What My Tibetan Grandmother Taught Me About Lasting Love
I felt sure my grandmother’s stories, her faith in marriage, had no bearing on my life plan.
In one of my favorite photos of my Tibetan grandparents, they’re dancing at a New Year’s Eve party in Darjeeling around 1940. My grandfather wears a party hat and a tuxedo, my grandmother a long silk chuba dress. Smiling broadly, they’re holding each other, one arm outstretched and hands clasped as they foxtrot across the floor. Their pose is emblematic of who they were: in love with each other and with life.
on the spur of the moment
To my dear old hubby with my best love and kisses from your beloved wife 3 July 1939.
Sunday 29th Sept. 40. My own darling wife, Hope you have had no hard journey and that you are feeling well. I will send the car for you on your return, so please make best use of it. Please drive straight home where I am dying to meet and see you. I have got everything ready for you here. Please don’t halt on the way and drive straight home. Take greatest care on the way. Looking forward to see you after such a long time. I feel years passed. With love and kisses to you. Your only loving Husband
In the end, my grandfather suffered a heart attack in Calcutta and my grandmother brought him home to die.He passed away with his head on her arm, as she was showing him photos of their Golden Anniversary celebration. “More than fifty years we were married,” she told me. “We’d seen good days and bad days, we had been through everything, side by side. For me, there was never anyone else.”
I enjoyed hearing about my grandparents’ marriage and was glad they’d been so happy, but I felt sure my grandmother’s stories, her faith in marriage, had no bearing on my life plan. Seated across from me in her silk chuba and gold-and-coral jewelry, my grandmother looked like the Tibetan incarnation of Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet, talking about girls who’d ended up “spinsters” and girls who’d almost “missed the bus.” She didn’t understand that marriage wasn’t right for everyone. I paid polite attention—“That sounds terrible!” “What a close call!”—trying not to show that as far as I was concerned, the bus could drive right on by.
Having seen my parents and most of my friends’ parents divorce, I’d made a pact with myself: I would never marry; I’d live alone with a dog by the sea and write.
I never would have believed what the future held in store for me. I left Darjeeling to teach English in Japan and had been in Tokyo for three weeks when an acquaintance invited me to a party. My plan was to stay home and read Kawabata’s Snow Country in the spartan tatami mat room I’d rented in the northwestern part of the city—it was a wet March night and the gathering was an hour away on maze-like train lines. But I felt lonely, so I threw on a little black dress and set off in the rain. Standing near the door when I walked into the party was a tall man with gray-green eyes, glasses, and light brown hair, the bookish good looks I found so attractive. His name was David, he said as he helped me with my coat, and he’d come to Tokyo to teach English before starting graduate school in anthropology. We fell into animated conversation about books and movies, and I was captivated by his high-energy intelligence and irreverent sense of humor.
We began dating and soon were spending all our time together. My feeling of entering uncharted terrain as we got to know each other was intensified by the newness of the surroundings. We roamed the byways of Tokyo, exploring hole-in-the-wall jazz cafés and sake bars, rock gardens and temples, art-house cinemas and antique shops. We ate foods I’d never encountered: eel, persimmons, seaweed. We took Japanese lessons, our struggles with things like keigo polite forms and bowing at the correct angle a source of great hilarity. We saved our money from teaching and traveled the world, horseback riding in Burma, motorcycle touring in Nepal, drift diving in Fiji.
With David, I found the love and kindness I hadn’t known I was looking for. Surprised again and again that he cared about how I felt, what I thought, I began to realize the extent to which I’d ended up being collateral damage from my parents’ divorce. I reveled in our relationship, secure in the knowledge it wouldn’t last—my plan never to marry, to live alone, remained unchanged, like an amulet worn over my heart.
Back in the States for graduate school, David and I went for a walk one bright California morning, hawks circling in the azure sky and the crisp air redolent with sage and eucalyptus. “Let’s stop for a minute,” he said. We sat on a wooden fence and then, just like that, he asked me to marry him. “Yes!” I heard myself say to my astonishment. Joy flooded me, along with delighted wonder at whatever deeper force was leading me toward something that felt very right in spite of my intention to spend my life alone.
But as we planned the wedding over the following months, my elation gave way to near-incapacitating doubt: Would I regret breaking the promise I’d made to myself? Would I end up toiling in the kitchen with a baby on my hip, writing grocery shopping lists instead of books while David advanced his career? Would our marriage end in divorce?
I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t want committed love—I just hadn’t believed I could find it or deserve it.
It didn’t help that drama arose around the wedding. I was anguished when my father and some of my other family members announced they would not be coming. Reasons were given, grievances aired, but it was a slip along the family fault lines, fallout from the years of bitter acrimony between my parents. Pushing through those difficult days, I felt something in me shift. “The failure of my parents’ marriage doesn’t have to be the only story,” I said to a close friend during one of our frequent late-night calls; there were other stories, like the one my grandmother had related in such detail about her soul bond with my grandfather. I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t want committed love—I just hadn’t believed I could find it or deserve it. “When we started going out,” David told me once, “I thought you were the saddest person I’d ever known.”
We got married on a sultry August afternoon at a bed-and-breakfast in upstate New York, four years after we met. Relatives flew in from around the world, including my eighty-three-year-old grandmother, who journeyed all the way from Darjeeling. David and I exchanged vows under a blue-and-white Tibetan tent, the same kind of tent my ancestors sat under when they celebrated Losar New Year with feasting and merrymaking. At the end of the ceremony, my grandmother, beaming, joined us under the tent and draped traditional white khada blessing scarves around our necks to wish us luck and happiness.
My grandmother was psychic. She foresaw her father’s and her husband’s deaths; she dreamed my mother’s marriage would be unhappy and wrote my mother a letter: What you want to do now, don’t do it. During the talks my grandmother and I had in Darjeeling, it wouldn’t have taken a clairvoyant to recognize my dismissal of what she was saying about marriage, to see the pain I thought I was hiding so well. But maybe my grandmother divined what I wouldn’t allow myself to imagine: a future where I was walking by the sea with my husband and children and dog. My grandparents’ marriage was one of the great love stories and, in telling me about it, my grandmother offered me a new story, opened a door for me to step through when I was ready. In the thirty-six years since that rainy March night when David and I met, I’ve discovered that “not missing the bus” means not missing the companionship and love that come when we walk side by side with the right person through life.
Ann Tashi Slater's work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, AGNI, Granta, and the HuffPost, among others, and she's a contributing editor at Tricycle. She recently finished a memoir about reconnecting with her Tibetan roots. Visit her at: www.anntashislater.com.