Mother Tongue

Richa Pokhrel


We’ve been holding hands for the last twenty minutes. Her small bony fingers intertwine with my plump mocha colored ones. I do most of the hand holding as she stares at the water ahead of us. My hand damp as drops of sweat puddle between the two palms. The humidity holding me in a tight hug, but she doesn’t seem to notice. We are sitting on our favorite bench, the one dedicated to the Thompson Family. My round behind isn’t comfortable on the firm wood, even with all my extra padding.  Grandma’s ninety pound body is relaxed. She likes this spot because the bench sits right under a big Oak tree, the ample branches casting a cool shade underneath. Today, the water is murky, the opaqueness makes it hard to see what’s beneath the surface.

Woodstock Lake is swaying to the touch of the light morning breeze.  On this August day, there are few boats out in the water. I imagine more will come as the day moves forward.  The park gets crowded in the afternoon sun, all kinds of people enjoying the picturesque Midwestern landscape. Country music blasts from one of the boats, the blue and silver one closest to us on the left. The name Lucy and a pink and yellow orchid are sprawled across the side. I tap my feet lightly on the ground, matching it to the upbeat tune. Grandma’s dark eyes are focused straight ahead, blinking every few seconds. Even on this hot day, she still dresses in her favorite violet sari, the thick cotton one with a silver flower edge. She received it from my grandfather for her 60th birthday, many years ago. Her long beaded red pote hangs low on her chest.  

Grandma and I’ve been coming here for the last several weeks. Our routine is mostly the same, and I am the only one she wants to come with. When she first moved to America to live with us, we brought her here during her first few days. The look on her face when she saw all the baby ducks swimming in the water brought smiles to everyone’s mouth. She squealed like a little toddler who sees tiny animals for the first time. I was a little embarrassed at first by her outward enthusiasm, but her joy was contagious, and even I couldn’t help smiling.  

Lately, I’ve been thinking alot about the past, digging into my cherished memories, smiling at my old adventures. Flashes of my childhood pop into my head like bubbles you’d blow during the 4th of July parade. For the first few years of my youth, my parents shipped me off to Nepal to spend summers with my grandparents. All of my cousins would be there too and we’d all fight over who got to sleep next to grandma. My favorite part about those summers was assisting her in the early morning as she milked their three cows. Grandma would put me on her lap, guiding my hand with hers as we milked them one by one.  Afterwards, she would heat the milk in a big silver pot. For the children, she’d put a teaspoon of honey to sweeten the thick warm liquid. All of us would have frothy white mustaches as we drank from small copper cups.  

The sight of the pink and yellow orchid transports me to my last time in Nepal.  I had gone during winter break, which was so different because my other cousins were all away at school. My grandparents decided that the three of us should go on a trip to Pokhara a week before I was to return home. We got a midnight bus from the outskirts of Kathmandu, passengers sardined into the vehicle, some even sitting on the top with our luggage. The unpaved hilly roads upset my stomach, and I felt queasy the whole time. Grandma saw my discomfort and laid me across their lap. I tried to sleep so I could focus on my dreams rather than my nausea, not wanting the jumbled contents of my stomach to be exposed on the dirty bus floor.

We arrived just as the roosters began crowing and pots of chiya were starting to boil. My grandmother had a cousin there, Sita didi, and we stayed in her two story brick home. The cool morning air felt good and I could smell cardamom and ginger drifting in from the kitchen. I slumped down on the hard thin mattress, falling asleep for a few hours. When I woke, there was an atmosphere of hustle and bustle in the house. My grandparents were happily talking to the other adults, gesturing with their hands as they reminisced about the past. Even then my Nepali was not fluent enough to understand every word, but I was able to get the gist of their stories.

In the late afternoon the three of us went to Fewa Lake. We rented a bright green and yellow wooden canoe to ride the steady water. They told me stories of their childhood and stories about my aama when she was my age. We laughed and laughed as if the air had been doused in laughing gas, tears streaming down my face and my stomach hurting, but I couldn’t stop myself.  As we laughed the hour away, we were startled by heavy rains. Dense, dark clouds seemed to appear out of nowhere, letting loose a torrent of rain. Through the downpour, we couldn’t see anything, not even our hands. I was so scared, but grandma drew me closer to her ample bosom, shielding me from the heavy drops hitting my body. My fear evaporated just as the dark skies cleared. A beautiful rainbow appeared in front of us, the vibrant colors reflecting on the clear blue and teal water. Surrounding us were the Himalayas, each of them looking like white snow cones in the distance. I have never forgotten that time. It’s one of my favorite memories. The adventures the three of us had during that winter break is something I have kept very close to my heart. To this day, I can still remember how that rain felt on me, the coolness hitting my scrawny body, bringing shivers to the skin’s surface.

The giggles of a group of school aged children passing by suddenly jolts Grandma from her drowsy state, shaking me back to the present with her. Scanning the green surroundings and the new faces, a flash of fear shows in her eyes. Unable to recognize her only granddaughter, she turns away from me and she begins her long monologue. Hugging herself, she speaks to the world ahead of her. Nepali words flow out of her like a heavy waterfall, most of which I can’t understand. It sounds like a toddler babbling, “Mero aama ekdam ramri thee, kailay….” She hardly takes a breath to breathe. This is the same monologue every time she goes into this state, the never ending loop rotating inside of her. The children turn their heads to stare at us, the adults shooing them away from the unsettling scene. My face warms, and I avert my eyes downward. It’s been three years since she’s been like this, every year it seems to be getting worse.

When she first started doing this, I didn’t know how I should react, how I should help her. I’ve learned to let her be. But it’s hard to witness her slowly slipping away. I turn back towards the children, their shadows fading as they walk farther away. The last in the group is a small boy holding the hand of a gray haired lady. His superhero tennis shoes light up red and white with every step he takes. His head is turned towards the lady, saying something that puts a big smile on her face. A pang of envy shoots through me, causing me to feel a dull pain.

My hands began to tremble, all my suppressed emotions rising to the surface like a shaken soda can.  Grandma’s stories, her memories, her ability to recognize me, are all disappearing.  I’ve never talked to her about her condition, I don’t mention it, neither does the rest of the family. We don’t want her to know the full severity of her condition. I think she knows.

Ok, I tell myself, it’s time.  I need to express my emotions to her. I need to let it all out before I burst like a balloon. I let out a deep sigh and slowly turn to her, at first avoiding eye contact. She is still staring off in the distance, talking to herself. I put my hand gently on her thin shoulders, touching her white brittle hair. Her voice quiets down and she takes her time turning her head toward me. We look at each other, gazing straight into our dark brown eyes. My whole body trembles, and the only things that come out of me are tears.




Richa Pokhrel is a nonprofit professional who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is originally from Nepal. In her free time, she likes to read, cook, hike with her dog, and make up stories. She also edits Nepali Chhori, a blog dedicated to talking about issues affecting Nepali women.