Advance note by an immigrant to Thanksgiving, written in silence

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Traditional turkey dinner at Thanksgiving. Photo: Dreamstime.

NEW YORK – I remember my first formal Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house on a cold, rainy and witchy November evening.

Although pastels of palest pinks and I were in perpetual infatuation, I wore a flaming red sweater with sequined butterflies as I had heard “crimson” was the official color of the festive season.

And a ritzy affair it was, with crystals tinkling over with endless cognac, champagne and cordials, paired with petite hors d-oeuvres that flew out like wine-colored confetti.

The usual fare of sliced browned turkey and gravy, minced meat stuffed with fruits and nuts, green beans and cranberry sauce, puddings and pies were set daintily upon willow-patterned china and emblazoned silverware.

However, I was at the edge of my chair, twiddling my thumb nervously, trying with an earnest effort to grasp the local cues and slangs, and, yes, at times laughing a little incomprehensively.

In short, simply, ill at ease.

Overwhelmingly, it was the chill that I felt that did not go away even as I wrapped my coat tighter around my shoulders. No, not even a plate of steaming rice with thinly-sliced potato fries and spiced tea would have softened the cold.

The smell of warm scones and loaves, soaked in butter, rose, slipped in the blistering draft between the falling leaves. The glistening living room was walled with gilded mirrors and lit by long tapers, flinging shadows onto a terraced sun-room with trumpet vines and jasmine trails. The silver patina of a snow globe blanched the air.

A scene out of a story book. Except for the frosty blue silence that hovered like the silhouette of a kite over the stylish sprawl.

Skyline of New Jersey on the Hudson river. Photo: Dreamstime.

It was into this lanky swamp of silence that I walked in when I first landed in Newark airport, several decades back in New Jersey. Like Alice in Wonderland, falling through tunnels and tunnels of blinding rabbit hole, I tumbled in with two little girls in tow, through the alleys of glass corridors, opening into dizzying escalators, with rows and rows of people, noiselessly walking past.

We were soldiers on the drum roll to the customs office and none looked for help.

Quite unlike my hometown in Kolkata, where the moist smell of marigold garlands woven into the curling smoke on the streets rendered every passer-by into a bonhomie with the next.

Silence like a metaphor flitted like phantoms on the wall after my husband would leave for work and the girls to their schools.

In the initial years of moving in to the US, I remembered vividly the self-enclosed worlds of sound-proof cars, whizzing at top speed on the freeways, neighborhoods with doors and windows clamped tight with not the slightest human presence to be discerned anywhere, supermarkets in a razzle-dazzle with the only sound serenading was the music from up the ceiling speakers.

We are the champions, my friend, and we’ll keep on fighting till the end” it said.

Really? I doubted.

“This country will give you everything but not a true friend,” a casual acquaintance had remarked wistfully. It had been her experience in the last twenty years she had lived in the USA after leaving Bosnia during the troubled war-time years.

And true enough. If there was any human contact at all it would be the neighbor with a quick wave of her hand, and then off she would speed to her unknown destination.

And so, I would spend just a lot of time looking out of the window, into the evergreens in the distant fields and watching almost enviously as my neighbor  reversed her car and then pulled out of the drive-way without a hitch. So sleek and smooth, I thought, she was, while I was an utter oaf at the wheels.

So, on the 104th birth anniversary, November 7, 1917, of the Franco-Algerian writer, Albert Camus, his diary entries came to mind as I sat down to write my recollections of first Thanksgiving in the US.

Son of Algerian proletariats, Camus was then a foreigner, with cinematic good looks, living in a hotel room in Montmartre, Paris, far from his home, penning down his first novel, The Stranger.

“And everything is strange to me, everything, without a single person who belongs to me, with no place to heal this wound. What am I doing here, what is the point of these smiles and gestures? I am not from here – not from anywhere else here either. And the world has become an unknown landscape where my heart can lean on nothing,” he wrote.

He echoed the feeling of alienation, perhaps, every immigrant feels when he journeys into a foreign land. “A Stranger, who can know what this word means,” Camus added.

But unlike the mystical Camus whose angular classicism was built into him like the olives trees of the Mediterranean and who lived in a picturesque metro with terraced fountains, cobblestone squares and graceful cathedrals, my view from my window was largely the humdrum but, nonetheless, poetic New Jersey.

A blue-jay skipping on pine-trees, a squirrel stashing up acorns into the grass, the lilting music of the occasional ice-cream truck that rolled into the lot.

Photo: Poppy Mookerjee.

And then the darkness of grey nights falling on the wings of silence.

Through the window, I would look up every once in a while at the moon and wonder if it was the same that I had seen in India which seemed further away than the stars in the sky.

Meanwhile in that silence I acquainted myself well with the shadows – the corner wells of the pine trees where darkness pooled, the fertile light that lit up the edges of the stone path, the November skies that surged bright when the trees were bare.

However, over the weeks and months I grew to decipher and learn with fondness the script of benevolent indifference of the people and its country. And eventually it set me free.

Whether we have moved into a new country or not, we all go through these empty spaces in life when a perceived world collapses and the other is nowhere in sight – when every sound on the street is a deafening roar and the melancholy of nothingness lurks between the curtains.

However, the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando writes, “The space of nothingness is where one finds his or her own self and life’s richness.”

This blankness in life is linked with the Japanese concept of “ma” which loosely connects to emptiness or vacancy. And this gap in time, according to the Japanese, the Desert Fathers of Christianity and the Buddhists, is ripe with possibilities and uncertainties.

Ma makes nothingness, palpable and tangible,” observes Ando.

In his Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese, the Swedish Bernhard Karlgren clarifies it as “a door through the crevice of which the moonshine peeps in.”

In my own time I held out my hand in friendship to the silence. It helped me to quieten down and embrace the pause. I learned to sit still on the breakfast nook, stirring my coffee with a plate of bread and marmalade. The slow shifting of the moving minutes hummed in the sighing trees.

Every morning I would light a candle and watch the flame rise in silence. It rose in a blue aura and calmed down in a wisp of smoke. A daily ritual much like the invisible air of Thanksgiving I breathe every day.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)