“Now that you are married woman, we can visit you.” Puzzled by the cultural laws that governed my parents’ choices, I didn’t say a word. When I’d been an unmarried student, my parents had never visited me in any of the places I’d lived: Toronto, Montreal, or Manhattan. But now that I was married and living in Brooklyn, they’d made the trip at last.
But their visit hadn’t been easy, for my mother now had a painful bladder condition that kept her up at nights. She went to the bathroom as many as twenty times a night. Sometimes she slept with icepacks between her thighs. Her insides, she said, felt as though they were being snipped with scissors. “So much burning feeling,” she told me one night. “Too much.” I was kneeling next to her in the dark, massaging her calves in the hopes that it would help. She fell asleep finally, one hand resting on the top of my head, the other hand placed over the gold heart-shaped pendant she had worn around her neck ever since I could remember. Only when she started to snore, did I begin to weep. It was a quiet crying, a terrible kind, for I felt helpless against the indignities she would have to suffer.
My parents’ visit revolved around her painful condition. Most of the time she lay on the couch protesting against my efforts to clean our small apartment, which had gotten smaller upon their arrival. Their suitcases were next to the coffee table, but gradually my mother began draping her saris over the backs of chairs, and my father began tucking his undershirts into different corners. “You are not supposed to be doing all this!” she cried. “That is mother’s job, not daughter’s. We are burden on you, I know it.” I shook my head in exasperation. I was tired—yes—but they weren’t a burden. If anything, I was just happy they’d agreed to make the trip.
Before their arrival, I had carefully planned each day’s activities. I was going to cook them healthy breakfasts, and then we would visit museums and art galleries. We would see the Statue of Liberty. They would see their first Broadway musical: Bollywood Dreams. They would visit all the boroughs, and they would eat at the best Indian restaurants. But most of my plans had been aborted. Instead, their adventures consisted of walks to Prospect Park and short strolls around the neighborhood. We stayed close to my apartment—close to the bathroom. “Go out,” my mother began saying. “Take your father somewhere. Stop treating me like baby.”
My father never wanted to go anywhere without her, but once I managed to take him to the Bronx Zoo. With his soft hand in mine, we wandered through the thinning crowds of people. Though he is over eighty, my father moved quickly, his back curved, a bony slope beside me. We arrived near closing and most of the animals were sleeping or hiding. “Where are the bears?” he grumbled as we stood waiting for grizzlies to emerge from their caves. He was tapping his foot impatiently beneath a sky that was threatening to pelt us with rain. Finally, he pulled at my arm. “Not coming, those baboons!” he shouted. “They are wasting my time.” I wanted to correct him but then remembered that in my father’s world, anyone who does not comply with his wishes is a baboon; apparently, this now included grizzlies, too. All the way home, he fretted about my mother. “You should never have left her,” he said. And then a few minutes later, “All those animals wasting our time. Horrible they were, not even coming out to meet us.” Taking out his handkerchief, he dabbed at his eye. As the cityscape sped past us, I leaned my head back and held onto his hand even tighter.
When we got home, my mother was up and about. Our apartment had been cleaned; her saris and my father’s undershirts had been put away. She had taken a bath and seemed happier, as if the time by herself had done her some good. “Natasha held my hand whole time!” my father declared proudly. “She took such good care of me,” he added. They both turned to me and smiled broadly. “Good daughter,” my mother murmured. “You are good girl.”
During our absence, she had scrutinized the kitchen. “I am so pleased,” she told me. “Your kitchen looking so neat and clean.” And then she laughed and reminded me about how messy I used to be. “Marriage has changed you,” she insisted. “You are becoming better housekeeper.” I wanted to tell her that I didn’t think it was marriage; it was my husband Branly who organized our kitchen. He loved to put things in plastic containers. Lentils, rice, raisins, almonds, dried fruit, seeds—anything, really—carefully labeled and shelved. After we came back from the grocery store, it was Branly who stocked our fridge: fruits and vegetables in one area, juices and rice milk in another. I always forgot what went where. “I don’t think it’s marriage,” I admitted. “It’s Branly. But she ignored me.
It wasn’t long before my parents revealed that they wanted to go to the temple where I’d been married. It was a sensitive topic—the day of my wedding. Had I known that my and Branly’s spontaneous decision to marry in a Brooklyn courthouse a year earlier would evoke so much grief from my mother, I never would have done it that way. Though I had told my family of our decision beforehand and followed my mother’s instructions: Go to a temple; string garlands of flowers together; wash the Gods and Goddesses in your house; offer certain prayers, after it was all done, there was only sadness on her part and mine. A giant missing. When I had called to tell her it was done, she’d cried for forty minutes while I held the receiver close to my ear. “All alone you were,” she’d sobbed. “No big wedding for you like I dreamed. No one from our family to be there for you.”
