Lava Step Laboratory is a home for writers, readers, and purveyors of culture.

Time Machine To Repair My Modern, Broken Family- From Octavia's Attic

Time Machine To Repair My Modern, Broken Family- From Octavia's Attic

Katie Dieter  

The first thing I’m going to tell you is that time is a book. Two cardboard covers bound together by a spine, between which we write our pages. In chronological order. But chronological order is, of course, the first delusion. We skip ahead. We riffle. The spine of our book takes so much abuse. 

&

A time machine is a nod to the mechanics of repair. A fantasy born from a simple need: to go somewhere, to fix something. To cheat time and school time and hoard time. And if time is, indeed, a book, a time machine is the technology required to gather it all up in our own personal library—every bent-cornered, ripped-dust-jacket, out-of-print volume of it.

&

In the case of my family, our time machine must take the form of a house. This may seem incongruous with my previous claim that time is a book. But here is the thing about books: they are elastic. Narratives are pliable. An effective time machine is most likely to take the shape best suited to the travelers who pilot it. Perhaps yours would be a cigar box, or a soap bubble.

&

My modern, broken family comes together from a handful of timelines and as many realms. My mom was born in Oregon in 1963, my stepfather in 1956, in New Delhi. I was born in Kentucky in 1983. My little sisters were both born in Washington, in 1992 and 1994, respectively.

&

One version of our story goes: my stepfather keeps himself restless, in search of new and better jobs, a substitute for all the new and better families he can’t and couldn’t make. Another version of our story goes: my mother keeps herself restless, in search of new and better houses, new and better ways of remodeling new houses, each house in each incarnation a gleaming testament to the life she hopes our family will finally go ahead and lead together.

&

“I can’t believe you would say that. After everything that’s happened this year. We’ve all been trying so hard. And moreover, that was neither the time nor the place.”

&

A house is a map. A stairway between two floors. A memory palace. A bedroom there – no, there. Memory its own machine. Neuron gears and chemical cranks. And here we are. Here we are. Back and forth across the pages of our book. Bedraggling our spine.

&

If you nested all of the houses my family has claimed together, one inside the other according to size, what would you see? The timeline would be wildly wavy, bizarrely disjointed. 2013-2015 inside 1994. 2001-2003 jostling for position with 1997-2001. All of it encased inside 2003-2011. We grow and we shrink, we move and we shirk off selves, our cells.

&

I am much further away from India in this moment, at my desk in Boston; fat, red-headed, 32, with some kind of sun sensitivity rash spilling over the bridge of my nose that resembles a lupus butterfly rash but is not, I’ve been assured, a lupus butterfly rash; than I was at eight, in the foyer of my best friend Kirsten’s house, on an island connected to Seattle by a bridge; chubby but not yet fat, my red hair redder (magenta! So bright I used to think of it as magenta!), longer, long; holding in my little-girl hands a small, flimsy, plastic coffin-shaped box containing a Barbie. Sitting there, two steps up the carpeted staircase that led to Kirsten’s bedroom and her little sisters’ bedrooms and her parents’ bedroom, with my grandmother, also a redhead, beside me, I was so close to India I could have reached out and pulled it over myself and stomped off under a sun umbrella. The Barbie in the box was a gift from my grandmother. A standard, voluminously blonde-headed Barbie—in a red sari, with a bindi. My grandmother had just returned from India where my mother had married my stepfather, where my mother and stepfather remained, embarking on their honeymoon, perhaps right at the moment I clutched my new “Indian Barbie” for the first time, engaging in the act of conceiving my first little sister. I am so far away from India now that the little girl that I was has shrunken down into a small, plastic, coffin-shaped box and been packed away into my liver, or my appendix. I am so far away from India now, I can’t remember what it smells like, unless I’m struck by the urge to eat upma, and I throw a handful of black mustard seeds into some hot oil, and the mustard seeds begin to pop.

&

Our grand, unified house: the mechanics of perspective. Perspective, a crucial offshoot of repair. Maddeningly elusive.

