full of paperclips and mail that should probably be shredded. I imagine a fridge that’s full, with an old bag of cheese rotting at the back. I hear the squeak of rain boots in a mud room.
When I was a little girl, my family would sometimes pack the car, drive to Florida, and vacation at a house that, online, was dubbed “Tropical Breeze.” The house was on the ocean, and as if that wasn’t enough, everything inside reminded us that the ocean was outside—seashell pillows, stormy ocean landscapes, little signs that said things like “Life’s a Beach!” Now, that house reminds me of the sound of Ammah calling us inside after hours of catching minnows in tide pools. I can feel the calm of rainy days following my dad’s instructions on how to construct a puzzle. I remember curling up during family movie nights, falling asleep at the violent part of Gandhi because my brother told me to close my eyes, that it would be too scary. I listened.
I know how my story started, and I also know what came before. My mother, my Ammah, lived her early childhood in a house named “Bethany.” Something about the humanness of that name makes me smile, like when a dog is named Jerry or Carol. Unlike “Tropical Breeze,” it doesn’t tell you what to associate it with.
Bethany is a small house in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. She has a courtyard out front with a mango tree that I imagine Ammah as a young girl picked mangoes from while arguing with my uncle about whether they’re better ripe or unripe. We visited there once. Ammah pointed to a room, mentioning it was where her grandmother and her aunt used to sleep. Her aunt, who was deaf and mostly blind could be heard giggling in the middle of the night with my great-grandmother over some silent inside joke that I imagine was conveyed through just fingertips.
The one time we visited, I was seven. The family who lived there at the time, distant relatives, served us a meal. I imagine there was jackfruit, but that might just be because I know it’s Ammah’s favorite. There were photos of Ammah and my uncle hung on the wall, even though they hadn’t lived there since childhood. They were taken decades ago, when big hair was in and their faces hadn’t grown into their ears yet. There’s a photo of me, too—not up on the walls, but in our album at home. It’s from the day of this visit, and I’m standing with my leg propped up behind me, leaning on the fence outside Bethany. I hadn’t grown into my two front teeth yet. I remember thinking that my pose would make me seem adult. I spent so much time trying to seem adult when I was little like that.
The Jaffna that Ammah knew during her youth had been completely transformed. The Sri Lankan Civil War, decades long, had swept the whole country. When we were there, there was a ceasefire, the war wasn’t over. I saw, briefly, the effects of a war, but I didn’t understand it. I saw the warning signs for fields full of landmines and the cemetery where the soldiers were buried. I heard, through Ammah’s translations, that our driver knew how to drive in reverse so delicately because he was used to getting out of places, quickly. We were only there a few days.
As a child in Ohio, I only heard so much about this war. I knew that there had been suffering. I knew that Ammah was affected by it—seeing her home after almost twenty years, her birthplace, broken apart in many ways. I understood that war meant irreversible change.
I went home to the United States. In third grade, I remember projecting photos of Jaffna for my third grade class—a kid teaching kids about suffering. My associations with that trip had nothing to do with the political, ethnic, or religious tensions, but my own discomforts: the sliminess of the leech that nearly attached itself to my leg on a walk through the hotel gardens; the stomach ache induced by too much Fanta; the burn of the curries I ate, not just on my tongue but on my fingertips; the groggy sleeplessness of jet lag, experienced for the first time.
I’m sure I said something like, “Can you believe it?” I’m sure I used the word “shelled” as if I understood it, even though I probably just imagined the shells from Mario Kart raining down on those homes. Those shells destroyed the church where Ammah was baptized, a meeting place of the small Tamil, Christian community. I’m sure I oversimplified who I thought were the good guys and the bad guys—doesn’t every war have an enemy? I wonder, now, when it’s better to close my eyes during the violent parts, when I have a responsibility to bear witness, and when it’s best to strive—as hard as I can—to understand myself and my context.
Some beginnings almost feel like memories now. When I was a toddler, I would tell my parents that I remembered feeding my older brother a bottle when he was a baby, constructing this memory from all the stories my parents told. I try to piece together the small parts of my life to fit into those first chapters, to understand which moments are the big ones. Others help me figure these out—the big moment was when we moved from Ohio to Florida or when I left for college. Moves are big moments. Break-ups are big moments. Graduations and sometimes birthdays and trips that throw you out of your context are all big moments.
I look to my parents’ pasts in order to understand my own. Ammah’s move to the United States must have been a big moment, although I have never heard about the actual moving day. There are also the big moments of their relationship, like when Dad first noticed Ammah on campus, or their wedding day. There’s the day when he showed up in the freezing cold at Ammah’s house to meet the parents with a poinsettia that he took from his church, and Ammah’s brother told their grandmother that he was the gardener, not the boyfriend. That one always makes me wonder what my story about my person will be.
