Today is my 30th birthday. On this wonderfully sunny day that I’m enveloped in gratitude for the life I live, I’m most grateful for those who most helped shape me into the woman I am today — my parents. As I celebrate my birth and my blessings, I remind myself to celebrate my parents first and foremost, for starting it all. Below is something I wrote for their 35th wedding anniversary last year, and never posted.
An Open Love Letter to My Parents, on My 30th Birthday
(Originally written for their 35th wedding anniversary on 10 June 2010)
I love that you always walk into the house cradling leafy green basil plants like they’re little babies. I love that you talk to all your plants like they’re you’re children — in fact, they might be better than your real children, since they don’t talk back. But sometimes they refuse to grow when they should; that comes with its own set of frustrations. I love that you understand exactly how much I am in love with Casa420, simply because you are, too. I love that when you’re leaving to pay someone a visit, you say emphatically on your way out the door, “I’ll be home for dinner; I’m not going to eat anything there,” and then pause and turn back to add, “Unless they make kabob.” I love that whenever Ummy and I are preparing to head out somewhere together, you always remind me, “Be nice to your mother,” and then fix me with a glance that’s stern yet semi-amused and add, “No sarcasm.”
I love that when I gleefully told you that men everywhere compliment me on my firm handshake, you replied, “Of course they do. You got all that from me: Good looks, short stature, firm handshake, big mouth.” And while I was laughing, “So humble!”, you added, “I am humble! What’s that word — self-deprecating. But you have to be careful with self-deprecation, because too much of it comes off as pretentious.”
I love that sometimes you partially shave away your beard, transforming it into a goatee instead, explaining, “I needed some fresh air.” I love the crinkles at the corners of your eyes when you smile, and the head-thrown-back, heard-across-the-house shout of laughter when you’re amused, and am grateful I’ve inherited those from you as well. I love that when our PirateHouse’s neighbors trimmed their trees, you sat in the upstairs loft to enjoy your newly-expanded view of the water, and announced with all the excitement of a child, “I saw six ships today!”
I love that your biggest concern is what would happen if you were to pass away before Ummy. It’s the single thing for which I wish you would give us more credit. You don’t have to worry — we would fall apart without you, but it’s she who holds all of us together. We’d huddle around her and hold her safe — or, more likely, it’s she who would save us.
I love that once I asked how your day at work had been, and you announced, “I spent it all browsing Wikipedia!” and then regaled me with a half-hour monologue about Turkey and its government — all of which you learned simply because you clicked over to find out what the word “Marmara” stood for. And then you handed me color images of the Marmara Sea that you had printed out for me. “Here, you can hang these up in your room, along with all your other photographs.”
I love that whenever we’re seated at the same table while you’re drinking your coffee, you’ll let me borrow your mug in between sips, so that I can wrap my hands around its ceramic warmth. Last spring, a friend visiting the Bay Area unexpectedly did the same thing for me while we hung out in a coffeeshop, pushing his mug across the table so I could warm up my hands, and I was quietly surprised, and deeply touched. Other people’s kindness reminds me of you. I love that I still remember that, when I was a child, you used to ask Ummy to make coffee (in winter) or orange juice (in summer) for the garbage-men, so that they’d have something to drink as they stopped by on their morning route. I love all your acts of generosity: wiring money to Ummy’s family in Pakistan, taking fruit to the neighbors, baking cookies for the masjid (yes! you baked cookies! I can’t believe it, either).
I love that whether you go to Home Depot or to the airport, you return with stories — those of complete strangers who feel compelled to share with you the most detailed information about their lives. There is a reason why even a man who’s met you only a handful of times commented recently to me on facebook, “Your father has a special place in my heart.”
I love that once, during a long layover at the Denver airport, you called to tell me how hungry you were. “I know what I’m going to eat. ICE CREAM,” you said with the hushed glee of a little kid in a…well, in an ice cream shop.
I love that I learned how to talk to customer service people from you. Not with the same success rate as you’ve had, of course, but I learned nonetheless — not only to ask to “speak with the manager,” but also to underscore (with calm reasoning, but sometimes a slightly raised tone of voice, if necessary) why the customer is always right (especially if he’s Pukhtoon), and the fact that the customer can always successfully threaten to choose a different company on which to spend his money.
I love that you taught me how to balance my checkbook and reconcile numbers. Long before I learned that people used “a/c” as a reference to “air-conditioning,” I copied you in using it as shorthand for “account.” I love that you turn Excel spreadsheets into works of art. Columns are aligned, borders are dragged, colors are added — and numbers are always balanced. Once, you put together a document for a friend of yours, and when I complimented you on the layout and asked, “Did you do this in Excel?”, you replied, “No, in Word.” And I must have given you a funny look, because you were nearly offended: “What! I do know how to do stuff in Word, too!” Another time, you called me over to your desk with the following: “Come here, kiddo! You’ve never seen anything like this before!” Torn between laughter and the rolling of my eyes, I stepped over to have you present to me an Excel document with hundreds — nay, likely thousands — of cells filled with numbers; a single click and changing of one number shifted the figures across the multiple inter-linked sheets. That you swim successfully — nay, brilliantly — in such an ocean of numbers every single day, and love it, still amazes me sometimes.