&

How Kentucky fits in to this story? A trailer, a military base, an Army Hospital. I was certainly no fetus but a tumor. No, not a tumor, but certain to be born lacking cognitive faculties. No, not that, no, but cord around the neck and hand, my right arm was sure to function inappropriately. Each eventuality – each diagnosis – thwarted. Barreled past me faster than the speed of light. Split off to other realms. Me: a jaundiced, tiny infant. A little yellow lemon drop with bright orange hair. Six weeks in Kentucky, then out of there, no looking back.

&

Our first home, as a family, all of us, in Washington, 1994—my mom, my stepfather, me, my sister, my youngest sister: a 70s-style split-level on a street that led straight up a handful of blocks to the public library. It was a rented house and we were new, and cobbled, breaking in to each other.

&

I am certain that the desire and the intention behind the creation of my family unit was to make a decent life together. But desire and intention themselves can become colonizing agents, forcing over what is.

&

In his seminal, “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817,” Homi K. Bhabha investigates a moment when Indian colonial practice shifted towards the creation of a “culturally and linguistically homogeneous English India.” This shift centered around the technology of the book. A moment when the English language- the English book!- the English timeline- became the “most artful technology of colonial power.” Out of which conditions the hybrid springs. The unsettled one.

&

Out of the book? Did I say book? —Time? Time itself? The one who wields time, who claims it; the ones whose narratives assert a different timeline altogether? That rupture point.

&

The American white woman and her Indian husband? The woman’s daughter from a previous marriage? The two children that belonged to the man and woman both? Inside our house: all those questions of authority and all that ambivalence.

&

What are we if not hybrids, cultural and otherwise? Double inscriptions? Triple or more? As Bhabha writes, the hybrid is always splitting and reinscribing, simultaneously “less than one and double.” A book that was never finished. A house lovingly remodeled into something grotesque. Never to become of a piece. Only pieces, in proximity, overlapping, undercutting.

&

“You have always been ashamed of me. Of who I am and the fact of my existence.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.”

&

What is a stepchild in India? Having never lived there or known any Indian stepchildren firsthand, I only know what I’ve heard. What I’ve been told. A stepchild in India is historically subjugated, historically the ongoing burden of the biological father and the biological father alone. How could my stepfather contend with his internalized version of that understanding and the reality of the American family he married into and went on to create himself? How could any of us?

&

“So what is the answer?”

“There isn’t one.”

“You mean we’re just doomed?

                        -Octavia Butler, A Few Rules For Predicting The Future

&

 A stone house with brick sides, a garden walled off by a sloping stone wall. I kept switching bedrooms. A corner room with tall windows to take in spectacular thunderstorms. A room in the basement meant mostly for guests. The room my sisters shared before they acquired separate rooms, a large and inviting space, big enough for me to have my own little sofa. I was in high school and I cut class, occasionally or all the time—to be home by myself, before my family arrived, before my stepfather with his glowering and deep disdain. In one of those rooms my best friend said, “Your biggest problem is that all the people who are supposed to love you most, to care for you and be your safety net, just don’t.” Little Rock, Arkansas, where we lived: 1997-2001.

&

The practice of naming the years can’t help but call up the unfortunate habit living things make out of dying. The practice of calling a thing past. And all the disjuncture of the past being present inside you. The past being both present, and past.

&

“Why can’t you move on already?”

&

No one was dying. We just languished together. Or maybe, as we kept moving, as our houses kept shifting, we died and died again. Shed ourselves. Each incarnation another attempt at making our family. Me: the chubby redhead. My mom: the striking white woman with dark hair, complimented at her Indian wedding for possessing just the right looks for “passing as Kashmiri.” My stepfather: the handsome doctor dragging his feet on officially becoming an American citizen. My sisters: the young inheritors of all our hybrid discontent.

&

Adults now, my sisters and I try to understand each other. This trying is likely to rear up unexpectedly, in the midst of comfortable and easy, generally loving inter-relating, when something intended to be innocuous inadvertently taps into everything boiling just below the surface. On the sidewalk, in the dark, in the rain, in Seattle, say. Or one morning in Boston, in a kitchen with wide pine floors, where two dogs lie down in strips of sunlight.

&

“Your father robbed me of my childhood.”

“What about my childhood?”

&

There is an ongoing debate about which of my sisters “looks most Indian.” One has darker skin and hair. The other is sometimes said to have more prominent “Panjabi features.” On a trip my stepfather’s mother made to the US, a months-long stay in our house in a sweltering Arkansas summer (1997), while my mother made yogurt chicken and green gobi and we all waited expectantly around the kitchen table, when I was a young teenager and my sisters, between them, claimed fewer years than fingers on a person’s two hands, my step-grandmother told my sisters, “After I die, you two will have all of my jewels and gold that I keep back in India.” My sisters said, “But what about Katie? That’s not fair!” They didn’t understand yet. There are some things I will never inherit.

&

I never called my step-grandmother “step-grandmother.” In fact, the words I used to describe her changed over time. First I called her, “mummy,” the term both my mother and stepfather used for her. Then, after my sisters were born, and taught to call her “Dadi,” the Hindi term for father’s mother, I started calling her “Dadi” too. These shifts were tolerated. We didn’t have any better words. Everyone was doing their very best. It’s true, I know it is.

&

My mom and my stepfather were young and in love. My mom had just come out of the poverty of her early twenties into the exhausting reality of being a single mother, a full-time student, and a full-time professional. My stepfather was a recent immigrant, a doctor with a bright future and a sense of possibility; a man whom, as a child in India, had been sent to live for most of the year with his own grandmother, instead of at home with his parents and sisters, because that was the family tradition. And me? I was 6, 7, 8 years old, a kid with all my sweet selfish kid priorities, who kicked and screamed and yelled and cried and started having panic attacks.

&

“You are not my Dad!”

“I know. I know.”

&

Once I asked my stepfather if he ever imagined, as a child back in India, that he would fall in love with and marry a half-Jewish white woman from America. The grip of laughter that came over us, as soon as the question was out of my mouth, was so strong and sudden, my sides ached and I clutched the bottom of my chair for stability.

&

My mom was the child of early 60s liberal hippies, born while her parents were still students at Reed College. When she was in Kindergarten in 1969, they lived in inner-city Philadelphia, and she attended a school where she was one of the only white children. She recounts walking to school with a neighbor friend every day, squeezing his hand as they walked, and arriving at school and searching her own hand, looking for signs that his color was finally rubbing off on her, an eventuality she hoped for, thought maybe she would grow into.

&

“Why don’t you ever bring up the good times?”

&

In British Columbia, 1991 or 2, in a little cabin that was our home for a week—wood-burning fireplace in the middle of the living room—I had a very loose tooth and I wiggled and wiggled it. I examined it in the scratched, cloudy bathroom mirror, watching how it bent forward and backward, making strange angles against my gums. My stepfather’s father, who was visiting us from India, kept offering to pull it, or maybe to tie a string around my tooth and the other end of the string around a doorknob and to close the door. I shrunk back, frightened. My mother implored me, my stepfather demanded to know why. So much pressure on such a little tooth. But I couldn’t.

&

I call my stepfather by his first name. My first little sister started out by calling him a portmanteau that combined his first name with "Mom," but eventually shifted to“Dad." I did not make the transition with her. As an adult, I still call him by his first name. But there’s a testament to some kind of progress that when I am with my mom or my sisters and I refer to him, I am likely to use “Dad.” Not just because it’s convenient.

&

All the pressure of coming together forces new and unexpected shapes. No one ever says it will be easy, but it is impossible to predict just how difficult the transformations may prove.

&

“Your father ruined my childhood.”

“I wasn’t old enough to understand. I can’t see it.”

&

I would watch them sometimes, Sunday mornings, say, my stepfather at the breakfast table with my sisters, my sisters climbing into his lap, my mom laughing, all of that casual closeness and love. My stepfather would regard me from a distance, impassive. He didn’t say much to me besides informing me of what I had done wrong or how I had been lazy, selfish, or rude. We had a decade-long fight about whether or not I had appropriately performed my chore of washing dishes. My oldest childhood friend visited us in Arkansas from Seattle and asked me why I didn’t just go ahead and do the dishes properly. But I didn’t know how to explain.

