The last time I ate tamarind was 1975.
"White Christmas" began playing on the radios. It was the signal that the evacuation of America personnel had begun. Once Robert's family realized that the fall of their country was imminent, they and thousands of others rushed towards the American Embassy. Marines fought to keep the gates closed against the panicked tide of people desperate for the freedom their side of the gate represented. Hands and arms reached towards them, imploring; native voices pleaded with them to open the gates.
Robert was 11 years old. He was at the gate with his mother, his father and his two sisters. The scene was one of madness, of chaos. The Marines were allowing only certain people in, those with the right credentials, those who had worked for the Americans, those whose lives were at risk if they stayed behind. When the gates opened to permit an embassy worker and her family through, Robert's mother took her chance: she knew the woman walking through the embassy gates. Impelled by the weight of the crowd, the gates bent momentarily inward and Robert's mother laid her hands on his shoulders and pushed her son through the gates. She screamed to the woman on the other side, begging her to take Robert.
It was the last time Robert felt his mother's hands for fifteen years. When next they saw one another....they were strangers.
As children he and I played together but when I met him years later, when we were in our late twenties and early thirties respectively, I found nothing in him that resembled my childhood playmate. Of course, there were allowances for maturity; he was a man and had put away his childish toys. But my mother and I spoke about it --
"He's cold," I said to her, a little dismissively after he and I spent an afternoon roaming through the National Gallery. I warm to everyone. But nothing in his manner had invited familiarity. On a sunny June day, his coolness had washed over our excursion like an Arctic wind.
"His mother says he's very aloof," said Mom. Then gently: "But he wasn't raised by her. He lived with other people. People who weren't his family." A little pensively: "I don't think they treated him well."
There's a memory I have, of being at one of the refugee camps in Guam and accompanying Mom and Dad when they found Robert with the Embassy family who had taken charge of him. Being but five I had no concept of the enormity of his situation; I could not comprehend that Robert was essentially orphaned and dependent on the kindness of strangers. We were everywhere surrounded by shell-shocked refugees and survivors of a country no longer extant. My mother embraced him and asked him questions. He reassured her that he was all right. That family moved to Seattle while we settled on the east coast so we did not see him.
"Why didn't we take Robert with us?" I asked my mother.
Because she had the five of us, ranging in age from 5 to 2 months old. Because she and my father had no idea what would happen next. Like the thousands of their fellow refugees, they were without home, without country and without a plan.
I wonder if I could have made the same decision Robert's mother made: to offer her son a free life, but one devoid of his family's love. My father once said to Uncle Mark: "It's worth it Mark, it's worth it to try for freedom." But I think too about what my life has been, embraced by the comfort of a large family; encircled in my mother's arms; and when I am ninety, I will still remember how my father's hands felt on my shoulders as he leaned down to kiss my head.
I bought some tamarind at a farmer's market. And this is what I remembered when I tasted it: there were tamarind trees outside the complex where
my family lived. When we were children, Robert's parents would come to visit my parents and he and I would pick tamarind pods off the
street and split them open, eating the sweet, acidic fruit. How bittersweet that taste now, how profound with loss.
In my son's room, I hold my sleeping boy close to me and make him all sorts of promises...It's hard not to cry.