A phone call from Mother startled Ruma out of half-sleep early Saturday morning.
“Can you come and help me with my garage sale?”
Mother sounded loud. Ruma held the phone about 2 inches away from her ear as she tried to clean the nighttime gunk out of her eyes with her free hand. She shook her head. “Garage sale, Mom?” It was difficult to move her tongue. Someone had filled it with mud during the night.
“Yes, the pack rat is having garage sale.”
As soon as she heard the words, Ruma understood why she hadn’t heard from her mother in a week.
Ordinarily, Ruma would not have dreamed of calling her mother a pack rat. But seven days ago Ruma’s three-year-old son, Jay, had fallen in her mother’s cluttered living room, cutting his head on the triangular edge of a crystal piece. The injury was severe enough to warrant stitches. Ruma upbraided her mother. “You are such a pack rat, Mother. This is 38 years of stuff! When are you going to get rid of some of it?”
Mother stiffened her back and brought out a broom to sweep up the shards of glass.
As soon as she uttered the words, Ruma knew she should not have let them escape her mouth. But caution took to the winds at the sight of all the blood streaming from little Jay’s forehead.
Gathering her sleep-slow thoughts now, Ruma mumbled something about children and baby-sitters.
Mother never had a garage sale before, and her voice sounded high and strained. She informed Ruma that the regular baby-sitter had already been called, since Mother knew Ruma’s husband, David, was on call. The 17-year-old baby-sitter, irritated at being woken up at such an unearthly hour, demanded double her normal rate. Mother agreed to pay. “Don’t make a fuss, Ruma. Come,” she now commanded.
Ruma drew a deep breath, pressing her temples to prevent the beginnings of a migraine. “I’ll see you soon,” she said.
When she reached Mother’s cul-de-sac, it was 6:45 a.m., bright and sunny as Arizona’s May mornings prefer to be. Ruma used all the stalling tactics she could muster before climbing out of her car. She combed her hair, brushed some lip gloss upon her dry lips, and used a moisturizer on her hands.
Ruma thought Mother should apologize. After all, Ruma’s son had been injured because of all that clutter in Mother’s house. This discord had been brought upon them by Mother, who retreated into a week of silence to punish Ruma. Ruma sighed, rested her head on the steering wheel, wondered why it should be up to her to coax normalcy back into their relationship.
Before, when Father was alive, he absorbed the friction. Once, when Ruma was perhaps four or five, Mother had thrown cups and saucers around the kitchen. Ruma had just come back from an outing to the zoo and she was chattering away when Mother went crazy. The sound of kitchen clatter still bothered Ruma.
Ruma could never arrive at her mother’s without dreading the palpable absence of her handsome, genial father, who died of a heart attack six months ago, just when he was looking forward to his coming retirement.
Ruma walked into Mother’s packed garage, where she saw Father’s worn rocking chair with the slit down the middle of the upholstery, a price tag pasted on the chair-back. Mother had taken the words “pack rat” seriously.
“Hello?” Ruma called out.
Mother came out of the house. “Ruma, you made it.” Without meeting Ruma’s eyes, she held out a cheek for Ruma’s kiss, her arms filled with clothing on hangers. Dutifully, Ruma pecked her mother’s crepe-like cheek. Mother turned on her heel, hung up the outdated clothing, and bustled about. Ruma knew she was not forgiven, yet.
Mother could be an attractive woman, but she never tried. Ruma looked at her with her artist’s eyes. If she painted Mother, she would definitely add more color to her clothing, she decided. Mother’s hair hung long and gray, below her shoulder blades, never dyed to its original rich black. It was pulled back with a brown plastic hair clip — its embedded clear beads stuck out like boils on unhealthy skin.
Today her long, beige skirt was topped with a white Indian guru shirt. But she made up for this lack of color in her clothing with the three rows of gold chains she wore around her neck and the gold bracelets that climbed from wrist to elbow on each arm.
Ruma opened her mouth to say something when a colorful flash caught the corner of her eye. Someone had arrived. The large blip of color turned out to be Aunty Nila. Ruma’s eyes widened. Aunty was supposed to be in India, having moved back from the United States a year ago. She stood out in her purple top, competing with the delicate yellow blooms of the Palo Verde tree under which she stood.
