By Betsy Parayil-Pezard
Nothing can quite describe the varying songs of loneliness, sometimes vague and subtle, sometimes acute with longing, every time the sun sets in an immigrant life.
My sister asked me what my birth plan was, and I laughed. The French hospital where I was registered to give birth had never heard of birth plans. I peed into a plastic cup at my monthly appointments and stood in the neon lights of a hallway, waiting for a nurse to finish weighing the round-bellied ladies before me. People would pass by as I held my warm pee. I obsessed over this detail for weeks. Who can think about birth plans when you don’t have a dignified place to set down your urine sample?
When I became pregnant with my first child, I felt a surge of panic. With this flesh bean in the womb, I questioned all of my choices. I had married a Frenchman. We lived on the second floor of an apartment in Paris. But it was okay. No need to worry just yet. We could still move home. I would enroll our baby in the Montesorri preschool where I had gone as a kid and we would open the college fund. There would be baseball and tuba and Sunday school. And of course, he would speak American English with a nice Midwestern accent.
The morning my water broke, I stood on the street corner trying to hail a taxi with my husband. No taxi ever came, so we plunged into the corridors of the metro. Everything on the train beamed with a surreal glow. My husband and I stared at each other, sandwiched between the other passengers.
My mother showed up in Paris the day I came home from the maternity ward. She cooked and cleaned and let me sleep. “Mothering the mother,” she kept saying. “Back home in India, a pregnant woman goes home to her parents for the last trimester and after giving birth, she doesn’t set foot on the ground for a whole month.”
Every afternoon, she fell asleep with the baby curled up on her chest. I might have been jealous of her bonding so strongly with the baby, but I was thankful. In a couple weeks she would be gone, and I would be alone. Alone with my husband and my friends and all of the other people that loved me here, of course.
Missing your mother is the distinct taste of the immigrant life.
Whenever I travelled to my parents’ house in Minnesota, I often stood in the front hallway staring at a picture of my mother taken just after she had arrived in Detroit from India. She was leaning back on a couch, legs in white tights tucked to the side, and you could see the darkness of her knees glow through where the nylon was stretched taut. She was wearing one of those little nurse uniforms from the sixties, a little paper hat tucked around her beehive, a white mini-dress with buttons down the front. She had only been in America for a few weeks, and she was waiting for her fiancé to come in from Seattle. He was finishing up school and then he would come, but the blank limpness of her features seemed surprising, because all other pictures from this era are full of happy teeth, even though everything in the first apartment was loaned or donated from the church, even though the blue Chevy was purchased for only fifty dollars, and even though peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had to sometimes be served to guests.
This was before the arrival of any children, I imagined that my mother’s heart was missing and loving my father, and that is why this misery had robbed her face of its one million dancing expressions. The cushioned lips hung softly open as if she were waiting for mouth to mouth resuscitation. The dark and intelligent eyes ignored the camera and stared off at some image of the mind that no one else could see, of a charismatic young preacher with wild eyebrows and a laugh that rocked through windows and down hallways.
When I pressed my fingers against the glass of the frame, little halos of steam flared around my fingertips.
Nothing can quite describe the varying songs of loneliness, sometimes vague and subtle, sometimes acute with longing, every time the sun sets in an immigrant life. In the park where my children play, I watch the refugees come to use the water fountain and the toilets. We are worlds apart, but I feel close to them. The men take tomatoes and berries from the neighborhood gardens. Sometimes, if they cannot get a bed in a shelter, they sneak back into the park to sleep. Somehow this is better than the war torn countries they have left behind. As you are sleeping in the cold grass of a dark, empty park in Paris, wouldn’t you miss your mother and the little songs she sang to you?
My mother had crossed the ocean to follow that young preacher from India to America. They had met in Bombay while she was in nursing school and he was studying economics. He stood in the courtyard and called up to her dorm room. They walked together in silence, the sound of their feet crunching into the dust. One day, someone caught on and a family council was called. My father declared that he would be marrying my mother. “She was the smartest girl, and the most beautiful,” he told me emphatically years later.
In the evenings, she climbed up to the roof of the dorm and clutched the letters to her chest, looking out to the west and holding him in her thoughts. He wrote to her regularly. After theology school in England, then a speech degree in Seattle, he eventually got things figured out enough to send for her. “Things were looking up,” he told me. That photo of my mother hanging in the hallway was taken when he hadn’t yet moved to Detroit, where she was waiting for him. Everything was so wildly different here. It was 1968.
I had crossed an ocean too, not really following anyone else other than the small voice inside. In Oslo, I bought loaves of fresh whole grain bread and devoured them with slices of cheese or hazelnut spread. I ran down to the ocean and felt its vast mouth of grayness echoing the questions I etched into my journals. Why have you come here? What do you know about love?
My mother is pushing my son in the stroller on a lush sidewalk in Boca Raton. She speaks to him in English and he answers in French. I didn’t mean for him to be so French, actually. When I spoke English to him as a baby, I kept slipping back into French again and again. After fifteen years in France, I think in French. I dream in French. But still, I know that this is no excuse.
I had raised a child that couldn’t speak with my own mother.
She would have to teach him herself.
For this too, we needed her.
Betsy Parayil-Pezard, an American with Indian roots, lives in Paris, France with her French husband and two children. She works on both continents as a professional coach and mindfulness facilitator with Connection Leadership, and blogs about the mindful life at The Paris Way (theparisway.wordpress.com). Betsy is currently working on a collection of recorded meditations for dealing with difficult times.