Tag Archives: parents

Untangling the journey: one box at a time

This July, on my annual summer pilgrimage home, back to Upstate New York, to the house buried in a forest where I spent every weekend and every summer growing up, and which has always been my haven in my 20 or so years overseas, my sister asked me to sort and clean out stacks of my cardboard boxes.

They were piled against a wall in the garage next to our World War II weapons carrier, a still functional grey metal box of a monster, and the vehicle where my father had painstakingly taught me to drive by double clutching. Out of sight, out of mind, I’d avoided this task for years, reluctant to sort through my years from college into journalism then motherhood and all punctuated with permanent wandering. But this time, I knew any lack of action would not sit well with my sister, as the trove of stored family belongings was overflowing.

I am a fan of instant Facebook gratification, not only because of that flattering belief that I have more than a 1,000 friends but also because it is a tool to reconnect with those I have known in all my incarnations whether it be a friend from elementary school, my translator in Mogadishu, My neighbor in Nepal or a collection of friends whose careers and lives I follow. I Instagram because both my 25 and 12-year-old have instructed me that “everyone” does. I am not convinced that being “everyone” is meaningful in any way that might transform my life but like with Facebook, I see the work and communication benefits of instant contact. Still much of my life has been lived before the smart phone.

If I graphed my life as an arc of communication tools, it would begin with the party line we shared with our neighbors in the Catskills. In the lazy no-TV summer days, my sister and I, not yet teenagers, entertained ourselves by listening in to their conversations. I covered crime in New York City, calling my story in to my editor on a pay phone. I filed my first overseas stories about the war in Afghanistan only after I had returned overland to Pakistan and typed them on a telex machine. By 1990, during the first Gulf War, The New York Times provided me with a satellite phone the size of a hip-high refrigerator. In Somalia, I had a four-pound satellite telex that I mounted high above my toilet, tiptoeing on the seat to reach the only window in my room that faced the Indian Ocean satellite. By the time my youngest was born in 2005, the satellite phone fit in my back pocket.

I piled the boxes on the lawn in front of the house, armed with plastic garbage bags and tugged on surgical gloves to battle the mice nests and their detritus. The boxes had not been packed in any particular order. There were stacks of narrow, tan “New York Times” reporter’s notebooks, filled with shorthand notes from my days covering crime in New York City and trekking through the mountains of Afghanistan with the Mujadeddin during the Soviet occupation.  I’d picked up police shorthand: ‘F/B/13 DOA. Brother arrested’ (female, black, 13, dead on arrival). In another notebook, I’d scribbled notes next to quotes from a Mujahed commander meeting: “No idea where we are. On my 7th cup of sugared green tea today. Not a soul speaks English. When am I going to get out of here? ”

The notebooks dredged up long buried images. My sloppy, loopy handwriting that skipped lines and sometimes meandered up and down, triggered smell, taste, touch. It was a cold February day in the Bronx. On the street, men warmed their hands stoking wood fires in old oil drums. For weeks, the leather jacket I had worn that day smelled of rancid alcohol and stale cigarettes. Sobbing, the mother hugged me as we walked through the tiny bare apartment. The daughter’s blood still stained the floor near a piece of her half eaten birthday cake.Tangible hopelessness.

The Afghanistan notes had been written a year before the Bronx when my world did not go beyond the arid Hindu Kush mountains. Afghanistan was my first war, warped by sharply defined feelings of love, hate, boredom, fear and adventure.  I kept taped to my laptop a quote from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” “War is nasty; War is fun. War is thrilling; War is drudgery. War makes you a man; War makes you dead.” Afghanistan — The ever-present dust, that fine layer of earth, a mixture of grit and silk. The person I used to be but am no longer.

But the notebooks were only part of the boxes’ contents. Stuffed in large manila envelopes were hundreds of letters. I remember writing letters home. But I had forgotten about the return flow from my family and friends, a large quilt of my life stitched together by different people at different times.  They came typed, single spaced; hand written, one collection of 15 letters on onion paper with delicate artist script; on aerograms with mysterious GPO return addresses from Singapore, Hong Kong, Addis Ababa, Windhoek; filling all the hardback sides of cards and in postcards. There were letters from lovers. I read through a decade-worth where I seem to have spent way too much time trying to create some fantasy I thought was love. There were deep friendships with journalists that still endure today. I also complained a huge amount. I was lonely, alone, lovesick, frustrated, exhausted and despondent. My father (whose writing to me was often limited to postcards) once suggested I write a book entitled: “Letters From a Despondent Correspondent.”

