My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

By Shabnam Samuel Thakar

Portrait of Indian family at home. Grandparent and grandchild eating butter cake. Asian people living lifestyle. Grandfather and granddaughter.

As a child in India, the day before my birthday (March 31st) was always a day filled with excitement – it was the day the tailor brought home my new tailored clothes, the day the baker brought home my cake, and the day the household help went shopping for the tea party held in my honor on April 1st. I would sit on the porch steps and wonder who would give me what as a present. Would Mrs. Tucker give me the fourth book on the Famous Five by Enid Blyton? How much money might Aunty Radha put in my birthday card? Why did Papa and Granny insist on giving clothes as presents?

But another thought persisted above all the others: maybe, just maybe, the joke would finally be over. My parents would come to my party as a surprise, scoop me up in their arms and wish me a happy birthday.

Maybe I could finally go to school and not have my friends ask questions about Papa and Granny that filled me with embarrassment and shame: “Why is your father so old?” or “How come your mother wears a dress and has blue eyes?”

The embarrassment and shame I experienced as a child over my parents’ absence made me a person who spun exceptional tales about my life: “My parents?” I would say, “They are spies for the Indian Army and live abroad, most likely London.”

The truth was sadder: I did not know my parents. I had not heard their voices or even seen a picture of my mother and father. I was raised by my bi-racial grandparents, an Indian grandfather and my Russian grandmother, in a small town in India in the 1960s. We lived in a house where, at one time, fifteen people had lived comfortably in their own space. When I was growing up, the only people who lived in the home were my grandparents and me. There was always a sense of emptiness both inside and outside of me.

When extended family came to stay, on most days you would find me sitting behind a curtain or perched precariously on a balcony, sometimes even hiding under the bed to listen. Eavesdropping to glean information from conversations was how I related to my family. I tried to piece together my history from the hushed-tone phrases I could string together: poor childorphanagewhat a trauma… how could a mother do such a thing?

I knew better than to ask – no one would explain anything to me. It seemed that my grandparents’ plan was that the words mother, father, mummy or daddy were never to be mentioned in front of me.

Still, I persisted with my hope of a birthday surprise. I wanted my parents – the young, age-appropriate ones. I wanted a normal dad who would drive a car and take me to school. A mother who was beautiful and ethereal in a sari, who would drop everything she was doing and hug me when I came back from school. I knew other, younger parents did this. I had seen my friends. I carried around a lot of envy and sadness.

But maybe, just maybe, this was the year.

The 1st of April comes, the only day I was allowed to sleep late. Schools was closed on April 1st because it was a government holiday: Orissa Day, a celebration to mark the state of Odisha as a separate province. I wasn’t able to give out toffees to my classmates, as I would have been allowed if my birthday fell on a school day. On my birthday, there was no special breakfast, no phone calls from relatives – mostly because we didn’t have a phone.

All of my focus fell to the grandfather clock in the dining room, waiting for the clock to strike 4:00pm. As the cucumber finger sandwiches were being made and the meat patties were warmed, I would excitedly put on my new clothes. My favorites were a forty-inch wide bell bottom set – I was a real trendsetter in those days. And then I would wait for friends to show up. The ones who came, though, were mostly family friends, hardly anyone in my age group.

One by one, they wished me a happy birthday and handed over their wrapped presents. In my mind, I sized up the package while speculating on the gift. Darn, that is a box of chocolates, why? Couldn’t she give me like a book or a dress or something? This would go on for a little while. In between silly talk and little foods, I would sneak back and forth into my room and open the presents one by one. Always glimpsing out of the window, always with ears perked for new voices, I kept hoping and dreaming. But they never came.

Slowly, year after year, the same old routine became boring. Of course, once I hit twelve, the party was over. “Too old to have a birthday party,” my grandparents would say. The clothes, the sandwiches, the meat patties, the cake – all gone. What never went away was the longing, the hope and the sadness that “they” never came.

Here I am, forty years later, feeling nostalgic for those days of excitement – the moments of being carefree, the future of endless possibilities, the anticipation, the innocence, the dreams.

The one flame that has never died and carries with it a ray of hope: they will come and they will say they are sorry we left you and went away – and they will, at last, finally wish me a happy birthday.

Shabnam Samuel Thakar is a writer, a business coach for low income, immigrant women entrepreneurs and is the founder of the Panchgani Writers’ Retreat in India. She has called the suburbs of Washington D.C home for the last 30 years.

Unexpected Family Love

Unexpected Family Love

By Liisa Ogburn

Pop with grandkids at home

Sometimes family relationships deepen in unexpected ways; all you have to do is open the door.


I was given less than an hour’s notice before my father-in-law’s blue Volvo station wagon pulled into our driveway. He opened the front door with his own key, rolling the familiar forest green suitcase behind him.

I had been out picking the kids up from school when my husband Gregg had called. His father’s test results had come back.

“Honey, it’s serious,” he said. “Cancer. Probably advanced. I’d like him to move in with us during treatment so we can keep an eye on him.

