After My Son Came Home From India

When I received the news that my son was returning from India, I was abroad. I was not expecting his return, since I had responded only recently to his urgent email request to renew his medical insurance for the third time. I was livid: How could he do this to me? I seldom travel, and now he was coming home to Israel right after I had left to visit my family in the States. Though I tried not to take it personally, my heart ached. The little s—t.

When we spoke on the phone, I asked him about his sudden change in plans — not that a 23-year-old backpacker really needs a reason. “I just woke up one morning and decided it was time to leave,” he told me. Many Israeli youths travel extensively after their army service. It’s almost a rite of passage, one that Eric undertook more than a decade ago. Turns out that Eric needed a home after all. I was comforted.

Now that he had decided to leave India after a year of traveling, he could not get home fast enough. “I wish I could fly on a magic carpet,” he told me on our last transatlantic phone call. So did I.

Two weeks later, Eric greeted me at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv when I returned from the United States. He was there with his younger sister, Rachel. I was thankful for her presence, as she looked familiar ­— and my returning guru manifested as a vision from Woodstock.

“I tried to warn you on the telephone,” he chided with a grin. When he left for India, he exhibited the traditional Israeli shaved head and was developing a small, post-army beer belly. Now he looked like one of the models on the cover of Yoga Magazine, svelte and tan — well, what you could see of him under an enormous mop of long, curly, sun-bleached hair. Peering out from underneath his golden curls were chartreuse sunglasses that matched the green of his T-shirt depicting Ganesh, the elephant-headed Indian goddess. His lower body was covered in baggy pants that hung like diapers. His feet were just short of bare, in thin, clear plastic thong sandals. A wooden bead necklace punctuated by a single, wilted red rose accessorized his outfit. I laughed and cried at the same time.

Once we were home, Eric’s Indian habits overtook our modern townhouse in Jerusalem. The smells and sounds of India wafted from his room, which looked like the inside of a Buddhist shrine. He adorned the walls with posters of goddesses and with assorted local fabrics and tapestries. A string of large brass Indian bells was installed at the entrance of the house to announce the arrival of his visiting friends.

At home, Eric would wear a tatty, saffron-colored lungi, a traditional garment he tied around his waist like a skirt. No upper garment, just the beads against his bronze chest. Each day, he sat at the kitchen table for hours, working through piles of mail, including several letters from his Indian friends. These letters were written in broken English, and when he read them aloud, imitating an Indian accent and sharing memories about his friends, laughter filled the house.

His sister, who was in a different stage of life — army service during the week, and clubs on the weekend — was not amused. The Indian garments had been washed with some of her own things, so Rachel was furious that her T-shirts and underwear were now recipients of unsolicited tie-dyeing.

I was initially confused by the small plastic pitchers in our bathrooms. Eric explained that toilet paper is harsh and unnatural and that he had taken to the more gentle custom of water washing. He was quick to add that he is also vigilant about hand washing, since he had become accustomed to eating without utensils. We watched with interest as he demonstrated the various regional styles of hand eating. Fortunately for me, he was kind enough not to criticize my inauthentic lentils and rice. I was trying, but I felt inadequate and ethnocentric.

There was constant, nonstop traffic in the house as his friends paid their respects to a returning native. Everywhere in the house were soda and beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays accompanied by piles of burnt incense, and other unmentionables.

My son played his didgeridoo, which he brought from India. I was thoroughly perplexed by so many Israeli kids returning from India with this bizarre Australian Aboriginal instrument. He didn’t just play the instrument; he was also a manufacturer of didgeridoos, complete with carved Sanskrit letters. I was in awe and admittedly envious — I hadn’t traveled extensively at his age. I felt like a nerdy, hopeless voyeur, an alter kocker.

The chaos and mess were getting a little irritating. My daughter decided to take her laundry to a friend’s house. The bowel sounds of the didgeridoo permeated our household; the dog was hanging out in the basement because the deep, resonant pitch disturbed her sensitive ears. The doorbell didn’t stop. The Indian chimes were starting to drive me crazy. I purchased a jumbo package of toilet paper rolls and filled the bathroom cupboards with supplies, wondering if I was just suffering from sour grapes.

Several weeks later, I could tell that Eric was getting restless. He began to mutter about traveling in South America, and made a few unenthusiastic phone calls concerning employment in Israel. He confessed that he was having a big problem with settling back in — as if I hadn’t noticed — and tried to appease me by promising to take me with him on his next pilgrimage to India. “But Mom,” he said. “Not just for two or three weeks. I have to show you the whole country!” I politely refused his generous offer, but wondered if I should send him back there on his own. Sooner rather than later.

Judith Posner is a retired professor from York University, in Toronto. She lives in Jerusalem.

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