Sweet Summer Mangoes
“Myra,” Riz called to me from the balcony,“come look at the best sunset of the year.”
“Relax Riz,” I replied, burying my hands even deeper in a sink full of dirty dishes and soapy water, “it only marks the end of another
“It also marks the emergence of starlight,” Riz stepped into the kitchen, holding his big cup of hot tea. I looked at him but said nothing. My husband knew that sunsets had stopped inspiring me a long time ago, but he never stopped trying.
Ever since Granny died three years ago of a fatal lung condition, the setting sun had always reminded me of death. Perhaps because when she died, the most beautiful sun was setting outside, wrapped in all the glory of its shimmering shades of crimson and gold, while the sweet scent of mangoes hung thick in the air.
“Myra, Annu,” I remember Daddy yelling at us from the porch, “come quick we gotta get Ma to the hospital! She can’t breathe!”
My sister Annu and I were strolling by the poolside at my parents’ house then, brainstorming for her next ad campaign. The cool breeze of a Pakistani afternoon rustled through palm leaves in my father’s prize winning oriental garden. Her client was a mango
producer, looking for a trendy jingle to set sales soaring for his not so fragrant and tasteless mangoes.
“If it’s not fragrant it’s not tasty,” Granny had declared, a week before the asthma attacked, “if it’s not tasty it’s trashy. Maybe he can inject some perfume into his fruits!”
I had laughed hysterically while Annu, collapsing under pressure of her too-close-for-comfort deadlines, stormed out of the room with her usual protests of “nobody helps me!”
Such days were the best days of my life. Every time I came home from the States to my family in Pakistan I felt safe, rested and
happy. Perhaps it was a mean emotion to have for, as Annu put it, a woman who got everything she ever wanted: a dream marriage, children, and a modest career in writing. But this is just how it felt to be with my parents every single visit. I was always home.
My Granny, my father’s mother, was the soul of our small family of four: my parents, Annu and I. To this mix was now added my husband Riz and our two sons, Mir and Sono. We visited Pakistanevery year in the season of mangoes, “the sweet summers” as Granny called it. And every evening, after dinner, the whole lot of us would gather round Granny’s wooden cot, placed in the most perfect corner of the red brick courtyard on the edge of my mother’s precious red and white rose garden. The huge cooler fan, a fitting substitute for an air conditioner, would gently blow away heat and sweat beneath the starlit sky, while we got ready to feast on yellow, syrupy mangoes.
“Hand me that one…no, no, the other one on your left!” Granny would tell Daddy which mangoes to pick from a mountainous yellow pile sitting on a big steel platter on the floor beside her cot. Granny would pass on the fruit to Mom for slicing it into neat fleshy strips that, when bitten into, oozed with sweetness and sticky juice. And the cycle went on till there were no more ripe mangoes left in the pile. Mom would tell Nikka, the servant, to take the platter back to the pantry where it would rest in warmth for the night to make more ripe mangoes for the next day.
Sweet summers. One mango season was enough to last a lifetime of memories.
One summer, I didn’t visit Pakistan.
“Disney land!”Granny stormed over the phone, “that is no place for boys! You want my grandsons to admire Cinderella?”
“Of course not, Granny,” I protested, “they have plenty of other fun stuff for boys there. I’ll see you next year, I promise.”
“Next year will be too late,” Granny said stubbornly, “you come this year, Myra.” And she hung up without waiting for me to reply.
I didn’t understand what had gotten into Granny but I wasn’t ready to give up our family’s dream trip either. Hence, we drove to Disney land that summer. And that same summer, Granny was diagnosed with end stage COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), a severe lung condition that may obstruct breathing in a patient.
We were in Orlando when Daddy called.
“Myra,” his voice was calm over the phone, the same kind of calm that is a prelude to a furious storm, “Ma wants to see you. Can you make it in time?”
I cut my trip short and flew back home to Memphisto pack for my emergency trip to Pakistan. I was already in New York at JFK boarding an international flight when I got an SMS from Riz that he and the boys had reached home.
“Don’t worry about us,” he wrote, “stay with Granny for as long as she wants. Tell her she’s still my favorite girl.”
When I arrived it was almost night-time and Granny was in her room instead of the courtyard, which was an indication in itself that she wasn’t well. I went straight to see her. She looked perfectly all right then. Pretty, perky, wearing jasmine buds in her ears, and her face brightening up just as ever upon seeing me.
