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690: Too Close to Home

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

A quick warning-- there are curse words that are unbeeped in today's episode of the show. If you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

We're all getting kind of old in my family. And when we get together for the holidays, there's never any drama anymore. Used to be. I avoided coming home for years all through my 20s and early 30s because my parents and I were not getting along so well. Part of the problem was me. In my early 20s, I was harsh and judgey and said lots of things that now I wouldn't have said and have apologized for.

But part of the problem was them. They did not agree with most of my big life choices, starting with and especially the fact that I worked in public radio. During that period, I was working for the NPR news shows, All Things Considered and Morning Edition. And my parents were completely against it. I've said this before-- and my parents hate it when I say this-- but my parents are the only Jews in America who don't like public radio.

The stories are too long. It seemed second rate to them. If I wanted to be a journalist, why wasn't I on TV? Why was I settling for this place that paid me so little? The money was a huge thing. My dad is an accountant, does all our taxes, and so he knew what I made and couldn't quite believe it. I could still earn a good living somewhere. I could still be a doctor.

So coming home for the holidays, sometimes my dad would pull me aside. Sometimes he would bring it up during dinner at a crowded table. Shouldn't I quit these jobs I love and finally go to med school? It's not too late, my parents pleaded with me well into my 30s. My mom officially, kind of half joking, half serious, gave up the effort when I was 41 and had been hosting This American Life for five years.

But for so long, my dad especially would express his love and concern for me when I came home by questioning the basics-- where I lived, how I lived, how I dressed, how my hair looked, who I fell in love with, why wasn't I more of a success. To be clear, he wasn't mean. He wasn't angry. He was just very, very concerned.

My sisters, Randi and Karen, they got their own versions of this. So holidays, yeah, things would get very tense. Which is to say, we were a normal family. But now, it couldn't be more different. My mom died over a decade ago. My dad's in his 80s. In the last couple years, he's had a lot of hearing loss. It's harder to interact with him. He is not the critical, questioning man he once was.

I go home now, and nothing's bothering him about me that he needs to get off his chest. He's been trained over the years to say I love you when we talk on the phone or see each other. And he actually seems to mean it. He's lovely. But I am not used to this milder, gentler version of the overworked, stressed out dad that I grew up with. It's like that guy-- I don't know-- dissolved away that whole side of his personality, leaving another man standing there.

And I have to say-- this is bad to admit-- sometimes I miss that other guy. I go home for the holidays, and it's chill and everybody gets along. And I never thought I'd say this-- I swear I never thought these words would come out of my mouth-- I wish he would pick a fight with me. I feel like that's my real dad.

This elderly guy with the same name, who likes and accepts the person that I'm in love with and, in fact, notices if she leaves her glasses in the dining room and then helpfully brings them to her in the kitchen just to be nice, that guy, he's awesome. But where's my real dad? And this BS of going home for the holidays and not having anything to fight about at all, I mean, are our lives over? Are we already dead? That's it? We're done? No fighting? Are we really a family anymore?

Today, on our program, we have families boisterously, noisily getting into it with each other, kids coming home with important stuff they've been waiting to get off their chests, parents showing up at their grown children's houses with demands that absolutely need to be met, and then let the games begin. For the holidays, it is a family get-together episode of our show, including a song sung at a family event that either is or is not a veiled critique of one family member in particular. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: How Do I Say This?

Ira Glass

Act One, How Do I Say This? So we begin today with somebody returning to their family in the suburbs out in the far west in Canada, in Calgary, Alberta. And she is returning with a mission, something she needed to discuss in English, though the thing she wanted to discuss was a different language entirely. The person doing this is Scaachi Koul.

Scaachi Koul

Nine months ago, after 28 years of being alive, I finally started taking Hindi classes. My parents are both from India, and they emigrated to Canada long before I was born. They speak a number of languages, including Hindi, and their mother tongue, Kashmiri. But there's no real textbook or organized class or Duolingo program for Kashmiri. Hindi proved to be the easiest one for me to learn.

I'm not enjoying these lessons. I've said aloud in class several times that I hate it. I hate it because it's hard, harder than I expected. Because for some reason, I thought this language would come naturally. And yet, for two hours every week, I meet my teacher and fellow classmate at a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan and learn how to greet someone, and tell them what I am presently eating, and that the cat is sitting in the big chair. Sometimes the cat is sitting on the little chair. Learning to say that has cost me $1,150 thus far.

I started these lessons on a whim. I knew for years that I wanted to do it, but I didn't give much thought as to why. I assumed my parents would be happy about it. Not even just happy-- elated. My dad has said to me more than once, you're barely recognizable. When he says it, he means I'm not recognizable to him as the person he wanted me to be, the person who would never, for example, have married a white man much older than she is, or refused a career in medicine, or smoked at least 800 cigarettes.

