Home is the place where light pours out of window pains illuminating the darkness with a welcoming glow and smoke gently wafts in grey puffs above the chimney. Home is a cozy retreat from worldly
trials and tribulations, a place where you are always welcome and always loved. Home is our heaven on earth, the place where we are safe to be ourselves. I have searched my whole life for home.
My mother's final suicide attempt came when I was eleven years old. By then my heart was hard. I didn't cry easily or show fear, after all, I was in the sixth grade. I was transitioning from child to young woman and I acted much tougher than I felt. When I walked home from school that day with a friend and saw my father's old International truck parked in the driveway, I knew something was wrong. My father was predictable in his routine. He took the commuter bus from San Francisco five days a week, and he was never home until 6:30 pm. My father met me in the driveway and asked me to come into the house. I refused. My plan was to drop my things off from school and go to a friend's house to exercise her pony while she was out of town. I demanded that my father tell me what he had to say there and then. I would not be moved and would not come within ten feet of him. Eventually he broke down and told me. "Your mother is sick. Your mother is in the hospital. Your mother has tried to take her life." My response surprises me now, but seemed completely natural at the time. I told him I would go ride the pony, and when I finished I would go with him to see my mother.
Children that have a suicidal parent attempt to prepare themselves for the inevitable. My brother would hide things my mother gave him, like a box of lemon cookies, so he would have something to remember her by when she was gone. My plan was to be very good, and try very hard to anticipate her every need. In truth, there is no preparing for that day, and I can say now what I couldn't say then; there was part of me that wanted her to just get it over with. The constant anticipation of her death was ever-present in my life. I didn't want my mother to die, I just wanted a solid place to stand, for good or bad. Living in fear can be exhausting and crushes your spirit in ways that are not obvious.
When we arrived at the hospital and made our way to intensive care I was only allowed to look at my mother through the window. She was laying in the sterile room, unconscious. There were tubes dangling from her nose and arms and I couldn't help noticing my own reflection in the window looking back at me. The dread and guilt I felt knotted my stomach and made it difficult to breathe. I wonder now if each of my family members looking through that window felt the same burden of responsibility I did. I stood there awkwardly, almost apologetically. If my mother had opened her eyes at that moment, would she have looked at us with disappointment realizing her figurative leap had not landed her on the other side? And here we were, standing before her, representing the life she so desperately wished to escape. I guess it's like that nightmare you are having and are finally able to pull yourself awake, grateful that it was just a dream, only to realize your dream is your reality.
Not long after my mother's attempted departure, my father asked her for a divorce. Many things changed that year, it was 1976. Our nation celebrated 200 years of independence. My mother, brother and I moved away from home and rented an apartment; my two older sisters had moved out years before. Our house was sold and my father moved into the city. My mother's doctor pulled every medication she had been prescribed, there were no more pills. But the core problem remained, what to do about all that pain? So, my mother started drinking and life became truly terrifying for me. As volatile as my father had been, he was dependable and constant. With the small foundation I had known removed, my world became shifting sand.
My sister Lesley had always been my anchor, not that her life had been stable. After leaving home at 15 she had moved between foster homes and friend's houses eventually landing in the arms of the holy. She joined a religious group known as 3HO; the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization. American Sikhs share the same beliefs as Indian Sikhs; they practice vegetarianism, kundalini yoga and meditation. Their disciplines are very strict and regimented; no drugs, no alcohol, no pre-marital sex, no hair cutting (they believe not cutting your hair is an act of living in accordance with God's will). The American Sikh clothing consisted of white leggings, a white dress and a white turban, white symbolizing purity. Structure, when you have not experienced any, can be very attractive. The founder of the organization called himself Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogi Ji, he may have been the most flatulent man on earth (if you know who he is you will know what I mean), however, he could be quite inspiring and very persuasive, especially for the lost.
