October 24, 2014
By Ekta R. Garg
Yesterday was the Indian festival of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, to celebrate the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. Celebrating holidays offers Indians living in Western countries an opportunity for remembering old times and childhoods and getting together with others in the community. It also gives Indians to share these festivals with non-Indians.
In Six’s school, several years ago, a parent who migrated from India but had her children here in the States decided to share Diwali with the entire school. It started in the middle school as a meal bought and paid for by any parents who wanted to participate. Since that time more parents have joined in contributing, and we all pitch in to buy the entire school and teachers and staff lunch and dessert.
During Diwali people decorate their homes with dozens of lights and candles and also with rangoli (loose powdered spread into beautiful patterns on the floor.) People get new clothes and exchange gifts, and they also enjoy good food and yummy sweets. At the school this translates to pizza and Oreos and cupcakes.
Last year I just made the financial contribution, but I couldn’t participate in serving lunch. This year, however, some of the other involved moms urged me to come to the school to help them serve the pizza to the kids (I also got tagged for saying a few words to the students about what Diwali means to Indians and why it’s celebrated.)
I had one minor problem in coming, I explained. Eight didn’t have school yesterday and today because of parent-teacher conferences.
No problem, the other moms said. Bring her along. Let her join in the fun.
So I took Eight with me. I dressed in ethnic wear, but I put her in a comfortable pair of jeans and a nice sweater. She relishes any opportunity to wear non-uniform clothes, and I didn’t want to take that away from her.
We got to the school, and the tables waited with paper plates and cups full of lemonade. When the pizza man began bringing in the pizzas (28 for the shift of kindergartners through third graders,) all the moms helped him pull the boxes out of the carry bags. Eight hovered close by and watched.
After inspecting the first three or four boxes, we realized that the pizza place had forgotten to mark them with what type of pizza sat inside. To avoid opening boxes over and over, we began checking them and labeling them in big letters on the top. The receptionist started writing on some of the boxes but then got called to attend to something else, so I took over the labeling. Just then the first batch of students arrived, and I knew we had to move fast to get all the boxes labeled. We still had to serve lunch to the kids and then get ready to serve dessert and prep for the second round of kids.
I hesitated for a split second but then made a decision. I grabbed a marker and handed it to Eight. “Here,” I said. “Start writing.”
I checked boxes and put them in front of her on the table.
“Is this big enough?” she asked after the first one.
“That’s good,” I said.
“I’m sorry my ‘E’ isn’t neat,” she said, taking a moment to examine the end of the word “cheese.”
“It’s okay, it doesn’t have to be neat. It just has to be big so we can see what kind of pizza it is.”
I kept sliding boxes in her direction, and she kept labeling. Then one of the moms invited Eight to the table where Six and the other first graders sat, and the sisters sat close to one another and shared lunch. It made me smile. They haven’t had the opportunity to do this since they started school here in Illinois last year.
Actually, they’ve never had lunch at school together. So I knew they would remember this one.
When lunch ended and Eight had finished her food, she stood and got right back in her role of helper. The mom who had organized the lunch this year trotted to the kitchen to grab bottles of lemonade. I followed her, and Eight came after me.
“I’m just going to follow you,” she said.
“Okay,” I replied, thinking of a way she could help. “Can you hold the cups steady while I pour?”
She held the cups steady on two tables and then passed out napkins to a table full of kids. The pizza man came back with 25 more pizzas, and Eight and I started labeling boxes again. During this lunch shift, she didn’t have to worry about eating so I started handing her empty boxes. She had the job of taking them to the corner of the lunchroom for recycling later.
I didn’t realize that the other moms had made use of her presence there, but all of them told me how glad they were that Eight had pitched in and how much they appreciated her help.
I’ve often told Eight that if she has a job to do that includes a time delay, she should look for other ways to help. I’m so glad she did that yesterday. Often people newly arrived from India complain that Diwali and other festivals don’t get celebrated here in the States with the same level of intricate detail as “back home.” They’ll spend portions of whole evenings discussing the differences. I think if they look closely enough they’ll see the same spirit of community and even family in our adaptations. More than anything they’ll see the same of enthusiasm, and in the end I think that more than anything counts for a festive spirit.