Kay was telling Heather everything she could remember about the baby shower and exclaiming that the gifts were huge. She had felt embarrassed by the bib she had bought from Shirley, a local designer of baby gift ware even though, when she bought it, she had felt it was a super-deluxe bib.
“I then had to remind myself that I had previously brought a crocheted blanket that I had made myself plus one I had bought, and a stylized art print of a blue elephant on a yellow patterned background for the baby’s room. The bib was really just an extra, but the other guests would not have known that and must have thought I was stingy,” said Kay
“It was more like a wedding. They were more like wedding-sized gifts but for a baby. I don’t think there was a gift under three feet by three feet and a foot deep. There were layette tables and bathing basins, giant plush toys and toys a child could ride, packages of designer sleepers and outfits fit for formal evening attire, just in case you couldn’t get a baby sitter and had to take the baby to the opera on opening night or something.”
“There were electronic baby monitors and cribs, high chairs and car seats. No matter how big they were, they were wrapped in Hallmark baby wrapping paper and they had extravagant bows and ribbons. Jasmine was just ripping them off like it was nothing. She obviously doesn’t have my habit of rolling them up carefully and saving them.”
‘And by the way, I’m not doing that anymore,” Kay continued, forestalling a possible objection to her frugal obsession with reusing paper. “I’ve still got every bit of wrapping paper from Mother’s house and I don’t have anywhere to put it all. I can’t wait until I’ve used it all up!”
“There were so many gifts that you couldn’t walk around in the living room where we all were – thirty of us – and the crib in the center with the baby sleeping in it, dead to the world, unaware of all the shrill cacophony of thirty plus females laughing and gossiping and exclaiming after each gift that was opened and displayed.”
“I remember when we had wedding showers and baby showers, ” Kay continued. ” We brought small things – a potato peeler, a pair of oven mitts, a set of place mats. Nothing big. For babys – a single sleeper, not four; a blanket you knitted yourself, a little bonnet, a pair of soft shoes. Nothing more expensive than ten dollars now. Maybe the mother-in-law was expected to get something a bit bigger, but the bigger gifts never made it to the shower. They were separate.”
Heather laughed. “Maybe the Fijians hold Deluges, not showers! Ha, Ha!”
“That’s a good one!” Kay replied. “But I wish I’d known.”
Kay thought back to the invitation that had come as a message on her voice mail.
“It’s Ravinder, Victor’s sister; Jasmine’s new sister-in-law” the disembodied voice said. “Jasmine would like you to come to her shower on Sunday the 22nd. Please call and tell me if you are able to come.”
There wasn’t a hint of an accent, Kay reflected. Jasmine’s husband and his siblings must have grown up in Vancouver. Kay had met Jasmine in Fiji, one of Lizbet’s instant friends, when they were traveling last spring. Heather, Kay, Lizbet and Heather’s husband had traveled together and stayed in a tropical resort for a week. By the second day, Lizbet had introduced herself to all the guests and the hotel staff.
Jasmine worked in the spa and since the spa staff were often idle waiting for customers, they were pleased for some conversation from the outside world. By the time Lizbet met Jasmine, she was already married and just waiting for her immigration papers to allow her to come to Canada. She had wanted to know more about Vancouver and had asked everyone to come have dinner at her home. It was a golden opportunity to meet some real Fijians, something that was impossible when staying in the resort.
Kay remembered how they had all been concerned about accepting the offer. Was it appropriate to go to the home of a staff member? If the manager knew, might she lose her job? Fiji was reputed to be extremely poor. Would this eager young woman’s hospitality put her in a position of offering more than she could really afford? What would they do about transport? Did her parents know she was offering to feed them all. There were four of us. Had she known that when she made the invitation. It seemed disproportionately onerous for her to invite them all. And how could they return her hospitality?
Finally they agreed to go and Lizbet was the facilitator amongst them who found the perfect gift. Lizbet had no hesitation to go to one of the other spa employees to find out what she might like. Jasmine, it seemed, was enamored of a beautifully hand-crafted purse that was available in the gift shop.