Aunty was mother’s cousin, someone whom Ruma adored as an eight-year-old. Not any more. Ruma heard Aunty wheezing as she tugged at a large bag.
“Hello, hello, hello!” Aunty’s voice boomed through the quiet neighborhood. “How are you? So skinny, dear. Those kids, huh? I heard your husband is too busy with his residency these days and has no time for you and the children. Just like your father, tch . . . tch . . . tch.”
“Hello, Aunty. Can I help you?” Ruma’s voice hovered just above a whisper.
“Thank you!” Aunty shouted as if she was an actress in a play. “Take this rug, will you, the one rolled up there?”
Ruma picked up the heavy rug and toted it over to the garage.
“Mom, you invited her?” Ruma muttered, rolling her eyes to indicate Aunty, who was still lumbering up the driveway.
“She wanted to clear out her house here before she goes back to India. I told her I was having a garage sale today.”
Aunty came into the garage. “So thin, so thin,” she said to Ruma. “Don’t have food in your house? Do you know your father’s sister was so thin, she couldn’t fight off any infection and so she died when she got pneumonia? That family always loved to keep secrets, so I bet you don’t know that.”
Ruma chose to smile. For some reason, Aunty never failed to criticize Father and his family.
Ruma compressed her lips as she settled herself behind the table where the cash boxes sat, ready to play cashier, leaving yet another issue with Mother unresolved, again.
By 7:30 a.m. the garage sale hummed. Neighbors browsed. Ruma was mystified by what they picked up; a pair of leggings she had worn in high school and big loop earrings that belonged to her mother in the seventies. When someone picked up a kurta that belonged to her father she jumped out of her chair.
“Sorry, this has already been sold. It should have been put away,” she apologized. After the customer left, she glanced at the price tag on Father’s shirt. Quietly, she added two dollars to the change box and spirited the kurta away into her handbag.
Aunty sat on a bean bag chair and prattled. Her garrulity annoyed Ruma. Restless, she shifted in her chair and called her baby-sitter make sure the kids were okay. Then she walked around and straightened some clothing. Mother was behaving as if it was Ruma’s garage sale, not hers.
When she saw a Father’s Day mug she had made for her father in middle school, Ruma picked it up and turned it over to look at the sticker price. “Mom,” she asked quietly. “You are selling this?”
“Okay, I’ll buy it for 50 cents,” Ruma said, but Mother had turned back to Aunt Nila and did not hear her.
“It is not the India you knew when you left for the United States 38 years ago, Malini,” Aunty told Mother. “The economic growth is staggering, and all these information technology companies doing so well.” She lived in an exceptional two-bedroom apartment with all the modern amenities, she explained. “And the stores . . . you get everything there that you get here, from colas to pizzas to detergent and shampoo. Same brands. I love the grocery stores there, I only shop at Food Universal. Sooo nice!”
Mother said nothing as Aunty held court.
“Who wants to live here when you are old? See, over there I don’t have to drive. I bought a car and the driver, Paresh, drives me everywhere. I have a servant lady to clean my house. The building darvan even runs to the store for me if I ask him to. See how convenient life can be?”
“And what do you do with yourself?” Mother asked.
Aunty sounded startled by the question. “And what do I do? I have a group of ladies with whom I play cards, we go watch movies together, sometimes even take trips together. Now, I just want to sell my house here and I am gone for good! You should do the same.” Conspiratorially she added, “After all, you have never been completely happy here!”
Ruma heard her.
Around 10:00 a.m. Mother and Aunty went into the house to make some tea. For the moment there were no customers. Ruma put her head down on the makeshift cashier’s desk and watched a cactus wren emerge from its hole in the saguaro cactus in the front yard. In third grade Father and she made a cactus wren for a class project. He wasn’t much of a craftsperson, but for her he went to the store and bought the necessary items. He struggled to attach the feathers, to glue the buttons in for the eyes, and to fashion a beak. It was the worst looking bird in class.
Her eyes drifted lower, landed on a box full of books. On top was a book about the Taj Mahal and below that a book of children’s stories from India. She jumped up, shuffled through them. These were books her father had brought for her from his numerous trips to India.