The summer after I finished seventh grade Lesley invited me to join her in New Mexico for a celebration of Summer Solstice. The American Sikh's believe the solstice is a spiritual event, especially at this particular location. I flew to Los Angeles where Lesley was living and together we caught a flight to New Mexico. This is where I was first introduced to the Siri Singh Sahib, he gave me the nickname "Shoulders Up". Apparently I had been walking through life with so much tension and fear my shoulders reflected my inner turmoil. Lesley was part of the "secretarial pool" for the Siri Singh Sahib and as such we stayed at the ranch property that belonged to him instead of the local ashram. Within a day or two Lesley had me dressed in full Sikh attire including sandals that were "good for the sole". The Siri Singh Sahib gave me a new name, Liv Kaur, which I was told meant "pathway to God". After a week in New Mexico I decided I was not returning home. Lesley had to go back to Los Angeles where she lived and I moved into an ashram in Albuquerque. The people living in the ashram were strangers to me but extended so much warmth and kindness I felt very welcome. My whole world had shifted and I felt safe, lonely yes, but safe for the first time in my life.
Beginning eighth grade as a Sikh I wore my turban to the private Catholic school I attended along with the required parochial school uniform. My childhood had been spent trying to appear "normal" when my every day world was chaos. Now, here I was at 13 looking anything but "normal". Riding the city bus to school adults would spit at me, laugh at me, swear at me or ridicule me. School children were a little better, but not much. The only children that befriended me were other misfits, I never would have noticed them in my previous life. Those kids were so genuine and compassionate, the world didn't recognize their beauty, but I did. The kindness I was shown by those who owed me nothing has forever changed me, I look at the world with different eyes because of them.
The routine of my life as a Sikh was a safety net for me. In high school I read a book on the required reading list called True Believer by Eric Hoffer. While the book explores the motivation behind mass movements such as fascism and communism, there are many similarities for those drawn to religious cults. Hoffer accurately depicts these individuals as attempting to escape a flawed self. I know this was true for me to some degree, but maybe not entirely accurate. What I wanted most was acceptance and peace; if I had to become a freak in the world's eyes to receive this, it was worth it to me. While I was there I learned to cook, I had shared responsibilities for cleaning, laundry, ironing, etc. The husband and wife who were the head of the ashram treated me as a daughter although they were too young for any children of their own. If I drew a picture it was the most magnificent Mataji had seen and she was sure I would be an artist someday. If I plunked on the guitar Bajadar Singh assured me it was only a matter of time before I would master that, too. I lapped up their love like a puppy who had gone too long without a drink. Again, they owed me nothing but each made huge deposits into my life.
Lesley and I returned to my mother's for Christmas in the middle of my eighth grade year. Flying to Los Angeles from New Mexico I met Lesley and we flew together to San Francisco. The prospect of returning home, even just for a visit, knotted my stomach again; knowing Lesley would be with me made it bearable. Not much had changed since I left. My mother's drinking remained a constant along with her unpredictable behavior. The time passed quickly and I was anxious to return to Los Angeles with Lesley, we were to spend time there together before I returned to New Mexico. When Lesley told me she would not be returning to Los Angeles, I was confused. She told me she was leaving 3HO but would not give me a concrete reason, just that I should return to Los Angeles without her. Since Lesley was very connected to the Siri Singh Sahib her decision not to return would not go unquestioned. It was many months later before I learned the truth.
Returning to Los Angeles without Lesley was strange, I wasn't the one they wanted. I stayed in Lesley's room at the Ashram that housed the secretarial staff for the Siri Singh Sahib. This staff was made up of women who had made a commitment to the Siri Singh Sahib to be his "spiritual" wife, never to marry. Many questions were asked of me that I couldn't answer, either because I didn't know the answer, or I didn't understand the question. In 3HO you are taught the world is insane, if you leave 3HO, you will be corrupted by the world and thereby become lost in the insanity. This is what I was asked to believe about my sister, that she was now insane and untrustworthy. I returned to New Mexico as scheduled, everyone in the ashram was made aware of my sister's "desertion". If my sister called me someone from the ashram would listen on the other line. So when Lesley finally told me the reason she left 3H0, it was not just our secret. She told me the Siri Singh Sahib was having intimate relationships with members of the secretarial staff and was not the man he presented himself to be. Here was my dilemma: do I disbelieve my sister accepting the widely held belief that she had been corrupted by the world? Or, do I accept what she tells me as true and face the prospect of either continuing to live a lie in 3HO, or of trying to find a new home? My options were not good, but I knew who my sister was, it was just that I needed to find a safe place to land before I jumped off that spiritual ship.
