I am a Hindu. I was born and brought up in India. I am a Hyderabadi. I am a Telugu Reddy girl. I am a South Asian. Now, I am American. I am a citizen of the world.
How do you define yourself? Your religion, your skin color, your gender, caste and creed, your country of origin, your height, the color of your eyes and hair, where you live, who you marry, what you did, what you do? All of these are reasons, the differences that lead to a mistrust of the unknown. These are the reasons for hatred, crimes and wars. Sadly, this is mostly how our world functions. But sometimes, just sometimes these are the very reasons you are adored, appreciated and celebrated. You are unique. You bring something different and wonderful that makes up the potpourri that is this world.
All through history, people that embrace differences are the ones that have truly blazed the path for advancement and peace. And these are the people that are able to connect on what is common and try to understand and rejoice what is different. It does not mean abandoning who you are or where you come from. It is that rich mix of cultures that makes this world so fascinating.
We received a call in September of 2013 that my husband’s Grandpa was on his deathbed. It was a matter of a few days. He was 96 and Grandma instructed my husband not to come. “You won’t be able to see him and I don’t want to hold him waiting. You are not to leave your pregnant wife at this point in time. Please don’t come”. They had been married for 69 years.
It was the summer of 1981 when a light blue Chevy Impala pulled into the driveway of a beautiful wood house on Doral drive, Waterloo Iowa. As the young Asian Indian couple and their 7 yr old boy settled into their home neighbors came over to greet and introduce themselves. The house was wafted with the scent of freshly baked cookies their new friends brought over.
Ravi was riding a bike on the sidewalk in front of his new home when Frieda Biesanz stopped over and asked him where his grandparents were. India, he said. ‘Oh that won’t do’ she said ‘From here on we’ll be your grandparents in America. We are Bob and Frieda Biesanz and you can call us Grandma and Grandpa’. ‘Okay’ said Ravi. His young brain accepted it as a matter of fact and thus started a beautiful bond between people from cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds so different but who ended up becoming a family to each other in the truest sense.
Grandma was of German decent and Ravi doesn’t quite remember much about Grandpa’s heritage. He only knew that they loved each other a lot and met in Minnesota where they grew up. They met in a company where they worked together. If you ask Grandma about this time in their life, she will not miss mentioning how ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Grandpa was. Theirs was the sweetest love story, a love that only grew stronger over the decades. They had one son and traveled several places before they finally bought the house adjacent to the one right across my in-laws.
Grandpa was in the Navy. He told Ravi about the radios in his time where they’d have to hold the wire to a crystal to set a frequency much before the disks came along. He was a jovial, cheerful man, always making you laugh. He owned a Petroleum company along with Grandma, which they sold and then ran an auto parts business before they retired. He always said ‘You must run a business like a business’ If he wanted to give the kids a race car sticker they sold in the store he would pay 75 cents to his business and only then take it. They worked hard and were always energetic. Grandma did the housework and Grandpa mowed his lawn till they were well into their 80’s. He played golf religiously every week. Ravi remembers working on the radio flyer in the basement with Grandpa and egg hunts with their grandson Michael. Grandma taught Ravi to give hugs. She was the perfect hostess and shared her talents with Ravi’s mom. Grandma loved wearing Indian outfits and enjoyed learning about Indian traditions and customs as well.
They were very active socially and threw many parties. They were also avid travelers. They drove to every corner in America and trotted across the continents. There were innumerable slides of their journeys to far off lands. They had the map of the world with pushpins displaying the different places they had been. India was one of them. They ate at their favorite Chinese restaurant every week together.
Then Ravi went to boarding school. They kept up with his progress and he’d see them during holidays and Christmas. They were incredibly proud of him and attended his graduation at the Naval Academy. They had rented a house for a week and stayed together to celebrate the occasion. Ravi remembers his graduation dinner when Grandpa had some not so nice things to say about lawyers for some 20 minutes. At the end of the dinner one of the acquaintances, a lawyer gave Grandpa, his card and Grandpa said ‘Oops’ and everyone burst into laughter.
They drove down to Pensacola once on one of their trips when Ravi was in flight school and then met for lunch at this fun restaurant where they threw the bread rolls to you. If you wanted bread you had to raise your hand and they threw it straight into your palm and all you had to do was curl your fingers close in time. Grandpa joked a lot and once he taught Ravi a joke about a doctor who is giving an old man, a patient some bad news about two diseases he has. First, he says you have cancer. What’s the other asks the old man. It’s Alzheimer’s. Oh thank God, he says, at least it’s not cancer!
Unfortunately, those were the two ailments in his old age. As Ravi’s wife I met Grandpa when he was 88. He showed me around their house and the places Ravi used to hide. Grandma had us over for the best tea party I had ever been to. The finest of China and beautiful glass goblets impeccably arranged. She always sent us cards on every occasion. Her cards contained beautifully worded letters showering us with their love and blessings. She sent us beautiful thank you notes for the smallest of gestures. I had fallen in love with this beautiful, elegant woman. Over the years the families grew so close you could see they cared for each other the way parents do for their kids and vice versa. When you walked in to my in-laws home you would see large portraits hung up on walls with my in-laws, my husband and his Indian and American grandparents. They were Grandma and Grandpa to me in an instant.
We celebrated his big 90th bash where he regaled us again with his lively personality. I remember when they had to move to the old age home. Grandma gave us some of her favorite china and other souvenirs. Her new living quarters though a lot smaller were just as majestic. She showed me her closet with all the shoeboxes. ‘Low heel, porcelain white strapped sandals’ said one. There were piles and piles all neatly labeled and organized meticulously. Grandma has two great grandsons and was elated when we had a daughter. There were pictures of our daughter all over the fridge. I saw framed photos of family, friends, my in-laws and Ravi in his uniform. She took us to Grandpa who lived in the same building in another section since he needed more care that Grandma alone was unable to provide. Their son moved back and lived in the house and together along with my in-laws cared for his parents. The best care was afforded to them since my father in law is a doctor. They checked on them and were there for them, to celebrate special occasions or help them when they needed it. Grandma says she knows why she never gave birth to a daughter. She said it was because God had given her one anyways. She was talking about my mother-in-law.
And then the day had come. As my husband reminisced I could see the smile on his lips and moist eyes. My heart sank and expanded at the same time. I felt grateful for their presence in our life. I could see how they had influenced and shaped this wonderful man I now call husband. I could see how love transcended boundaries and how people so different became one family. In his obituary along with their family, children and great-grandchildren were all our names, including those of my two daughters listed as their kin.
It is so easy to lose sight of the beautiful connections we can make if we do not open our hearts to what is different. And what a wonderful life it is when we do.
Have you had any experiences that make you feel the same? How do you think we can teach our children to celebrate our differences while being true to who we are? Please do share your stories with us.