“Mama, can you stop at McDonald’s drive-through? I’m super hungry,” says my 14-year old son.
It’s Thursday evening and we are returning home from his Taekwondo class.
“It’s a week night. I cooked stir fry okra today. Your favorite,” I tell him.
“I don’t want to eat that. Please.”
Why is he refusing to eat at home? He knows our family’s rules: we only eat out on weekends. My son is an only child, so I worry about him growing into a selfish and insensitive adult.
I was born and raised in India in a middle class family. My family did not own a car; my siblings and I bicycled to school, exposed to the sun in summer, buttoned up in raincoats in monsoon, bundled up in scarves and hats in winter. Eating out was restricted to an ice-cream cone once a year, on the evening our final exams culminated. I never tried to bend or question my parents’ rules.
I talk to him about spending wisely and saving hard-earned money. I eulogize the benefits of eating fresh, home cooked food. I demonize the empty-calorie comestibles sold by fast food restaurants.
My son pulls a long face. That and the fact that he will be fleeing my nest in another three years soften my heart. He is a good kid. It’s not his fault that he has not seen poverty and longing up close.
I have to accede to his request today.
The thought of placing a drive-through order gives me the jitters. I tell my son that I have never, in my 15 years of life in the US, done a drive-through.
“What? Don’t worry, I will place the order,” he says, his tenor that of an adult, resolving a puerile conflict.
I glance at my son in the passenger seat. His head is bent into his phone. The line of black hair on his upper lip appears thicker and darker. Pimples and their remnants dot his forehead and sideburns. A whiff of Axe deodorant escapes from his underarms.
This boy, who came from the smiley shaped incision on my abdomen, now towers over me. He has never noticed that his dad has been on the wheel anytime we have done a drive-through. What else does he not know about the machinery of our life as a family?
What does he mean by he will place the order? He doubts my spoken English. He corrects my pronunciations, tells me which syllables to stress in words like Indianapolis and Kentucky. But I am an Information Technology professional and am gainfully employed by an American business.
My mind begins to wander. We recently watched an Indian movie “English Vinglish” on Netflix, in which the protagonist is an Indian mom who visits the USA to attend her niece’s wedding. This woman, who has a tremulous command over English, tries to order a coffee at Starbucks and ends up being insulted by the barista.
My son is unconsciously drawing parallels between that woman and me. I have never heard Starbucks baristas speak in a condescending tone. The plot is implausible to me.
My hesitation is not because of my lack of language but because of my short arms. I am a tiny person. My mind is mired in doubts – what if my arms don’t reach the window and I drop my credit card or the food packet?
Finally, I scrape out courage from each cell of my puny body and pull into the drive-through lane, approach the microphone and rattle off the order of one Filet Fish sandwich with a medium fries. The person on the other side does not say repeat or pardon.
My son looks up from his phone. I approach the payment window, steering carefully. The window guy’s fingers reach mine and I hand him my credit card. Success. We then float – my son, my Lexus, and I – as an autumn leaf to the next window, where another oblivious partner hands me the paper package.
I hand over the steaming package to my son, without even looking at him, like it was a mundane activity.
“Thank you, mama,” my son says, looking at me with eyes brimming with pride.
My son narrates the story to my husband later that evening. “Mama is brave,” he says, “She just needs to try.” Animated conversations and moments of levity have become rare in our house.
The teenage years have pulled my son into a shell of reticence. He answers in deep sighs, bored monosyllables like “yeah” and “no” or boorish phrases like “kind of’” and “not really.”
My son has stopped lingering in the kitchen. Before, he used to turn over the parathas for me or shell the boiled eggs for curry, all the time chattering. I had to ask him to stop the blabber or my fingers would forget to add some vital ingredient, like the ginger-garlic paste to the egg curry.
He has moved his homework station from my kitchen island to the den. He leaves the den only when called. He eats with us every night and heads upstairs to his room soon as he is finished.
I don’t complain but I have not stopped missing him. I miss trimming his nails every weekend and pouring eye drops in his eyes every night. I miss helping him with his homework. I miss his telling me of his tummy aches. I miss his asking me simple questions.
As I lie in bed, I feel accomplished and happy. I have conquered a fear and I have built a strong memory with my son. This memory is most precious. My son might forget how I raced in my heels to his daycare. He might forget how I wracked my brains over his Math Counts problems long after he went to bed. He might forget how I folded his laundry and placed it neatly in his closet when his dad asked him to do it. He will never be able to forget this drive-through experience that we shared. Perhaps, he will narrate this tale of his puny mother’s courage to his kids.