I love that we’re very much alike in many ways, although we both hate admitting it (particularly because you can be the most frustrating and stubborn man alive, and I pray I’ve not inherited those qualities in the same strength with which you possess them). But sometimes it’s sweet, as when we blurt out the same thing during the course of conversation, and you turn to me, pleased, “Yasminay, you always read my mind.”
I love how much you love using Google Earth to stalk places. One day, I walked by, and you said excitedly, “Look! There’s the top of our gazebo at [Casa420]!” Another day, you zoomed and zoomed (and zoomed) in on District Attock, Pakistan, until you found the familiar lines of our village. “There’s the canal!” you crowed. Some more zooming, and then: “There’s Agairrey [our ancestral land]!”
I love that once, when we received a box of apricots and cherries from family friends, you said casually, “That was my first job in America! Picking apricots. No, actually, thinning peach trees.” I think of you, the man who daily wore three-piece suits & a tie to his job in San Francisco’s Financial District when I was a child, and yet you nonchalantly reference your fruit-picking days and your bell-hop days (and stories like, “When I worked at the hotel, we ironed sheets and pillowcases!”). You will always be the little boy from the village, happiest in the outdoors, hands in the dirt — and your stories always humble me.
I love how you always say “back home” when referring to Pakistan (which beats my blithe “the motherland” any day). You have not lived there in 44 years, you rarely visit now, and you are as cynical about the country as anyone could possibly be. And yet it will always be home. There are people all over the world, and especially in our village “back home,” who love me unconditionally simply because I am your daughter. I have never had to prove or explain myself to them, simply because your blood in my veins did that for me.
I love that once when there was extra roti [bread] left over post-dinner, you remarked wistfully, “If I had some chickens, I could have fed this to them.” And then the daddy-o offerd, “Do you want me to buy you a couple of cows?” at which point we all broke down in laughter. I love that when we drive somewhere together, you get tired of me incessantly playing Mohammed Rafi songs (actually, I don’t love that; in fact, it drives me crazy that you feel that way, and I always point out, “Ummy, that’s Mohd. Rafi,” because it’s blasphemy that you would even consider listening to anyone else), but then I scroll through my iPod and find Lata Mangeshkar for you, and you’re happy.
I love that when I take you shopping, I practically have to browbeat you into allowing me to buy you new shoes, and yet you get so excited about department store aisles containing tupperware and electrical/household appliances — but then I also buy you a new sewing machine, and you’re completely over the moon. I hope I made up for a lifetime of rebellion and sarcasm with that single purchase.
I love that all these years later, my siblings and cousins still shake their heads, even while laughing, as they tell people stories about my incorrigibility as a child, how, whenever you asked (or ordered) me to do something, I’d shout, with my arms akimbo and a defiant tilt to my head, “This is a free country! You can’t make me!” I was terrible, and yet you still love me; I don’t understand how this is possible, but I won’t question it.
I love that you managed to drink tea three times a day, secretly for nearly the first 30 years of being married to my father — and it was always the same hilarious way, even if the houses changed: with you seated on a little stool on the floor of the kitchen, your head hidden behind the counters — simply because he considered the habit excessive and unhealthy. I don’t recall now how it is that you one day woke up and decided to drink tea openly, but I’m glad it’s not a point of contention anymore, and instead just yet another thing about which he teases you daily. (I still think you add too much sugar.)
I love that I cannot think of a single person in the entire world who has anything negative to say about you. You are never the center of attention in any gathering, nor do you wish to be. You speak only when you have something to say, otherwise you’re quiet. Sometimes, we carry on dinner-table conversations without you, and I’ll look around two-thirds of the way through to find that you are still there, following with silent focus as much of the conversation as you can understand. Sometimes, I think you must be the only other person I know who would completely understand what I, too, feel like in gatherings where I can’t follow the full conversation yet quietly stumble through based on verbal and visual cues.
I love that my affinity for the sunshine confuses you so, as does the tanned complexion that comes with it. One recent evening, you peered over at my face — particularly at the band across my forehead that was a couple of shades lighter than the rest of my skin, thanks to the headwrap — and said perplexedly, “Isn’t there some cream you could put on that to make your skin all the same color? Like…Noxema or something?” My brother guffawed. I, laughing, too, realized I need to write stories about you more often.
I love that when my coworker tells me to give you his regards, I come home and do so, and you just smile knowingly, “He missed my chapli kabob, didn’t he?” Long before I learned how to cook real Pakistani dishes (the first: potatoes, as a 13-year-old in the village), when I was as yet barely tall enough for my head to reach the counter, you taught me in childhood how to make roti, disks of flat-bread layered with butter or olive oil, larger than the fancy plates we use when guests visit, and as circular as the moon. Even a year after moving into this house, I sometimes forget where we store the flour or the rolling pin — but my hands have never forgotten the childhood skill of forming bread.