For someone who sometimes cannot remember details from the day before, this flood caught me off guard. It was as if parts of me had somehow been unearthed in an archeological memory dig and I was encountering a self that I recognized in waves of emotions: joy, curiosity, embarrassment, acknowledgment, discomfort and a great deal of surprise.

I unearthed reams of my mother’s weekly, sometimes daily letters. She and I have always had an electric and combustible relationship. As a child, she was my storyteller who taught my imagination to soar but also my relentless and strict teacher who forcefully tutored me in Latin, Greek, German and Dante. We had a history of bruising arguments well into my 30s.

The scores of letters in the boxes reconnected me to a time and place where we shared ideas and dreams, in a medium that freed us of dictates and combativeness. I needed that nudge to remember. Whether responding to my excited or somber moods, she was a writing machine, supportive, insightful, funny, and deeply understanding. Writing for my mother is a permanent state of mind. Even now at 97, if she could forego oxygen, she would trade it in for pen and paper.

When airmail was too slow or the phone failed, my mother faxed, sometimes daily, as during the Rwandan Genocide when I was stranded in Kigali at the Hotel Milles Collines.  Those faxes, faded, some only barely legible more than two decades later, were also in the boxes.  As was my reply: “Please type! Your handwriting illegible.” But she also spent many pages through the years trying to console me over my hopeless dead-end amorous encounters while emphasizing how they distracted me from reporting and writing.

Every year, as with all her children and grandchildren, her birthday gift was a letter. She typed this letter in 1997 after my return from some war zone, grasping more clearly and more poetically than I ever could, that link between crossing swords and love and respect.  I should have listened to her more often.

“I see Dony who taught me not in words but in actions, at times against my will(…) to break through barriers enjoying the noise of the crash, to live like a pilgrim of the earth which means to be a foreigner in every country because the country you long for is not the one you are in. To be happy in my unhappiness, to be satisfied in my dissatisfaction, cheerful in my solitude. I learned by watching her, by blaming her, by cursing her at times. (…) It is the Dony that gives me the most useless advice and then overwhelms me with the most useful embrace. …Please walk on Donatella, Just as you are. Do not change. Your strength is in being yourself.”

I’d forgotten about the beauty and pleasure of receiving letters, of keeping them in my pocket so I could pull them out to read and re-read, to know that they were my companions no matter where I lived. They were a concrete proof that I existed. As for the contents of all those boxes: they make me who I am.





To Mina — With Love

Ready for hiking during hunting season ©Lavinia Lorch

Mina ready for hiking during hunting season  2013 ©Lavinia Lorch

I just clicked on the New York Times “most emailed” article on Tuscany and Machiavelli and sent it to my mother. Machiavelli was the last class she taught before retiring as a professor at Columbia University and I thought what better way to connect across the miles on her birthday. I’ve lived overseas for six years now and distances are still tough to bridge. Between Kathmandu and New York, the 10hr and 45min time difference means email and Facetime have been my two main ways of communicating with her. She has long ago given up my childhood companion, her manual olive green Olivetti typewriter, for the less noisy touch of Microsoft Word and Gmail. Today Maristella, known these days to her children and friends alike as Mina, turns 95.

In the jumble of the everyday, the every year, the talk of weather and health, of ISIS and Hong Kong protests, and my mother’s adamant arguments that I should go back to studying Sanskrit since I live in Nepal, I never seem to have found the time or the patience to articulate what only I know and only I have experienced as her youngest child. I am sad that yet again, living half way around the world, I am not celebrating with her.

Mina with her grandson Lucas this summer holding up the poster for the launch of her most recent novel ©Donatella Lorch

Mina with her grandson Lucas this summer holding up the poster for the launch of her most recent novel:”Beyond Gibraltar” ©Donatella Lorch

My mother never bought me a doll. It was not her way. She prefers to weave tales, some real, some fantasies and some caught in between the two. She put me to bed with them and on long car rides between churches, museums and ruins in Europe, I’d curl up my head on her lap and follow the exploits of Alexander the Great or the battle of Thermopylae or my mother’s adventures as a partisan in World War II Rome. I can still feel the silky touch on my cheek of her brightly colored scarf that she lay over my head to block out the afternoon sun. Occasionally it was replaced by a sharp cornered road map. As an adult I became aware that my mother has no sense of direction and therefore the map was without doubt not used to guide my father.

