The gravel crunches pleasingly underneath the wheels of Mom’s Chevy Caprice like a hundred crisp pine cones underfoot.
I love her slow steering wheel palm, the little dinosaur noises from her throat indicating curiosity, doubt, then certainty as she navigates the convoluted driveway to Kaivalyananda Ashram — K-Town as the residents call it.
We reach the tiny, almost empty parking area of the main building, and Mom sails into a spot, triumphant. We’ve been driving only about two hours from our apartment in Fresh Meadows, but these upstate suburbs feel like a million miles away. Mom has never been a very confident driver, so a safe landing always feels mildly thrilling.
I am in the front seat, unbuckled as is the norm in 1971, cradling Sweet Donna, a tiny baby doll who cries “real tears,” and I am excited to open the car door myself, a skill I’ve only recently acquired.
A young man, dressed in an orange caftan and pants, greets us at the door of K-Town’s main house–a royal blue colonial identical to most of the other houses in the small, leafy town.
“Renata Fischer?” he says, raising his eyebrows slightly. Mom nods with a wide smile.
The man looks undernourished, dangerously skinny, with lank brown hair that falls to his shoulders. I don’t know what to make of him, but I do know that he does not look like my dad–a tall, insistently gregarious, barrel-chested man whose abundant red hair and ruddy complexion continue the theme of his loudness–against whom I measure all male creatures. This young man’s dissimilarity to my father makes me suspicious.
He ushers us into the house’s living room, which serves as a visitor’s center and lounge. The room is carpeted and decorated in a fussy, rococo manner that resembles my grandmother’s parlor, featuring Louis XIV-style armchairs upholstered in ice-blue velvet.
“And what’s your name?” The young man surprises me with his sudden warmth and interest. He kneels down so he can make eye contact, and I notice that his eyes are startlingly green. What I had just minutes ago mistaken for weakness is, on further inspection, placidity. I have never seen a man with eyes as serene and caring as those of my preschool teacher, Miss Josefson.
“Laurie…” I say, and add as a matter of both clarification and pride, “I’m five.”
“My name is Kavi…I live here. I’d love to show you and your mom around. There are some other kids around your age who live here, would you like to meet them?”
I am not a shy kid, and any offer to play is met with unquestioned acceptance. He takes my hand and my heart pounds a little. His incongruently large palm is warm, and, refreshingly, neither too dry nor too sweaty. We lead the way, with my mom padding along behind.
He takes us into another room, this one with a fireplace and, though it’s July, dozens of strands of Christmas lights strung across the ceiling. Black & white photos of various robed, holy-looking men and women clutter the walls, again reminding me of Oma’s parlor, where paintings and embroidered likenesses of Jesus and a plethora of saints cover every inch of vertical space.
I’ve never seen a real fireplace before. The smell of thousands of previous fires–the latest just hours ago from the morning Homa ritual– permeate the room and transport me, reminding me of every happy cookout in our apartment building courtyard, a mingling of smoke and sizzling beef and the rush of witnessing normally staid and uptight adults laughing riotously over cans of Pabst. The woodsy-sweet smell of incense and candles underscores the fireplace aroma.
I am used to the incense of St Augustine’s RC Church, where my parents take me every Sunday. Church incense is cloying, overwhelming, and even at the age of five already associated with the burden of attending early Mass. But this K-Town incense creates the feeling of a long walk through the forest, or what I imagine that might feel like, as I’ve never been in one.
“This is where the sangha meditates every morning and evening,” Kavi tells us, “and we talk about the scriptures.”
“The what-ha?” my mom says.
“The sangha, the community. The monks and laypeople who follow Gurudev–Swami Kaivalyananda.”
“And what scriptures do you read–you mean the Bible?” I can’t tell if knowing that the Bible was acknowledged here would make my mom more inclined, or less, to join in.
“Uh…sometimes,” says Kavi, diplomatically. “We’re pretty ecumenical here. But mostly gurudev’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, or the yoga sutras, or other things…”
“Interesting…” my mom says driftily, possibly never having heard of those books.
The fireplace room opens out, through French doors, to a sloping green lawn, the biggest backyard I’ve ever seen. Off in the distance is a swingset currently being used by a gaggle of children. My heart leaps.
“Mom?” I look up at her imploringly.
“Of course! I’ll take you to the dining hall and the residence dorms, and Laurie can get to know the kids.” Kavi waves me toward them. I hand Sweet Donna to my mom for safe keeping.