She wanted them. They should be part of her heritage that she could pass on to her own children. As she lay tucked under her comforter on cold, winter nights, Father read her the Indian folk tales, the Panchatantra, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
It was never Mother who read to her, who helped her with homework or school projects, who taught her to drive, who worked on college applications with her.
Ruma informed her father first when she decided to get married to David.
Mother hadn’t involved herself in Ruma’s life. Whether it was by design or because Father doted on her, Ruma did not know. On several occasions Mother told Father that Ruma should perhaps learn to figure out her homework for herself. “You are not helping her to be self-reliant,” she said.
On the surface, theirs was a stable marriage. But Mother did not seem to miss Father when he went out of town. She did not call him two or three times a day like Ruma called David. She never worried if Father was late coming home from work. Mother was not effusive or generous with her affection, with Ruma or Father. That was the way things were in their house.
Once Mother broke into a rage when Ruma was a teenager. Mother was busy cleaning Father’s den that day, including a library shelf full of books. Ruma locked herself in her room to do her homework, loud music muffling the sounds of conflict. Embarrassment would not allow her to leave her room that night, as if she was the cause of the clash. She felt that same incomprehensible combination or fear and guilt when she was four. The next morning everything was back to normal — Father behind the newspaper at breakfast, Mother busy loading the dishwasher.
Today, at 34, Ruma saw Mother’s behavior as dissonant; consisting of rare bursts of passion in an otherwise calm but detached relationship with her father and herself.
Mother was selling items from the house — her father’s things — because her daughter called her a pack rat. It had taken a perceived insult to make this garage sale happen.
Ruma took the books out to her vehicle, along with a couple of pairs of her father’s shoes and two of his jackets. Perhaps her son might like to have his grandfather’s things.
She wondered what Aunty and Mother could be doing inside for so long. Ruma turned the cash box upside down and began counting the money collected so far. She stopped counting as a thought struck her: Mother was thinking of moving back to India, after 38 years in this country.
Ruma swept up the dollars and the cents with her hands, put the money back into the box. With a renewed sense of purpose she combed through the marked items, picked all those she thought were special to her and hurriedly put them into the large trunk of her SUV. She could not bear for a stranger to have her beloved father’s things, or anything personal.
By the time Mother came out into the garage the place looked emptier. Mother smiled, one of her rare smiles. “Looks like things are moving,” she said. “I can manage now. Do you want to go home to the kids?”
Ruma looked at her cell phone to check the time. 11:30. Perhaps she ought to say something, apologize for calling mother a pack rat. But she could not do it in front of Aunty.
Later, as she fed the kids their macaroni and cheese lunch, the idea of her mother returning to her native land tugged at her.
Perhaps Mother had always yearned to return. She may have been simply biding time until she could direct herself homeward. Perhaps that explained the reluctance to change her hairstyle, her clothing. And her outbursts, those inexplicable bouts of rage?
But parents did not leave; children did.
Mother would return to India, where there was no one to return to, only remembered relationships, childhood, youth, friends, and family. What had been did not remain.
After she put her children down for a nap, Ruma went to her garage and unloaded her SUV. She had shoved the odds and ends into her trunk any old how, some in boxes, most loosely piled.
Father could have her art room, she decided. She moved her easel and paints out of the way into a closet. She arranged his desk and computer in the room, hung his clothes in the closet and placed his shoes in a box on the floor of the closet before arranging the books on a shelf in the room. She shrugged. She could work with Father’s things around her.
After an hour of huffing and puffing and moving things around, she lay down on the daybed. The Mahabharata book beckoned to her from the shelf. The epic battle between cousins, 5 on one side, 100 on the other. But she did not want to read of a family conflict right then.
Ruma tried to remember which book had been their favorite. The Taj Mahal book without a doubt. A man loved his wife so much he built her the world’s most enduring monument to love. She pulled the old, worn book off the shelf and lay back down on the daybed. The colors of the book had faded, it looked almost too delicate to handle. She pushed some loose pages back into place.
One of the pages was not a part of the book, but an invitation card. Ruma read it as she walked toward the trash can.
Mr and Mrs Sharma invite you
to the marriage ceremony of their daughter
on April 20 1968.
