Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bamboo and Bhikkus

There is a sway of bamboo in our bedroom. It's not real bamboo, but a shadow grove that will live forever on the Chinese scroll I inherited from my great aunt and uncle. As beautiful as it is, in some ways it is a poor substitute for the real stand of bamboo that used to grace our backyard. Grown from a foot-long cutting shoved into the ground a decade ago, the bamboo spread along the fenceline, sprouting spindly, fishing-rod stalks that eventually grew into poles twenty feet tall and as thick as my arm. Their skin was cool and satiny smooth like birch bark or ginko leaves. The bamboo provided a green curtain between our house and the neighbor's and gave our suburban back yard a wild feeling. The birds loved it, building nests high above the ground among the leaves. In winter, the sleek, segmented columns stayed supple and green, bringing life and color to the yard as they swayed in the breeze. The best days were when the bamboo bowed patiently under the weight of a newly fallen snow. As if posing for a Christmas card, a cardinal would land on a curving stalk, a daub of scarlet bobbing against the white and green background. And in summmer, Frink would cut some of the dead poles and bind them with jute to make spigots for the fountain on the patio.

For many years, our next-door neighbor shared our enthusiasm for the bamboo, allowing it to spread into his yard, creating a small, communal forest. Then he transferred to a new city. The new neighbors were a young couple with an impossibly tidy house. One of the first things they did was chop down all the bamboo on their side of the fence. They renovated their yard, making it as neat and regimented as a forest of office cubicles. Ours was a running type of bamboo -- not the best variety for a suburban neighborhood -- and for several years it sent out reconnaissance squads, hoping to recapture the neighbors' yard. They were not amused. After a couple of years, we sadly realized that the bamboo would have to go.

I was determined that if I had to sacrifice my bamboo, I wanted something in return. So, I decided to squeeze a long-desired pool into our small backyard. The bamboo succumbed to the violence of a back-hoe, and an above-ground pool and deck took its place (see the forthcoming “My Hoosier Pool” for more on that.) There are homages to the bamboo in the fencing that surrounds the pool and in the pathetic cuttings that grow in pots, but I long for the day when I can buy some acreage out West where my bamboo and I can run free.

A year or so after we cut down the bamboo, my great aunt died. She was 97, a Southern steel magnolia and unlikely world traveler. (You’ll be hearing a lot about her and my great uncle in these pages.) One of the things I brought from her house was the scroll that now hangs in our bedroom.

The scroll is a bit older than I once thought. For some reason, I thought my aunt and uncle had purchased it in China in 1981, a trip that was quite an adventure for a couple then in their seventies. But recently I found some old black and white photographs that show the scroll in the background. The pictures must have been taken in Sri Lanka, where they lived in the late 50s and early 60s, when it was still called Ceylon.

The photos illustrate an event my aunt loved to talk about: The Day the Bhikkus Came to Dinner. The bhikkus were young Buddhist monks-in-training. In her soft drawl, Aunt Fern would recount how they came to visit, all serious and meditative in their bright orange robes, under the watchful eye of an older monk. But they were just kids, and at dinner, when one tasted the table sugar, his face lit up with joy. He asked for more, and the stern master chastised him. In her sweet, firm, grandmotherly way, Aunt Fern said that surely a little treat wouldn't hurt just this once. Perhaps not wanting to offend his hosts, the monk nodded his permission. Aunt Fern passed around spoons and soon the sugar bowl was empty.

The photos also show a man man hovering in the background who is probably Paramali, my aunt’s cook in Sri Lanka. He was another favorite topic of Aunt's stories. She and Paramali got off to a rocky start. Aunt Fern took her life-long role as a housewife very seriously, and she and my uncle had a moral objection to servants. But they soon learned that it was expected for westerners, especially those with the U.N., to employ locals. They hired Paramali, who made it clear that the kitchen was his province. But Aunt Fern was intent on learning how to prepare curry and to use the coriander, tumeric, ginger root and array of peppers she found in Paramali's kitchen. He resented her intrusion, but she persevered, and soon she and Paramali became fast friends. But she never could break him of one habit. Paramali was known for whisking dishes away before one was quite finished eating, an action that became known by the verb, "to Paramali." I was excited not only to find this visual confirmation of two oft-heard stories, but to see the Chinese scroll hanging in the background.

Whereever it came from and however old it may be, this two-dimensional black and gray painting captures the essence of bamboo, with all its life, and depth, and sway more accurately than a crisp color photograph ever could. The bamboo stalks don't so much end at the painting's edges as they draw you outward, suggesting more life just beyond the edge of the silk canvas. I can imagine walking past the sparse stalks in the foreground, venturing further and further back until I get lost in the dense grove.

It is a fitting reminder not only of my aunt and uncle and the stories they shared, but of my bamboo groves, both those dead and gone and those that are yet to be.


  1. Hi Frankie! Lovely post and a great start to your new blog.

  2. Thank you! I keep fussing and editing, but I guess I'll leave well enough alone....

  3. LOL - You can edit and change as much as you want with a blog; that's its great advantage over printed paper.