I was talking to my grandmother the other day. I like to call her every few days on my drive home from work just to see how she is doing and what she is up to.
During the conversation she mentioned that her friend Shanta sold her house and was moving from New York to southern New Jersey to live closer to her youngest daughter. Shanta was going to come by with her husband the following day to say goodbye. “I think there will be a lot of tears” my grandmother said.
My grandmother is of the generation of Americans for whom diversity and multiculturalism didn’t really register. Most of the people she interacts with are neighbors or members of her church who tend to be Irish-American-Catholics. Most of the people she talks about have names like “Shea,” and “O’Brien,” and “Corcoran.”
But there is one name from her stories that always sticks out—her “good Indian friend Shanta.” (That’s usually how she references her in stories).
Before my grandmother retired she worked for many years at a pharmaceutical company. She was part of the cleaning staff that worked scrubbing test tubes and glassware for the chemists. A lot of the scientists looked down on the cleaning staff assuming they were unintelligent or not on the same level. However one chemist in particular developed a warm friendship with my grandmother over the many years they worked together in the lab. She was a Christian Indian from Chennai named Shanta.
They would share lunches together, and stories, and pictures of their kids and grandkids. They would giggle like school girls, and watch each other’s backs, and exchange Christmas presents (I think my grandmother must have gifted her every book about Mother Theresa ever written). When my grandmother finally retired they kept in touch. They would meet for lunches in town, and send each other Christmas cards. Shanta called my grandmother faithfully every single St. Patrick’s Day.
I remember one story my grandmother told me about how when Shanta first arrived from India she was studying in Minnesota or Wisconsin (or some other cold wintery state). She was a newly married woman, and had arrived in the US dutifully wearing saris every day (Shanta was of that generation too). However once, during the dead of winter, her science class had to go out into the field to collect samples for the lab. She had to trudge through the snow in a sari, freezing and wet, and afterward decided her clothing choices would have to favor practicality over tradition.
Even though my grandmother has loved P since the beginning, I somehow feel that Shanta helped her be more comfortable with the idea of a South Asian in the family. Even if they didn’t discuss the topic, although I’m sure they did during one lunch or another, having a friend from that part of the world opens one up to different ideas about culture, relationships and people.
“I’m really going to miss her” my grandmother said, “I’m sure we will still talk on the phone, but it won’t be the same. You know, I’ve now known her longer in my retired life then when we worked together in the lab? She was so good to me. I enjoyed our lunches together, and she always insisted that if I ever needed anything I should call. I didn’t want to bother her, they had their own stuff going on, but if there was a snow storm Shanta’s husband would come by and shovel for me. They are such good people. So loyal and kind.”
“I know what you mean,” I responded, “our Nepali friends are the same way. They would be there for us, no matter what.”
“I think there will be a lot of tears when they come by tomorrow to say goodbye” she said.