&

The India that funneled into me through my stepfather’s tongue-clicking and finger-wagging and frowning and sighs was impossible for me to take on. To live up to. My stepfather came from huge houses kept immaculate with the help of servants, where delicious and nourishing food appeared like clockwork at appropriate intervals. Children behaved exactly as their parents required and demurred at all times. Although in my understanding of it, my failures to integrate the inner-circle of family all related to being the unwanted and unlikeable stepchild, in this palimpsest of understanding that my time machine provides, I see that there was also the cultural component, the shock of America and American-ness, and the extent to which, as the oldest child in the house, I was the proving ground for all of my stepfather’s cultural ambivalence and misunderstanding.

&

As Bhabha writes, “Hybridity intervenes in the exercise of authority not merely to indicate the impossibility of its identity but to represent the unpredictability of its presence.” I was the receptacle for my stepfather’s extinction burst of cultural rejection, before the thaw came, before my stepfather had been American longer than he’d been Indian.

&

In those houses in Seattle, in Little Rock, in Pittsburgh, my family rushed up and rocked the foundations. Recently my stepfather furrowed his brow, recounted that my youngest sister had said that her own recollection of childhood was of perpetual fighting and yelling, mostly between my mother and stepfather. My middle sister agreed with that summation. “Yes,” I agreed, “I would say that’s a fair retelling.” “Okay,” he said, “I guess we really did something wrong.” He turned to my mom. “I guess we really did something wrong.”

&

My mother and stepfather were married in a Sikh ceremony in Delhi in the spring of 1992. My grandmother and great-grandmother were also in attendance. I was left behind for three weeks, in the care of my best friend’s parents. When my mother arrived in Delhi, my stepfather’s parents whisked her off to a private room in their home and informed her that during the preparations and celebrations for the marriage, she was not to speak of me, her redheaded daughter. I was to be totally and completely left behind, alone in America.

&

In Little Rock, in 1999, one night at the dining room table, over cheesecake, my parents’ friends who were over for dinner asked how the plans were going for the trip to India, were my sisters getting excited? I screeched my chair back from the table, dropped my fork in the cheesecake, made some kind of dramatic exit. No one had told me about this trip to India, and once again, of course, I wasn’t invited.

&

“If you keep going on like this, I’m going to send you to live with your biological father.”

&

In 2013, in an apartment just outside Boston that my wife and I rented, a third floor walk-up into an over-sized kitchen and then a small hallway that led to two bedrooms, one of which we made the living room, my middle sister came to stay for a few months. She is tall, much taller than I am even, and beautiful, the bones of her face lovingly and evenly spaced, a dignified nose, eyelashes long enough to balance dreams on. During those few months our living room became my sister’s bedroom. Her legs were too long for the sofa. We stacked some pillows on a chair and pushed it against the end to make it more comfortable. It was a strange spring. Nothing could be adequately planned for or reasonably relied upon. Our grandmother in India was dying and our youngest sister, the sweetest-cheeked creature around, had deferred starting college for a year to travel to India and spend time with her. My middle sister was to meet her there shortly. The timetable went like this: my middle sister would stay with us until Dadi, our Indian grandmother, was in her last weeks, then she would go to India too. But I didn’t go to India. I had wanted to—called my mom to figure out a way the summer before, when we first realized how sick Dadi was. But my mom said I needed to talk to my stepfather. And I couldn’t and then I tried and he said I could go if I wanted and could take care of the details myself. The kind of invitation that closes at its open. Eventually, my mom reiterated to me that if things were really coming to a head, and I absolutely wanted to go, I had permission to buy myself a plane ticket. But I couldn’t buy myself a plane ticket. My wife had just finished law school, our debts were enormous, we had some credit cards, but they were maxed out.

&

“We tried coming together in Boston and it didn’t work. It’s never going to work. I’ve just decided to accept that my family consists of adversarial pockets that will never become a whole.”

