Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bottling a widow's tears

"No more 'seeing' holidays, the next holiday has to be a 'doing' one," Shekhar had said even as he booked a trip to Greece for the family in March. Truth be told, he had tried to book a chalet in the Alps but had left it too late, so here we were on our way to Athens. "The boys have never seen real snow..." he said over and over again during the course of our trip. "I really want them to see what it's like in the snow..." The next holiday didn't happen.

In Greece we saw history, more history and yet more history. It's hard not resides everywhere - under each step you take, in the walls, in the words, sights, smells and sounds.

While preparing for the trip, I had read about the Benaki Museum somewhere. One man's passion for collection translated into room upon room of artifacts. In a small area on one of the floors were bottles that had been used to collect widows' tears. In ancient Greece, tradition and superstition demanded that the tears of the widow be collected in lachrymatories so that they did not fall on the body of the deceased. The tears were later poured upon the grave. The Victorians embraced the tradition in their fascination with death, as an elaborate ritual of grief. During Victorian funerals, men and women shed tears for the deceased and collected them in cigar shaped vials. The story goes that these vials had special stoppers. When the tears finally evaporated, the mourning would be complete.

The idea piqued my curiosity. The measured approach to grief was strangely fascinating. I wanted to see for myself how one could pour grief into a receptacle, contain it, limit a vase or bottle the size of a perfume...50 ml of grief? What if it overflowed? Would the widow or mourner recalibrate their grief to fit the vessel? Or, would there be many bottles, each signifying the ebbing of pain and receding grief? I still haven't understood the reasoning behind the tradition but my single pointed focus on it seems prescient. But then everything seems prescient in retrospect...

When we flew back carrying a heavier load of baggage than we left with, some of it intangible in the form of memories...Shekhar reiterated his desire to show the boys snow. We came home, unpacked and settled our tired bodies into our beds that night. It doesn't make a sound when it falls and it fell all night...snow. We woke to a white world. He couldn't take the boys to the snow, so the snow came to him. It wasn't the first time God had really listened to Shekhar...


I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
or has an easier size.

I wonder if they bore it long,
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain.

I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try,
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.

I wonder if when years have piled --
Some thousands--on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse
Could give them any pause;

Or would they go on aching still
Through centuries above,
Enlightened to a larger pain
By contrast with the love...

From poem 561 by Emily Dickinson

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