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Every Thursday. Welcome to All Together Now Fridays with The Moth. I'm your host for this week, Aliza Kazmi. I've been part of the Moth family for five years, first as part of the education program, then an intern and most recently an assistant producer for the last couple of months. Like so many of you, I find myself growing more and more anxious about the looming uncertainty of the future. But I found comfort in traditions, even the small ones that I certainly took for granted before for me and my family.
One ritual we've held on is on the hottest days. We all buy subway sandwiches and watch the sunset at the beach near our house. There is solace in knowing what's in store during these outings. The only thing that changes is the shade of the sky. Traditions, whether big or small, are a reminder that we are more grounded than we may think or feel. Our story today is from Nina McConaghy, and it's all about traditions. Nina told the story at a Moth mainstage in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the theme of the night was flirting with disaster.
Here's Nina live at the mall.
The first time I ever wore a sari, I was 13. Now I grew up in Wyoming, which is not only the least populated state, it's also probably the whitest.
And so there's no place to buy a sari. So I wore my mom's when we had moved to America.
She had brought boxes of them. They're not the most practical thing for Wyoming winters with the wind in the snow.
But that's OK.
Growing up, I always thought I was the wrong kind of Indian when people would ask me, what are you? I would sort of say Indian. And I wouldn't correct them if they thought it was Arapaho or Shoshone.
The other thing about growing up in Wyoming is that you as a kid get to visit a lot of forts and historical sites and you can always dress is cowboy or Indian.
And I would be Indian because it was easier.
And I liked dressing up until on a 4th grade trip. Someone tried to scalp me while we looked at the Oregon Trail.
Rut's the thing I wanted when I was 13 was to be Dorothy Hamill. I wanted to be a figure skater. That summer, I had taken a picture of Dorothy Hamill to the master cuts at the mall and asked for her haircut.
And when they were finished, I pretty much look like a mushroom or a helmet, whatever you want to say.
And my mom, when she picked me up, she had beautiful long Indian hair.
She didn't say a word, but I didn't I didn't want to be a good Indian girl.
I wanted to be Dorothy Hamill that summer. I also got my period. Now, I wasn't surprised by it. I had read a lot of Judy Blume, so I knew what was supposed to happen when you got your period.
But I knew that what was coming was that I was going to have to have a coming of age ceremony in the part of India where my mom comes from.
They do a sort of ceremony to shepherd you into womanhood when you get your period.
And the ceremony is you have a ritual bath, do you get clean?
You get your first piece of gold jewelry, which I think is supposed to, which goes to your dowry. You drink an egg to be fertile Horibe and you wear a sari for the first time.
And I knew that was coming.
So I waited for about three periods before I said something to my mom and sure enough, soon after, on a Saturday morning, she and my aunt woke me up and they said, today, you're going to have your ceremony.
It started with the ritual bath, which, when you're 13, being naked is a very horrific thing, being naked in front of other people even worse. So I put on my Speedo, which was purple and blue stripes, and my my mom and my aunt went through and they they put some baby oil on my hair usually would be coconut oil, but they rub my hair and then they put me in the bath and dumped water over my head. And after that they spent about half an hour trying to make the Dorothy Hamill haircut into a bun on top of my head.
They used a bunch of bobby pins, like probably 50 of them, and they strung my hair with carnations. And my mom kept telling me, like, if we were in India, you would be where you'd be having Jasmine.
We would just walk outside the door and pick this jasmine. And then it came.
I got my first piece of gold jewelry, it was a little necklace and earrings came from Zales at the mall, and I didn't really like it because, you know, in the 80s I wanted to wear jelly bracelets and silver to really care.
But then it came time for me to pick and wear a sari. And I picked one of my mom's most simple saris. It was a pink one. It had sort of a gold border and.
I had to wear one of her blouses because I there weren't there wasn't a place to get one and it puffed out in front and they slowly dressed me in the six yards of cloth that it takes to wrap you A.R.T. And when they finished, I looked at myself in the mirror and I didn't know what I thought I look like.
After that, my mom usher me into the living room where she had invited a bunch of friends over to celebrate the fact that I had gotten my period, and I think that a lot of our Wyoming friends didn't get it.
They thought they were coming to a birthday party because I got some gifts and we sat around and ate Somoza's and some carrot cake and celebrated that I was a woman. And, you know, if getting your period isn't excruciating enough celebrating it, you know, it's not good. And I wore the story for about an hour. And then after that, I went into my bedroom and I rolled it up in a ball and I went back to reading my biography of Dorothy Hamill.
And I didn't know the ceremony didn't mean that much to me.
I didn't really care about it. But I knew it was my mom's way of trying to keep our Indianness.
You know, in Casper where I grew up, there's no Indian restaurants, there's no Indian grocery store. And we like new like five other Indians. And it was her way of sort of keeping a bit of home of keeping that.
When I was twenty three, about five days before I was supposed to leave Wyoming to go to graduate school in Boston, my mom was diagnosed with stage three B cancer.
And I had my bags packed and the day before I was supposed to leave, I asked her oncologist, I said, if you were me, would you go to graduate school? And she said, no. And I thought, OK, so I didn't get on the plane. And our life after that became this sort of round of going to chemo and radiation and doctors appointments and all of our Wyoming friends were great, they brought us a lot of food.
Our refrigerator was heaving with like lasagnas and casseroles and chicken noodle soup.
But my mom didn't want to eat. She just stopped eating. And one day she said, I just I just want some curd rice now.
I had never really cooked Indian food. That's what your Indian mom is for, is to cook you in the food. So I you know, I didn't I kind of thought I think that for the rest of my life, I would just show up and rice and curry would magically appear.