As a child, I would imagine my life was a TV show. I would have days when I imagined every action I took was in front of an audience following my story. I would walk around my house and suddenly break out into song, into dance, suddenly run in the opposite direction. I wanted to keep them on their toes.
When I became older, maybe nine, this audience stopped being some anonymous group and became family members I had lost. I never met my father’s father, so perhaps I did not lose him, but I had a recurring dream in which my Grampie and I sat under a table and laughed (at what, I never really knew).
Whenever my Grampie is mentioned in my family, someone takes the time to remind me how kind he was. Grampie, he was so kind. And so, when I acted in an unkind way, I would feel guilty, feel the eyes of my Grampie looking down on me through the clouds in heaven and thinking to himself, “Why can’t she be kind like me?” Sometimes, I imagined him and my other loved ones in a specific part of heaven where they have those binoculars that you pay 25 cents for, like when you’re at the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon. Instead of looking at a landmark they could choose to be looking at me, and probably they don’t make you pay anything in heaven.
When my grandmother died when I was eight, I did not know how to react. I was worried that she was placed in my audience and, that she, my bravest and most outspoken advocate, would see me at my weakest. She would be ashamed of the real me. The day she died, my aunt took me to Kohl’s on a shopping trip to distract me, and maybe also to distract herself. I picked out a pair of denim capris and tried them on in the dressing room where I was alone. But even this act of picking out capris in a Kohl’s dressing room in 2003 has stuck in my mind as the first time when I felt my Ammammah’s gaze after her death.
Dad spotted Ammah in the commuter center in college; both of them lived off campus with their families. Ammah was wearing a pink sari and was on her way to take her senior pictures. Dad walked up to her and asked her what she was wearing. The rest, according to them, is history. They dated, they fell in love, they wondered if Bowling Green, Ohio, was ready for an interracial couple like them. They attended the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington when they were 21 years old, and Dad saw a biracial little girl. That was the first moment, he says, that he imagined they might actually start a family one day—the first day he envisioned me and my brothers. To him, then it was destined that I would eventually move to Washington, D.C. for college, near that spot. Their love story and beyond drips with destiny. It’s hard to be a product of that and not wonder, maybe obsessively, what fate has in store for me.
“When you know, you know,” the saying goes. Is that actually true? Sometimes I get stressed that I haven’t found the big story of my life—the great romance or the problem that I’m going to overcome—and then I think, why would I even want a big story? What’s so wrong with a quiet, uncomplicated life? I want a life where arguments are over which kind of yogurt is the best and afternoons are marked not by some grand struggle but by naps in a hammock and work that is meaningful but not earth-shattering.
I’ve recently begun training to become a hospice volunteer. One aspect of volunteering is helping with “life review” activities. I’d never heard this phrase. It can mean a lot of things. One patient, they told us, wrote letters to her young daughter, for all the milestones—for birthdays, graduations, one for her wedding day. Some patients ask that volunteers write down stories on their behalf, the things that even their children don’t know that they want because they’re too busy dealing with medical jargon and funeral arrangements. Maybe it’s the transcription of a recipe, one that inevitably will be made with a splash of “it’s just not the same.” Now, in the back of my head, I keep wondering what tidbits of wisdom I could share so far, what my big question is that I can answer for people after me.
Is it that I’m the daughter of a Sri Lankan woman and a white man? For the longest time, when asked where I’m from, I would respond, “my mom’s Sri Lankan and my dad’s American.” I explain the identities of my parents so that I don’t have to explain my own. Ammah moved to the United States when she was eight and has been a citizen since a time long before I was born. She, too, is American. So, where does that leave me? Saying, “well, I grew up in Ohio, where my dad lived his whole life and my mom moved when she was eight from Sri Lanka via Sierra Leone, but I’ve only been to Sri Lanka once, and then I moved to Florida and now I live in New York so if you’re asking where home is I’m not sure what to tell you, but I do know that you’re probably just asking about why I’m brown, so yeah, Sri Lanka” seems like a little much. I don’t really know.
When people think of culture, there are certain expectations and touchstones that come to mind—food, music, clothing, language. But I don’t know how much culture is supposed to matter to me. I can’t remember that particular meal at Bethany, but I do remember the annual reunions on Dad’s side of the family. Every time, I’d try deviled eggs at a picnic in a park in Ohio, and I’d remember, year after year, that I don’t like deviled eggs.
I think about how I presented the Sri Lankan Civil War to my third grade class. I wonder if I have a responsibility to educate myself and others about this conflict that is so close to my ancestors’ home, but so far from mine. I wonder what the people who actually suffered would feel if they thought I was claiming that conflict as my own struggle.
