Angels In America

When I first came to this country as a young student, I had numbers on my mind. Test scores. GPAs. How many beers I could drink at one time.

But as I look back on those years, I realize that those are no longer the numbers I am proud of.

The number of which I am now the most proud is the number of Christmases I have spent in America. Because I have never spent one alone.

See, when you move to a country you have never even visited before, weird fears cross your mind. Like: What if everybody at Ohio State goes home for the holidays and I'm the only person left on the whole campus?

Like I said, weird. But real.

However, there was one thing I hadn't counted on. And that was America.

Land of friendly strangers and large-hearted people. Where a stranger can become a friend in a heartbeat. Where a baby-boom generation of gypsies make and create new families wherever they go. Where a new generation, living away from hometowns and biological families, has introduced a new concept -- that of choosing your own families.

I am happy to say that over the years, I have belonged to several families. Being in America has changed my concept of what family is -- from the feudal concept of family-is-what-you-were born-into, to the post-modern definition of family-is-who-you-chose-to-spend-your-time-with.

This is not to say that I am not close to my family of origin. If anything, getting older only makes me appreciate them more than I ever did in my angst-filled teen-age years.

But America has allowed me to keep adding new members to my family.

And over the years, I have spent my Christmases with my different families.

My first few Christmases, while I was a student at Ohio State, I spent in a small farmhouse in rural Georgia. I had been in America for only four months and here I was, a child of the city from India, romping around in the woods and eating grits for breakfast.

How did that happen, you ask?

The answer is -- America. For what is America but the endless opportunity to re-create yourself?

Georgia was the beginning of a long journey that finally ended with my becoming an American citizen. It was in Georgia that I first realized that life's supply of friends was not limited but as abundant as the leaves on a maple tree. It was there that I realized that it is possible to have more than one home in this world. It was there that I learned that it was my decision whether to live in my new home, America, as a guest or as a family member.

I went to Georgia at the invitation of my friend Peggy, whom I had met on my second day at Ohio State when I stopped her to ask for street directions. We had talked, walked, exchanged phone numbers, had a few beers together several days later, and stayed friends. Then four months later, I went to Peggy's family home with her.

Good thing, too. Peggy's family is black and after spending 10 days with these good, hard-working, honest, country folks, I'll never believe another racist stereotype in my life. Not that I was likely to anyway, but racism is a virus. Best to keep getting your immunity shots against it.

One stereotype was true. Peggy's family did live on the wrong side of the tracks. Despite working hard all their lives, her parents were poor. Still, you'd never know that if you saw the gifts they bought me for Christmas. Not just her parents, but her whole extended family. I was so choked up, I could hardly manage a thank-you.

The funny thing is, I can't remember any of those gifts now. Because I'm still awe-struck by the biggest one they gave me -- the gift of affection, of inclusion.

The gift of family.

One night stands out in my mind from those days in Georgia. We were driving down a long country road on a moonlit winter's night. There was a lull in the conversation and John Lennon's Happy Xmas (War is Over) came on the radio. I remember listening to that song in silence, as the beautiful, still, night scenery flew past. A sweet, sad, peace came over me. It was one of those moments you know you will always remember, even while you are in it.

Fast forward a few years. Peggy now lived in California and I was working at a small paper near Cleveland. A colleague from work asked me to spend Christmas Day with her family. Not knowing what I was agreeing to, I said yes.

I felt as if I had stumbled into the movie The Sound of Music, as I walked into that living room. Jokes, quips and laughter flew across that room, which was filled with exuberant, laughing, screaming adults and children. My friend and her many siblings were hugging and yelling, "Merry Christmas," to each other. Little children were squealing with joy as they were tossed in the air. My friend's mother, trying to control her brood, was as helpless as a conductor trying to tame an orchestra gone mad.

I watched in amazement, with an only-child's envy and wonder, while these high-spirited people renewed their family ties and caught up with each other's lives. But I barely had time to think of this. Because the roaring, cheerful beast spread its tentacles and drew me into its fold. Suddenly, I, too, was talking at the top of my voice, laughing loudly, swapping quips. The distance between me and them collapsed, as they spun the easy webs of friendship around me.

Soon, the clamor of the children to open their gifts reached its crescendo. And the colorful boxes, with their smiling bows, begged to be opened.

At first, the gift-opening was slow, polite and dignified. But soon a happy chaos took over. Siblings tossed their gift boxes to each other like footballs. There was loud laughter over the gag gifts. There were "Oohs" and "Aahs" over the good ones.

