A Rubber Duck at the Right Time
My husband usually comes up with the fun and games for our family. I’m the let’s follow-our-routine, eat-our-veggies, and write-our-thank-you-cards parent.
But while cleaning out a closet one day, I found an adorably absurd little rubber duck (origin still unknown) dressed in (of all things) a military uniform, and I invented a family game on the spot—one that would continue for a decade and beyond.
It’s simple, I explained to the kids. I’ll hide the duck somewhere in the house. When you find it, you hide it from me, and so on.
From that day onward, the duck remained in motion, showing up in conventional places at first—cupboards, dressers, closets—and then in increasingly unusual ones—balanced atop light fixtures, perched within house plants, and once, a bit disturbingly, stashed in the microwave.
During one of my mother’s visits, I found myself forced to explain its presence inside the bin of rice she was pouring into the cooker.
She was charmed and delighted by my description of our game . . . and hooked. To my surprise, my serious mother—advocate of practicality, wielder of spreadsheets—demanded to be included in the rotation. At that moment, I remembered her stories of her childhood—stories I’d found difficult to believe—about her enjoyment of games, involvement in sports, obsession with jump-rope and jacks. Contrary to how I knew her as an adult, as a young person, she’d loved to play.
And thus, the duck began to travel beyond Indiana to my mother’s house in Ohio, to Florida when she moved, and to a series of California dorm rooms before returning to me and repeating its circuit, again and again.
Each time I stumbled across the tiny yellow creature in a preposterous pose and place, it startled me and made me chuckle. Just as important as affording amusement, it tugged me out of my routine, out of my usual seriousness. It made me pause and feel the sheer sweetness of being connected by laughter with these people I adored.
I suspect my mother felt the same way. During the final months of her life, while she lay confined to a hospital bed in our family room, the boys continued to hide the duck for her benefit. It emerged from packets of bandages, bins of pill bottles, stacks of insurance paperwork. Even through her pain, even though every part of her body hurt, she laughed, every time.
When she died, the little duck remained on a table in the sickroom for a week before I tucked it into a drawer. I couldn’t bear to play hide-the-duck with the boys anymore. I couldn’t bear to play anything.
During my childhood visits to India, I was always surprised by the number of holidays that were celebrated, often multiple ones in a single week. Each one had its own particular meaning and associated songs, decor, and best of all, treats. In my snarky teenage years, I remember rolling my eyes and asking, So, what are we celebrating now?
Back home in the U.S., our family didn’t observe that entire roster of holidays, but we certainly observed many: Pongal to express gratitude for food and harvest, Holi to welcome the spring, Navratri to honor the divine feminine, Vinayaka Chathurthi to appreciate our many blessings. And of course, we observed Diwali, now recognized as an official New York City public school holiday, to celebrate the power of light to dispel darkness and ignorance.
Only in adulthood did I begin to understand the value of regular celebration, throughout the whole year. I came to realize that during these holidays, it was natural and indeed, expected, to drop out of routine, to take stock of what was happening in my life, to view the big picture. They reminded me how much I missed when I merely pushed through my task list instead of paying attention to living.
Imagining my mother now, following those celebratory traditions, making delectable jilidigaya and murukku and kesari, she doesn’t look as she did in the last months of her life, or even the latest years. When she comes to mind these days, she’s young—younger than my own kids, slender and willowy, wearing a bouquet of jasmine in her long braid and delicate anklets that chime as she walks. She’s the girl who loved to play.
I’ve begun to wonder if she might be playing with me now. I traveled to England last month—a long-anticipated trip, replete with library collections and theater performances and specialized museums like the Jane Austen Centre. As I made my way through that small house in Bath, modeled after Austen’s own, my eyes passed over a bookcase and caught a flash of bright yellow.
Approaching, I peered through the rippled glass . . . and saw a smiling rubber duck, dressed as Jane Austen.
A few days later at the British Museum, in the gift shop outside the Egyptology section, I found a bin full of rubber duck-pharaohs. Then, I saw rubber ducks everywhere—on window sills, hotel front desks, restaurant tills—dressed as farmers, pirates, doctors, zombies, and of course, as Shakespeare.
Eventually, one woman I met during my trip told me that rubber ducks are currently “having a moment” in England, but I couldn’t help but feel they were a bit of magic sent from my mother, from the sprightly girl in jasmine and silver. I couldn’t help but think she was reminding me to pay attention to my life as I was living it, to savor this lovely, long-awaited trip, and, yes, to keep playing.
Okay, Mom, I got the message.
In the West, the end of the year is crowded with holidays, and this year’s holiday season is well underway. Whatever you are celebrating, even if it brings extra to-do lists and chores and chaos, I hope it will also pulls you out of those responsibilities and routines from time to time. I hope it surprises you with moments of gratitude and joy and laughter to take with you into the new year.
I’m thinking of my teenage self asking “What are we celebrating now?” If I could answer her, I’d say, “Hey, kiddo, you said it yourself. We are celebrating NOW. We’re celebrating this sweet, singular, unrepeatable life we share.”
There’s an ancient Indian custom, to wear a touch of ash on one’s forehead. It’s a reminder of the end that comes to every living being. Rather than dampening the spirits, though, I find it actually has the opposite effect. That pause, just to place that bit of ash, brings awareness to the gift of the present, making it somehow visible and tangible.
As I thought about paying attention to time in this way, to feeling, seeing, savoring it, I began to explore via poetry:
One Day, Divided
I took this day
into my hands,
broke it open
with my fingers,
separated it into
each one, a pearl.
I gathered a handful,
I picked one pearl,
’round my palm,
at its sheen,
divided it into
then split it again,
I made a powder
As this day
through my fingers,
let me behold
every bit and fleck,
let me witness
how I live
as a creature of time.
—Dheepa R. Maturi
I’m now preparing for the boys’ Thanksgiving visit, and I’ve taken a little yellow duck out of the drawer, to be stowed in their luggage just before they depart. When I see it again, perhaps in a few months, peeking out from an unexpected location, I know it will pull me from routine again and fill me with joy.
And I suspect I’ll hear the chime of silver anklets, and laughter.
Your Turn: Prompts
Prompt One: Write your own poem about time as a solid, tangible object. What would it look like to you? What qualities would it possess? How would you interact with it?
Prompt Two: Create a personal holiday—preferably at a different time of year than the holidays you usually celebrate—to step out of your routine and savor your life. Choose activities that make you pay attention: traveling, journaling, cooking a delicious meal, walking through your local park or a national forest.