“Myra, you came,” she threw her arms wide open for a big bear hug.
“Oh Granny,” I hugged her so tight I thought I could never let go, “of course I did and I’m not leaving until you get all better!”
She did get better. The doctors were satisfied with her progress, we were happy with the treatment but only Granny knew what was about to happen. She started to prepare everyone for her death in her own subtle way.
"Stop making my bed in the courtyard,” she would scold Nikka, “I’ll sleep in my room. The air is too cold this summer.”
Mom finally got a free hand in the kitchen to prepare her own menu for the day. Much to Mom’s surprise it wasn’t a pleasant change.
“Ma, I think there’s too much cinnamon in this recipe, don’t you think?” Mom would try to nudge some comment out of her mother-in-law.
“I think its perfect,” Granny’s replies always came with a meaningful smile. “You’ve finally learnt to cook my dear.”
But the final blow came at mango time when she let Daddy choose which mango to pick from the pile.
“You will always have mangoes,” she said. “You should know which ones to pick.”
The only thing Granny didn’t quit was telling bedtime stories to the children. Annu and I would still cozy up in her huge quilt and sit, wide-eyed like ten-year-olds, and listen to fairy stories of beautiful princesses and ugly ogres.
“After I’m gone,” she once told Daddy,“you will take my place in this too.”
Within a week of my arrival in Pakistan, Granny died of asthma. Mom and Daddy cried like orphaned children that night. I went back to Riz and my sons three days after the funeral, still dazed and not knowing how my world would function without Granny…how my summers would ever be sweet again without her.
“The circle of life is a perpetual force that stops for nothing,” Riz hugged me from behind, softly kissing my hair, “Daddy called yesterday while you were out doing groceries. He misses you.”
Three years. Yes, it had been a long time. I wiped my hands on a paper towel and looked outside my kitchen window. There was the sunset…by far the best of the year indeed. I leaned my head on Riz’s shoulder and closed my eyes, listening to the soothing rhythm of his heartbeat.
“I want to go home Riz,” I said, “back home for another summer.”
Pakistan was mired in monsoon when I arrived. My parents’ house was spotless as always and graciously lit, but considerably quiet for much had changed after Granny’s death. Annu had married and moved to another city, three hours’ drive away. That had left Mom, Daddy and Nikka at home, a nice trio that had stuck together forever it seemed. Granny’s cot was also placed right where it belonged: in the corner of the red brick courtyard, in front of the huge cooler fan that still blew away heat and sweat during the hot nights of Pakistan’s sweet mango summers. And this time, it was my father, sitting on Granny’s cot, telling Granny’s tales to my children.
“And so they shattered the magic mirror to pieces, accusing it of showing them terrible demons, when what the mirror really showed…was their own reflections,” Daddy concluded the story in his soft voice, as his innocent audience sat mesmerized, one on each knee.
“Wow! Gramps that was great,” four-year-old Sono spoke with fascination, “let’s have another one!”
“No, I have a question,” Mir, six years of age, interrupted forcefully, lifting up his strong arm, “Gramps, the story can’t be over. The mirror was shattered to pieces. That should make many more demons, right?”
Ah, my kids. I chuckled softly as I ordered them off to bed, my heart swelling with pride as I watched them skip off, one after the other, towards the bedroom. Then, I looked at Daddy…and the courtyard. A surge of long lost memories blotted out the present from my mind, and I felt as if I was six again like Mir, sitting on Granny’s knee or perched on her cylindrical gow pillow like a little bird, eager to feast on her amazing stories and sugary mangoes.
Those were sweet summers. Those summers were a million years ago.
“Myra,” Daddy’s voice startled me out of my reverie, “come sit here beside me.”I folded my legs and snuggled up next to him under the big quilt on Granny’s cot. Daddy kissed my forehead and hugged me tightly as if I was small again.
“My kitten is all grown up now, isn’t she,” he laughed.
Mom smiled. She was dicing a carefully peeled mango in a steel platter. After she was done she stuck a fork in it and handed it over to me. I giggled. It was amazing how she always remembered that I hated to get my hands messy while eating mangoes. It was amazing because she had begun to forget many other more important things. For instance, she would forget to lock the back door at night, often misplace her reading glasses and car keys, and only yesterday she left the stove on for two hours while we were out socializing with relatives.
As for Daddy…he was getting the same way.