I approach the swingset like I approach everything—certain of a good outcome. At first glance, the kids seem normal, but as I get closer I feel some trepidation. The three girls are wearing ill-fitting prairie dresses and no shoes, their dark blonde hair shiny-clean but messy. The two boys are similarly unshod, in more standard little-boy garb but the same look of general mismatched dishevelment. One of the boys looks different from the rest of us–dark skin and black hair similar to my neighborhood friend Divya, who, according to my mom, is an Indian, “…from India, not like the Indians on F-Troop.”
In any case, the prairie dresses and bare feet unsettle me. My parents aren’t snobs, but they’ve instilled a sense of neatness, order, and visual conformity on my brother William and me that ensure that we fit quietly into all settings. That includes modest dress, tidy hairstyles, polite responses to questions, and shoes at all times.
The tallest girl regards me for a moment and then gets off her swing, stops its movement, and motions for me to get on. Wordlessly, I follow her lead. Before I start swinging I say, “Hi.”
“Hi. I’m Anandi. I live here.”
“I’m Laurie. I’m just visiting with my mom. How old are you?”
The other kids stop what they were doing and gather around me.
Anandi says, “I’m seven, Astrid is six, Bhavani is four. And the boys are five.” I am confused by their names.
“I’m five, too!” I say, starting to flush a little.
All five of them swoop in and give me a group hug. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I laugh from the sheer surprise and pleasure. My resistance dissolves. I later learn that this is a standard greeting at K-Town.
“We’re so happy you’re here!” Astrid says “Are you gonna move here?”
“I don’t think so…My mom wanted to come visit, she didn’t say anything about moving here.”
We play together for the next few hours, first on the swings and then in an elaborate recreation of Lost in Space with each of us playing a role from the show or inventing new ones as necessary. As the afternoon sun dips toward the horizon, my mom comes back with Kavi to collect me. She extends her arm toward me, and I take hold of her hand reflexively.
“Mom,” I chirp (I never call her “Mommy” in front of other people, as William has told me it makes me seem like a baby), “These are my friends!” I introduce her to Anandi, Astrid, Bhavani, George, and Madhavan. Mom is sweet to them, and then tells me it’s time to go home. She hands me Sweet Donna, who seems faintly ridiculous to me now.
“But I want to stay!” My face warms and I feel like crying.
“Can Laurie stay, Mrs?” says George, the Indian kid, not filling in the last name, which he doesn’t know.
“I’m sorry, honey, Dad will be mad if we don’t get back in time for dinner!”
This is as compelling a reason as any, so we say goodbye and drive back to Queens, pick up William from his friend’s house, and make our way home. Mom has a serene smile on her face the whole way, as I babble about Anandi who seems cooler and prettier to me than any TV star, and George whose father lives in the impossibly exotic Florida, and Astrid who is a Capricorn and rode a real horse last summer.
There is palpable tension in the apartment when we return. When my dad is upset or angry, a shadow passes over the land. My stomach immediately aches, and I feel myself, and the rest of us, shrinking.
Dad sits in the living room in his after-work outfit–boxer shorts, t-shirt and socks–and says very quietly without taking his eyes off the early evening news broadcast, “Renata, where were you?”
My mom stiffens. “Hi, Bill. Laurie and I had a girls’ day.”
“What does that mean?”
“We looked at school clothes at the mall, and had tea at the Bluebird Tea Room, and just lost track of time…”
He slams his hand on the arm rest, which emits a soft but portentous thud. “Bullshit! Where were you?”
My mother stammers, visibly unsure of what will happen next. When my father gets into one of his moods, an inaudible tornado siren goes off and we each go to our safe positions. Mom will brace herself, with a tight, scared smile, for the sudden impact, while William and I skitter, sunken-chested, into our burrows. If no storm shelter is available we just disappear like ninjas until the storm subsides. I discover early on that I can dissolve my body by closing my eyes and swaying gently, thinking of something nice like Oma’s cat Minnie and the kittens she had in the spring. But on this day I close my eyes and remember the kids at K-Town, their welcoming hug, and the prospect of riding horses with Astrid, and I feel lighter, as my dad’s screaming recedes in the distance.
The next day Mom, William, and I drive in glum silence to the mall. After one of Dad’s episodes, she is usually quiet and withdrawn for a day or two. I guess she feels she needs to make good on her fib about school clothes, so we go shopping, with the promise of a Disney classics double feature at the second-run movie house on Woodhaven. William is turning nine in a few weeks, and is already embarrassed at having to shop with his mother and baby sister. He stands several feet away from us, shoegazing, as Mom browses through the sale rack in the boys department of Alexander’s.
