What I Consider My Home Town

I live in one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world, San Francisco, yet many of my most meaningful life experiences still happen in Phoenix, Arizona where much of my family resides. I visited my mother in Phoenix a few weeks ago to celebrate Eid-ul-Adha, as I have done for many years, and below are some of the special moments of the trip that reminded me of the value of community, family and the passing down of traditions from generation to generation:

1.After circling the one-way streets in downtown Phoenix a few times my mother and I finally arrived at the drop-off area at the Phoenix Convention Center where the Eid prayer was going to take place. My mom needs wheelchair access and we were, as usual, running late. So instead of taking her with me to the parking garage I had to drop her off first. I hadn’t really thought through how I would get my mom into the prayer hall. My tentative plan was to leave the car in the drop-off area illegally for what could be 10 minutes, push my mom in her wheelchair into the women’s section of the prayer hall, run back and drive to the parking garage. It wasn’t a great plan but I was hoping to make it work.

In my fancy yellow shalwar kameez, I lifted the wheelchair out of the trunk, unfolded it, grabbed the footrests that were sitting beside it in the trunk, squatted down and slipped them on the little grooves at the foot of the wheelchair with my long yellow scarf scraping the asphalt. I rolled the wheelchair over to the passenger’s seat where my mom was sitting and I opened the door. I was engrossed in my task when I heard a man in a white robe, white kufi and sunglasses ask, “Do you need help?”

I automatically replied, “no, we’re ok” and resumed helping my mom get into the wheelchair. The stubborn part of me reacted with “I don’t need no man to help me!” and I also didn’t want to inconvenience him. A few seconds later the man returned and asked, “how are you going to get your mom to the prayer hall if you have to go park the car?” His precise understanding of my troubles forced me to stop what I was doing and drop my defenses. He proposed a solution and said, “let me push your mom into the prayer hall and you can go park.” It was exactly the help I needed and despite my stubborn independent streak I accepted his offer. My mom later reported that the man pushed her into the hall then handed her off to a young woman to take her into the women’s section and she reached the congregation just in time to catch the beginnings of the prayer. Mission accomplished but it took a village, like many things do.

I was touched that this man saw me struggling and reached out to help. Because of my stubborn independent streak I often have trouble accepting help from others but in that moment I was awakened to the value of community. I recognized that when you’re a part of a community, you don’t have to struggle in the world by yourself all the time. This feeling of being surrounded by a caring community was in contrast to my recent experiences living by myself in San Francisco, trying to do everything by myself and rarely getting help from others. The help I am used to getting in San Francisco is the hired kind, from rides with Uber, a paid cleaner, and food delivery. The spontaneous act of kindness I experienced on Eid was a reminder that despite our insistence that we can do it all on our own, we all need each other and that is a good thing.

2.After I dropped my mom off I went to park the car at the Jefferson and 3rd Street Parking Garage. Going back down to the first floor of the garage I noticed everyone on the elevator made up a virtual United Nations. A variety of ethnicities, including Arab, African and South Asian, comprised of men, women and children dressed in their beautiful Eid outfits were crammed into the elevator. The mood was festive and though we didn’t know each other, we felt close in that moment as we were all Muslims in America celebrating our holiday (and running a little late).

One man was wearing a long gray robe with a kufi, another was wearing a black suit. A couple of the women wore colorful African head dresses and a little boy, the cutest passenger by far, looked like a Kenyan prince in his striped orange, yellow and red matching top and pants with a matching kufi. Our elevator was a feast for the eyes.

Once we got off we were a bit disoriented being unfamiliar with downtown Phoenix but the man in the long gray robe directed us to where we needed to go, saying he’s a taxi driver so he knows his way around. We went as a group, bound together in this holiday tradition, being immigrants in America, and our mission to get to the prayer on time. This special moment signified what is best in America, a place where people from all over the world congregate, enrich each other and others with their ethnic traditions, and become part of a diverse community.

3.Another special moment of my trip to Phoenix was watching The Story of the Royals with my mom. She almost never sits and watches TV because she claims she’s too busy. The third night of my visit I saw that The Story of the Royals was on and I called her over because I knew she loves anything to do with the British Royalty. She pushed her walker over to her recliner and plopped down and immediately began her commentary over the narrator’s commentary. She knew all the names of Queen Elizabeth’s children, her husband, her mother, and her grandkids, not only in English but in Portuguese. Our family speaks Portuguese because we lived in Mozambique, a previously Portuguese colony.

“That’s Carlos,” she said, as a teenaged Prince Charles came on TV. She reveled in the images of a twenty-something Queen Elizabeth shown with her dashing husband and beautiful little kids. She enjoyed watching scenes of Princess Diana coming out of the hospital with her first born, William, and later seeing Prince William and Kate Middleton coming out of the same hospital with their first born.

Me and my mom watching the British Royal family with such delight is not without  irony, being Indians and once the colonial subjects of the British. I hold a lot of resentment towards British colonialism and by extension the British royalty and even the concept of royalty. However, in that moment my mom and I were just two people enjoying the world-wide cultural phenomenon known as the British Royals, something my mom has enjoyed and been fascinated by for most of her life.

Watching the royals and their succession from King George to Queen Elizabeth to Prince Charles to Prince William and the newest addition, Prince George reminded me of the passing down of values and traditions in my own family, from my grandparents to my parents to my siblings to their kids and their kids. I felt a sort of kinship with the British Royals despite their “royalty”, in their humanity, their family stories, their births and deaths, and their evolution and traditions.

4.Another special moment of my trip illustrated our own family story unfolding through time and through the generations. On my last day of my Eid visit to Phoenix, as it was getting dark and the temperatures were cooling I took a walk with my nephew Ehsan, his sister Eshana, and their mom Femida in my mom’s historic neighborhood in downtown Chandler. This old neighborhood has gorgeous mature trees and beautiful midcentury modern homes from the 50s and 60s. I knew several routes we could take thanks to the walks I used to take with my dad.

For many years, my dad took an hour-long walk in the neighborhood in the evening every single day, even in the searing heat of Phoenix summers. He got to know the neighbors on his walk and they would wave. Sometimes I would accompany him on the walk when I visited, but rarely. My dad’s walk was a sacred and private time for him and I think it was one of his favorite activities of the day.

After he had a stroke and could no longer walk his caregiver would push his wheelchair around the neighborhood every evening, even in the summer, to continue the tradition. Neighbors expressed regret and sadness to see my dad in a wheelchair and unable to speak very well but they got used to it after a while. For the three years my dad was sick, his caregiver would take him on a walk around the neighborhood and neighbors continued to wave. In the beginning he would wave back but later he got too sick to even do that. After his stroke whenever I visited I would accompany him without fail and these walks became precious memories.

Ever since he passed away about two years ago, none of us in the family have taken a walk around the neighborhood. Going on a walk with my niece and nephew and their mom felt bittersweet because it reminded me of my dad and how much I miss him. At the same time it heartened me because even though my dad is gone, his legacy continues in his kids, his grandkids and his great grandkids. We took a route he had taken many times and I felt connected with my dad, seeing what he must have seen on his daily walks and at the same time enjoyed the present moment with my niece and nephew and their mom and made new memories.

On my life adventures what I’ve learned is that family, community, and connection are what really matter to me at the end of the day. Phoenix for me is replete with these intangibles that nourish my soul and this is why I have decided to move back to what I consider my home town.

Photo Credit: Me and my mom driving from Chandler where her house is to Eid prayer in downtown Phoenix a few weeks ago. Photo by the author.