Jasmine had prepared a sumptuous feast of East Indian dishes and lavished her hospitality upon her guests. Kay remembered how they had tasted each of the foreign tasting dishes, and Kay had disguised her shock at the spicy zing of the sauces, nursing her burning tongue, while Jasmine proclaimed, “I made the dishes very mild for you. I know you are not used to hotly spiced foods.”
And now, Jasmine was here, barely ten months in Canada, with a little wrinkly old man of a newborn babe surrounded by a completely new family in the local Fijian immigrant community and a devoted husband.
Kay phoned Ravinder to say she would be happy to come to the shower. Before she signed off, she hesitantly asked, “What do you wear to a shower like this?” It had been more years than Kay would like to remember since she had been invited to such an event.
“Well, it won’t be saris, if that was what you were thinking,” Ravinder replied. “You wont have to go out and rent one.”
“No,” replied Kay, “but that might tell me how formal or not this occasion is.”
“Just wear whatever you would wear to any baby shower, ” Ravinder counselled.
It left Kay in a bit of a quandry. Canadian culture had become so informal over the years. One might find people arriving in jeans and others in dressier clothes. Were the Fijian-Canadians more formal or less? In fact, the whole question of culture differences had Kay dithering about what was appropriate and what might not be. Besides, Kay hadn’t been to a shower in years twenty years. She didn’t normally go to showers.
The Saturday night, Kay set about finding clothes for the occasion. Rummaging through her drawers, she found an embroidered coat sweater that she had never worn before, had kept tucked away for more than three years for a special occasion. It was quite dress, made of fine knit wool, white with a baby blue border, and tiny flowers embroidered down the front like a soft spring garden. She laid it out beside her one pair of dressy black slacks. Next she rifled through her cupboard looking for a blouse that would complement the white and pale blue sweater.
Finally, she took a whole bundle of mixed up stockings with her down to her chair in front of the television and sorted them out, finding pairs and checking for signs of holes or runs. She would need a perfect pair. It was certain that she would have to take her shoes off at the door. She put aside a pair of fine black sheers with a line that went up the back of her leg. “Sexy!” she thought aloud, although she knew that no one would ever see the sexy line if she were wearing slacks.
On the Sunday, Kay drove into Vancouver and found the house on Moscrop Street. It was tucked just down the hill below Rupert, a big monster house with red brick tiles on the roof, the California- style brick and stucco kind that was built in the ‘Eighties.
As she parked the car, she could see people arriving from all directions. Three Fijians arrived at the gate, encumbered by their parcels.
The door opened. “I’m Reshmi”, the young woman introduced herself. “I’m Victor’s sister.”
Kay looked slightly baffled. “I thought your name was Ravinder?” she said.
“Oh, Ravinder’s my sister,” Reshmi explained, but was quickly distracted by the other arriving guests. She held out her hand to shake Kay’s, but it lasted just a second as she turned to give a peck on each cheek to one woman after another of family and friends as they streamed in the door.
Sure enough, a collection of shoes was accumulating beside the front door and almost all of them were black.
There was a semi-circular staircase with a curving mahogany bannister. The steps were covered in white marbled tile. A chandelier of sparkling crystals hung in the cathedral entrance. At the top of the stairs, a large East Indian rug covered the living room’s hardwood floor.
It was a large room with two couches on the western side and all around the edges were carved wooden chairs with padded velvet seats. Kay was ushered to a seat on the eastern side of the room and introduced to Lydia, Ruth, Nain and Violet.
At first, Kay hardly had time to reflect about where she was. Jasmine’s new mother-in-law was presenting her to her relatives. There was a dizzying number of connections that Kay could not keep track of – cousins, aunts, sisters, grandmothers, daughters….It was all dreadfully important.
When, later, Kay took time to count, there were twenty eight women sitting in the living room and still more women were coming.
Violet, who sat beside her, explained that she was just about to become mother-in-law to Jasmine’s sister-in-law, Reshmi. Put more simply, her son was to marry Victor’s sister. But when Kay asked her what Victor’s mother’s name was, the soon-to-be relative couldn’t remember.
“It’s all so new to me!” she proclaimed.
“Ah“, thought Kay, “I’m not the only one here who doesn’t know anyone else.”