“I want to be there this time,” she insisted. “I want to offer blessings with my own hands.”
On the day she and my father flew home, we paid a visit to the Ganeshji temple in Queens, stopping in different places for her to go to the bathroom along the way. My mother had dressed for the occasion; she had worn a crisp red sari while I had worn a red salvaar kameez. Her hair was not in place, I noted, and her bindi—a circle of red lipstick on her forehead—was smudged. Her gold pendant, though, glimmered through the fabric of her sari like a miniature sun.
Branly’s parents were waiting outside when we pulled up in our car, and my parents smiled and waved at them from across the street. It was their second meeting, and both our mothers were eager to see each other again. “I have to go to bathroom,” my mom whispered as I helped her out. “But I can wait, okay?”
Inside the Ganeshji temple where Branly and I, a year earlier, had gone to make our rounds before going to the courthouse, it was warm. Thick with people. Incense sticks burned everywhere, and the Brahmin priests tended to the gods like attentive gardeners. With swift expert movements, they draped garlands around the bronze figures and directed people’s offerings of fruit and flowers. “How lucky!” my mother cried. “It is first day of Chaturthi,” she explained above the noise. “Celebration for Ganeshji.” My husband’s stepfather, tall and white, looked out of place and wouldn’t budge from beside the door. “You only represented me at their wedding,” my mother had told Branly’s mother who had been at the courthouse with us while we exchanged vows. “But not the same as my being there.” I wondered if Branly’s mother felt insulted as she followed us in, if she thought my mother was being dismissive or disrespectful. But my mother, in her eagerness to celebrate, seemed oblivious.
The four of us circled the stone deity of Ganeshji many times while others pushed past us in a hurry. When we went to stand before the large stone elephant god, my mother laid her purse on the donation box and began digging around in the plastic bag full of flowers she had purchased. As she searched for the right marigold to offer, a priest leaned close to me, his eyebrows furrowed, his dark, purplish lips pursed together. “This is a temple,” he reminded me tersely. “Not your living room.” Embarrassed, I snatched the purse from the box.
The first time we’d come, just Branly and me, it had felt peaceful. Meaningful. With each round we’d taken together, I felt as though I was spiraling into a lovely place of no return. But during that visit with my parents, it all seemed hurried, like we were going through the motions of garlanding one another, taking money from my mother, and prostrating ourselves before the Gods. But when we walked out, my mother was flushed and happy. “At last we did it,” she sang. “We did it. Now I can say that I was there for my daughter’s wedding.”
“Yup,” my father-in-law said. “Real exciting night.” My mother-in-law elbowed him and he remained quiet after that.
“I have to go to bathroom,” my mother whispered a few minutes later, and I took her hand and led her to a ladies’ room in the restaurant next to the temple. As I waited, I studied my face in the mirror. My cheeks were flushed, and on my forehead my mother had placed a bindi. It was slightly crooked, and I straightened it. Behind me I could hear strained silence, my mother’s waiting. A soft grunt and then a cry. “Too much hurting I feel,” she moaned. I ran the taps in the hopes that the sound of water running could induce her bladder to release. Then the toilet flushed. From inside the bathroom stall, she said above the noise, “I gave much money for you both, you know. For many blessings for my daughter and new son.” When she stepped out, she smiled as if her pain had been flushed away.
Later that afternoon she gave me her pendant—heart-shaped and made of yellow gold. “You can’t give me this!” I cried. “It’s yours. It’s always been with you.” I still have recollections of lying in her lap, pulling at it with chubby fingers. That pendant had always sat snugly between her breasts. Close to her heart.
“It’s stunning,” my in-laws had said when she laid it inside my palm.
Branly came up behind me and squeezed my shoulders. “A golden heart for a golden heart,” he murmured into my hair.
“Thank you,” I could only manage.
“And the chain?” my mother wanted to know. “Is new. Do you like it?” I had liked it, its lightness, its shine. Then I frowned. The clasp at the back was funny. Shaped like an S, it was that tricky kind. “It is new chain for old pendant,” she laughed.
“I love it,” I told her, my eyes shining. “I really do.”
“Now you have become real woman,” my mother said, hugging me. Perhaps I’d finally graduated to gold.
Months before, when I’d visited Vancouver, my parents had insisted on buying me jewelry to celebrate my marriage. I’d chosen a necklace of green and silver, for it reminded me of something native, something ancient. “You will look like village woman,” my father had shouted in the jewelry shop where we’d spent hours searching for the right sets. “We are not poor! We can afford gold.” For him it may have been a matter of pride, but I’d quietly insisted on the silver. “I think it’s more me,” I’d said. “Really.” My father had exchanged a glance with the shop owner, a glance that said, “My daughter is foolish.”
