Gathered Family

by Janika Oza Read author interview September 17, 2018

The first time you bring Carl to a family gathering, he asks you to brief him on everyone who’ll be there. What are their names again? he says. Sitting in the driveway, hands linked over the gearshift, you laugh. Just call them aunty and uncle, you say. Even I don’t know all their names. You wonder if Carl understands that they aren’t really family, but that they brought you home-cooked meals every day when your mother was sick and would pick you up from the airport at midnight if you asked them to, and even if you didn’t. The briefing works well enough. Your aunties break a smile when Carl calls them aunty, sandwich his cheeks between palms that smell of cooking oil and incense and admire his height, tracing imaginary lines from the tops of their heads to the middle of his chest. So small, they giggle, something they have grown used to feeling about themselves. You watch an uncle struggle to uncork a bottle of wine, his leather hands wringing its neck like he’s pleading for mercy, and then Carl comes over, ends the injustice in one echoing burst. The uncle slaps him on the back and you feel pride swim in your chest. An older aunty holds your elbow, and you are reminded of childhood road-trips to outlet malls, hiding between the sales racks and hearing your mother call your name, her voice a tense whisper because people are watching the wild-haired brown woman who can’t keep hold of her three kids, whose husband sits by the checkout with wallet in hand, responsible for one part of this whole family transaction. You are reminded of containers of lime-rice with potatoes and peas, eaten in gas stations with petroleum fingers until the car smells like homesick and you beg your mother to turn it around, even though she isn’t the one driving, although in your mind she always is, and you wonder how many times they turned back when they were crossing an ocean, and who if not their own mothers was forcing them to keep going. How you couldn’t imagine making that journey if your mother stayed behind. The aunty whispers in your ear, he’s nice but be careful, and you are about to ask why but then you notice that her hairline is no longer smudged with red and you remember that her husband died last winter, that her hair now only says widow, that her children still ask for their father, and you feel the burden of her warning sink into your hips. A child slips by your feet on the kitchen tiles and you scoop her into your arms, her tears spilling through the gaps in her teeth, and you don’t know whose baby she is but you are her mother and you press her forehead to your neck and check for bruises the way unnamed aunties did for you, and still would. You let them pack you endless containers of rice and okra and chickpeas even though Carl doesn’t believe in Styrofoam, but he carries the grocery bags back to the car and doesn’t mention the yellow oil that stains your hands. On the highway Carl’s eyes slip to yours and he says, it must be exhausting to have such a big family. And then you know what he doesn’t understand, the exhaustion of arriving somewhere alone, of traveling seven thousand miles to hear your father’s voice devoured by static, of relearning your name in another language, and the accumulation of uncles and aunties who put you back together, who know in their bones how to become your mother, the solace of homes that smell like yours, the dinner invitations from the friend of a cousin and cousin of a friend who also moved across the world, the only connection being that you traveled the same distance and need someone to help you remember, but that is enough, that is necessary, that is how you survive.

About the Author:

Janika Oza is a writer and educator based in Toronto. Her work appears in The Ethnic Aisle, Looseleaf Magazine, Homonym Journal, and Ricepaper Magazine, among others, and she is a VONA/Voices Fellow.