She is humming, sorting through knit shirts on hangers, occasionally picking one off the rack to hold up in front of her.
“Why didn’t you tell Dad where we were yesterday?”
She continues as if I haven’t asked anything, and after a few minutes, pauses and crouches down to my level, something I’ve never seen her do before. It seems that she is echoing Kavi’s movements from yesterday.
“Honey. Your dad wouldn’t understand what we were doing, he’d be upset. Sometimes it’s just better for everyone to tell a little white lie.”
I’ve heard that expression from sitcoms, and I know from them that little white lies often turn comedically chaotic and burdensome, but because it’s my mom informing me of this new fact of life, I believe it. Everything she says seems true.
“Are we going to go back to that place? I want to see Anandi and all those guys again.”
“You liked it there, right?”
“I did, Mommy, I can’t wait to go back!”
She smiles, as much to herself as to me.
By Halloween, Mom has made herself a fixture at K-Town. She attends and participates in satsangs, kirtan, concerts, jumble sales. She takes yoga classes that the ashram holds for the community, and brings me to kids’ yoga classes; we wear matching black leotards with black footless tights, like ballerinas in training. We rarely wear shoes.
The kids’ yoga teacher is named Jyothi, and it turns out that she is Anandi, Astrid, and Bhavani’s mother, and blessed with the same gorgeous dark blonde hair, worn in a bun for classes. I conflate her graceful, equestrienne beauty and regal bearing with my other hero, Jane Goodall, and draw pictures of them to hang on my wall at home.
In her manner and in her classes, Jyothi teaches us kids how to be still, how to listen to silence, how to be contented whether we are running around on the grass or sitting cross-legged on a towel. I learn that a body can be a joyful thing and I never need to make myself think of Minnie’s kittens when I’m with Jyothi.
Neither Dad nor William accompanies us on these visits. Dad knows that we are practicing yoga, which he feels is “against our religion,” but he thinks it’s at the local Y, which takes some of the godlessness out of it. William is getting more serious about playing the drums, so Mom drops him off at his lesson and takes me upstate to the ashram on Saturdays. Dad usually has to work 6 days a week at the radio station where he sells advertising, and as long as we are all together, with Oma, on Sundays for church, and donuts after, he is none the wiser.
One day in early November, I come home from kindergarten to find my mom sporting a new haircut. Her glossy black waves, grown past her shoulder-blades, usually worn in a ponytail or held back with barrettes, are now cut in short, mannish layers framing her olive face.
“You look like a boy!” I say indignantly. I love my mom’s hair, part of an overall profile of dark, slender femininity.
“I look like myself, honey. I’m still a lady.”
Tears form, and as my face contorts into a cry, Mom cuts me off.
“I know you’re sad because it’s different,” she says softly but pointedly. “But everything is ok. Everything is good. You don’t have to get upset every time something changes.” These don’t sound like her words exactly–they sound unnatural coming from her mouth. Her words don’t transform how I feel but I obey her. The lump in my throat takes a long time to subside.
By the second grade, it becomes clear to me that there are all kinds of kids. Kids whose older brothers smoke on the playground after school, and let them take a drag. Kids whose temper tantrums will not be soothed by the sweet cooing of our teacher, Mrs Laing, and who explode in rages and must be sent out of the classroom.
There are the sophisticated girls who buy the school cafeteria lunch, and talk about their crushes and read Tiger Beat. And there are the dowdy kids like me who bring their lunch in brown bags packed with hasty morning love by their mothers.
There are increasingly more kids, I discover, who no longer live with both of their parents, (or never have) and I see the signs, and hear my parents’ whispered fights and the loud screaming, and I understand in my bones that William and I are soon to be among their ranks.
William, a preteen now, and flushed with anger all the time, responds to this knowing by clamming up even more than before around adults, and by pounding the crap out of his drums for hours. The only grownup he consents to listen to is a tabla player at the ashram, an Italian expat named Piero, rechristened by Gurudev as Chaitanya, who has taken him under his wing, who has encouraged him to sit proudly, spine perfectly perpendicular to the ground, and to painstakingly tune and care for the daylan and baylan drums. William’s seething disregard for everything and everyone finds its opposite in his entrancement with Chaitanya and tabla. He practices everyday, and when the noise becomes too much in our new tiny post-divorce apartment in Rego Park, I can see my mother holding her tongue, pleased that William has both a passion and, finally, a connection to K-Town that she didn’t have to force.