On the way home, my mother had clucked her tongue when my father grumbled in the backseat. “Do not worry,” she reassured him. “One day she will wear gold.”
That pendant was a surprise, for the day before my mother had chastised me for keeping my jewelry box in the bathroom. “You have nice kitchen, but you are not knowing how to keep your belongings safe. You are careless girl.”
“But Mom,” I’d cried. “It’s a small apartment, what do you expect?”
“No matter,” she told me sharply. “Sometimes you still behave like child.”
At the airport we requested wheelchairs for both my parents. My father seemed uncomfortable inside his, while my mother seemed relieved to have a quick ride to the bathroom if she needed it. “Too much standing in airport,” she told me. “Not good.” Their flight had been delayed, so Branly and I sat with my parents as they talked about their visit. “So much fun we had,” they kept repeating while I saw only the places I hadn’t been able to take them to, all the holes. “You are silly girl,” my mother said, as if sensing my thoughts. “We came to see you and Branly. That is enough for us.” Then she admired my clothes again and made me stand up and twirl around, much to the delight of the two men sitting across from us. “Looking so pretty, you are. Like princess.” I smiled and patted the pendant that sat neatly against my chest. “Now it will keep eye on you,” she joked, pointing to the golden heart.
When it was time for them to board the plane, attendants came to push my parents through security. As they waved from where they sat, I couldn’t bear to look anymore. Turning my face into Branly’s chest, I cried like I always do when I say goodbye to them. “You’ll see them soon,” Branly comforted me. “You will.” But I worried as only a daughter who lives far from her parents can. What if I didn’t?
I lost that pendant days after my parents left. I had gone to the New York marathon to support a friend who was running in it. It was drizzling out, and my pendant lay hidden beneath my shirt. In the crowds of people, Branly and I cheered for my friend, and then we went home and made love. It was the first time since my parents had left, and afterwards we joked that it was about time. That we’d forgotten what it was like. Clinging to Branly, I buried my nose in the comforting smell of his skin and wouldn’t let go. But at some point, he must have pried my fingers from his and left for his office, for when I awoke, instead of his body next to me was the gold chain on the sheet, lovely and looped like a ribbon on the wind. But bare. Sitting up, I tossed the covers off the bed and began searching for the pendant everywhere but couldn’t find it. “What’s wrong?” Branly shouted on the phone when I called him at work, nearly hysterical. “Oh,” he’d sighed, as if relieved. “I thought … never mind, Tash. You’ll find it.”
That evening I posted ads on Craigslist and scanned the site for the word Found. The next day I retraced my steps, even jogged the last meters of my friend’s run. I called every place I’d been: train station, diner, Duane Reade. And then I wept for a long time. I kept telling myself, it’s just an object, not a person. But it did feel like a person of sorts; it felt like part of my mother. That pendant had been given to her by her fellow teachers and students on the day of her wedding. It had represented the job she’d loved in India, the life she’d struggled to create for herself prior to being married and brought to Canada. It was a marking of time. Of memory. A dream interrupted—and a destiny fulfilled. And I had lost it. Friends told me that it meant something, that perhaps it symbolized a letting go. “Yeah,” I joked. “My job. It means I will no longer be a teacher next year.”
But I knew it was more than that. The pendant had sat next to my mother for all of my life. It had been closer to her—with her—more than I had been. It had rested against her heart as she flew from India to Canada, a golden reminder of home. It had been with her as she lived a life of isolation in a small town in the middle of nowhere. It had seen her through her loneliness, through her days of cleaning motel rooms at the Andrew Motor Lodge. It had watched over her when I couldn’t. She had given it to me as a blessing for my marriage. And I had lost it. When I called to tell her what happened, she was silent. Then she began comforting me. “Do not cry, beti,” she said. “Is okay.”
Years have passed, and I still find myself searching for that pendant. I search for glimmers of yellow gold on the road, beneath parked cars. I search the grounds whenever I’m in the train station in the hopes that someone kicked it beneath a stand or a counter by accident. I search faces of people to see if they might have a clue. I stare at the necks of women, hoping I’ll see a shimmering there. Sometimes I find my fingers absently pulling at my neck as if seeking something, and then I try to remember what my mother told me over the phone. “Do not worry, beti. For everything that is lost, something new comes to fill its place.” While I know that’s true, the heart shape of what’s missing is always there.
NATASHA SINGH‘s writing has appeared in the “Modern Love” column of the New York Times, Cutthroat, ThreePennyReview, Crab Orchard Review, South Asian Review, Hart House Review, Rungh Magazine, and in several anthologies. Her essays have been finalists in Glimmer Train and Brevity. Natasha is a two-time recipient of the Canada Council Grant for creative nonfiction and a recent winner of the Barry Lopez Prize for creative nonfiction. She has twice been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook.