by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa
Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh. Last month, I traveled to Los Angeles for Sikh Dharmaâ€™s annual Baisakhi celebration at the LA Convention Center. Iâ€™d like to say it was all pleasure and no work, but thatâ€™s somebody elseâ€™s life, not mine. Kirtan Singh invited me to come and help their Baisakhi planning team with PR â€“ so the Friday before the event, he, myself, and a few others drove to the Convention Center to scope out the hall where we would be holding our Baisakhi press conference. Ever since September 11th, we â€“ all of us â€“ in the Sikh community have been profoundly aware of how necessary it is to educate the public about the Sikh faith. About the Sikh identity. Most of all â€“ about the Sikh turban. While Baisakhi is mainly a time to come together as sangat and pray, in Los Angeles, at any rate, it has also become an opportunity to reach out to the public and say, “This is who we are.”Â – Read the full post
We went to the Convention Center to preview the space, and coincidences of coincidences, the California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson and the Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa were holding a press conference in the exact same place – talking about the issue of immigration. Hundreds of people had become US citizens that day. They gathered around, with big smiles, waving miniature US flags, listening to the dignitaries talk about their views on immigration and citizenship. We watched the press conference closely â€“ not because of the immigration issue, but to see how we could make the space successful for our event. TV cameras milled around, the Secretary of State spoke eloquently about supporting people living in California to go through the process of becoming citizens. And we stood off to the side, a group of people in turbans, admiring the backdrop they were using during the conference and wondering where they got the cool portable Secretary of State seal that was mounted so professionally on the podium.
Eventually, the camera men began to pack up their equipment. The Mayor walked away from the microphone and took time to speak with people one on one. Newly sworn-in citizens of the United States left to return to their homes or their jobs, and it was finally time for the Secretary of State to leave the hall.
I stood near the escalator, not talking to anyone, just people-watching â€“ when all of the sudden, on his way to the escalator, the Secretary of State strode very purposely and confidently up to me. He held out his hand, took mine in a warm handshake, and with a deep and truly sincere smile in his eyes said, “Congratulations.”
For a moment, I didnâ€™t know what to say. Here was the Secretary of State of California picking me randomly out of a crowd to congratulate me on becoming a US citizen.
It wasnâ€™t a press moment. There wasnâ€™t anyone around to â€œwitnessâ€¿ this. There was no PR reason for him to do it. He was so sincere, so heart-felt, so kind and warm and real in offering me congratulations that I just stood there stunned, in silence for a moment, not knowing what to do.
It shouldnâ€™t have surprised me that he would have thought I was an immigrant. Standing there in a turban and chuni, with a shawl draped around my shoulders and my purse strategically covering my kirpan â€“ I definitely looked exotic. Other-worldly. No one would have pegged me as a born-and-bred American. Oh â€“ maybe if Iâ€™d had a few tattoos on my arms, my nose pierced and my hair dyed a shocking pink I could have passed. But the turbanâ€¦that just must have just looked a little too unusual.
Finally, realizing I had to say something, I smiled back at the Secretary and said, â€œThank you.â€¿
He kept holding my hand, waiting for me to say more. Not wanting to hurt his feelings (he was so kind about it), but also not wanting to misrepresent myself, I said very quietly, â€œUmmâ€¦I actually was bornâ€¦.â€¿
His eyes widened as he began to comprehend what I was saying. â€œOh â€“ you were bornâ€¦?â€¿
Born in the United States.