“Mmm,” Daddy smacked his lips approvingly as he bit into another mango slice, “I bet Uncle Sam doesn’t grow anything as tasty as
“No, he doesn’t,” I agreed, “we might come back for this taste alone if nothing else.”
“Only for the taste,” Mom said with mocked anger, “and not for us?”
“Actually, that’s a very good idea,” Daddy said, wiping off his hands and mouth with a napkin. “Because mangoes will remain but we will not.”
The observation hit me like a thunderbolt and I instantly recognized the fear that had kept me from visiting my parents for three whole years. It was the fear of losing parents to age and I had, by not seeing them, managed to shut it out nicely...until now.
My parents, unaware of the comment’s affect upon me, were already making plans for tomorrow but I was stuck in the moment. I didn’t like what Daddy had said. Or to put it accurately, I didn’t like the truth of what he had said.
A world without mangoes was livable but one without Mom and Dad was unthinkable.
A few hours later, the house became quieter as everyone went to sleep, except me. I was still battling with myself not to realize that Daddy was right. My parents were growing old and that meant life for them was getting shorter by the minute.
As had Granny’s three years before.
I batted my eyes hoping for the thought to evaporate. When it didn’t, I got out of bed to find something to do to lull myself to sleep…like reading a boring book, a math book. That had always worked in my childhood days.
I went downstairs to the library. The wooden door creaked open revealing a spacious room. The checkered floor pattern still invited for a nice game of hop scotch…only Annu wasn’t there to play with me. I glanced at the tall built-in Oakwood cabinets, studded with years of assorted books, videos, various documents and much more. I spotted a small chest by Daddy’s office desk and remembered that it contained all the family photo albums. I picked one. It was my parents’ wedding album.
The pictures seemed to come to life in the soft lamplight, and spill much of their happiness over me as I fondly scanned the pages. There was Granny in those pages, and Grandpa too, and Mom and Daddy, decked up for their wedding and still shy of each other in an innocent way. There was happiness on their faces, a halo around their beings that time could never tarnish. The pictures made them eternal.
“Oh, it’s you Myra,” Mom’s voice made me look up. She was standing in the doorway, sleep lounging lazily in her eyes.“I thought Nikka forgot to switch off the lights and…what’s wrong Myra…why are you crying dear?”
“Crying? No Mom,”I replied, nervously wiping my cheeks to find that I indeed had been. What a cruel trick my own senses had played on me. And since it was too late to pull up my guard, I gave in altogether. I sobbed and sniffed in Mom’s arms till my heart felt light enough for my mouth to speak.
“You have to promise me you won’t die,” I was raving like a stubborn child, “you will always be there for me, for my children. Always!”
“Ssh, Myra,” Mom was whispering an old reprimand from my childhood calmly in my ears, hugging me close, “honey, be good.”
Mom’s words were soothing, as was her embrace, and when I was finally done crying I looked at her silently. Mom was smiling. She delicately held my face in her hands as if she was holding a dewdrop in her palm. Then, she kissed my forehead and picked up the wedding album from my lap.
“Look Myra,” she said, “look at us in these pictures. They aren’t just memories but lives that we all have lived and cherished.”
I quietly followed her fingers as she lovingly caressed each piece of the past.
“The day I came into this house your Granny and Grandfather were still young, a charming couple they made,” Mom’s voice grew dreamy. “Then a time came when your father had to step into his father’s shoes…as I had to step into Ma’s. Was it painful? Yes. But could any of us prevent it? No. All we could do was to share our lives for as much time as we had together…so that nobody would have any regrets of wasting it.”
My tongue was frozen but my eyes were pouring. And in my heart I knew that this was the logic I was looking for to satisfy my upset mind.
“When I’m gone, I would like you to remember me as a woman who loved you,” Mom was saying, “and a woman who was loved by you. A woman who died peacefully, warm in her bed with her loved ones by her side...just like your Granny.”
Emergence of starlight - that gives way to another sunrise.
My trip back to the States was tiring but happy. I knew I had time, until I had time, to visit my parents and make the most of it, and not waste it by being afraid of the inevitable.
We all die. The point is how we lived while we were alive. And how we helped others live while we lived.
I looked out of the airplane window and saw the setting sun. I knew that Riz might be looking at a different sky and thinking of me. Soon, I would be home. And this time, I would be out on the balcony with Riz, basking in the warmth of his arms…and the beautiful setting sun.