The Back Story – 03.04.16

Our little guy is now a week old.

And in our Seattle household, ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’, has morphed into just the name of an old movie.

Meanwhile, I got to musing more:

According to the Kerala Syrian Christian inheritance practices, (again to repeat myself with that word by making it sound like we’re some kind of chosen people!), Thampi, being the youngest of 2 sons of Achayan (his dad), had inherited the family house.

So if our nuclear family had been making India our home for the last half century, Mekhala being the youngest of 3 girls with no brothers, would have inherited our Pallipad house. To make it more cumbersome, prior to their marriage, David would’ve had to agree to this set-up, because this would mean he would give up the same rights from his family.

And Will being the only son of Mekhala, youngest or not, would be poised to inherit it subsequently.

So how fitting is it that Will is named after the original owners of the house, P. (Panackal) A. (Abraham) Eapen: Achayan, Will’s great grandfather, and also Achayan’s grandfather. Achayan’s name, in conformance with the custom, was naturally from his grandfather Abraham Eapen.

So Will and his great, great, great, grandfathers. That’s three ‘greats’. They Make up the substance of this story. life has turned full circle.

God answers prayers. If not always, at some point. If not now, some day when you’re not looking.

And what I would give to see Achayan’s face right now.

Achayan was an only child of his parents.

When we ended up with 6 daughters between his only 2 sons, Achayan used to say half-jokingly, that all the desperate prayers of valli-amachy (his mother) pleading with God to grant her at least one girl, were finally answered in the form of 6 girls years later, but with no boys in the mix.

I have no clue why Amachy didn’t beg for another boy, you know, as in ‘an heir and a spare’ as they say in the British Kingdom, but she wanted a daughter.

The family lore is that Amachy, who was from Thalavadi Amprayil family, once went to the Edathua ‘perunal’, which was right next door, and did a ‘nercha’, but kept it an ‘open secret’, because ‘good’ MarThomas were not permitted to participate in ‘nercha’. I think she pledged a few chicks to the palli or something.

Achayan had 2 daughters who ended up with 4 sons between them, but they didn’t ‘count’(!), as you all well know why.

I’m not certain how many of our progeny are cognizant of the fact that we come from such a methodically configured culture.

And there would be rancor if anyone tried to break the mold. And mostly no one did.

Say what you will about the apparent male chauvinism involved in all this – I’d rather call it patriarchy – but what it did also, was to create an order, at a time when we needed to keep it all together.

The second, third, and beyond, generations would undoubtedly benefit from being conscious of our past, no matter how far removed they are from it.

Past can always inform the future. For better or for worse.

So now ‘Back To The Future’:

When we had Mekhala, after having 2 girls, and Thampi’s brother having had 2 girls (then another one later), everyone including my parents were anticipating the ‘answers to all their prayers’ in the form of a boy, as an inheritor of the family name, the house, and the so-called wealth. Achayan used to call our Pallipad house Mekhala’s.

What transpired next: so Mekhala was born 11 days past her due date. When no easy phone service from the US was available back home, the whole universe – which meant the family and a whole lot of neighbors – were anxiously awaiting the news to hear if the ‘heir apparent’ had arrived.

And on February 20th, the whole village awoke to see the telegram guy bicycling towards the Kochupurackal house, and within moments, as cousin Kunjachayan’s daughter Susy was seen running away from the house in tears, and our beloved Kuttan asking helplessly ‘thampi thampuranu pinnem oru pennano?’, word spread like wildfire that ‘poor’ hapless Kochupurackal Babychayan had another girl grandbaby. Milling around the house courtyard, they sympathized as best as they could, with Achayan and Amachy. “vidhiya, babychaya, kochame – entho cheyyana”.

Valli-amachy gave away too many chicks. 🙂

By the way, all 3 of our daughters have heard this story more times they can count, so don’t feel bad about breaking this to them gently. I was also one of the souls who shed tears that February day.

Years later, would I change a thing about that girl baby or any part of experience? The answer is: emphatically no, no way on earth.

And little did anyone imagine their prayers will be answered in the form of one Will Stephen Fentin.

Call it a willful Will or God’s will.

I felt really compelled to share this as a post-script to my posting from last week.

While doing so, I was also imagining David, Mekhala, Laila, Nora and Will, living in our Pallipad house – which no longer exists, not even one brick of it.

Regardless, it was fun picturing them living next door to Pandarathil Thankachayan (a relative), Percattu Kunjumon, Krishnan, Venu, et al.

The best was visualizing Kunjipennu drawing water from the well, and Thomachen, the vegetable vendor haggling over the price of one-day-too-old achinga.

And imagine, these things didn’t happen in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the ancient sites of the Indus Valley Civilization, it was just some 30 plus years ago, and it happened in that watery dip called Kerala’s Upper Kuttanad.

From Travancore to Seattle. From deep Southern India to the Northwestern United States. I found it hard to wrap my head around it.

Anyway, thank you for indulging me, and allowing me to reminisce. I had fun. I’m sure some of you stopped reading long ago, like at the half-way mark. 🙂

————-

And further with the movies theme, as sweet Will was taking his sweet time last week, contemplating when to come out head first to say hello! to the world, he granted ample time for Ammi to teach his big sister (all of 6 years old) how to make yogurt at home, who was fascinated it could even be done, and also to see ‘Trumbo’ and ‘The Martian’. Go see it.

Very fondly,

mercy

Romans: Chapter 8

Today is my dad’s 101st birthday. February 13, 2017.

In Vedic thinking, odd numbers are more desirable than even ones. I wrote a tribute for his 100th birthday, but the 101st calls for it in equal measure.

Some time in approximately 1958 and 1959, my father, in his ever-activist, ever-innovative mode, embarked on a mission.

He challenged the youth members of the Chepad MarThoma Church (I don’t recall if there were any age constraints as such) to memorize Paul’s Letter To The Romans: Chapter 8. (Paul as in The Apostle and the Letter is the one he wrote to the early church in Rome.) The whole chapter. ‘Roma Lekhanam, Ettam Adhyayam’, as he called it.

In return, anybody who masters this inscrutable piece of scripture would receive from him personally, the gift of a Bible that he would purchase with his own funds, from the CLS  Book Depot in Thiruvalla.

A Bible in those days cost five rupees.

If there is anything, you have to read this narrative in the context of ‘5 rupees of 1959’. Trust me when I say, it was ‘a lot of’ money. It was roughly one twentieth of my dad’s monthly salary. And this is from someone who was reluctant to buy my sister and me any fancy clothes for fear it’d spoil us from being studious. whatever.

So the contest commenced.

To the unanticipated discovery of both my parents, a staggering number of the church youth paraded to him one by one, over the course of days, weeks, or months, and walked away with this coveted Holy Book. To the point it exhausted his funds.

We have to realize that many, if not all, of them were attempting at this unique contest for the sole purpose of owning a Bible. Such was the fervor then.

At that point, instead of casually pulling out of the initiative altogether and leaving the kids feeling let down, he added a condition, that the passage had to be recited without a single mistake. He had not been strict about it prior. even that didn’t stop the eager learners. They kept coming.

Then out of mild desperation, Papaji stipulated a deadline by which the task had to be completed.

Meanwhile, I came home from the Nicholson (Boarding) School, finishing what was then called First Form (equivalent to today’s sixth standard), for what I anticipated would be my lazy days of summer, unaware of the ongoing undertaking. Amma mentioned it first with a great deal of admiration for the venture, and Papaji subsequently extended this most unwelcome challenge to me.

I had already owned a Bible, (a gift from the said parents), a leather-bound one with my full name, Mercy Mariam Oommen, engraved on the front. The School had mandated that we arrive with our own Bibles. This Bible is still proudly displayed on our coffee table.

So ownership of a new Bible would not be an incentive for me to memorize Romans 8.

For one, Papaji just simply wanted me to learn Romans 8.

Secondarily, he wanted to make certain that I could do what any of those youngsters were putting their hearts and souls into. I was barely ten.

extremely reluctant at first, even resistant, I eventually set about the task as if it’d be a piece of cake. After all, rote memorization was my forte, right?

Wrong. And wrong. It was anything but sweet.

A reader, I was. A reader of Paul’s long letters to a bunch of newly minted Christians in faraway Middle Eastern churches, I was not. Tedious in language and cryptic in meaning, this was also without any intrigue as in fairy tales. ‘Boring’ would be another word.

In English, we have countless Bible versions: The KJV, The Revised Standard, The Good News, The New International, The Children’s (wish we had those), to name some. In Malayalam, there was and is, still the One Version. Boy, was it ever a pain?! Torturous, actually.

Summer days were coming to a rapid close. The rains were beckoning from the moisture-swollen Western Ghats. Along with it, Second Form at Nicholson. and I went to papaji to recite. And suffered through the recitation with one or two errors. And was pretty proud of the feat. and even more so, was very sure nobody had done it better.

I mean, how could they possibly?

To my utter dismay, I saw my dad for the first time in my life that I can remember, being a tad disappointed in me as I had never seen him before. I made one or two mistakes. (It may have been more than just two, but hey, who’s counting?) What is the big deal, right? I don’t recall where and which ones. All I remember is my sadness in making him be not proud. I distinctly remember that part.

It came down to this. He considered me the recipient of some privileged schooling, (and I was), in a way most church kids were not. And he simply expected more. And this exercise meant so much to him.