At that moment, Kirtan Singh, who hadnâ€™t heard the Secretary of Stateâ€™s words to me, but had the presence of mind to walk over and do his oh -so -suave diplomacy, introduced himself. â€œSecretary of State McPherson, Iâ€™m Kirtan Singh Khalsa with Sikh Dharma International,â€¿ handing the Secretary his business card. â€œWe have been hoping you could attend our Baisakhi event for years. Will you be in town on Sunday? We would love for you to come.â€¿
The conversation turned in a more formal direction as the Secretary expressed a seemingly genuine interest in attending the event, but regretted he would be in another part of the state on Sunday. Before he left however, he turned to me with a wry smile. â€œMy ancestors used to wear kilts, you know.â€¿
I understood what he meant. In the collective psyche of this country, there is an assumption that becoming a citizen means leaving your old life behind. Giving up the language you spoke in the old country. Giving up the dress, the culture, the social structure. The food always gets integrated. No one has to give up their cuisine. But becoming â€œAmericanâ€¿ means replacing the kilt with a pair of trousers. Speaking English at home instead of Gaelic. Keeping the stories of where you came from and what your familyâ€™s life had been like â€œBack then. Back there.â€¿
But leaving it all behind.
Later that day, I shared the story of what happened with a friend of mine â€“ who, like me, was born in the United States and has become a Sikh. He laughed and said, â€œOh God â€“ I wish that had happened to me. I would have had the perfect response!â€¿
â€œReally?â€¿ I asked him. â€œWhat would you have said?â€¿
â€œI would have said â€“ Secretary â€“ my family came here in 1897. And itâ€™s about time somebody said congratulations!â€¿
In the limousine on the way to the cemetery, my father and the limousine driver talk about the immigration issue. Both of them in their 60â€™s, both from Irish Catholic families, both having grown up in South Jersey. â€œThereâ€™s nothing wrong with them being here,â€¿ the driver says to my dad. â€œThey should just go through the paperwork like the rest of us had to.â€¿
The rest of us.
You would think he was talking about something that happened a couple months ago or a couple years ago â€“ not something that happened a couple generations ago. But among these close-knit families who came over together at the turn of the century â€“ a couple generations ago is just like yesterday.
My fatherâ€™s sister passed away Baisakhi weekend. In the Catholic faith, it was the day before Easter. My aunt, Eileen, had lived her life a very devoted Catholic. Not fanatic. But devoted. And I know it was Godâ€™s blessing that He called her home right at Easter time.
Ten days after her death, I am with my family in New Jersey in the back seat of a limousine, leaving St. Maryâ€™s Catholic Church and traveling to the cemetery where great aunts and uncles, second cousins and distant relations wait for the Day of Judgment together. In death, the cemetery becomes a family reunion. â€œYour great aunt such-and-such is buried here with her husband.â€¿ â€œYour grandfather is buried over there.â€¿ â€œThis is the plot where your father will be buried when he diesâ€“ where your mother will be buried when she dies.â€¿ Those social ties go from birth to grave, and even where you are buried, who you are buried with or next to can become a politic. There are no spots for my two brothers, my sister or I. By the time my generation came along, all the plots in the cemetery had been sold. For the newcomers, itâ€™s cremation and a sealed spot in a Memorial Wall for the ashes.
For the last few days, I have watched my father as the family rolled up its sleeves to help clean my auntâ€™s home. My aunt, who lived with my grandmother until my grandmotherâ€™s death ten years ago. For my father, it is like taking a forced walk down memory lane. My aunt has his elementary school report cards in a box under her bead â€“ which my sister and I read with too much enjoyment. There are photo albums upon photo albums upon photo albums. And then there is the photo album of the family tree that starts with the cousins in Ireland â€“ the ones who stayed. And progresses to the photos of the great-grandparents and aunts and uncles who hopped on the boat. Because it was better to risk coming to the United States than to stay in Ireland and starve.
Looking at these old faded black and white pictures that chronicle the generations for nearly a century, I watch my father fall into a reverie that I have never seen in him before. He knows all these people. He knows all of their stories. Who married who. Who begot who. What kind of work they did â€“ who got who a job in whatever South Jersey blue-collar industry the Irish took over. Who was a cheat or a thief. Who was kind, gentle and honorable. He recites these stories in an almost sing-songy wayÂ – something he has heard since childhood over and over and over and over and over againÂ – where even if he wanted to try to forget â€“ he wasnâ€™t allowed to forget. This is where you came from. This is who you are. This is what you have to be.