I spend so much time wondering. Should I have learned Tamil? I never needed it growing up, so does it matter really? I wonder if I don’t value the history of my white ancestors enough. I wonder if I place too much value in my whiteness, especially since it’s not visible to others. I wonder if I should try harder to learn about my Sri Lankan heritage. I wonder if participating in things that people would expect me to understand, like Indian cultural practices, will make me seem like an imposter. I wonder how much I should value the specific culture of my family and how much I should value the evolving culture of the place from which my ancestors came. I wonder if I would feel more connected to Sri Lanka if my grandparents had lived longer than they did. I wonder if I’m just as far from small town rural Ohioan life as I am the life of someone in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. I wonder when it’s my duty to learn about a place and a people and when I’m overcompensating for years of not knowing. All this wondering and worrying does make me feel as though this is a significant piece of my big question, but it’s not the only one.
My favorite part of TV shows is the, “previously on…” recap. At certain milestones, season changes, I wonder what my “previously on…” would say. “Previously on…” she graduated high school. “Previously on…” she and her roommate got stupid-drunk for the first time in college. “Previously on…” she consciously reached that part of adulthood where she started describing things as “too sweet” and felt her five-year-old self’s disappointed glare. “Previously on…” she got so distracted by a too-emotional text she was sending that she ran into the subway turnstile, leaving a line of bruises on the front of her thighs. They begin to seem silly. A “previously on” should include moments of significance, clues to the larger story, right? But then what do I do with those ideas and moments that feel significant in their quiet passing?
I notice so many of these moments and feelings. I’m caught off guard by the heart-in-my-throat feeling I get when I wear heeled sandals and have my own heel momentarily fall off the back of my shoe so I feel like I missed a step and my ankle is going to twist. I chuckle to myself at the corporate cuteness of seeing businessmen in perfectly tailored suits but goofy-big backpacks on their way to work, like they’re trekking to their first day of kindergarten. I’m disappointed by my hesitant discomfort at my own obedience when I walk through all the twists and turns of an empty queue, like an airport security line, just because I don’t want to be seen ducking under the barriers. I’m shaken by the caught-in-the-act jolt I get when I’m reading and re-reading texts from someone I love, texts that have been sent and read long ago, and I imagine they’re doing the same. This moment in particular is an exposure of my nostalgia, but it doesn’t feel like a big moment.
There are the memories I keep going back to, the ones I can’t classify. Where do I put those in my narrative arc? Like the time that my friend Sarah had a 6th birthday party at her house and gave away a goodie bag that had paint pens in it, but I didn’t know what a paint pen was, and I squirted it all over the ceiling of my dad’s new mini van as soon as we left the party. The blue paint splotch didn’t go away the whole time we had that car. Like the memories I have of my grandmother that don’t seem significant but might be, like when she told me that bread and butter sandwiches would make me grow faster, or how we watched Little House on the Prairie every night. Like the fact that, in elementary school, we got free milk cartons at lunch and I always got one two percent and one chocolate even though at home we were a one percent family. Maybe these memories stay in the queue, waiting for another moment to connect to and give them significance.
There’s this part of me that thinks one day, I’ll walk into a room and feel an overwhelming sense of coherence. I’ll feel the past connecting with the future, constructing what I’ll talk about in my “life review.” I’ll feel what my dad felt when he saw that meteor shower—I’ll feel I’ve been making the right decisions. There’s this part of me that thinks if I go back to Jaffna, back to Bethany, that I’ll have this moment in that small living room that I remember, the one with the photos. The girl leaning against that fence with her leg propped up—she won’t just be projecting confidence, she’ll be living it.
I grew up in Ohio, like Dad, and like Ammah did for most of her childhood. I’ve been back to their old spots, the pizza place where they had their first date, the town where my father grew up. If I don’t feel this sense of belonging there, why would I feel it on that tiny plot of land, so many miles away? We think that throwing ourselves out of our context will give us the meaning that we need. Maybe it works—I don’t know yet. But what I would really want is a truly ordinary connection with my Ammah’s family’s past. I don’t want the awe that comes with being a newcomer to a place, the overwhelmed feeling of not knowing what new thing you’ll be exposed to. I want to experience what she experienced, what her parents experienced—the trips to the beach and hearing the rapid-fire Tamil call of the man selling fish door to door, the catching of minnows in tidepools on the Indian Ocean.