“O.K.,” I said, my voice catching.

“Thanks,” he said. “I appreciate it.”

Before the news could set in, he had hung up.

As a mother especially, when you learn of a prognosis like that, the adrenaline spikes. The first instinct is to rush in and do whatever you can to fix the problem. In this case, our hands were tied. The best we could do was open our door.

A few days later he arrived. I called the kids in from the backyard. “Pop’s here. Come say hello.”

They’re good kids—13, 11, and 9—affectionate and kind. Like us, they were worried. “Hey Pop,” they came in. “How are you doing?”

“I can’t complain,” he answered, shuffling in. He was unsteady and pale.

We settled him into the bedroom downstairs. He had lost over twenty pounds the last few months, and suddenly looked much older. Our son Aidan had made a heart out of Hershey kisses on the dresser next to a welcome sign drawn by his younger sisters.

“Pop, you think your stomach can take some chicken and dumplings?” I asked. He was the one who taught me how to make homemade dumplings years ago when the kids were younger and picky eaters.

“Sure,” he responded. “Whatever you have. I don’t want to be any trouble.

“No trouble at all, Pop,” I said.

Years before, when I first met Gregg, we were poor and waiting tables at a little Polish restaurant in the small university town we had both done our undergraduate work in. Gregg was steadily taking the classes required to apply to medical school while I was trying to get into graduate school. We met at an Elvis party after work one night. Gregg thought I was another one of the Polish workers brought over to staff the restaurant and was genuinely surprised when I spoke English. I suppose I did look a bit odd. I had just returned from two years of teaching English in a small international folk school in the northern woods of Finland. Most of my clothing was self-knitted or second hand. I spoke English slowly and without my old Southern accent, something I’d had to lose so my students could understand me.

We ended up speaking for hours until the party ended, and continued the conversation until the morning at his place. He made me an omelet, and strummed John Prine. And while he made me hide in the closet when his sister showed up unexpectedly (something we still joke about), I loved him hard and immediately.

Now, over twenty years later, we seemed a far way from those early and carefree-by-comparison days. Between jobs and three kids, our extended family, church, neighborhood and civic responsibilities, we often felt overstretched and tired. The idea of having another person in the house to worry about seemed daunting.

But this was Pop. Until recently, though in retirement, we hadn’t seen him slow down at all. When we visited, he could often be found out in his garage, restoring furniture, turning bowls on his lathe, or giving free haircuts to friends.

But now, he just felt “lazy,” he said. “Too tired to do much of anything.”

Lazy? That’s the last way anyone would describe him. We were worried.

His first week living with us brought tests, biopsies, blood draws, the staging of the cancer and getting a port put in. Chemo started immediately and we closed our doors to visitors to prevent outside infections.

I cancelled several family commitments, stocked up on hand sanitizer and looked up recipes for chemo patients. Gregg coordinated blood draws, tests, prescriptions and health insurance. I set up a Caring Bridge website and penciled Pop’s treatment schedule into our fall and winter calendars.

Family priorities were reset. I caught a new glimpse of my husband. I noticed that we were working as a team in a new way.

As the weeks turned into months, and we adjusted to our new configuration, we began to hear stories about Pop’s life that we had never heard before. His father was a milk deliveryman and on Saturdays, as a kid, Pop would ride along. At Fourth and Castle, they’d always stop at the Bakery to trade their cool, frothy milk for steaming apple streusels right out of the oven. We heard stories about Pop’s fifteen years as a Scout Master as well as his fifty years as a barber. He’d cut the hair of three generations of some local families. We saw clippings from his early days as a boxer.

With Pop in the house, I noticed that time began to feel different. When he felt well, we were grateful to have an extra pair of hands. Most importantly, whereas before our visits with Pop had often felt short and rushed, now, because he lived with us, they didn’t. He often poked his head out in the morning while we were getting ready, or called up the stairs when I was home writing. When the kids got home from school, he would sit down and have a snack with them and ask them about their day. In the evenings, he’d keep me company while I cooked. Often, after homework was done, one or another child could often be found on the foot of his bed talking with him. On nights he felt up to it, we’d all head out on a dog walk around the neighborhood.

Our biggest Christmas present came when his doctor told him the chemo was working. His cancer had been knocked back into remission. On December 31, he had his final treatment. Not many days later, he packed up his bag, rolled it out the front door and headed home.

The back room was suddenly quiet.

One day, my middle daughter said, “I miss Pop.”

“Me, too,” I answered. “Why don’t you call him up?”

She did. “Pop, when are you coming back up?”

“When do you want me to?” he asked.

“Can you make my spelling bee this Thursday?”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” he answered.

And he didn’t. He stayed on for the basketball game the next night. And then helped me get my son out the door for a church retreat the following morning.


Liisa Ogburn writes, produces documentary work and teaches at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. She is currently working on a documentary play on motherhood. Her work on motherhood can be seen here: