I Reluctantly Carried These Curtains from Pakistan to America, and Now They Remind Me of Home
Twenty stories of objects and areas in people’s homes that nourish their souls more than their social feeds. Read them all here throughout August.
When I was around fifteen years old, I found myself at a drapery shop standing at a glass counter as my mother sifted through swatches for curtain material. This was the 1980s and we resided in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where my mother, an anesthesiologist by vocation, lavishly indulged her hobby for collecting loose fabrics for future home decorating projects.
This particular shop was one of a small cluster on a quiet road and my mother was wooed into it by the rolls of material in the window display. They all seemed white to me with some textural differences but her discerning eye saw white-white, off-white, pearl, cream, eggshell, vanilla, goose and more. The spacious shop smelled of sandalwood incense and new polythene wrapping and the counter was surrounded by thick pillars of cloth that my younger siblings were using to play hide and seek. I wouldn’t have minded joining them but my mother thought I was old enough to join her. She was going through hoop after hoops of swatches and stopped on one. What do you think? She asked me. I said it was white, nice, whatever.
We left with a giant bundle of white-nice, ‘swan’ according to my mother, curtain grade chiffon. “Highest quality,” the shop keeper had said. “It will last you forever, wallahi, guaranteed.” I recall my father who carried it to the car saying that for cloth it was very heavy and my mother replying that enough of even the lightest thing carries weight.
We carried that loose material with us when we moved from Saudi Arabia back to Pakistan. There my mother had me accompany her to a crowded bazaar famous for its karigars, craftsmen who custom made home decor. My mother randomly walked into one shop and the shopkeeper, Waseem, a hefty man with a polite voice, urged her to sit and she did. This material is from Jeddah, my mother informed him as she handed him the cutting she’d brought with her. He declared it very excellent fabric, it would last forever, and proceeded to show her samples of equally excellent cotton for the lining as well as curtain designs. He assured my mother that he would come to our home, take the measurements himself and, once the curtains were sewn, deliver and hang them up too.
And so it was that one day I returned from school to find the bundle transformed into elegant ceiling to floor curtains hanging in my mother’s drawing room. They hung between wide windows that looked out to the front lawn and an L-shaped sofa upholstered in pale blue silk. From my early childhood, curtains were always a cozy place to hide from my mother—who always wanted me to go outside and play when all I wanted to do was stay inside and read. And accordingly I disappeared with a book into the soft, safe folds of these curtains too. I especially loved the afternoons when a muted sunlight filtered through the curtains turning them into gossamer land and illuminating the sparkling dust motes dancing over the pages I was turning.
In the early 1990s I left for college in the U.S., where upon graduation I would meet my spouse and stay. Having grown up moving from country to country and school to school, I knew that leaving behind friends was always hard, especially back in the day when the only way to keep in touch was phone calls and letters. But this time I was also saying good bye to my parents and parental home.
Leaving behind any home can be rough, and the roots one grows in movement are those of nostalgia and memory. Each time I returned to Pakistan to visit, I’d choose a keepsake to take back to the U.S.—my late grandfather’s walking stick, wooden prayer beads my father used, my mother’s silver samovar that she’d gotten on a trip to her birthplace. Each one was a personal item for which I felt affection and attachment. While it was lovely to walk amongst familiars—book cases, sofas, coffee tables, curtains—to me, big items of furniture, unless an ancestral heirloom, did not carry the same nostalgic weight and were easily replaced just like a fridge or stove or washing machine.
One year when I went back to visit, the white curtains had been replaced with another pair. “About time you changed them,” I said, never expecting my mother to reply, “I’ve kept them for you.’’ They were in fabulous condition, she said, and since custom made curtains in the U.S. were costly, it occurred to her that I could put them to good use one day.
But I don’t want them, I said. Who knew when that one day would come? Whether I could put them to good use? What if they didn’t go with my color schemes and decor? These curtains, their color and design, were my mother’s choice, not mine, and all I knew was that I did not want to be burdened by dragging around her old used heavy bulky curtains. She had them lovingly dry cleaned anyway, then packed with mothballs and placed in two big suitcases which I then, grumbling, carried overseas from Pakistan to America.
I did not consider those curtains until a decade later and then only because I was in a house that needed a lot of curtains and also, by then, my tastes had veered towards simple and elegant. I dragged the soft leather suitcases out of storage and slowly began to unzip, sure that something tattered was about to greet me. They were in pristine condition. They did smell of moth balls, which, as per my mother’s advice, a good airing in sunlight took care of.
I hung up the curtains in my drawing room between a diwan sofa and windows that looked out to my own front lawn. I was not at all prepared for what seeing these curtains which once graced my parent’s home and now my immigrant home would to come to mean. Whereas once the child me would hide behind them to get away from my mother and read in peace, now, when I miss my mother it is these curtains in which I hide my face, burying my nose deep and inhaling the scent of peace, love, safety, security, memory, the very scents of things the younger me had never fully realized could be needed or known would come to be so precious: a piece of my childhood home, selected by my mother for her own home, replaceable for her, and then passed onto me, and irreplaceable for me.
My parents have since retired and moved, and these curtains are now an even more vital tangible memory of the home that carried my family through myriad milestones. They safeguarded me from the outside world when I was a child and now do my own children in turn. In every heart there is a sentimental child and maybe one of my kids will choose to carry these curtains with them. Maybe I won’t give them a choice. Maybe one day they’ll understand that these curtains they so casually treat, that they are a home within a home.