Inside my mother’s closet it was cool and dim. Everything fell away: the sound of raised voices, closing doors. I’d breathe in the musky scent of a pashmina embroidered with vines and lilies, run my fingers over a beaded clutch the azure of the Himalayan sky—things my mother brought from India when she boarded the plane that long ago day in the 50s and flew to America. I’d look through her jewelry: a bracelet with prayer wheel and buddha charms; a tear-shaped turquoise pendant her father gave her when she left for New York; a Tibetan coral-and-silver amulet, worn for protection on a journey. Nestled in her silk scarves, my mother always kept a bar of Myrurgia’s Maja soap, wrapped in the distinctive red-and-black paper with a flamenco dancer on the label. Because my father—an American my mother met in medical school—had been stationed at the Rota naval base, near Cadiz and the Strait of Gibraltar, I was born in Spain and we stayed there for two years. I remembered nothing of those days but I’d heard stories: My parents drank fino sherry in bars and ate tapas made from tiny sparrows and wild boar. On warm evenings, the levante wind blowing in from the sea, they chatted with friends on their jasmine-wreathed patio. They spent New Year’s Eve in the 15th-century convent hotel at the Alhambra in Granada, gazing out over the moonlit Moorish gardens. But after we moved back to the States, there were arguments—over money, how the children should be raised, my father’s love of intellectual discussion vs. my mother’s love of cocktail parties. My father began spending more and more time at his office. I’d sit in my mother’s closet and inhale the Maja fragrance of vetiver, rose, geranium, clove, and dream of my parents in Rota: my father handsome in his Navy uniform, my mother slim and lovely in one of the suits she’d had made in Jerez de la Frontera. I’d hear the flamenco records my father still played, the yearning gypsy cante from Andalusia, the south of Spain, where I was born and my parents had been happy.
Ann Tashi Slater’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Gulf Coast, failbetter, and Kyoto Journal, as well as in American Dragons (HarperCollins), an anthology of work by Asian American writers. Her translation of a novella by Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa (Grove). She is working on a multi-generational novel based on the Tibetan side of her family and a travel memoir, from which “Gypsy Cante” is taken. A longtime resident of Tokyo, Slater teaches American literature at a Japanese university. Visit her website and her Huffington Post blog.