Reminder of the past…

Today, we went to my cousin’s home to attend a ceremony in honor of her husband, who passed away much too early, several years ago.  She is my second cousin on my father’s side, and we met about a dozen years ago or more, after having lived within 3 miles of one another for several years!!

She is close to my aunt – my father’s older sister – and somehow, I don’t remember how, we were finally put in touch with one another through my aunt.  It was wonderful to get acquainted with someone from my father’s side…but also disorienting.  It made me realize how much I had lost a connection with my Sri Lankan heritage, and how very American/Western I had become.  It certainly challenged my self-definition as a “World Citizen”!

Anyway, we have been in touch, on and off…I’m not good at staying connected with family, and Cousin R is VERY good at staying connected, and I know that she is often disappointed at my lack of skill in this area.  She came to my daughter S’s 30 birthday celebration (can’t remember if I blogged about that…might add later), and at that time, she mentioned that she would be hosting this ceremony at her home in honor of her husband’s death, and hoped that we would be able to attend.  Of course, I said yes, and I put it on my calendar.  We spoke on the phone sometime in the December to confirm that we would be coming.  I asked what I might bring, and she answered a salad.  That was easy.

Until this morning.

Actually, it started last week.  My husband R asked whether we should drive to this event in two cars, because we didn’t know how the boys would handle Buddhist monks leading meditation and chanting in a house that they’re not familiar with, and with few or no other kids there to play with.  The reason that he made this proposal was that I had put the time on our shared calendar allotted to this activity as 7hrs, but that was just a random guess, and I really had no idea how long we might be there.  I reacted with some defensiveness (and a bit of an angry tone), and later I realized that a big part of my anxiety was the fact that I really didn’t know what to expect!

Cousin R had said to me when we agreed that I would bring a salad, “You know how we do these things, right?”

Why on earth didn’t I say “No, please clarify, so that I am comfortable, and I can be sure that my husband and kids are prepared!”, but no, I instead said “Yes, of course!”.

My only point of reference was my dim recollections of what happened in my grandfather’s home in Sri Lanka many years ago, when I was there as a 4 and 5-yr-old, and he would host the monks for these day-long ceremonies.  Were they in honor of someone important to my grandparents who had passed away?  Maybe…at the time, I had no idea.

But, I really had no idea.  I didn’t know how to dress.  Wasn’t completely sure what the program might be (although I had a pretty good guess that monks in saffron robes would likely be involved).  So, what does one do in 2012 when invited to a ceremony that one is almost completely unfamiliar with?  Google it, of course!!  so, I entered the search “Buddhist death practices”, and this link provides some clues (although I read quite a variety of pages on the web before I felt comfortable) –

How to dress?  I decided on a white turtle neck with black pants, figuring that white is the Buddhist funeral, but I wouldn’t be overdoing it.  Husband asked if he should wear a coat and tie, and I said “Well, just look nice; I don’t know if coat and tie is required”.  For boys, little one was dressed very nicely, and big guy, S, dressed himself (pretty casual, in jeans and T-shirt).

We packed a nice supply of toys in a big IKEA bag, and off we went (bringing the salad I’d made, with the best vinaigrette I think I’ve ever managed!)

We arrived about 30 minutes late.  Lots of people, all Sri Lankan as far as I could tell, were already there.  My main objective was to get to the kitchen and drop off my salad.  By the time I’d accomplished that goal, I realized that husband R had figured out, way ahead of me, that the protocol was to remove shoes, and he and both boys were in sock-feet.  I quickly shed my shoes, and we settled into the den, as the living room, where I could just see that the monks were seated, was quite full and overflowing.