One Sunday evening in early Spring, after my dad drops William and me off after his biweekly parenting visit, I rush back to the car to fetch a forgotten spelling workbook, and I catch my dad slumped over the steering wheel, sobbing. I’ve never seen him cry before, and I feel the earth is wobbling beneath my feet. As much as William and Mom and I fear his temper, it is at least a consistent facet of his personality. This new thing has arrived out of nowhere, and like all the other new things happening now, it undoes me. I back away from the car before he sees me. I don’t need my spelling book that much anyway.
The next day on the playground I am waiting for a chance to swing on the ancient swing set–my friend Mindy is about to finish her turn so I can go on. She stops the swing, makes as if she is going to get off, and as I step toward her, she continues to swing, almost knocking me off-balance with her long, gangly legs.
“What are you doing?” My brow furrows and my throat swells with pre-tears. I take a deep breath like Jyothi has taught me to do, and then I don’t want to cry anymore.
“Only skinny girls are allowed on the swings today. Sorry, fatso!” She laughs uproariously and Cheryl, swinging next to her, looks shocked, but then joins in the laughter. Up until this point, none of us has ever discussed our bodies. I am about as average in height and weight and shoe size and hair color as one can be, but it’s as if I have suddenly landed on earth, in a corrupt and repulsive vessel, born into the world again, deeply flawed and aware of every inch of me. I don’t understand why they hurl this word at me like a hot coal. I back away. I sense I am being dismissed sacrificially, to feed the fire of Mindy and Cheryl’s burgeoning friendship, but it still hurts.
“Sorry, fatso!” Cheryl chimes in daintily as I retreat. I walk to the playground monitor, about to spill the beans, and remember that no one likes a tattler, so I opt for the monkey bars instead. I wait in line for my turn with some other kids, our unsmiling serpentine formation looking like pictures I’ve seen in the encyclopedia of depression-era bread lines. I joylessly cross the bars and when I make it to the other side, the recess lady’s whistle blows and it’s time to go back inside.
I understand that my father’s sobs and Mindy and Cheryl’s sudden, nonsensical rejection are all glimmers of information about what life is going to be like going forward. My life, at age 8, is unraveling before my eyes.
Mom’s hair transformations don’t stop, and neither do mine. As mine grows longer, consciously emulating the style of Jyothi and her daughters, Mom’s grows shorter until one day she decides to shave the whole thing into a ¼-inch buzzcut.
It’s 1977, I am 11, and I have seen photos in a paperback book on the rack at Brentano’s of Charles Manson’s followers who shaved their heads and carved X’s in their foreheads. I have also read in the Post about teenagers shaving their heads and wearing leather jackets and safety pins.
But Mom’s hairstyle is not about rebellion, or standing out in a crowd. I understand intuitively that it is her way of humbling herself, divesting herself of vanity, fading into the background. She hasn’t worn makeup in years, and, unaided, her face becomes more translucent, her bright green eyes pull more and more focus, emanating currents of calm. Her clothing and body winnow down leaner and more austere.
Swami Kaivalyananda gives my mother a new name, Manjula, in a disciple initiation ceremony at K-Town, along with three other acolytes. At the reception afterwards, in the parlor with the dainty furniture, attended by the whole ashram and some family members of the new initiates, Kavi tells my mother, “It means ‘beautiful’….” and she blushes, but I know the love between her and Kavi is familial and chaste.
I look around the room at the usual crew of ashramites and temporary seekers. There are always one or two guys in wolf sweatshirts with bandanna headbands, always a different woman named “Joyce,” always the presence of some WASPy matron from Long Island or Connecticut who stubbornly claims to be an expert in all things Native American. But, as predictable and occasionally goofy as this place can be, it feels more like my home than our apartment in Queens. This afterparty could be any suburban graduation gathering in any living room in any town, but for the presence of a self-proclaimed living conduit to the Divine.
As my mother grows more luminous and weightless, seduced away from the annoying task of raising teenagers, of having a body that negotiates making left-hand turns and paying bills and cooking meals for only three (as opposed to blissfully chopping carrots for the 40 residents of K-Town as the rotating kitchen staff sings hymns), my father becomes ever more earthbound, embedded in his stiffening joints and bitter rejection of all that my mother embraces. He stops attending mass after Oma dies. He drinks frosty steins of imported lager, the Pabst cans a relic of our old life.
Dad has moved to an apartment in Murray Hill, a modest and featureless building that nevertheless represents a Jeffersons-like leap in his financial and social stature. Bill Fischer has climbed the mountain of success with the steadfastness that his German immigrant parents instilled in him, and he has found that success increases when you can get people to like you. The fact that his charm and tireless work ethic couldn’t secure his marriage remains the single most painful fact of his adult life.