The pile of gift wrap under my own feet grew. All of my friend's siblings had bought me something. And her mother had knitted me a beautiful blue and pink winter scarf. Each time I wear that scarf today, the memories of that Christmas come rushing past.

Finally, it was time to unwrap my friend's gift. I gasped as I saw Bruce Springsteen's five-record box set. With tears in my eyes, I looked up. I saw my friend grinning broadly at my obvious surprise and pleasure.

For Christmas dinner we sat at a beautiful table that was big enough to have served King Arthur and his knights. And as I eyed the twinkling glasses, the sparkling wine, the plates groaning with food, I thought for a brief and shining moment about Camelot.

Other Christmases also stand out in my mind. I remember one because of its simplicity, in contrast to the boisterous Christmases I had been used to.

It was after I started working at the Beacon Journal. I accepted the invitation of a friend who was away from home herself and had invited me to a meal with herself and her teen-aged son. When I got to her house, she was in a frazzled mood. Dinner wasn't ready, her son was in a grumpy mood, and she was feeling the pressure of making Christmas perfect.

"Hey, it's only me, remember?" I reminded my friend. "You don't have to stand on ceremony with me."

She visibly relaxed.

Well, dinner turned to be fine, her son stunned us both with his charming table manners and Christmas was perfect after all. We sat at a beautiful table chatting about everything from James Agee to The Three Stooges to what our individual families were doing on that day.

After dinner, my friend suggested we go to a movie. I agreed, certain that the three of us would be the only people at the theater on Christmas Day. But when we got there, the large crowd of moviegoers, surprised me.

And, suddenly, standing in that crowd of strangers, I felt an incredible sense of community. All those people -- a counter-culture band of nomads, misfits and mavericks -- were redefining the traditional rituals of Christmas in their own, silent way.

This wasn't the Christmas found on Hallmark cards -- the Christmas of snowy woods and fat, jolly old men in red suits. This popcorn-buying Christmas crowd resembled not the old-fashioned, quaint citizens of Norman Rockwell's America, but the cosmopolitan, eclectic, mad-cap citizens of David Letterman's America. This scene said as much about the diversity and easy casualness of contemporary America as did anything else.

Two years ago, I celebrated Christmas with the family of another friend. There was a twinge of melancholy woven into the day. My friend's mother, a brave, feisty, gruff woman, was dying of cancer. All her children had chipped in to buy her a gold ring.

I watched the woman's weathered face as she opened the box and saw her gift. Her face shone as brightly as the ring, with pride and satisfaction.

All around her stood her children, their faces shiny with love, their eyes saying all the things their lips could not. They were saying good-bye and they were saying thank-you -- two of the hardest things to say.

Despite the hair that she lost to chemotherapy, despite the weight she had lost and the pain she was in, I know my friend's mother had a good Christmas -- her last. The ring on her finger, a symbol of her children's love, was all the wealth she needed.

Later on, I gave my friend's mother my Christmas gift. It was a stone angel.

I like to give angels to people. But I have a preference. I like my angels to be cracked. Or chipped. Just damaged slightly, in some way.

I know this sounds strange. Let me explain. See, perfection bewilders me. Being human, I only understand humanity, not divinity. Angels as ethereal creatures with wings and harps mean little to me. I want my angels to be human, to tread on the same mortal Earth that I do. I want my angels to earn their wings, not be born with them. I want them to try to fly as high as they can, to fall flat on their face, and then, to try again. I prefer my angels cracked.

I had not been able to find a cracked angel for her. But after my friend's mom died in 1993, her family gave me back the angel in remembrance of her. Within days of getting it back, the angel fell off my mantelpiece. It is now cracked.

Last Christmas, my friend's family was subdued. The old woman's absence was a strong presence during dinner. Conversations revolved around her favorite recipes, childhood family stories, funny things she had said during her life. The children seemed a little lost, as if a compass had been misplaced.

All that day, I wished I had a cracked angel for all of them. To remind them that their mother had led a good, brave life and had now earned her wings. To console them that they had all done their part in lighting her way to heaven.

And to tell them, that in their silent sorrow and loss, they were actually marking the true spirit of Christmas.

Because, after all, isn't it for a cracked angel who lived, suffered and died 2,000 years ago that we mark this Christmas Day?

Akron Beacon Journal
Sunday, December 25, 1994