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Auntie Sari: Short story winner

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Throughout the 1950s my mother always got a migraine whenever my Aunt Sari came to visit. She would vanish into the master bedroom two days before Auntie's arrival, and leave my father to cope.

"She's your relative," my mother would proclaim as my father grimaced in reply. "Why does she have to come here?"

"Why not? We're her relatives — and we live outside Washington, D.C."

"How often does she have to see the sights? India must be more interesting."

"Maybe she wants to get away from India."

"She smells," was invariably my mother's final comment.

And it was true. Aunt Sari smelled. For my mother, it was a cloying cloud of combustible gas that trailed about my aunt wherever she went, but for me, they were aromas of turmeric and cloves, of garam masala and mashed spices. When they wafted my way, I knew that Auntie (for that was how she asked to be called) drew near.

She was tiny, Auntie Sari, not as short as a midget but not much taller either. My mother, proud of the height on her side of the family, never forgave her that shortcoming, so overtly a failing of my father's side. Not only was she meant to feed a relative she disliked, but the relative had the effrontery of insulting proper height standards. "We're not Indian," my mother would explain. "We don't behave like that. We grow."

Auntie Sari, whose real name I never knew because we called her after the lovely yellow, gold and mauve long silk robes she wrapped herself in, came from somewhere near Goa, India, and every few years, she would find time to see her distant American relatives.

"If she can afford to come, why can't she stay in a hotel?" My mother would toss out at the dinner table before she arrived, after she had arisen from two days conversing with her migraine.

No one would ever answer her, and she would return to bed to continue her interrupted dialogue with her throbbing brain.

I loved Auntie Sari. She spoke with a clipped British accent but in an Indian sing-song, so her sentences would begin on a high, clear note and quite rapidly descend into something so incomprehensible I thought it must be a different language entirely. Once every visit, she would offer to prepare for us a real Indian meal, and she would write up a detailed list of condiments and foodstuffs to be purchased from the "local greengrocer," as she said. "What's a greengrocer?" I timidly asked when Auntie wasn't around.

My mother, to prove that everything about Auntie was a foreign imposition, said, "We don't have any," while my father explained that it was an English term Americans no longer used. We went to the grocery store and the supermarket to buy our vegetables. The English and Europeans still had stores that specialized only in fruits and vegetables.

"They don't have a Giant Food?" I asked.

"No, they don't."

"Where do they get their challah from then?"

My father had to admit he didn't know. I'd have to ask Auntie.

Her reply amazed me. They baked their own challah. Every Friday!

"You don't buy it?" I asked to be sure I had heard correctly and her explanation hadn't devolved into that foreign language.

"No. We bake," she reiterated. How wondrous a place India must be, I thought, where people bake their own challot and there is no Giant Food to sustain them.

Every time Auntie offered to make her a meal on her visit, my mother would declare that the exotic foodstuffs could not be found in Giant, and if we wanted to eat what Sari had to offer - spoken in a voice that clearly implied we were taking our lives in our hands - then Dad would have to go to shop for them. My father would venture into the small Chinatown near where he worked and somehow return with most of the ingredients in a bag. I was always her companion in the kitchen, her "little helper".

She never knew how brave we thought her. The kitchen belonged to my mother: it was where she ruled. She never let anyone else touch any of the utensils or bake or cook. My father was allowed to wash the dishes. My mother must have regarded Sari as a unique invasive species, something resembling the Asian flu yet less fatal and periodically returning to attack. I was always amazed that Sari never noticed the foam at my mother's lips from the roiling currents of emotion churning inside her body; but then, when I was young I sensed my mother's every fleck of anger.

My official job was to avert any near fatal mixing of kosher dishes and flatware that would render them treif and, therefore, useless. My mother always pretended that Auntie Sari's dallying in the kitchen threatened to send us to the poorhouse, since we would have to replace all our dishes, even though she only cooked vegetarian meals. My unofficial job, however, was to be Sari's gofer and companion while she cooked. She taught me the rudiments of cooking. Her first lesson was, "You must always respect your ingredients and the tradition in which you are cooking." I nodded my head although I didn't understand.

Her eyes were large and heavily underlined. They looked like large and frightening jewels. She caught me gazing at her. Is something wrong?

"Your eyes. What is that?" And I pointed at the dark line around her eye.

"You are very impudent, you know." She retorted. "Boys should not point at women's' eyes. Boys should not point at all."

I muttered an apology. No one had ever called me "impudent." My mother called me, "smart-aleck". She didn't know that I was sounding the word in my mind and thinking how it suited her eyes. Her eyes were brown, and around them were black lines, and I could not decide at first whether the lines were natural or somehow drawn. Her eyes were unlike any other eyes I had ever seen. But how?

Later, I said to my mother, "Her eyes are very black," and she responded, "She uses too much mascara and eye liner. But she's your father's cousin. Not mine." And that was that.

When Sari peeled a small vegetable and crushed it, I asked her what it was. She laughed. "You don't know?" I shook my head. "It's garlic." And then, she smiled. "There is no life without garlic." I thought her full of wise sayings. And the next time she visited, I picked up the garlic cloves and said to her, imitating her voice, "There is no life without garlic," and she laughed and taught me another phrase, "But turmeric gives long life."

She brought a whiff of the exotic to Silver Spring, Maryland, in the '50s, when the exotic was far more remote than the mundane moon. She told me, "Of all the places on earth, a Jew must make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and a lover of beauty to Agra, to the Taj Mahal. It is very beautiful. It is like a thousand jewels in one building built as a memory to love."

I had my marvels, too. I told her about Pick Temple, the Washington cowboy on TV whom I was one day going to visit, and who, with luck, would place me on his saddle and I would get to say hello to as many people as I could in a minute. I taught her the Giant Rangers' song:

"My favorite bread's Heidi.

I hope it's yours, too.

It tastes so delicious,

And it's so good for you.

So let's all eat Heidi,

And before very long,

All Giant Rangers

Will grow big and strong."

She laughed, and said she hoped she would get to see me not only at Pick Temple's but when I was big and strong. But of course, she never did. But then, I had no sense of time or of age because I was only young.

For my barmitzvah, she sent me Richard Haliburton's Book of Marvels. It was dedicated: "To my nephew Michael. May you visit half the places in this wonderful book. May your life be full of marvels. And may you see the jewel in the crown, the Taj Mahal. Auntie."

I immediately read the long, lovely and vibrant description of Richard Haliburton's visit to the Taj Mahal. I visited Jerusalem, crossed over to Egypt and the pyramids, and continued my journey through Tibet and China.

Sari passed away while I was at college far from home, and my parents didn't tell me until I was home for spring break. My mother said they didn't want to interfere with my studies. That night, I dreamed I stood beside the wall outside the Taj Mahal, and like my fearless hero I climbed and climbed that seemingly endless wall until I gazed at the magnificent structure of the Taj Mahal, awash in the light of a lucent full moon, like a glittering pearl in the moonlight. 



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Thursday, 29 September 2022

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