He dates many young women, all of whom, contrary to the wisdom of the day, he introduces to me and William, even if they’re only on date number two. These young women slide in and out of our awareness, and none of them stays. I remember only parts:
Gloria’s lustrous brown hair held back from her face with a babushka,
Brenda’s irritating laugh,
Margie’s chunky wooden necklaces and the Kate Bush album she leaves behind,
The confusion of two concurrent Kathys, both production assistants at the radio station,
Molly with clogs who buys my dad a spider plant.
“That guy, he doesn’t…get fresh with you, does he?” Dad asks on one of my weekends. I’m 12 at this point, and I understand what he’s getting at, and shudder. Swami K is a wrinkly old man, a former dentist from Mumbai, who plays catch with the kids on the ashram: avuncular, sweet-natured, absent-minded.
“Just checking. If this asshole ever lays a hand on you–or William–you tell me, and I will pound that Indian sonofabitch into a fine paste.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Well, what is it like?” He pauses and then takes it back, “I don’t even want to know. I don’t want to know what goes on up there.” He waves his beefy hand in the air and the topic is dismissed.
He needn’t worry. Whatever lurid fantasies of hippie debauchery torment him, it cannot be further from the truth. What happens at the ashram is a lot of chanting, meditation, and a small group of shiny-eyed followers listening raptly to Gurudev, whose lectures are not yet interesting to me, and whose import I won’t understand until after he is dead and those same lectures are replayed as grainy videos. There are shared meals, yoga and movement classes, prayers, pujas, and fire ceremonies (which is just ritualistically pouring ghee into a small flame in the fireplace, nothing exciting). There’s a chore wheel and a feelings wheel, and silent Sundays where the burden of having to talk is lifted. (My mother has begun extending her silence through Monday, and later through mid-week.) There are supermarket runs when the garden doesn’t produce enough, and occasional trips to the ER when a kid falls while tree-climbing. The big doings are the sitar concerts on Saturday evenings after supper, in the big barn (which will later be renovated into a fancy multimedia center, but not til the late 80s), and the occasional special guest lecturer on Ayurveda or taichi. It’s a simple, quiet life, and, with 40 dedicated residents and a constant flow of guests, not without its interpersonal conflicts, but not defined by them either.
My dad’s apartment has only one spare bedroom, so William and I take our weekends in turns, and when we compare notes we come to different conclusions.
William’s affection for Dad, born largely of the Stockholm Syndrome of childhood in which we both tried to stay on the dry side of Dad’s rage storms, has eroded through the divorce years and dropped off sharply of late. He finds their weekends together barely endurable. Saturday evening dinner at McCreery’s, a dimly lit pub around the corner featuring cornball jazz bands and a seemingly all-meat menu (William, Mom and I haven’t eaten anything with a face since the initiation ceremony), followed by intrusive grilling about girls that elicits the defensive shrinking and nervous laughter of being tickled, and Dad’s unsubtle flaunting of cash and waitress-flirtation skills. Sunday is seasonal sports either in person or on TV at the pub.
Dad tones it down, apparently, when I visit; we swap the ball games for clothes-shopping at Macy’s, and I am not grilled about anything. He buys me a much-coveted pair of Frye boots just like the cool girls wear at Halsey, our junior high. I like when he takes me to the movies.
William, newly sophisticated straight-C student at Music & Art on Amsterdam Ave, and recent convert to what would soon be termed NWOBHM bands, has recently been caught shoplifting Circus magazine from Phil’s Hot Corner. He has biweekly lessons with Chaitanya while playing in two different metal bands with guys several years older. He smokes weed openly in our living room, with no consequences because Mom, who now asks us to call her Manjula, has pretty much moved out of our place and up to the ashram.
We’ve been forbidden to inform anyone of this. (“Just a little white lie, honey.”)
I am simultaneously envious of William’s freedom-seeking bravado and repulsed by his lapse into juvenile delinquency. I still follow the tenets of raja yoga, as laid down by the sage Patanjali, mediated by Swami K, and delivered by the perfect vehicle of Jyothi, who, more than Swami K or even my mother, seems the embodiment of all that is holy in the world. For one, Jyothi would never tell a little white lie, as it flies in the face of the Vedic teachings on Satya, truthfulness.
One autumn evening during an increasingly more common weekend stayover at K-Town, Jyothi invites me to stay with her and the girls in their quarters, a huge, fortified yurt built in the woods, behind the swingset where I first met her daughters. Mom has been in complete silence now for three months, and while she still wants me near her, I find the lack of interaction irritating and lonely.
