My Voice - 2019

Show Don't Tell

By Vidya Murlidhar

My husband and I moved to Charlotte from India in 2012, our two pre-teen children and his eighty-one-year-old father in tow. We had lived in Schaumburg, IL, a suburb of Chicago, for a decade before moving to India in 2007 so life in the United States was not new to us. Having grown up in Mumbai, we settled in Chicago after our marriage in 1997 during the Y2K revolution. Our kids were born there and that is where we began our journey together as a family. During our stint in Chicago my father-in-law, who was a widower, spent the majority of his time in India.

He was younger and relished his independence. He chose to come and visit us in the States he pleased. He would spend a couple months with us in Chicago and a few months with my husband's brother in Dallas and return to his home in Mumbai. Then somewhere in the year 2007, when we realized that the arduous travel between the two nations and across the oceans was getting increasingly difficult for him, we thought it best to move back to India to be close to him. When a good work opportunity for my husband arose in India, he gladly took up the offer.

Soon after we relocated to India though we realized that our kids were unhappy there. And after five years of watching them struggle to fit in, we decided to move back to the United States. My husband and I spent months contemplating this decision. We were torn between the wellbeing of our kids and his father.

To our kids, America has always been home. Even today their answer to the quintessential query, “Where are you from?" elicits the response “Chicago." For my husband and me, the answer to the question varies. At a big fat Indian gathering, our answer is always Mumbai. At the local golf club in Charlotte, it's Chicago. We've created homes in both countries.

We belong here and there. But to my father-in-law, after eight decades of being steeped in the culture and traditions of that bustling metropolis, the answer is and will always be Mumbai.

I still remember the day in Mumbai when my husband had gently shared the news with his father about our impending move to Charlotte. “Appa, I have a job offer in Charlotte and I want to take it up. It's the best thing for the kids now I think to go back. Will you join us? If you choose to stay back, we will worry about you having to live alone."

To everyone's utter amazement he agreed at once, wholeheartedly. “I want what's best for you and the family. If the kids are better off there, then I will be too. I will join you." With that he left behind all that was known to him, for us. As a mother whose life was deeply entwined with the longing for a better life for my children, I was and will forever be indebted to him for this.

His agreeability made it possible for us to not harbor the guilt of abandoning one generation in search of a better future for another.

Yet, I was anxiety-ridden when we landed in Charlotte. Were we causing my father-in-law a lot of pain by moving him in the years when he most yearned the comfort of his roots? He was never one to complain but wouldn't it be difficult for him to adjust to a new way of life at this point in time? I vowed to myself that I would do everything I could to keep him comfortable.

My father-in-law is a charismatic man and a stickler for discipline. He meticulously followed a schedule when we were in India. He woke up at 6:00 a.m., meditated for an hour, which was followed by a brisk 3K morning walk, laughter exercises and yoga, then breakfast at 8:30 a.m., reading of the newspaper, a bath at 10:30 am, prayers at 11:00, more reading, lunch at 12:30 pm, a nap… you get the point. We didn't need a clock. We knew the time of the day just by watching his activity.

When we moved, he stuck to his routine. It was as if one had superimposed the framework of his schedule on a new background with just a slight change of scenery. He did not have his walk or laughter club buddies from Mumbai here, but he made friends of all ages while on his regular morning and evening walks. Very soon, he was introducing our neighbors to us. The entire neighborhood knew and loved the man with a spirited gait and cheery disposition who walked in rain, sun or snow. Maybe, adhering to a routine gave him a sense of comfort, a knowing that things hadn't changed much.

They say that with age comes a staunch rigidity, yet in him I saw the perfect amalgamation of rigidity and mellowness. He soon developed a fetish for certain American brands. His morning breakfast had to be the right ratio of Cheerios to Special K, the raisins had to be Sun Maid, and the only bread he wanted was the Arnold's 12-grain variety. He was stern in many ways, yet if you narrated to him an anecdote about a child's innocence, his eyes would well up.

My father-in-law did everything he could to help us make our life here easy. He did his laundry, folded and ironed his own clothes, kept the grocery list updated for me and made sure to rinse the plates and cups he used every day. And when he discovered that our local grocery store Harris Teeter gave a 5 percent discount to senior citizens on Thursdays, weekly trips to HT on the said day became an integral part of our routine.

Every Thursday after his afternoon siesta, he would dress himself in crisply ironed trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, fasten his belt, put on a stylish pair of sunglasses, one with a golden rim and we would set forth to the store, grocery list stashed in his pocket. An ardent lover of fruits, the array of so many selections delighted him. For this reason and the fact that he could get us a discount because of his senior status, HT was one of his favorite destinations in Charlotte. The glee I saw in him when he stepped foot into the store was akin to that of my son at the Lego store.

That is why on his 86th birthday which happened to fall on a Thursday, I thought it only befitting to have a little celebration in the store with the staff there who knew him so well. When we came up to the billing counter after we had shopped, the staff at HT gathered around to sing for him.

He was delighted. After the cashier rang up our produce, she asked him as she would normally to any customer, if he had any coupons. Standing there, flashing his charming smile and twirling his thick white mustache, he replied, “I AM the coupon."

As writers we are often asked to show, not tell. My father-in-law comes from a generation where words were rarely used as an expression of love. Till date, I haven't heard him say “I love you" to anyone in the family yet I have experienced his love in abundance in every little act of his. To me, he is the finest example of Show, Don't Tell.


Vidya Murlidhar's articles have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Mothers Always Write, Grown and Flown, Life Positive and other places.