Mina writing in the second volume of the family book. © Donatella Lorch

Summer 2014 -Mina writing in the second volume of the family book. © Donatella Lorch

As I grew older, and was introduced by her to the wonders of books, I learned to leverage reading knowing that Mina would let me skip washing dishes if I went off to the couch to read “War and Peace.” If reading became my escape and her tales of wars ignited my desire for adventure, we also clashed a lot on the way. I had to learn French, Latin, then Greek and when I eventually convinced her I could drop Greek, she replaced it with German. That meant that every weekend, hours were spent butting heads on homework assignments.

But exploring has always been our special link. Though more than 40 years of her life have been spent at Columbia University, she, like me, feels the need to see and smell and feel different worlds. My mother has kept all of my hundreds of loneliness-filled aerogrammes I wrote her during a post college year studying Chinese in Taiwan and then wandering South Asia. She has gotten on many planes to visit me and not to reach idyllic vacation spots. In Peshawar, Pakistan, where I was a stringer for The New York Times, she insisted on visiting refugee camps and the families of the Mujaheddin fighters I travelled alongside in Afghanistan. She ignored my strict instructions not to interfere in my reporting and asked Abdul Haq, a senior Mujahed commander (who was later killed by the Taliban in 2001) to swear to her his men would keep me safe. The following year when at the UN General Assembly in New York, Abdul Haq dropped by her apartment with a dozen red roses.

Mina's 93rd birthday in Nairobi, Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

Mina’s 93rd birthday in Nairobi, Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

In Africa for the The New York Times, having “Mama” along on interviews opened innumerable doors though she did occasionally weasel in time for her own questions. Before I could begin my interview with Kenneth Kaunda, the legendary first president of independent Zambia, Mina and Kaunda opined for over half hour on every topic from St. Augustine to Apartheid and World War II. When I covered post- genocide Rwanda before the wide-spread use of the internet, Mina sent the Hotel Milles Collines daily faxes to me commenting in detail on my day’s article. They were all written in her scrawling, looping, mostly illegible handwriting and my response always included: “Please type!” When I told her I planned to leave The New York Times for NBC News, Mina, whose New Yorkness is defined by the Old Grey Lady, switched to Italian, her language for the most serious of conversations: “Ma sei pazza?” she asked me. “Are you crazy?” She did eventually come around.

Mina, always ready for a good time, with her grandson Alex, 2014 ©Lavinia Lorch

Mina, always ready for a good time, with her grandson Alex, 2014 ©Lavinia Lorch

These days she Facetimes to find out why my nine-year-old son, Lucas, is not learning Nepali history in the British school in Kathmandu and she is relentless about admonishing me to find sacred Hindu texts to study in the local university libraries. The fact that I am more interested in the legacy of a Maoist civil war and the problems of creating infrastructure in Nepal is irrelevant to the conversation.

Mina with her daughters Lavinia (left) and Donatella (right) summer 2014 in New York City. ©Johannes Zutt

Mina with her daughters Lavinia (left) and Donatella (right) summer 2014 in New York City. ©Johannes Zutt

My primary image of my mother has always been of her writing, teaching or reading. (You can find her novels on Amazon under Maristella Lorch). Her apartment bookshelves overflow with diaries, lectures and heavily underlined and annotated books. I tease her that its hard to go anywhere without meeting one of her students who probably will describe her reciting the Divine Comedy in a class 30 years gone. Lucas and I believe that our Rhodesian Ridgeback must be related as, like her, he insists on accompanied long daily walks. And every time Mina brings up the subject of walking – which is every day -I slip back to her childhood tales of when her own mother made Mina and her three siblings hike up the local mountain in Northern Italy, lugging their Latin homework and the pot to cook the lunchtime polenta.

Mina feeding her daughter Lavinia's Llamas and alpacas. 2013. © Lavinia Lorch

Mina feeding her daughter Lavinia’s Llamas and alpacas. 2013. © Lavinia Lorch

Scratch the surface and you’ll find the party girl who even hand carried a frozen turkey to Rwanda to cheer up my friends far from home. Mina never likes to be left out. At a get-together in Nairobi, she convinced a dashing blond British cameraman that what he really wanted to do was take her to Mogadishu (I blocked that plan). If there is an image I treasure of Mina in action is watching her barefoot in an ankle length wispy summer dress, dancing and twirling with my father on our lawn in the Catskills. She’s a woman who is always ready for another adventure. Age, after all, is just a number.