I love that you take family seriously, and that you are so gentle in your interactions with people. Once, you heard me referring to my brother-in-law as, well, “BROTHER-IN-LAW” during the course of my conversation with him, and were offended on his behalf. I make it a point to type it out in all-caps, complete with exclamation point at the end, whenever I write to him, because it amuses me — and him. But you couldn’t have known that, and so you scolded me, dismayed, once he had wandered out of earshot: “He will be so hurt and upset if you keep calling him that. Stop it. He’s your BROTHER.”
I love that you worry about the books and water-glasses crowding my headboard; you fear they’ll fall onto my head and kill me while I’m sleeping. I love your selflessness; you hate shrimp and mushrooms, yet cook dishes containing them for us all the time, silently picking out at the dinner table the ingredients you dislike.
I love that you used to have a nickname for me: Thooree, a shorthand version of my long middle name. But it sounded too much like the Hindko word for “squash,” and I passionately hated (and sometimes still hate) squash. One day, still a child, I raised my voice too high, made my displeasure too well known, and you quietly stopped calling me Thooree. Sometimes now, as my middle name tends to fall by the wayside and my other nicknames become too ubiquitous, I wish I hadn’t made you stop calling me that. I wish I still had a nickname that was only yours to call me by.
I love how you call us from the downstairs telephone — while we’re upstairs, in the same house. You call me sometimes to wake me up in the mornings when I’m running late for work. You call the brother to ask if he wants tea after dinner, and then again when it’s time for him to come down and pick up the teacup. Any time the phone rings, you make me rush to answer it: “It might be your sister! Hurry!” For someone who’s so selective in the number of people she enjoys calling regularly (you, then, are the one from whom I inherited this ambivalence towards the phone!), it amuses me that half of my voicemails are from you: “Minnee, Yasmine puttar, what time will you be home for dinner?”
I love your stories about growing up as a girl in Rawalpindi. You were your father’s favorite, it is clear — and also the favorite of my father’s father. He knew you since you were born, and used to request that your mother bring you on visits to the village, and decided even while you were still a child that you would marry his son when you grew up. I love that even though we have so much now, you have never forgotten where you come from. Your reminiscences are filled with laughter, but also the pain of growing up poor in a harsh, hand-to-mouth household. There are stories of how your mother, a seamstress, used to save leftover scraps of fabric from people’s clothes and sew them together to create makeshift “gloves” for your brother who worked in a tile factory, hauling rocks and stones until his hands were raw and bloody.
There are stories of your brothers who worked as taangay-ghori waalay, drivers of horse-drawn carriages, and how they would leave home early in the morning and return in the middle of the night, and how you would still be awake, even at that late hour, to rub down and feed the horses when they came back. Stories of the serai, the community or settlement where you grew up, and the joy and hustle and bustle of always having people dropping by, sharing meals, relaying stories and gossip. My father teases you, sometimes only half-jokingly, about your “Pindi waalay,” but you are fiercely loyal to those you grew up with, both family and friends.
I love your stubbornness, mainly because it always comes as a surprise — that inside such a soft, sweet, gentle soul lies an iron will and a determination I envy. Where I give up easily on seemingly trivial things, you can spend hours looking for a single piece of misplaced paper, or an entire day taking apart and putting together the doorknobs in the new house or a vacuum cleaner that inexplicably stopped functioning, or fiddling with a clogged drain. You obsessively, single-mindedly tackle the things no one else wants to — and won’t rest until it’s to your satisfaction. (Perhaps you are also the one from whom I inherited this need to read instruction manuals for all electronics and appliances.)
I love you for the eight years you spent in the village, living with and caring for your mother-in-law, seven of them without your children and husband there to keep you company. With nine months out of the year spent there, and three months here, they were difficult years for all of us, in so many different ways. “Ey mera hi dil ey,” you used to point out from time to time during those years — roughly: Only I would do this, or, Only I have a heart this big. And you are absolutely correct.
I once told a friend that you’re a perpetual worrier and a perpetual discusser of things that stress you out, and how this tries my patience sometimes, and he replied that that’s better than being totally unconcerned about what is essentially the center of your life — family. He shifted my perspective back to where it needed to be; you remind me every day of what is most important.
Dear BOTH OF YOU:
What more than I say? You’re amazing. Thank you for teaching me about unconditional love, and patience, and loyalty. I hope one day I’ll be blessed with the same in my marriage. If I have even half your patience, Ummy, and half your generosity, Daddy, I think I’ll be okay.
I know you think I don’t listen to or remember most of what you say (and I admit I’ve forgotten some of the details).
But I’ve been paying attention all along.