The yurt is divided by curtains into a common area, Jyothi’s cubicle, a shared bedroom for the girls, and a makeshift kitchen off the living room. The toilet is a bucket outside. Everyone showers and eats in the main house anyway, so the rustic furnishings aren’t quite as dire as they sound.
We are all lying in close proximity in the common area, on a big woollen rug, near a space heater. Anandi has entered surly teenagerhood like William, and she shuns Astrid, Bhavani and myself by draping herself over the ancient Barcalounger–the only real piece of furniture in the yurt–and paging intently through a 3-month-old copy of Mademoiselle that she found at a bus stop, never allowing her eyes to stray from the pages.
“She’s going through a phase,” I’ve heard Jyothi tell others, wistfully and almost proudly. Salem cigarettes and fashion magazines seem to be the worst of it–even in her hormonal meanness she manages to be softer and sweeter than most of the girls at Halsey, who have since developed more sophisticated methods of exclusion than calling me names on the playground. Anandi has a fascination with witchcraft, but that’s barely considered an eccentricity here, much less a thing of concern. The days of group hugs are gone, but we share an easy bond that requires very little conversation. I lean up against Jyothi’s knees as she brushes my hair.
“Honey, Manjula is going to make an announcement at satsang tonight, and I just want to prepare you for it.”
“She’s going to talk?”
“You have such pretty hair,” she says, gently grabbing a fistful, and I know she’s not deflecting, she’s enraptured by the texture of things. “Anyway, yes, Manjula is going to break her silence tonight.”
“She loves you and William very much.”
“And she believes, deep in her heart, that by communing with God, studying the scriptures, that she’s learning how to be a better channel…”
“A better person, a better mom. But she needs to spend some time alone and really go deep with it.”
“I get it, that’s why she moved up here. That’s why I have to take the subway and the stupid train and then a taxi on Friday nights. And then the reverse on Sunday.”
She squeezes my shoulders gently, and repositions herself in front of me.
“I understand, that’s a long trip, sweetie.”
“But what Manjula is going to announce tonight is that she’s going to take a year in India, to go do her service at another ashram.”
I feel like I’ve been punched in the chest, more deeply shocked than I had been when Mom left Dad.
“What about Gurudev? Won’t he be mad?”
“Of course not, honey. He’s happy for her, he’s the one that arranged it. She’s really going all the way. She’s going to study with an old friend of his in Bangalore, take a vow of silence, do lots more service there than she can do here.”
“And why are you telling me this? Why doesn’t she tell me?”
Jyothi wrinkles her face into a frowning smile that says everything. It is the same “oh-you-know-how-your-mother-is” expression that she has given me at every juncture of Mom’s spiritual journey. It is the face she uses when Mom, immersed in a blissful meditation, forgets to pick me up after kids’ yoga when I am six. The face reemerges when Manjula starts wearing orange robes (technically only appropriate for a monk, but Gurudev is lax about such things), or when she informs me breathlessly, giddily, at age 10, that someday soon my “moon time” will come and gifts me with a horrifying contraption to hold my blood that gives me nightmares for days. Jyothi has always been there to explain my mother’s weirdnesses in a way that comforts me without criticizing her.
“I think she wanted to tell you weeks ago, but was afraid you wouldn’t come up this weekend. She didn’t want to spoil things.”
I look over at Astrid and Bhavani, smiling and nodding sweetly, simpatico, and at Anandi who finally looks up from her magazine. She fixes her eyes on me for the first time this afternoon:
“Your mom. I can put a hex on her if you want.”
Silence fills the yurt. And then laughter from all five of us that feels like it’s ripping our ribcages apart. I want to take her up on it.
This evening’s fire ceremony and satsang are held not in the fireplace room in the main house, as usual, but in the barn, as many more attendees are expected–guests from a juice cleanse retreat plus leaf-peepers who want somewhere inexpensive to board for the weekend. You can always tell right away when someone stays overnight at K-Town because they figure it’s cheaper than a hotel–the men always look mildly confused and suspicious, the women apologetic, and both can be downright aggressive when they find out that breakfast is amaranth porridge and no coffee. But usually by Saturday night they’ve calmed down and are willing to take in the weird splendor of a harmonium-led singalong.
After kirtan and Gurudev’s lecture, Manjula gets up on the small platform stage and starts her address.
She clears her throat and waits.
“We love you, Manj!!” shouts Marvin, a weekend ashramite who teeters on the edge of joining permanently, but can’t convince his young second wife, who desperately wants to have children, to make the leap. He is an entertainment lawyer from Riverdale, drives up to K-Town on Thursday nights still dressed in his brown or navy pinstripe suit. Every time I hear a Steely Dan song, I imagine it’s Marvin singing.