Let me come to the point.

I don’t remember any longer a single verse from Romans 8.

Except this: the words that have stuck all these years: ‘maranathino jeevano, doothan-marko, vazhchakalko adhikarangalko, ippol-ullathino varuvan-ullathino, uyarathino azhathino, karthavaya kristhu-yeshu…’

“for I am certain that nothing can separate us from His love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below-there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Verses 38-39

Thus, I may go astray, I may neglect to attend church regularly, I may forget to pray twice or even once daily, I may occasionally question the Eucharist for how it has evolved over the years, and for the current form in which it is practiced (for my take, I believe what Jesus intended for us was, to sit in a semi-circle, share a meal and treat each other as family, but what do I know?), I may go visit Matha Amrithanandamayi (I have – more than once), I may go to the Sri Lakshmi Temple (been there), I may visit the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple (done that), I have trod the red tiles inside the Jama Masjid, heck, I may even go to Kashi some day and set my foot in the Ganga – something I really want to do in fact,

But nothing, none of it, will separate me from the love of Jesus Christ.

I do not know if scholars will concur on the essential meaning of these lines, nor do I presume to know what Paul Apostle had in mind. It doesn’t matter. (I’ll happily entertain any alt-theories).

And this is my wish. I hope dearly that all those youth leaguers who took heart of these much-quoted verses all those years ago, (and there were so many of them), now in the golden or diamond years of their lives, will also be reminded of the same.

And that they’ll remember my dad with fondness.

Happy Monday the Thirteenth…

mercy

A Tale Of Two Josephines – Shirley And Laila

friends and family,

Shirley Josephine Fentin died one week ago. she was 94.

a good Jewish woman, our David’s Grammy, lived in southern California towards the end of her long life. A woman who raised 6 children to accomplished adulthood was the quintessential Jewish mother.

Yet, this was also a Jewish mother, who welcomed her Christian daughter-in-law from a Connecticut Yankee family as one of her own.

And we’re all the better for it.

Didn’t a famous Jew long ago teach us to love our neighbours as ourselves?

I feel privileged to be related to Shirley.

She was Grammy to our Mekhala and David. But ever more sentimentally, our precious Laila was her namesake.

Our three daughters advanced into the twenty-first century, a centuries-old tradition, unique to the Syrian Christians of Kerala, of naming grandchildren after grandparents, first patriarchal and then matriarchal, in that order. All three named each of their firstborns after a paternal grandparent. I call it grand after grand.

Thus, an Italian-Irish utterly devout Roman Catholic family of new England, a Swedish-Norwegian clan from the Midwest, and a Jewish-Episcopalian family from western Massachusetts, all got inducted into the age-old practice of a people, from a faraway place and a remote culture, by having a grandchild (their oldest in the case of two of them) named after them, thus connecting races across the span of continents and time. One human race.

And we have Laila Josephine Fentin.

Any retelling is best served with anecdotes.

So here goes one.

When Laila was born on a full moon night, (I swear with a lunar luminescence), on an April day of 5 years ago, her ecstatic ‘bampi’ Fentin called his own mother, who was in Florida at the time, to announce to her the good news:

‘ma, you have another great grand-daughter. Her name is Laila Josephine.’

Grammy glanced around with some surprise and exclaimed,

why, Gary, that’s my middle name!’

To which, Gary replied,

‘ma, they named her after you.’

I obviously couldn’t see this great-Grammy’s precious expression of the moment, but I’m certain there was pure and well-deserved glee in those 89-year-old eyes.

Susan, Mekhala’s mother-like mother-in-law, always spoke of her own mother-in-law with great fondness, so I’ll paste here what she posted on that ubiquitous social medium called FB. So you don’t have to take my word for it. now we know where Susan gets it from!

“This is my mother-in-law, Shirley Fentin, who never made me feel like I was anything but the handpicked choice for her oldest son and who called me her third daughter. I’m headed out to San Diego tomorrow morning to say goodbye and praying for a peaceful transition to her next destination. Bless you Mom. I love you.”

We might say in 2015, ‘what’s the big deal about a Jew marrying an Anglo-Saxon’?

To put it into perspective, we have to only glance back to the not-so-distant past, when we ‘all’ would have myocardial infarctions (!), if or when our children married ‘white’ people. Someone removed from this culturally might similarly ask, ‘what’s the big deal’?

Our Lord God places certain special people in our lives at various stages, to show us without the aid of any holy books, that such goodness is possible.

Shirley Fentin’s final words were, according to Gary … “no tears, just smiles.”

One of God’s Chosen Folks.

I’m glad that Shirley Josephine came into my life, and that I have a Laila Josephine in my life.

Good night…

Mercy