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  • Manju Sadarangani


I think it comes from being of refugee blood, I love holding things that were touched by people I love. Fabric, books, dishes, jewels. I love having things from my elders in my space. I meditate with my mother’s dupatta. I treasure my nani’s one simple pearl ring. I adore smelling my sheets when they emerge from my mother-in-law’s carved camphor chest.

On a logical level, I know an object is just that - an object. In our consumerist culture, it’s so easy to just buy, to hoard. But there is something about old objects, the smell of them, the sound of them, perhaps it makes me feel less orphaned.

I share this cherished platter from an Imari set, acquired when my in-laws were first married, living in Japan. Mom collected each piece painstakingly, over time. This platter cracked somewhere in its extensive travels. Before my mother-in-law passed away last month, I was able to show her this platter, all kintsug’ed.

Losing her has been hard. We will heal and be kintsukuroi’ed at last, we are not there yet. In the meantime, I run my hands over this platter, grateful for her elegance.

This tribute is the closest I have come to talking about her.

Deena called me on December 31, 2015. By then, both my parents had passed away. She instructed me to call her Mom, that she was my mommy now. Little did Mom know what she was getting into. She inherited a scrapy brown immigrant orphan, with strong opinions and wild ambitions. We were as different as chalk and cheese (starring mom, the rare triple-cream painstakingly fashioned by Trappist monks, featuring me as the sound chalk makes on a blackboard); Mom never made me feel like anything but welcome in her home and her heart. She did that for everyone. That was her gift.

Mom had the strongest sense of volunteerism. Every year, no matter where I was on the planet, I knew when Deena was headed to LA for the trade shows to stock up the Sand Dollar. Her commitment to her community was consistent and formidable. She encouraged that spirit of community in everyone. During the pandemic the kid and I started to volunteer at a local food pantry. Initially the kid was all for it, but as the months of lock down stretched interminably, the kid got bored and stopped going. Mom called one evening while I was at the pantry; I mentioned that the kid was home with Scott, so she could call them to chat. The next Friday, I started to stock up for my pantry run and the kid asked if she could go along. I was surprised and delighted. At bedtime that evening, I learned that Mom had a little chat with the kid about the importance of volunteering. What Grandee said stuck.

Mom was an educator. She was a teacher before the boys came along and touched the lives of children for the rest of her days. She understood kids innately. She adored her grandkids and knew them really well. I loved calling her to get updates about the grandkids specifically from her. Even as her grandkids grew into young men and could speak for themselves, it was always a treat to hear the updates from Grandee. She was unvarnished, kind and noticed things about each of her grandchildren that others didn’t. Grandee was a tough grandmother. She wasn’t the indulgent ‘oh-let-them-eat-another-brownie’ grandmother. Grandee ran a tight ship. Anytime the grandkids were over for dinner, they all had tasks around the kitchen island. I didn’t truly appreciate the orchestration, authority, and patience this took this until I had my own child. I once confessed to mom that the kid’s curiosity in the kitchen while I cooked was driving me nuts. Mom gave me a solid talking to about encouraging the kid to help in the kitchen, and sent her grandchild a stepstool, a simple cookbook, a set of little chef starter kitchenware we still use today. For me, she sent a list of age-appropriate tasks the kid could perform.

Mom adored a good gadget. Once on a call with her she heard me rip a much cherished silk scarf. It was an old inherited delicate thing, bright but coming apart from wear and scarf pins. I was disconsolate. Two weeks later, across the planet from mom, what appears at my APO? A magnetic scarf pin which requires no piercing, no holes. Mom was the queen of practical solutions. When I was working late hours and mentioned I missed Indian food, but didn’t have the time to cook, an Instapot accompanied by an Indian instapot recipe book magically appeared. My life is blessed with Deena solutions – A reusable grocery caddy for the back of the car, a portable purse hanger, a light magical vacuum cleaner for my dust allergies, house slippers I can throw into the laundry because the dog drools on them…

Mom was a hostess. This went beyond her ability to cook and throw a good party. She had this uncanny ability to remember random factoids, she made the person standing in front of her feel like the center of the universe. Friends who met her ONCE at my wedding reception never failed to ask about her. In turn, she always asked about my bestie who loved vintage sewing, and whether another had dumped that Marine she was dating. Deena made an impression. Mom scolded me if I threw the kind of parties that kept me in the kitchen. She taught me that job of a hostess was not just to cook and serve dinner, but to make sure that her guests felt comfortable. She was the absolute maven of dinner party flow, and the eagle eye you wanted to veto things on your menu. From my mother I may have learned the importance of putting out a good spread, but from Queen Deena I learned how to entertain.

Mom was a sage, although you really had to pull the advice out of her. She took her commitment to neutrality and non-interference in her adult children’s lives very seriously. You had to listen carefully for the “oh, wells…” trailing off. A few summers ago, I was offered a plum assignment in a swanky European capital. It appeared to be a dream posting and required significant disruption to so much in our lives. I fretted as I turned the pros and cons over, the job, the move, the boss, the schools, the healthcare, the commute, the this, the that. Mom listened to me, asking thoughtful questions, but refusing to wade in with a definitive opinion. She noted gently that it wasn’t like me to be indecisive. “Oh well…” said sage Deena at last, “there are plenty of unhappy people in (swanky European capital).”

Mom was a true aesthete. She made the coolest jewelry. One of my favorite things in the world when Mom traveled was to await stories about the art she had seen. Carpets in Morocco, Tuscan pottery, Scandinavian pewter, Japanese Noh masks, she could drop knowledge on it all. She spoke about art with love, without pretense, and with confidence. The last time I saw Deena, it was right after a group show where I was lucky enough to exhibit two of my pieces. Mom attended the opening reception with me virtually, beaming at my (very-abstract-and-so-not-her-style) work with love, right there by my side. I often thought mom could have had an amazing career as a curator. She was a classic old masters fan, with a penchant for east Asian art, while I am an abstract person - we found common ground in the Impressionists. As mom got sicker and couldn’t travel, we made it a point to share pictures and narratives anytime we found ourselves at an art gallery or museum. One of the last things I did with mom and the kid was share the virtual Vincent van Gogh exhibit with her - she knew more than the curators and could have blown any art historian away with her insight.

Mom loved a strong work ethic. She didn’t coddle. She insisted on a strong work ethic in her sons, praised it in her daughters in law, and her own hard work enabled Dad’s illustrious career. Truly, I wasn’t expecting the same grace for my own career. My own cultural background likes women in their traditional place, and I am used to being shamed for working late instead of cooking my child a hot Indian meal. Given mom’s own life choices, the generation she came from, I was expecting more of the same. If mom judged my career choices, she didn’t let on. One of my favorite things when I worked late was to call mom on the drive home. She listened patiently to my irritations about work, the tough negotiations, the budget fights on the Hill. Even better, she never lectured me about working too late, or too hard. She always found a way to find humor in my work, told me that she was proud of me for setting a good example for my child. She liked anyone who worked their butts off. But no one on the planet could make hard work look as graceful and easy as Deena Koenig.

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