When I think of my mother, I can picture her eyes smiling at our guests — from familiar relatives and friends to newly acquainted coworkers. Her eyes would be curved into bent crescents, creased at the edges like wrinkled grapes. Below her eyes, I see a quick dash of rose blush blended with brown concealer as if her face were a palette of diverse pigments. Just a few minutes ago, she was getting ready for the guests. I like watching her; I like seeing her paint on her freshly washed skin like an artist in-the-making, seeing the twinges of excitement for the night ahead spearheading her rapid movements.
I think about the mantra my mother preached to me, her only daughter: A good hostess will array wine like bowling pins, clear shelves of clutter, and braid lights across the staircase — do whatever it takes to make the house tidy. A good hostess will cook with an apron made of metal armor, ready to mold stif dough into delicacies. An excellent hostess will make herself presentable because she is the first one to unlock the door and greet guests.
Indians are notoriously known for “over preparing” most things — for flashy, five day weddings, feet-touching for blessings, soft bread piled into guests’ plates. We’re known for our hospitality. We’re known for shamelessly sending our guests home with bundles of leftover curry packaged in secure tupperware, for giving a hug rather than a handshake when sealing a business deal. For my family, hospitality is a way to help those who cannot be helped. My father used to ask me what I would do to help a king. Would I bring him a jeweled crown or elegant, aromatic meals? None of the above; the king already has all of that, I would respond. Exactly, my father continued, but you could invite him to your house as you would a guest, listen to him speak about his experiences, and make him feel comfortable. You can always give your presence and open ears to even the richest.
As firm believers in the “guests are God” dogma, my family makes no shortages in inviting guests to our home. Weekends are booked from morning till sundown with my brother and I put on tidying duty while my parents finish hovering over stovetops. Initially, I didn’t understand why my parents would race around the house hours prior to extended-family dinners just to rearrange couch pillows or spray vanilla-scented air freshener in the basement. The guests aren’t even going to see the basement, I would reason. However, over the years, I, like my parents, have memorized the precise geometry of dining room placemats and silverware. During family dinners, I’ve learned to take my seat at the table after everyone else has. My parents have trained me to lead small, polite conversations with guests, to smile at their jokes, and to pick up their dirtied napkins. I’ve learned to not question the imbalance of power between a houseguest and host, apologize if guests are unhappy, and meet their initial hesitation with a dutiful embrace. My people, my family, despite not working in the hospitality industry, are masters of service and caretaking.
When New Jersey enforced a mandated lockdown in early April, my family was not worried about not being able to host events or dinners. Although disappointed, they understood that health and safety rank above hospitality. Yet, although my parents were able to put my mother’s newly purchased dinner placemats into storage, they felt a much deeper remorse when shutting customers out of our family-owned wine shop. Since allowing customers to explore the shop and interact with employees is so central to their business, my family has found closing doors to be particularly painful.
How well do you know your customers? I’m sure they’re doing alright, I tried speaking to my father as he stared down at his curry one night during dinner. He paused, as if recalling a previous moment: I may not stand shoulder to shoulder with them — I’m across the counter whenever I see them, he chuckled. But, I know that Ms. Neiley picks up her order every night at 7 P.M; Joseph from the downtown train station always stops in to ask about sale items before lunch. I know that Christine from the hair salon complained about our slow delivery, so we tried to get her wine delivered quickly. I know that the boys soccer team comes to our shop first during their annual holiday fundraiser because they know we always offer candy. I was taken back by my father’s specific descriptions of distinct customers. I assumed his interactions to be momentary, fleeting glances, a quick exchange of dollar bills, followed by a brief, dim smile. Yet, his relationships with customers were like spontaneous friendships, crafted with care and concern. As a skilled host, he showed his customers the same warmth and companionship he did to friends and family.
Now, with lockdown rules slowly easing, my parents grin as they get back into the wine shop and watch customers approach, one by one, six feet apart, some wearing bandannas around the lower half of their faces and others voices muffled by surgical masks. Routine customers make their way towards the dimly lit wine shop and pick orders up from a table which leans against the doorway. They smile with their eyes, just as my mother does, as they wait in the short line.
On the shop’s glass window, my father hangs up a sign which reinforces social distancing and curb-side pick up regulations. He winces as he finishes taping the sign; the rules about maintaining physical distance are an inherent antithesis to the Indian ideal of hospitality, which encourages us to bring people closer and nearer to us. Distancing is a ritual we still aren’t comfortable with. My parents have traded natural, over-the-counter conversations with customers for momentary glances and weak hand waves. It is a bitter juxtaposition, yet one which reminds us of the community we have built through the wine shop and our hospitality mantra. Routine customers are loyal; they are undoubtedly present in the line outside the shop each day when they don’t have to be. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot Christine waiting patiently as she tugs on her loose ponytail. Behind her, Ms. Neily is paging through a HomeGoods furniture manual with a ballpoint pen in hand. These customers choose to support my parents’ business and reciprocate their companionship, their hospitality, even in times like this.
Aditi Desai is a first-year student at Princeton University looking to study Neuroscience and Health Policy. She loves to read investigative journalism pieces which touch on the complexities of human health and mental wellbeing. Furthermore, she enjoys writing, running, hiking, and spending time outdoors!