“What language is everyone speaking?” asked Kay.
“It’s broken Hindi. You know, like broken English. ”
“It’s a dialect of Hindi? Or slang?” Kay asked again?
“No. It’s just full of words from different languages, English, native Fijian, Chinese. It’s only good for Fiji. No one understands it in India,” Violet replied.
And so they talked. Violet had just retired from the telephone company. Kay had just retired from a property management company. Violet was about to do some travelling – to Hawaii, perhaps. Kay was going to to Mexico, perhaps. Retirement was a busy occupation. Each declared that she had never been so busy before.
Then the games began. Those silly games that keep the company happy. Each person had a clothes peg. If a person said either the word baby or the baby’s name, another person could claim their clothes peg. The woman with the greatest number of clothes pegs got a prize at the end of the afternoon.
There was a contest to see who could match and fold together the greatest number of baby socks in ten seconds. Everyone participated. Kay, like so many others, rolled three. The champion rolled seven and won a prize.
When she returned to her seat, Kay had time to reflect. Everyone was concentrating on the gifts that others had brought, now being unwrapped by the new mother while the guests hooted with laughter and a gabble of family news added to the din. In the crib, the twenty-day-old infant slept deeply, innocently, profoundly.
Kay watched young James. Proud as could be, this lad of ten or so, assisted the father of the infant in clearing the room of the opened gifts, undaunted by the gathering of women around him. From time to time, the father stopped to use his video recorder and film the chaos.
James, when finally freed of his duties, glued himself to the crib and gazed with wonderment at the sleeping infant, fawning on him, touching the tiny scroll of fingers with a reverent caress. With his thick black head of hair, his long black eyelashes and an innocent rapture on his face, he seemed an angel, himself.
In her introductions, Kay had gathered quite a bit of information to chew on. The family had come to Canada in 1976. The mother started work at the Delta Hotel as a hotel maid and had risen to the chief housekeeper’s position. Her husband worked in a blue collar position, though Kay had forgotten quite what – in a warehouse. They had raised four children. One son had become a security guard, one and RCMP. One daughter was now a bank manager. The other was a lawyer. Lydia beamed with pride, telling of her very successful children.
“It’s much like our family,” thought Kay. ” Grandpa was a blue collar worker; grandmother had been a maid in an English Manor and had become a Lady’s companion. When they came to Canada, their first thought was to establish a home of their own, have children and provide them with the best education they could muster. The next generation had a university professor, a member of parliament, two teachers and a secretary; and the generation after that, two university professors, five or six teachers, an MBA, a home economist – everyone had degrees. ”
And then Kay thought about the Baby Shower. She had attended many for her friends and family, eons ago, it seemed. It didn’t matter if you were of European background or East Indian. Families celebrated births, birthdays, weddings, and deaths. People knew the connections in their families by attending these events. They were occasions for meeting aunties, cousins, sisters who had gotten married and gone away.They were occasions to catch up on family news. They were ways of assisting the young in setting up their homes or providing some little luxuries that new parents might not afford. With deaths, they were a means of supporting the close family members in their grieving.
Under the skin, no matter what language one spoke, the commonality of human experience was the same. Families relations were important and so was friendship.
In common, too, was the immigrant experience. People arrived with hopes and dreams and fought to make them come true – with grit and determination, with hard work and long hours. The fruit of that labour was visible in the appointments of one’s house, in the clothes one wore, the cars one drove and in the positions that one assumed in society.
Despite Kay’s inability to understand most of the conversations, she revelled in the warmth and happiness of the family gathering. But it was five o’clock! She was expected elsewhere for dinner although, she wondered, how would she be able to eat after such generous offerings of food that had occurred during the afternoon.
It was just at this moment that Jasmine’s mother-in-law announced that dinner was being served. Kay offered her regrets, gathered her shoes and left, but not before a care package of dinner “for tomorrow” was prepared for her to take home – salmon, pasta, rice and samosas. The hospitality and generosity had been wonderful.
As Kay drove back to her home in the Fraser Valley, she savored the events of the afternoon but she was glad to be returning to her relative solitude. She had seen more people in one afternoon than she had seen in a year. What cacophony!