Thank you for reading the 10th story in this series.
It has been ten weeks already. That seems like a milestone,
and this story seems like the perfect celebration.
”My story,” Mukund tells his daughter, “is a long one.”
Mona reaches for him. “That’s OK,” she says. “I still want to know it.”
Her father is quiet a moment then, remembering, searching for the words of a story that is so deep and beautiful and old that it is difficult to tell.
“Maybe it is too much,” he says finally.
His daughter wants to tell him that it is not too much, that it is everything.
“That’s OK,” she says. “I really want to know it.”
Mukund is quiet again and Mona knows that he is remembering. He is remembering a story that she has tried to know before, a story that he knows with memories and emotions, but not so much with words.
“Maybe I just highlight some things for you,” he replies softly.
He looks away then and she knows that it is because his eyes are beginning to fill. They are brimming with this story of triumph and heartache, of so much struggle. They are full with the burdens of a man not born in this country.
“Yes,” Mona says, her pride and love for him swelling. “Start with Mr. Smith,” she urges. “Tell me about meeting him.”
She can almost feel her father’s journey then, feel it pouring out of him and wrapping around them both, folding her up in the opportunity her father came here to find.
“Forty-seven years,” he whispers and she thinks that she hears him say more, that she hears him say it is so much time. It is just so much.
They are quiet then and she knows that her father has not forgotten. He is remembering the start of his story. He is thinking of his parents and how they sold whatever items they could, then purchased for him a ticket to the United States, to South Dakota in the middle of winter. He’d arrived with only his engineering degree and his hope and purpose and courage, but not with boots. He did not have boots. He did not have a winter coat. He did not have a hat or gloves or anything other than knowing.
He had a knowing that he would have to make it because he’d watched his family sacrifice everything for his ticket to opportunity and because the ticket was just one way. It was a one way ticket.
Her father begins talking then and his voice is warm and proud, but unsteady too. It moves slowly around words that are so hard to find.
“You know that I graduate with distinction in India,” he reminds his daughter. “I get my bachelor in engineering and then migrate to the United States to study. I have acceptance to school, but no way to pay. There are more stories how I survived then. I will tell those another time.”
Mona knows that her father is remembering the small town in South Dakota, how it didn’t notice that Mukund had graduated with honors in India. It didn’t notice honors, just India.
She knows that after one semester he transferred to a university in New Jersey, thought it might be better there. He thought he would find more of the opportunity he came to America to work for. What he found though, was more of the struggle.
“I can tell you once I remember only a piece of pizza was my meal for the day. There are times I did not eat. It was very hard and I start searching for a job in New Jersey. I had to have a job to survive.” He pauses. “I had to survive.”
He repeats these words and they are so loud in Mona’s ears. They are loud in her mind and in her heart too. They are loud deep into her core, where she feels the lessons of her father, what he has taught her about hard work and about where she comes from, that she belongs to a family who sacrificed everything for him to make a life here, for her too.
“I saw a job in the town of Bayonne,” her father continues. “I never heard about Bayonne before. I didn’t know how far it was, but I had enough money for the bus and so I went. I went to Bayonne and I got off the bus and started walking. I ask a few people for a direction and it is so far that I have to walk more than one hour. Big trucks are passing with high speeds and soon there is no one left to ask for help. It is freezing temperatures. I don’t have enough clothes, but I walk and walk until finally I think that I cannot go more and suddenly I see a car. I see one car parking at a distance and I see a person sitting in it. I run to him for help.”
“Mr. Smith,” Mona whispers.
“Yes,” Mukund replies fondly. “He saw my condition, that I am almost frozen, and he asks for me to come in the car and relax. He doesn’t know if I am a criminal or who I am, but he tells me to come in the car.” Mukund looks away then and his eyes fill once more, fill with the memories and emotions of a story that is so deep and beautiful and old that it is difficult to tell.
“In the car,” Mukund goes on, “I tell him that I am on a job search and I tell him about the company I look for. He says it is far, but if I want to go there he will drive me. I say yes please because I know that I must have this job, that I have to survive.”
Mona hears something in her father’s voice then. It is quiet and still.
“It is only a few minutes of driving when suddenly I realize,” he continues. “I realize that I won’t be able to come everyday to work here without a car. I have already taken the bus and walked an hour and still we are going and now I just know that it is not possible. I cannot have this job that is so far away from my school. There is no way and I don’t know what I can do.”
The sound in her father’s voice is not so quiet now and she knows what it is. She knows that it is desperation, the struggle to survive bubbling up as if it is much closer than forty-seven years before, as if he can still feel the bitter South Dakota wind and all of the disappointment.