Mom blushes, looks down, starts again.
“Love you, too. Wow, it feels weird to…you know…words!” The crowd laughs gently. She seems frail, and the ice melts in my chest and throat as I see her struggling to capture her huge feelings and funnel them into tiny sounds.
“Friends, my time at K-Town has been transformative. I’ve never quite felt like a part of the regular, 3-D world. The day I first set foot in this place…” She pauses, overcome. “I felt something clicking, something I always wanted but didn’t know how to find.”
My mind flies back to that first day when we met Kavi, and how peaceful she had seemed on the ride home.
“I remember shortly before learning about K-Town, I was sitting in the living room with my daughter, Laurie–”
Anandi and Astrid start chanting “Lau-RIE! Lau-RIE!” and the sangha chuckles lightly.
“Yes, that one!” Mom smiles and points at me.
“She was about five, and she had fallen asleep in my lap while watching our evening shows. I picked her up, and she…you know…hugged my neck, like, wrapped her arms around me and let me carry her to her bed. Such…trust. Such love,” she pauses and looks away. “And the way she felt in my arms, it brought me back, with my whole body, to my own parents, who’d take turns carrying me downstairs in the mornings from my bedroom to the kitchen for breakfast. In that moment with my daughter, I could feel my father’s wool bathrobe scratching my cheek, I could feel the safety of his arms. And this is important in a couple ways…”
The people listening, even the leaf-peepers, are receiving her with rapt attention.
“One, because that safety, that sense of being held were with me from the first time I met Kavi, the first time I smelled the fireplace, first time I listened to Gurudev’s lecture on the Gita…which…I’m pretty sure it was chapter 2, verse 47…’Set your heart upon your work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward, but never cease to do your work.’…I realized that my work had just begun,” She pauses, perhaps sensing that it is a natural place to stop. She looks over at Gurudev, half-asleep in his easy chair and gives him a bright smile.
“…But there was something else significant about carrying Laurie to her bed. While having that full-body memory, that sense that I was deeply tied to my family…my now-family and my parents and ancestors, and all that… I also knew that, as big as that was, it wasn’t everything. It was just the history of my flesh, and the flesh it came from, and the flesh I’d carried into the world…”
Mom’s eyes are unfocused. She looks dreamy and transcendent, and I know this is an important moment for her, but there is something terrifying to me about being the feature player in someone’s realization that we are all just…meat.
“….and I knew that this body was having a…was having a body memory, but just because it was this big and expansive sense of history didn’t make it real. I knew that this couldn’t be the only thing to live for…and coming here that beautiful summer day… I knew…there was more to life than just this carcass. I’d been going to church all my life and never felt a fraction of that spiritual…um, deliverance, that sense of shaking off this world…And you good people taught me how to do that, taught me how to practice this, every single day.” She wells up, “And that’s a debt I can never repay. Being in mauna–that’s silence, for you newbies!–” quiet laughter “has continued to show me the depths of my experience that are so…beyond words. And I want to continue this exploration, and hopefully convey it to others, and hopefully….heal the world.”
She blushes again and smiles at the last line, taken aback at its grandiosity, and course-corrects: “…and, you know, do a lot of mopping and cleaning toilets in an orphanage in Bangalore!” People laugh and cheer her on.
She provides a few more practical details of her imminent departure, and then the evening ends with three repetitions of the Rudra Mantra for Manjula’s well-being, and a victory chant directed to all the saints and sages.
Mom comes to me directly and administers a hug. Part of me wants to melt into her forever. Part of me wants to run away screaming. I split the difference by being a jerk. “I’m sorry I’m just a lump of flesh, Manjula.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were going away? Why did you get Jyothi to break the news?”
Mom puts her hand on the small of my back and guides me out of the barn. I shuffle along reluctantly but obediently and I can see her wave to people as we exit.
“Sweetheart. Laurie. I only just decided this, and it got rubber-stamped so quickly I barely had time to adjust. I didn’t ask Jyothi to tell you, she volunteered. I wanted to spend my last Saturday here in silence. I’m so sorry if that hurt you.”
“And what about William? And the apartment? And–how are we supposed to survive?”
“Honey, your father has been paying rent on that apartment all along. It’s rent-controlled, it’s not a lot. And he will continue to pay. And you can still visit K-Town as often as you like, and you can write me letters in India…I want to hear how eighth grade is going!”
“But you won’t write back!”