Ruma held the card in her hand and paced. Her first instinct was to call and ask Mother. But some innate sensibility cautioned.
That was her father’s name printed on the card. Satish Rao. But her mother was not Uma. And her parents were married in 1969, on the sixth of September, not on the twentieth of April the year before.
Who was Uma? Her father had not married an Uma. Or had he? What happened to Uma, anyway? Her father never told her he was married before. Had he told Mother?
Uma. Uma. Uma. Ruma banged on her forehead with the palm of her hand as she tried to remember if her father had ever mentioned the name. A clatter in the kitchen popped up in her mind. She tried to remember what exactly had caused such a stir. All she had said was that they had seen the animals and they had met somebody Father knew, Aunty Uma. Aunty Uma was nice, she bought Ruma some ice cream.
Oh, dear God! Her memories were so faint she could not conjure up Uma’s facial features. Ruma balled her fists, crushing the card in her hands.
Ever since that incident, kitchen clatter had always bothered Ruma. Because she knew, even at the age of four, that she had been the cause of the commotion.
Hands shaking, she called the baby-sitter, begged her to watch the kids for another hour or so. The grumpy baby-sitter asked if she could order pizza and get paid the same rate as the morning, double the normal. Ruma told her to order two pizzas.
Her mother must have found the old invitation card that long-ago day when she was cleaning Father’s den. Father never threw the card away. But Mother could have, after Father’s death. She had not.
Ruma, Shuma, Puma, Luma . . . Father had variously called her. Now she hated to rhyme with the spectral Uma.
When she got to her Mother’s garage, it was clean, the floor swept; it was almost as if Mother was readying the house for sale. Mother was sealing a few boxes with masking tape. A couple of boxes lay open with the remnants from the sale.
“Ah!” Mother said. “Kids napping?” She did not ask Ruma why she returned, nor did she seem particularly surprised to see her. As she took note of the old card in Ruma’s hands, she blinked several times and tore out more masking tape.
Ruma nodded. She could not fill a lifetime of silences and distance now. Ruma wished she could convey to her Mother that she was on her side; that she understood.
Mother sealed the box and looked up. For long moments she was quiet. Finally she said, “So, you found it.” She inclined her head toward the card. “Before you ask, yes, your father was married to her. Before me.”
“You knew?” Ruma whispered.
“She walked out. One morning, she got up, packed her suitcase, and walked out.”
“Then, I don’t understand why . . .”
But Mother continued. “Why he still had the card? Why he tried to find out things about her, keep contact with her?”
“Oh yes, Uma worked with Aunty’s husband. I know your father called the office now and then . . .”
Of course, Aunty would take great pleasure in giving Mother such details. A vision of Aunty’s gossipy, smiling face came to her. Aunty always disliked her father.
“Because, he could not let go of her. Never. He only married me because his family convinced him to.”
“Did you, did you . . . know, before you got married, I mean?” The question came out awkwardly. It was a question one asked a friend, a confidante. But Mother?
“I knew she walked out on him. But I believed he would give me, our marriage, a chance.”
Mother stood back and surveyed the clean garage. “I stayed because I wanted to.”
Her voice was so soft, Ruma barely heard her. She looked at Mother’s stiff back, waiting.
“You called me a pack rat.”
“Mom, I am sorry. I should not have.”
“I am glad you did. It was time to clear out everything.”
“Yes, it was.” Ruma balled the old wedding card in her hand. “Aunty left, huh?”
“She likes India? She seems happy to be back.”
“Yes,” Mother said. “It works for some people, I guess. She doesn’t have children.”
Ruma knew then, Mother was not going anywhere.
Ruma shoved the card into the back pocket of her jeans. She watched her mother as she pressed the masking tape down on the last box, sealed it, lifted the box, and placed it on the shelf.
“Before I forget, you bought a lot of the stuff. You didn’t need to buy it. It’s all yours, you know. Here . . .” Mother stuck her hand into the pocket of her beige skirt and held out a wad of cash.
Ruma closed her eyes, swallowed. “Mom, someone else would have bought and paid for the stuff. Please, keep the cash.”
“You are not someone else, Ruma.”