“I ask him to stop driving then. I explain that I can never come this far every day without a car. I ask Dad to take me back to where he picked me up.”
Dad, Mona thinks. This is the name her father has for the man who drove him back to where he picked him up, cold and hungry and poor and trying so hard. He drove him back, but he did not leave. He never left.
“He makes a u-turn then and he looks over at me and he can see my face and that I am starting to cry and that I am desperate. He begins to ask me some questions and I admit I don’t have money for the next day’s meal. I spent all I have left on this bus to a job that is too far away and I cannot eat. That is how hard it is. I cannot even eat. I admit also that my room rent is over due more than two months. I cannot pay to live. I tell him I come here with nothing but my degree and I want more education. I tell him that I am a student doing my Master of Engineering, but I must pay for it and I need a job, but I cannot find one, and he can see. He can see that I am not surviving. He can see that I struggle, but I want to work, and suddenly he makes another turn and brings me to a company he knows. He tells me to wait in the car and he goes inside. I am very unsure, but I wait.”
Mona knows that her father is remembering the gun then, the one he saw in a holster on Mr. Smith’s belt and how he wondered if he should get out of the car and run, if he had gotten himself into something awful. She laughs thinking of all the times their families have enjoyed this memory, how many times they’ve been grateful that somehow her father knew that he should stay. He knew that he should wait right there in that car with his hope and his purpose and his courage because his ticket was one way. It was just one way.
“After some time he came back and he told me to go with him inside. I am still unsure, but I need help and we go in and then, just like that, they give me a job.”
He pauses, swallows, looks away, is humbled. All of these years later he is still humbled.
"They give me a job,” he repeats softly, and his eyes overflow now.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he tells his daughter. “I had nothing for appreciation except the tears in my eyes, but I thanked him and thanked him. From the bottom of my heart I thanked him.”
Mona learns then about all that would come after this, how Mr. Smith would give her father his address and tell Mukund to walk the short distance to his home from the bus stop the next day. She learns that Mr. Smith then gave her father a ride to his new job and later arranged rides for him with company workers who picked him up right at the bus stop.
Mukund would get off the bus and Mr. Smith would have someone waiting for him, someone to give him a ride to work. He would do this for years. He would do this for years and for nothing in return.
“This man, my dad, was my angel,” her father says gently. “He knows nothing about me. He just knows that I need help and without asking anything in return, he helps me.”
Her father looks away then and Mona knows that he is grieving for this man who is no longer with them, Mr. Leo Smith, a senior detective in the Bayonne, New Jersey police department who’d found a cold and hungry Mukund Shah from Mumbia, India all those decades before. He’d found him searching for a job and a meal and chance and he had opened the passenger’s door of his car and let him in.
“I can do everything then,” Mukund tells his daughter. “Because he helps me I pay for school and my room and my food and I take care of your mother. I get my degree and later I get my job in the US Department of Army. I work for this country and we have you girls. We make a long successful life here. I make my family proud. They sold everything they have to send me here and I make them proud. It is because of a man from Bayonne, New Jersey,” her father states softly. “He opens his door to me.”
Mona looks away then and her mother is in the doorway, eyes shining with tears of love as she says, “Mom and Dad were saints to us.”
Mom and Dad, the man her father met on that cold New Jersey road, and his wife. From that day forward, they welcomed this young boy as part of their family, another son like the ones they already had, and when his wife joined him later they welcomed her too, like another daughter.
“They do what Lady Liberty says,” Mona’s mother reminds her. “We have almost nothing and they help to clothe and feed and love us. That changed everything.”
For this young Indian couple who just wanted to study and work and live, live a life in America, that changed everything.
“Each of us has a saint hidden inside,” her mother continues. “We just have to be free from fear so that we can give it light.”
Mona understands the light the Smith family gave to them, to the Shahs. She feels its warmth still to this day in every embrace, in a love that remains between them all, a family as strong as any born on this ground because they share a story that is so deep and beautiful and old that it is difficult to tell. It is difficult to tell a story that is measured in so much triumph and heartache, so much struggle.
It is difficult to tell a story printed fiercely and desperately, printed with love and sacrifice, printed on a one-way ticket.
To this day the Shah family and the Smith family are as closely connected as any two families can be, almost as if they are not two, but one. Together they celebrate their babies and birthdays and marriages and graduations and Mukund and his wife Paru still call Mrs. Smith their mother, and Mr. Smith their dad.
Though Mr. Smith has passed away, Mrs. Smith and her five children (four sons and a daughter) continue his legacy of love and light....and open doors.