“That’s right, I can’t write back, not if I’m doing mauna the way it needs to be done.”
I turn away, heading for Jyothi’s quarters.
“Laurie, I’ll write back. I’ll write back. I’ll even call you and you can talk to me, and I’ll listen. I promise. I’m going to call William and your dad tomorrow if they’re not at some hockey game, and let them know all about this.”
“Dad is going to be mad,” I say through a clenched jaw.
“Let him be mad. It’s not my concern. Or yours.”
I decide to finish out the eighth grade at Halsey, and move in with Dad the summer after. I don’t get into Stuyvesant, so my dad enrolls me in Norman Thomas, which sucks but I don’t care, I have the ability to tune out the world on demand. I talk to Jyothi and the girls on the phone, weekly at first, and then more like monthly, and then a few times a year. I do my last year of high school at City-As, interning, among other places, at a hellish sports radio station, which at least gives me and Dad something to talk about at dinner.
William shares the Rego Park apartment with his friends from the terribly-named Deep Thunder, the metal band that ends up taking him past his “gap year” and into five years of touring and recording, after which he makes a good-enough living teaching drums and piano and doing studio and gig work.
Manjula, to no one’s surprise, decides to stay in Bangalore and take her sannyasin’s vows. She is now Swami Dayananda. She’s no longer silent, but she has formally renounced the world. Her visits are infrequent. Her eyes shine.
I don’t come back to K-Town again until I’m 40 years old, on a gloomy day in mid-October.
I’ve gotten the summons from William, who still visits Chaitanya once a year and performs ragas with a sitarist in the big barn. He tells me our mother is ailing. She has only recently returned from India, and has re-embedded herself quickly and smoothly into the K-Town community, heading up their hospitality department, performing fire ceremonies twice a week, lecturing about the Gita and the sutras and Advaita Vedanta to the handful of ashramites, maybe 10 or so, who have remained. New people come and go in various rotations, but the members who have lived and studied with the living guru are becoming scarce. Gurudev has long ago left his corporeal form, and the ashram has become a retreat center for harried New Yorkers.
I’ve since left New York altogether, and earn my living as a speech pathologist in a small town near the Jersey shore, to be near Dad, who has retired there and needs a hand now and then.
“How bad is it?” I ask William on the phone, on my drive up. I haven’t spoken with Manjula, Swami Dayananda, Mom, in about six months.
“You know, she asked me to come visit her at K-Town, and when I said I had a show this weekend, she said, ‘Maybe you should get someone to cover for you.’ That has never, ever happened.”
It’s true–Manjula feels that William’s drumming is his direct line to God, and she would never hinder a consecrated performance. A lump appears in my throat. I swallow hard and press my foot harder on the gas.
As soon as I get out of the car at K-Town, Kavi comes out of the main house to greet me.
“Laurie!” He is in his 60s now, mostly bald, still skinny and calm. His eyes pierce mine, and he embraces me warmly.
“Our girl isn’t doing too well. Our beautiful girl….”
“She had been having back pain in India, part of the reason she decided to come back home. About a month or so ago, she finally went to get checked.. It’s serious. She has spinal tumors, and the cancer has spread…Stage 4 meso…mesothelioma?…She’s receiving hospice care, and we’ve got an end-of-life doula seeing to her every need.”
He directs me to her room upstairs in the main house. William is sitting cross-legged on the floor near her bed, eyes closed, praying.
Our mother lies on her back, and I’m startled to see that she has grown her hair out. It is all grey, but almost as thick, wavy, and gleaming as in her youth..my youth. Her eyes open when she hears me enter the room.
I don’t know what to say. It doesn’t matter. I sit next to her tiny body on the bed, take her hand, and don’t let it go.
For the next two days, some combination of William, Jyothi, Kavi, and I adhere to her side, making her last breaths, her last hours, in her problematic body as pain-free as possible.
“Is it time?” Kavi asks her on the morning of the third day.
“It’s always time,” my mother says. “It’s always time out there…” she points her finger away from her, out the window to the maple trees outside, ignited with orange leaves about to make their final descent, and then directs the finger back at her chest. “But no time..no time passes in here.”
“That’s right, Manjula, “ Kavi smiles serenely.
William and I are on opposite sides of her. She takes our hands in hers.
Her mouth moves but nothing comes out. I watch the last failure of her lips to form words.
By the time the sun sets in the evening, she’s gone.
I walk among the trees, inhale their beautiful deathlife smell, and try to imagine what life will be like without her. All I’m left with is the feeling of being carried for a while, and then gently placed down on the ground.