From Foreigner to Family, Finally Finding My Place

I first met my mother-in-law on a warm day in autumn. I wore a green silk sari embroidered with silver paisley motifs, open toe sandals, silver anklets, filigree earrings, and a green bindi on my forehead. My waist-length hair was unbraided.

Sitting on the edge of her winter-white couch in her spotless blue living room, I listened to nervous chatter interspersed with repetitions of ''Can I get you something to drink?'', ''Are you sure?'', ''Did you have a good trip?'' I said little that evening. I hid my hands in my lap, in the folds of my sari, and twirled the engagement ring her son had bought me the week before with earnings from his summer job at the University of Maryland.

He had driven 18 hours to Chicago in his yellow Volkswagen Beetle to give it to me. Although it was a small diamond, it radiated a comforting warmth that traveled to the tops of my fingers and back up my arms.

My mother-in-law is petite, a perfect ''lady.'' Like Miss Manners, she bemoans the demise of good old-fashioned etiquette. She lives on Orchard Lane in the same house she entered as a bride a half-century ago and gets her hair done at the same boutique on Dogwood Street every Saturday morning. She used to walk there, but since I-95 was built, she drives the mile to the shop in her new burgundy sedan. She belongs to the same parish that her daughter, Beth, was baptized in five decades ago, and she has now been my mother-in-law for 22 years.

I've often thought about the irony of that first meeting. My mother-in-law has a great distaste for disorder. She believes that loose strands of hair, even wayward curls, should be pinned or spritzed, toes shouldn't be wiggled except within the confines of a stocking, white fingernails belong on albinos, cheeks should be rosy, and earrings should be clasped on ear lobes, not dangled gypsy-style.

Blue and white are her favorite colors. She blends them in beautiful patterns in her elegant clothes and home furnishings.

We are different women, raised on distant continents, a generation and culture apart. I am a permanent visitor to her family and to the United States. As the oath of allegiance confers citizenship but does not erase my Indian-ness, so the marriage vows confer the official status of daughter-in-law, but not inclusion. And yet, the years had been politely smooth, a gentle tug-of-war, of giving up and holding on, in contrived little clever disguises, to one who is undoubtedly hers by birth, mine by choice.

And so, some 20 years after I first met her, I braced myself to give her the news. A week had passed since I had lost my high-powered job in the biopharmaceutical industry. I was shell-shocked.

I couldn't remember the way to my children's school. I couldn't cry or sleep. If only I could get this phone call over with once and for all. What would she think? Doesn't everyone know the corporate world is changing? Business acquisitions and mergers are commonplace, and despite promises, eventually big fish eat little fish and survive.

Would she secretly be pleased that our professional rat race was over? That her son's life could now be as life is supposed to be? Hearty dinners, whiter socks. Or would the numbers interest her? My severance package, my 401-K plan.

I stood by the phone rehearsing my lines for the third time.

''Mother,'' I finally stammered, ''I was laid off a few days ago.''

I looked vaguely at the spray of white orchids on my kitchen windowsill. The centers were a pungent turmeric yellow, like the turmeric (haldi) my own mother uses in her cooking. I could taste its slightly bitter, acrid comfort, although I haven't seen her in a long time. It was quiet except for a few stray sparrows outside.

''Mother?'' I said. No answer. ''Are you there?''

''I just knew it.'' Her voice sounded farther than the few miles that separated us. ''I've been thinking of you. Don't know why but ....''

''I wanted to call you earlier ... but ....''

''Oh, I knew something was wrong. I knew it.'' Her voice was scarcely audible. ''When people care, they know.'' I didn't answer. Quietly she said, ''Tell me what happened.''

I sat on the kitchen stool, exhausted. Words bubbled over, spilling from a giant cauldron of tawdry details. The careful deception, the inhumane and undignified execution of layoffs, the wrenching termination of what was more than a job or even a scientific career. The loss of ownership, the culmination of a decade of nurturing the birth and growth of a company alongside my children. And it had all ended.

My mother-in-law listened silently then cleared her throat. ''You listen to me. You're smart, real smart. You can do....'' Her voice trailed off, ''anything you want. You'll see. You'll come through this and you'll come out on top.''

I heard her take a deep breath. ''It's hard.'' She paused and continued softly. ''But you're strong. You're young. Don't worry. God will....'' Her voice faded over the line.

''You go back over there tomorrow and pack up your personal things. Your scientific papers, documents, everything - put them in the basement. And you come on home.''

And at last I knew she wasn't referring to the house that I had shared with her son for over two decades. I opened my burning eyes. The white orchids with their yellow centers were blooming in a pool of water, floating like water lilies on the kitchen windowsill.

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