The Sweet Joy & Pain of Going Home for the Holidays

Going back home for the holidays may bring you back to your childhood days.  Reflections on the things that don’t change, and the things that do. For Bright Rock Change Exchange, 20 Jan 2016

Ishay with parents

with my parents

Crocodile tears. I think it was my father who coined the term at home – a reference to the fountain of pre-teen hot, wet tears that spilled over cheeks and surfaces at the slightest provocation. To this day, the backstory for any singular “episode” escapes me, but I can say for years after as an adult, the minute I stepped back into our home, I resumed the role of both daughter, and little girl. I suppose I still do. The rules, the communal meals at the table, the curfew – without it having been spoken, it is assumed. Then there’s the never-changing pink matchbox-bedroom and standard bed over which our legs (mine, and my husband’s) protrude comically. I return home to the bosom of love, and suffocation. And I suspect many do, around the holidays.

One minute you’re negotiating the chicken wing from the curry sauce, the next you’re weeping into your plate. No one has the ability to touch a nerve like family, I’ve realised, and the most irrational of emotional outbursts are often reserved for them too. It doesn’t help that you don’t see them more than twice or thrice a year (in my case) – some conversations can only be had in person, and so we store them, accumulating the emotions and the (over) reactions. In recent years I’ve found that most of the old, unresolved drama has dissipated. The house is filled with laughter, the occasional sibling disagreement, and there is a distinctive switch of roles.

“Are you taking your tablets, Ma?” “Careful! Let me do it.” “Can I get that for you?”

I shed a tear quietly sometimes as I watch my once-were-warriors parents grey and more brittle that I can ever recall. My mother moves at a slower pace, still washing and cooking and packing bedding on shelves she shouldn’t be balancing on a tiny stool to reach. My father, thicker around the waist, seems to think himself invincible, as he munches on cookies and candy past midnight, working on papers and presentations, even though he officially retired five years prior.

prawn dhansak

prawn dhansak

These days, I see them leaning on each other for support and comfort. My father plays with endless patience with visiting neighbours’ children, giving gifts of Parker pens, chocolates and books for good grades (like he did with us). I feel a pang of guilt as my mother coos over cousins’ babies and mothers with toddlers who knock on the door asking for food. They would make wonderful grandparents, but that’s an entirely different conversation.

Their tiny garden that wraps around the periphery of the house is bright and filed with succulents, blooms and vegetables. Dad hands cabbages to the neighbours they’ve known for most of our lives. Occasionally, my mother will request a cup of sugar or a tot of brandy (they are teetotallers) for a pudding from across a neighbour’s wall. Here, in the old Indian communities, such things are the norm. Over the past seven years, I’ve only spoken to three neighbours briefly in our suburb, in Cape Town. The contrast, like many things about coming back home, is disquieting.

It isn’t so much that the house has aged (they keep renovating, except for the avocado green bathroom), the neighbourhood has crumbled under the weight of mildew and neglect, and most of the children have left. The changes we face when we return home are far more personal. My parent’s frailty is evident in the numerous pill bottles that clutter the medicine cabinet and the chunky rails they’ve mounted in the bathtub.

After another fitful night in the pink matchbox-room of battling drone-sized mosquitos and switching the cantankerous air conditioner on and off (I’d complain about the noise, but I’m so glad they finally have one), I hear it. The distinctive whine of the Nutribullet that we gifted my mother to make healthy juices and smoothies. My bedroom is adjacent to the kitchen, just off the passage. “It’s 6 30 a.m, Ma,” I mutter, red-eyed and irritable. “She’s making the juice for us, you know,” my husband says.

I know, I reply. I know.

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