Not very long after our arrival, the ceremony began, with the monks initially chanting in Sanskrit – and, as always with any musical form, I was transported.  Little J was also entranced – he is so musically attuned – and he climbed into my arms, and listened attentatively.  After some time, one of the monks began explaining the ceremony and the meaning of the day in English – he spoke of the Buddhist idea that the departed are always with us (not exactly, but I’m paraphrasing), and that we all participate in continuing the legacy of the departed with our continued good deeds and contributions of money and talents to the good of the community/world.  It all sounded somewhat similar to notions that I’ve adopted in Judaism.

And, then the chanting resumed, and then another sermon, this time in Sanskrit (I later found out that many of the Sri Lankans didn’t have a clue what it was about either!).

J ran out of gas after awhile, and we had to find a yogurt for him to fend of his hunger.  While he was eating his second yogurt, he caught sight of the adults on the opposite side of the room from us, and noted that they held up their hands together in front of their faces during the chanting, and he started imitating this gesture – it was unbelievably cute, and the adults facing him all murmured appreciatively.

The next important element of the day was the serving of the monks with food.  By this time, with the addition of food from each arriving guest had filled the kitchen with an amazing amount of food.  My Cousin R came around, and invited me to participate in this ritual of serving the monks.  I knew what this part was about, having participated in this during a Poya Day in Sri Lanka when we visited – but, with little J hanging on my legs, I passed into the kitchen, and through the dining room, and I never figured out what I could serve.  So, I ended up in the living room, holding J in my arms, and got into a conversation about Sanskrit and Sinhala with some people who are related to me in some what, but I didn’t know exactly how, or remember their names!  And J kept asking me, “Why do the monks get to eat, and we can’t – I’m very hungry!!”

Finally, the buffet was open to everyone, and we all ate.  The boys both loved the food, although J couldn’t tolerate the spice level.

And, after we’d eaten, Cousin R came to me and asked me if I would like to get a bracelet from the monks.  I’m not sure that that was how she put it – she may have said “get a blessing”.   Anyway, I was game to participate, having already felt that I’d fallen short with serving the monks.  I got in line, and J tagged along.  I approached the monks, following other before me, and I was vigilant for what the proper procedure was.  The lady ahead of me was engaged with the monk nearest us, and the monk on the couch further from us gestured to me to approach.  I knelt in front of him, extending my arm, and watched, fascinated, as he wrapped the braided string around me wrist, and recited something in Sanskrit (or Pali, not sure which).  I thanked him (still  not sure exactly what for), and J pushed his way forward, and extended his chubby little wrist.  The monk smiled and asked him if he would like a blessing, and he pushed his arm forward, while turning his face towards me.  The monk tied the string to his wrist, and I managed to get him to turn around and say “Thank you”.  The monk seemed amused.  We made our way back to where we’d been sitting before.

So, now, both J and I have these braided strings tied around our wrists.  I really don’t have a sense of the significance of these strings.  Yes, I”ve googled it.  Not sure if this is a superstition, or something representative.

The overlay for me was that, when my husband and daughter landed in Sri Lanka may years ago, to join my sister and her husband on our re-connection visit to our father’s land, I noticed that both my sister and her husband had white strings around their wrists…and it was one of those things that we never had an opportunity to also experience.  It wasn’t exactly a point of jealousy, but just a sense that I missed out on an experience.  Today was my opportunity to regain that experience – but, I don’t know what to do with it.  I don’t know what it means.

I know I overthink these things…I’m now stuck with “How long do I keep this string on my wrist?” (there’s a lot of opinions out there…I guess I’ll keep it on for now); “What does it mean?”; “Is my motivation to ‘get’ this token/amulet genuine, or does it stem from jealousy, and, if the latter, what do I do with that?”

I’ll just have to sit with this.

The whole day brought back memories of my childhood experience in Sri Lanka.  The boys did fine, and the husband was surprised that the day was OK.  It’s always wonderful to eat Sri Lankan spicy food.  My salad was a little out of place, and I think they didn’t know what to do with my lovely vinaigrette, but that’s OK.  I’m so glad we went, and I’m so proud of all my boys – they all behaved wonderfully.