&

In 2013, my middle sister called in the middle of the night, less than twenty-four hours after she’d finally arrived in India. Her voice was distant, tinny, other-worldly.  Dadi died, was all she could properly get out. Later that day, my sisters accompanied my stepfather and his sisters and Dadi’s body to the crematorium where they stood together and breathed her ash. I talked again to my sisters the next day, our voices thinned over the impossible distance. On Facebook, people offered my sisters their condolences. No one said anything to me. Whatever fantasies I still carried about what was possible for my family became impossible then. Dadi was dead and I was nowhere. That timeline was finished.

&

 “So what is the answer?”

“There isn’t one.”

“You mean we’re just doomed?

“No. I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

                        -Octavia Butler, A Few Rules For Predicting The Future

&

When I was 15, I briefly had my own apartment. A few blocks, half a mile, maybe, from the stone and brick house my mom and stepfather and little sisters shared. My apartment had slanted wood floors and an outdated kitchen and my room was a tiny little closet-sized thing just big enough for my bed, my backpack, and the guitar I never learned to play. My mom had her own room in the apartment, and she slept over some nights, sometimes with my sisters. Some days I would cut class, leave school early, let myself in to the empty stone and brick house that wasn’t mine anymore. Steal food from the fridge. Walk around. One day I walked smack into my stepfather. We both startled. I slunk away toward the door. “It’s okay,” he said. “You can still be here.” My little apartment was supposed to serve as a protection, a last ditch effort to make me feel, finally, cared for. But of course it only ended up highlighting the very thing that made me most bereft.

&

The spin of it—Dorothy Gale’s house—in that perfectly twirling tornado: an image that speaks to me. Her house was a pleasing brown, common-looking, Kansas-style house, in the middle of a flat Kansas field. Her house was very much – perhaps even overly so – ordinary. Until it wasn’t. Until it spun, and twirled, not-a-house, a top, freed from the flat field in the upswing of a tornado. Later, Dorothy Gale’s house came down, in a realm called Oz – a not-Kansas – a locale, yes, but also– a moving point in time.

&

My mom doesn’t like to hear me explain all my anger and hurt. Because she loves me; because she’s smart enough to understand her own culpability. Because it’s a lot and it’s old and it’s not going anywhere. Sometimes she works on words of repair. Says, “If I had known what your stepfather's parents would be like at the wedding, I wouldn’t have gone through with it.”  But that repair unsettles us both. I wouldn’t have that as an option. Unwish my sisters? Absolutely not. Neither would she, of course.

&

This past Thanksgiving we gathered together as a family in the living room of an Airbnb, mending. We’re always mending now. My stepfather said, “I’m sorry for how things were when you were a kid. How I was.” I wouldn’t wish him away either. I can see now that my stepfather is generous, and loving, and kind and smart and funny, and human, so many things I never expected. Of course, I can see all this now because, more and more, he lets me.

&

Eventually, Dorothy Gale returned to Kansas, in a hot air balloon swept up in its own storm, her new-fangled time and distance machine. It deposited her back home – gently – reanimating her body collapsed on the wood floor of the brown house. After her return, Kansas itself was not-Kansas. For Dorothy, so much time had passed that was no time at all. Dorothy blinked, examined the expectant faces of her family members crowded over her.

&

There are no homes like our homes. Nothing quite the same as the book of time that holds us in together. Sometimes I feel so desperately angry and sad for us, and sometimes, surprisingly, so glad. I stroke the ripped threads peeling up from the binding of our book, shove some pages that have come unglued back inside.

&

Still, we circle the hurt, the struggle that rears up and clings on. Sometimes we say, “This isn’t the time or the place.” Sometimes we say, “Why can’t we all just be better at letting things roll of our backs.” Our hybrid family will never be easy, never a monolith of understanding.

&

And transformations will come – in time.

 

Speech Sounds: Children, Time, Hope- From Octavia's Attic

Speech Sounds: Children, Time, Hope- From Octavia's Attic

On Time Keeping- From Octavia's Attic

On Time Keeping- From Octavia's Attic