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by Katy Sundararajan
My family had a bit of a fiasco over Christmas break.
After months of planning, weeks of prepping, and days of packing we were on the way to the Grand Rapids airport, the first leg of our journey to India. I always love the moment when we’ve made it through check-in and security at the airport, and I can finally collapse into one of those uncomfortable airport chairs. I always breathe that sigh of relief with the deepest gratitude and gladness. I love knowing that all I have to do next, and for a long while after that, is be an airplane passenger, riding my way to India.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself because we were still at the point in our drive to the airport where I shout from the back seat of the van, to my husband up in front with the friend driving us to the airport, “JP, do we have the passports?!?” Of course we had the passports! We are seasoned travelers. We’ve done this how many times before?
Ah, well… Despite having done this many, many times before, our fiasco quickly unfolded before our eyes. Prompted by a question from our 5 1/2 year-old, we realized that his passport had expired shortly after he turned five. Yes, we are seasoned travelers, and we were now headed to the airport for international travel with an expired passport in our midst.
Our impending trip to India had been decidedly brief, barely long enough to make the lengthy trek worth it. And now it was Sunday morning, and an expedited passport the next day plus the extra costs of changing tickets for four during peak Christmas travel season made it become quickly clear that we were not going to India for Christmas this year. Apart from some quiet weeping from my eight year-old, the ride back home was very quite that morning.
What a fiasco. What to do? We tried to comfort ourselves in our foolishness. There are decent, logical reasons why this happened which we told to ourselves and anyone else who would listen. We also apologized, a lot, especially to our family in India who were as disappointed as we were, if not more. We had a hard time thinking about what else to do after that.
My personal instinct in situations of disappointment or misfortune is to simply move on, not wallow or whine. I didn’t want to think about what I was missing out on, or how many people were very, very sad because of this error. I wanted to make plans and playdates, and act like this had been the plan all along. It was hard though. We were already done with the Christmas shopping. I was caught up with stuff at work. A number of our close friends and family, whom we would normally spend holiday time with were not in town. It was difficult to know what to do with myself. Baking seemed like my best option. It was the one thing that I hadn’t done, and hadn’t expected to be able to do this Christmas season.
I began to recognize that I needed some semblance of familiarity and tradition if it was going to feel alright to be home for Christmas this year. The kids and I made a couple of batches of Christmas cookies and some Chex-Mix together, and the house warmed back up and smelled a bit like the right season. It was smaller scale baking than I would typically have done, but it took the edge off. Still, there was something more that I wanted to do.
As long as I can remember, my mom has made cherry walnut coffeecakes for Christmas morning breakfast. That is what my sights were set on, and that is what I felt would somehow fill the hole, the India hole.
On Christmas Eve I set out to make the coffee cakes. They are yeasty, and crusty, and filled with a crummy nut and cherry filling. They are pretty-looking when baked, with a looped style that shows off the filling, and they are covered in a shiny white, almond flavored icing. It is the quintessential, warm taste of Wing family tradition on my tongue. Yet, as I worked on those pastries, an interesting thing happened. My thoughts kept turning to India. Not usually a baker of yeast breads and pastries, I had long stayed away from this Christmas baking tradition.
The one and only time that I’ve prepared the cherry walnut coffeecakes, actually, was when we were living in India for a length of stay that included Christmas. At that time, I wanted to gift my Indian family with a taste of my American family’s tradition. Making the coffeecakes that year was an undertaking like none other, first and foremost because Indians do not commonly bake in their homes, nor do they typically have ovens for said baking projects. My mother-in-law has a unique interest in baking and so she does have one of the premier home-ovens in India; it is the size of an exaggerated toaster oven.
Each step of my preparation and baking process was a painstaking labor of love in India, from finding the necessary ingredients (and being flexible with variations) to the step-by-step process of working with bread dough, of which I was largely unfamiliar. It was a lengthy endeavor to say the least. And, after all that, I didn’t think my final product looked very beautiful, especially in comparison to years and years of partaking of my Mom’s excellent style and technique.
I felt both shy and vulnerable as I shared my breakfast tradition with my Indian family that Christmas morning. To this day, I can still feel the relief and surprise I felt as favor rose from an unexpected corner. It was my husband’s grandfather, Tata, who liked the coffeecake best. I could not have been more pleased to have any single person ask for seconds and give his nods of approval, as he was not one to speak approvingly of any food, let alone American pastries.
So there I stood mixing and rolling, filling and baking, in my US home— unexpectedly at that— and all my thoughts were of that other year, in India, and that precious baking adventure. It had been such a vulnerable feeling to love those people enough to want to give them a gift that only I could give. I am thankful for the memories of old Tata, one of my very favorite Indians, who has since passed away. My heart is grateful for the realization that God has blessed me with a wide world of family, drawn surprisingly close by shared experiences and traditions.
We don’t always get what we want or expect. Sometimes a fiasco happens. My family is trusting that God has far more wisdom about this blooper and why it occurred than we do, and we are glad for the memories that bind us together and fill us with joy, even as new memories get made in the process.
Katy Sundararajan is the International Student Advisor and ThM program administrator at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan.