Mothers are pack rats. Even when I reached my twenties, my mother continued to save the ultra-fine clothes I wore as a newborn, kiddy birthday dresses, anklets and other things I had long since outgrown.
Doris, Rom’s mother, was even worse. Not only did she save Rom’s kiddy clothes, baby shoes, toys and books, but also his scribbles and artistic endeavours. Soon after Rom and I got together, these things began to trickle into our home. First to arrive was a tyrannosaurus rex five-year-old Rom had fashioned with plasticine clay.
Over years of sitting out on the sideboard, the clay figurine was gouged by potter wasps making their own nests. The other day, my lady Friday knocked it sideways and its crest detached itself. I can’t shake off the feeling of guilt. Doris had saved it impeccably in tissue for more than forty years, while in our custody it was falling apart piece by piece.
Another souvenir of Rom’s childhood was a little wooden pig. It was a present from four-year-old Rom’s little friend Maggie, the daughter of jazz musician Eddie Condon. Maggie and Rom went to the same St. Luke’s School in Greenwich Village in New York and were playmates. The little pig, now missing its feet, is the only reminder of Maggie.
After Doris died, more of these markers of Rom’s growing-up years came home. There were many colourful drawings of snakes, lizards and fanciful beasts of Rom’s imagination. This was followed by numerous letters written from boarding school describing school life interspersed with requests for 45 rpm records, jeans cut a particular style, slacks with a buckle in the back, and shirts with button-down collars.
Recently, Rom’s cousin, John Babson, proved himself to be another hoarder. He sent us a scan of a letter he had received as a five year old and was down with measles. It was sent by seven-year-old Rom soon after arriving in India in 1951.
In the letter, Rom described his voyage across the world on the ocean liner S.S. Independence, as well as first impressions of his adopted homeland. He narrated buying a carved soapstone turtle when anchored at Gibraltar. He lowered dollars in a little basket to the vendor bobbing in a small dinghy next to the ship. More than sixty years later, that turtle sits on the sideboard with the clay dinosaur and wooden pig.
In Colaba, Bombay, he found anemones, moray eels and colourful tropical fish in tidal pools. “Outside our porch here there is a whole row of banana trees and it seems as tho’ the bananas are growing upside down,” the seven-year-old wrote. Today, the tidal pools are dead, and one would be hard put to find a banana tree.
Recently, Rom pointed out I was no less of a pack rat. I saved various little things that once belonged to our pets, like collars. When dogs grow up, the size of their collars reminds me how tiny they once were. I guess our mothers derived the same sense of wonderment from these souvenirs, memory capsules of their kids.
Some reminders are sombre. When our German shepherd Karadi went missing and my mother reported seeing a leopard-like animal, we hired two Irula tribals to investigate. They were quick to conclude the dog had been killed by a large animal, likely a leopard. Shocked, I asked how they knew. They picked up a few hairs caught at the base of some thorny plants and placed it on my outstretched palm. I recognized Karadi’s long hairs among a few short, stiff unfamiliar ones. The Irula hacked their way through a dense thorny thicket for a couple of hours to reveal Karadi’s bones, the collar still around his neck. Those hairs, saved in an envelope, are a sad reminder of a much-loved pet.
It’s not only mothers, we are all pack rats by nature. Of things, but more importantly, memories.
Keywords: My Husband and Other Animals