But my father, like me, is a rebel. And while he talks, I can see deep inside these are the stories of the shackles he fought his whole life to break free from. When I was a child, he would get angry if we said we were, â€œHalf-Irish and Half Italian. â€œYouâ€™re American, he would say. â€œYouâ€™re not Irish. Youâ€™re not Italian. Youâ€™re American. And it is only now â€“ 30 years later â€“ that I understand his fierceness.
My aunt never got out of it. She spent her life repeating the stories her mother told her â€“ about the cousin who came to the United States and then went back to Ireland to marry her true love. About the Kearnys and the Dunns â€“ the different Irish clans â€“ who did what to whom, what the relationships were. She and her cousin Charlie tried to trace the family tree back as far as they could. And she traveled to Ireland regularly, to meet with the cousins there. To keep the social connections, the family relations going.
The night before the funeral, there is a wake at the funeral parlor. My aunt is in the casket for all to view. Cousins of my fatherâ€™s come to pay their respects â€“ people we havenâ€™t seen since my grandmotherâ€™s death ten years ago. This is a time for the family â€“ but my sister and I almost get into a fight about me wearing my turban to the wake and the funeral. My mother says it wonâ€™t be a problem and, as in all families, motherâ€™s word is law. I wear the turban, but no one has to try and pronounce my Sikh name â€“ Ek Ong Kaar Kaur. For now, I am once again Bernadette â€“ the daughter of Jim and Dee â€“ and if you donâ€™t look too closely, the Sikh bana I wear is not all that different from the habit of a nun.
My fatherâ€™s cousins are delighted to see him. And like the stereotype in the movies, an Irish wake can, after all, be a merry affair. Thereâ€™s questions and laughter, love and tears. And I see the deep bond my father has with these people â€“ these people he only sees at funerals once in a decade.
At the cemetery, the cherry trees are in blossom and pink petals are scattered across the green grass, as if the wind was a flower girl celebrating the path of a bride. It is beautiful and quiet, and the priest reads the last words as we gather around the casket. He is old and has read these words thousands of times before. He does it with an impersonal kindness. Then each of us in the family places a rose on the casket, one by one, to say our last good-bye.
Standing distant from my own self in the cemetery, I watch these last rites and realize that the process my father started has continued with me. He could never completely break free from the bonds of the past â€“ the past generations â€“ Ireland, all the pain and wounds, all the joy and relations. He tried to forget, to move on, but something in him could never completely walk away.
For me, the stories of my ancestors mean little. I am third generation immigrant born on both sides of the family â€“ and it explains the color of my hair, perhaps, the shape of my eyes. But the stories of my forefathers have no emotional hold on me. If I were to ever have children, the story I would share with them would be a very different story â€“ and wouldnâ€™t include the cousins in Ireland or the way my grandmother met my grandfather or the argument someone had with someone else half a century ago.
It would be a very different story indeed.
In the parlance of science, there is a speed a rocket has to travel to escape the gravity of the earth. Once free of the earthâ€™s gravity, the rocket needs far less fuel to propel itself forward, to discover new territory in the vast openess of space.
Memory has its own gravity – of the past, of all that lies unresolved in the collective unconscious of our relatives. And through the stories they give us, it becomes a weight to hold us down, to hold us back, to keep us focused on something that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the journey our spirits would choose to make. Even though it defines us, we strive to escape the trap of memory because it also limits us, confines us, keeps us bound to someone elseâ€™s life but not our own.
Standing in the cemetery, with the breeze blowing, I feel that space. â€œSaibhangâ€¿ Guru Nanak calls it. The spirit unbound moving by its own purity and projection. To whatever extent I have escaped the pull of the past â€“ that has given me a future. And my soul is like a rocket ship â€“ free to explore the singular moment of my life, without attachment to the past or the need to call any place home.
All love in the Divine,
Ek Ong Kaar Kaur