I can’t quite make sense of the space between finding the big things and appreciating the ordinary ones. It’s like the difference between running into a friend and promising you’ll “catch up” and the friend that you get a text from on a Tuesday night saying, “I feel like whenever I start using a new laundry detergent it takes me a bit of time to recognize this new version of myself.” That difference between the summary and the details. I tend to dread the “catch up.” The “yeah… things are good… yep I like it… so crazy that it’s been years!” The catch up feels like that imposition of a narrative, that almost-pretend we play to signal that everything is going according to plan. There are some people who don’t require the catch up, or who I fall back into a rhythm with instead. I can call them up with a, “what have you been thinking about lately?” and it’s the big stuff mixed in with “maybe I’m finally learning how to grocery shop efficiently” and “I took up knitting.” The “did you know that I hate the way it feels to walk up a broken escalator?” The people to whom I, without fail, send daily pictures of my niece. The ones who respond like they’re talking to her directly—“you’ve gotten so big!” It’s the people with whom, when they’re on vacation far away, I muse over the existence of time zones. Why are some pieced by the half hour?
Sometimes, I assess my relationship with someone by the way I would react if I ran into them unexpectedly. What feeling will I get right after recognition? Will my voice do that thing where it raises a few octaves with a “hey!” that plays in my head over and over after we’ve talked past each other? Sometimes, my reaction is not about distance or time, but about the small things that person reminds me of. There’s the person who, in high school, called me by my last name. Something about that felt somehow intimate, in a goofy way.
Preparing for the catch up feels like when I go to a museum that’s just too much, too crowded. When I go to that museum looking for the masterpiece and get lost somewhere and distracted and overwhelmed, and I end up noticing, more than anything, the windows. How they face the ocean or the street or serve as a portal into another exhibit. How someone thought, hard, about how the light would look in this room, where my shadow would get placed. What I’ve come to realize that I’m looking for from relationships is the life equivalent of the feeling of someone saying, “no worries, I’ve got this one,” when you go to coffee with them. The implicit suggestion that there will be a next one for you to get, that people can be constants, that their presence in your life is a given, not contingent on the next big thing. The level of connection that Ammah mentioned between her grandmother and her aunt—laughter communicated wordlessly in the dark.
When my grandfather died in 1999, the war continued on. Before he died, he wrote an ode to his home which he titled, “Cry, the Beloved Island.” He writes:
I left Sri Lanka in 1966 with my wife and children because I sensed the dark clouds approaching, but I never thought the dark clouds would remain so long hiding the beauty of this serene and bounteous land. A land lapped by the oceans and kissed by gentle breezes.
He finishes his account of the violence caused by ethnic and religious conflicts with this:
I lay awake at nights hoping for an answer before this aching body of mine is turned into dust, or will I die lamenting like Alan Paton, ‘Cry the beloved country’?
Papa spent his career in the United States as an ethnic studies professor at Bowling Green State University. He pushed for the university to include a cultural diversity requirement for all undergraduates, expanding many students’ Midwestern worldviews beyond the confines of Northwest Ohio. His courses—“Minority Writers and the Western Tradition,” “Popular Culture and the Minority Experience”—speak to his status as an immigrant to Northwest Ohio as well as an ethnic minority within Sri Lanka. They also sound like classes that reflect conversations I’ve had with friends, the 1970s version of conversations about Master of None and Mindy Kaling. I feel lucky to be part of a family that considers these questions— of identity, of our place in the world—and sometimes I feel as though I inherited a fixation on them.
My Papa died before any type of resolution was reached in the war. The dark clouds he spoke of remained for ten more years after his death, until finally the war ended in 2009, after tens of thousands more Sri Lankans were brutally killed. I think we do inherit the feeling of fate, of destiny. Maybe we also inherit the sleeplessness that came before us. Papa died waiting for an answer. I don’t want to always be waiting for an answer to a question I haven’t even defined. Maybe, despite feeling so removed at times, I can’t get rid of this connection, and the unanswered remains unanswered, without a bookend, without true conclusions.
In the Bible, Bethany is the village of Lazarus. Lazarus is the man whom Jesus brings back from the dead. It’s one of Jesus’s greatest miracles, so above and beyond water to wine and walking on the sea. It’s the actual conversion of death to life, the birth of something from nothing. The belief in this miracle is an ultimate act of faith.
It makes sense, then, why someone, years ago, named a home this. My family, Christian in a majority-Hindu Jaffna, held on to their faith. The name seems too tied to miracle for a place so everyday. But isn’t there something grand about humility? This is an ordinary place with a courtyard and a fence, but why is that not significant? I want to make a life, a narrative, of ordinary moments.
That jasmine plant, in the end, got what it wanted. It’s planted in front of the house in Florida where my parents live now, continuing to flourish in the warmth and humidity. Its aroma hits me every time I return home, reminding me that just because I know where my story started doesn’t mean I have to know where it’s going.