So my mom I set my mom down at the kitchen table and from the table, she directed me in the kitchen and she told me how you make the rice, how you sort of brown the mustard seeds and you wait till they crack and how to temper the spices.
And I slowly but surely made her some curd rice and she ate. And over the next few months, I made a little rotation of Indian dishes. One day I went into her bedroom and she was really agitated and she said to me, I had this dream that I died and that you and your father and your sister buried me in a frilly pink nightgown and shouldn't even own a really pink nightgown.
I like to point that out for the record, but she said, I don't want to be buried in Western clothes now at this point in my life.
We hadn't really talked about what would happen if she didn't make it. We just sort of had been going through a lot of appointments. And you don't talk about that. We didn't anyway.
And if my Indian cooking skills were low, my saria skills were lower, much lower.
I hadn't really worn a sari since that much since my coming of age ceremony. A few months before, when she had first gotten sick, she had she had to go to the emergency room and when we got to the E.R., she had been wearing a sari.
And of course, they tell you like, no, you can't come in, wait in the waiting room.
And about 10 minutes after she was admitted, a nurse, a really flustered nurse came out and she said, you have to unwrap your mother like I.
I like she was a gift. And I went into the hospital room and I slowly started taking the sorry off of her and putting her in a hospital gown and, you know, sorry, six yards of cloth.
And I tried to fold it in the little hospital room and I couldn't get it folded.
And I just ended up shoving it in the plastic bag, blowing it up the plastic bag that gave you in a hospital to put your things. So that day when my mom said to me, I can't be buried in Western clothes. I said, OK, but you're going to have to teach me. So I went to her cupboard and I my mom's stories are all kind of stacked up on it when you open, it almost looks like books stacked up.
And I pulled out a sari. It was a green chiffon one and.
From the bed, she directed me on how to put the sari on, how to tie the petticoat really tight and how you can put a knot in one corner and tuck it in and how you plead it and drape it. And I put the sari on and then she had me take it off and she had me do it again, and then she had me take it off.
She had me do it again. And then I did it on a country forum.
Sorry, I did it on a handlock. Sorry. And then finally, I helped get her up out of bed.
And I undressed her. And I could see the marks on her body from where, you know, they do the radiation they market. And I slowly but surely started to dress her. And she had a on. And we stood there looking at ourselves in the mirror.
We put Bindi's on and I put my hair in a ponytail and I realized the whole time that I was lying to her because I couldn't.
I couldn't dress my mother if she had to, if she died, I couldn't dress a corpse. I mean, it's one thing to dress someone standing up, but I couldn't imagine dressing her that way. And when we looked at we looked at other in the mirror. And I thought I wasn't just scared of losing my mother, I was really scared of losing my Indianness because if she died, who in Wyoming was going to teach me?
Like there's nobody. Sort of miracle occurred in that a few months later, she went into remission, which we were all really happy for, and I did end up going to graduate school.
And I left Wyoming, which was and it came back and life went on.
And. The last time I wore a sari. Was a few months ago, I got married and yeah, yeah, I got married. And I didn't think I wanted to be an Indian wedding or have an Indian wedding or be an Indian bride, but when I started looking through all the bridal magazines.
I I didn't see myself wearing a big white dress, and I knew I wanted to wear my mom's wedding sorry, now my mom's wedding sorry is the one sorry that since we moved to America, she's never worn. It's wrapped in tissue paper in her closet and it's white and it's got a lot of heavy gold brocade work on it. It's really heavy. When you hold it in your hands, it looks like sunlight. When I unfolded it to look at it, I could see there was some stains on it, there was some red stain and I knew it was probably russum or sambar from my parents wedding.
Forty six years ago, I took it to a dry cleaner in Wyoming and he took one look at it and was like, I've never cleaned anything like that.
So I decided to just wear it stands and all for my wedding. And I liked thinking there was a little bit of my parents' wedding there with me that day and the morning of my wedding.
I took a bath by myself this time and but my mom and aunt came over. And even though I know how to put a sari on now, they dressed me and they slowly pleaded and they did the draping and they adjusted the polu, which is the bit over your shoulder. And my mom put a safety pin in my shoulder and in my on my waist because she was sure I was going to unwrap during the ceremony and when they were done dressing me.
My mom looked at me and I looked in the mirror. And I looked Indian. It felt really unfamiliar. But it also felt like home. Thank you. That was Mina McConaghy, Nina was born in Singapore and raised in Casper, Wyoming, her short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, was the winner of the Pen Open Book Award and a High Plains Book Award. Nina gave birth to her own daughter a couple of months ago. She tells us that her daughter just had her and a passion, which is when a baby has their first taste of food, Mehana says.
My mom gave my daughter her ritual bath and oiled her hair, and her first food was rice and all. Doing the ritual during this time felt grounded. And now that I'm a mother, I see why ceremony is important to see some photos of Nina, her mom and her daughter head to our website, The Moth Doug. If you're inspired to think more deeply about Nina's story, here are a few questions to get you started. Do you have a piece of clothing that makes you feel like yourself?
What traditions have been passed down to you and how do you honor them in your own life? You can also find these prompts in the extras for this episode on our website, The Moth Mortgage Extras. That's all for this week. Until next time from all of us here at the mall. Have a story. Where the week. Aliza Kazmi is a former math assistant, producer and alumna of the Moth Education Program. She began telling stories with The Moth in 2015 and her story, pastels and Crayons, has been heard on The Moth Radio Hour and published in Teen Vogue and The Moth third book, Occasional Magic podcast production is by Julia Purcell.
The Moth podcast is presented by PUREX, the Public Radio Exchange, helping make public radio more public at PUREX Dawg.