The first question my mom asks when she hears I’m coming home for a visit is “What do you want to eat?” It has been this way since I left for college, and to her undying frustration, I always say something like “Whatever’s easiest!” She throws out suggestions. “Chicken curry? Mater paneer? Biryani?” and I just annoyingly reply “Yeah, that all sounds good.” I’m indifferent about what she cooks for dinner because everything she makes is always so reliably good that it’s hard to choose one thing over another.
Since the pandemic emerged in 2020, traveling to see my parents has become harder. This past summer, I stayed with them at their home in Michigan for the first time in two years for my childhood friend’s wedding. I had exactly one week, which at first seemed like more than enough time. Then I started to think realistically about what the week ahead entailed and the guilt set in instantly.
We spent some time together, of course, eating my mom’s incredible food constantly, but, as I predicted, the trip went by too fast.
It’s hard to publicly admit that I get triggered by flatbread, but of all the foods my mom makes, aloo paratha is never one I really want
On trips like this, the day I leave is always full of anxiety. It starts as soon as I hear my parents staring in the morning. I feel sad, but I attribute it to the annoyance of air travel and push it down. Immediately after coming out of my room, my mom asks what foods I would like to take back with me. As always, I always tell her not to bother. I don’t mean to be cold or unappreciative. I just feel fussy anticipating the journey ahead, and she keeps asking, and pushing. I try to paint here a picture of a container full of chicken curry sloshing around in an overhead bin during turbulence, but it’s like she doesn’t even care that I could get permanently banned from Delta Airlines.
Eventually, as she always does, she suggests aloo paratha and this makes everything worse. It’s hard to publicly admit that I get triggered by flatbread, but of all the foods my mom makes, aloo paratha is never one I really want, although it’s hard for bread stuffed with potatoes to be bad. I say “no thanks” even though I know she’ll make some anyway. I watch as she gestures towards a large bowl of potatoes and peas, and the dough or atta, as she always calls it, in a separate container.
“How many do you want to take? Ten?” When she says the word ten, she nods as if she’s settling on what is obviously the right answer. Why wouldn’t I want a stack of ten aloo parathas? At this very moment I’m trying to remember where I kept my laptop charger, and say with annoyance, “No mom, that’s way too many.” “So how many, then? Eight?”
I unplug the charger from an outlet in the living room. I agree that eight is fine, admitting that I’ll share a few with my friends. And at this, she looks offended. “Mom. I’m not even hungry. I don’t know how many aloo parathas I’ll want in the next day and a half. What’s wrong with giving a few away?” She pauses to consider, and, as if this is a favor I’ve asked, she huffily replies that she will make five. I look over at my suitcase, which is somehow already full, and realize I still have a load of laundry in the dryer, all clothes I intend to take back to LA. As I start making my way downstairs to the laundry room, my mom brightly asks, “Would you like to take some coconut chutney?” Of course I would. I love coconut chutney, and could eat it straight with a spoon and nothing else, and she knows it, which is why she offered, but where will it go? I have no more space. I try to gently tell her that I don’t think I have room for anything else and she looks sad.
When I return with the laundry basket, I see that my dad has taken everything out of my suitcase and is now refolding and refitting every single item that once already had a place inside. As I stand in the doorway, eye twitching, my dad cheerfully takes the laundry basket from me. “Don’t worry! It will all fit.” And then my mom appears with the finished stack of aloo parathas (of course, there are more than five), coconut chutney, and a plastic grocery bag of mustard seeds, cardamom pods, and a little cardboard box of tandoori masala.
I leave the room for my sanity and when I come back the piles are gone, my bag is packed and zipped and soon enough, we’re on our way to the airport. I sit in the backseat looking past the backs of their heads through the windshield. It’s late summer now and every leaf is dark green. I wonder if I’ll make it back for Christmas, and imagine a leafless, snow-covered version of this backseat view, one that I used to see all the time, but barely ever anymore, and I can admit to myself finally that I ‘m feeling sad to go.
When I finally get home and unzip my suitcase, I inhale a cloud of cardamom
After a lump-in-the-throat-inducing-goodbye at the airport, I’m finally alone, and relieved to have space from the emotions of the day. My fussiness returns mid-flight after hours of limited leg room. It stays with me after we land, after I retrieve my suitcase from baggage claim, while I wait an hour for an overpriced Uber to take me home, and an agonizing drive in rush-hour traffic back to my apartment.
When I finally get home and unzip my suitcase, I inhale a cloud of cardamom. I see that the bag of mustard seeds has popped open and they now float between the rest of the items in the grocery bag like miniature packing peanuts. I’m too tired to mind. My eyes land on the gallon-sized ziplock bag of aloo parathas and I realize just how hungry I am. I pull the stack of parathas from the wax paper they are wrapped in. I’m too hungry to heat them up and ignore the feeling that my mom wouldn’t approve. I eat one cold anyway, over the sink, missing my parents so much already. I take a bite and feel the way she intended to care for me by making me take them. Maybe I never choose aloo paratha because It tastes complicated, like guilt and gratitude and too much time spent away, not seeing my parents enough, and how good to me they are anyway. But as always, at this moment, I can’t believe I thought I didn’t want them.