Papillion, Nebraska is not a vacation destination, especially not in the middle of December. My father had remarried a women with five children and his company had relocated him from San Francisco to Papillion. Not a very good trade in my opinion. For Christmas vacation of my freshman year I went to Papillion to visit my father, I hadn't seen him since I had left home for 3H0. I can tell you I did not see a single butterfly while I was there. I arrived in full Sikh regalia, if I stuck out like a sore thumb in New Mexico, I was a flashing beacon there in the Midwest. With all that snow and ice my white attire did blend in nicely. People were a bit more compassionate, possibly mistaking my turban for some kind of brain injury. My father wanted me to stay, I had not told him anything about the reason for Lesley's departure, but he wanted me to stay with him anyway. My father had never asked me to live with him before. His new wife was kind if not a bit pinched and uptight in her personality. Compared to what I had experienced in mothers rigid and controlling was not unbearable, maybe even a little refreshing. Learning to live with three brothers and two sisters was an adjustment, like learning to live with a new litter of puppies. The house was noisy, but warm, and my father seemed to have mellowed over the years. Maybe I had found my home, and so what if my hair froze into icicles when I left the house without drying it completely? At least I could take off my turban.
Reintegration into life as a high school freshman was challenging for me. My perceptions of myself and others had shifted over the years, I didn't trust my intuition for other people or myself. When I walked trough the halls I did so with tunnel vision, a learned survival trait from my days as a Sikh. Kids thought I was stuck-up, but mostly I was afraid. No matter how hard I tried to fit in, deep inside I felt like I didn't belong. Most teenagers probably feel this way to some degree; I was beginning to see myself as the girl without a face, who was I anyway?
My mother in the meantime had moved from California to Arizona. She and her boyfriend managed a hotel in Flagstaff and eventually moved to Sedona to manage The Rondee. When she described Sedona to me, she described heaven on earth; the red rocks, the monsoons, the staggering beauty of the high desert. When she told me she had been diagnosed with Lupus which would eventually kill her and was no longer drinking because of the diagnosis, I knew I had to return to her. When I arrived in late March of my freshman year, I found Sedona to be everything she had described. My first night there, as I lay on the cot set up for me between the kitchen and dining room of the one bedroom apartment and listened to her drink her bourbon and water, I knew nothing had changed. That night, with my stomach in a knot, I decided there was no place left to run and I would live with her until I graduated from high school, and that's exactly what I did.
My mother loved me with all she had available, afterall, she had her story to tell too. She has given me gifts I can never repay; a love of words, nature's beauty and compassion for the broken, but the greatest gift she gave me was life. Everything that has happened in my life has brought me to the place I am right now, and I am grateful. My mother used to accuse me of wanting her to be a Betty Crocker, wearing an apron and waiting for my return from school with a plate of hot cookies in her hand. This accusation always embarrassed me, because it was true, plebeian, but true. Becoming for my children the mother I always longed for has healed me. I wanted home to be a place where light poured out of window pains illuminating the darkness, and smoke gently wafted from the chimney; a cozy retreat, a place where we were always welcome and always loved. I wanted home to be our heaven on earth, the place where we were safe to be ourselves. I have searched my whole life for home and I have finally found it; it lives in me.
© Copyright 2016 E Cluff. All rights reserved.
Short Story / Memoir
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Short Story / Memoir
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