But I don't know if my learning Hindi even matters to my parents, or how much. I also don't know why they never made me learn it in the first place. So I went home to find out.

Dad

Hey, Google. Play something by Girija Devi.

Google Assistant

Here's a Spotify station featuring [INAUDIBLE] Devi.

Scaachi Koul

When I visit my parents, we don't usually do much more than sit together in the living room and alternate between joking and fighting. We're all indoor cats.

Dad

Hey, Google.

Scaachi Koul

I recently got them a Google Home, foolishly thinking they'd delight in being able to boss it around. They've had it for a day and have been characteristically hostile to it.

Dad

Hey, Google. No, that's wrong.

Google Assistant

Sorry, I might be a little buggy.

Dad

Yeah, you are buzzy.

Scaachi Koul

She didn't say she was buzzy. She said she was buggy.

Dad

What does that mean?

Scaachi Koul

Like, she has a bug.

My parents have long converted my childhood bedroom into a sorry storage facility, but it's still home. There's nothing more comforting to me than my mom accusing an inanimate object of being against her.

Mom

This thing is a racist because I keep telling play bhajan, and it doesn't play bhajan.

Scaachi Koul

When the Google Home fails to play the devotional song my mom requests, she curses at it. And I finally recognize one of the few Kashmiri words I know from my childhood.

Mom

[KASHMIRI]

Dad

What'd she say?

Scaachi Koul

[KASHMIRI], as my mom said, is her saying that she hopes lightning hits the Google Home. The insults my parents use are the part of their language I absolutely know. I can help you call someone lazy, dumb, loud, annoying, rude, ugly. But the one I know best is [KASHMIRI]. You say it when you're mad or shocked or when someone's cooking is so excellent, you just can't help but want them to get hit by lightning. My dad eventually gives up on trying to teach the Google Home Kashmiri and settles on something she knows.

Dad

Hey, Google. Play Frank Sinatra. You have to say please to her?

Scaachi Koul

No, she's a robot. I mean, it's nice, but it's not necessary.

[MUSIC - "COME FLY WITH ME" BY FRANK SINATRA]

Dad

That's my main man, isn't he? I should have a cigarette and a whiskey in one hand and a smoking jacket.

Scaachi Koul

It's 10:00 in the morning.

Dad

Who cares? It's 10:00 PM somewhere.

Scaachi Koul

Later that night, my mom hosts a party for my brother's 40th birthday. And she's cooked her usual dinner party spread-- the mallu, rogan josh, bhatta, haakh dripping in oil.

Scaachi Koul

Happy birthday.

Brother

Thank you.

Scaachi Koul

I have all these questions for my parents. But first, I want to talk to my brother, the only other person in the world who understands what I'm getting myself into. I call my brother 'Bhai,' meaning older brother. He's 12 years older than me and was born in India. Kashmiri is his first language, and though he understands it when it's spoken to him, he lost the ability to speak it himself soon after he moved to Canada as a toddler. He doesn't remember anyone trying to get him to speak Kashmiri instead of English.

Brother

But nobody said anything to me, or maybe they did, and I just said, I just want to watch Three's Company. Thank you very much.

Scaachi Koul

That is how my brother learned English-- reruns of Three's Company. Consequently, he has a very complex understanding of tenant protection rights. My brother affirms one thing I remember to be true when we were kids. It was deeply uncool to speak Hindi or Kashmiri. We knew lots of Indian kids who spoke their parents' language. They were dutiful, good, polite, always saying, yes, Auntie [INAUDIBLE]. But we also knew that those kids were fucking dorks and worthy of our ire. We were never dutiful.

Back then, I envied my brother. He's fair-skinned with angular features and a phonetic name. He could always hide in plain sight. I used to wish I could do the same.

My brother is married. He lives 20 minutes away from my parents. And he has a nine-year-old daughter that I call Raisin. She is the best person in the world. Raisin is biracial. Her mother is white, and she's light skinned with bright blue eyes. She doesn't speak Hindi or Kashmiri, with the exception of naming her favorite foods. And even though my brother could do something about her slim language skills, he hasn't.

Scaachi Koul

Why haven't you put her in those classes?

Brother

She doesn't want to do it.

Scaachi Koul

Yeah, but she's nine. She doesn't want to do anything. I don't think she wants to wash her butt. Like--

Brother

But I don't want to-- I also don't-- I'm super lazy. So if it's like the reality is driving to the [INAUDIBLE] at 8:30 on a Sunday, that's not going to happen. I can barely get her to go to karate, something she is interested in.

Scaachi Koul

As for my brother, he's not likely to sign up for a class himself, despite having the urge, just like I do.

Brother

Do I think about practicing? Yeah, all the time. But I just don't.

Scaachi Koul

(LAUGHING) Why not?

Brother

I don't because our parents are merciless when you try to learn something new, and I'm not interested in giving them more fodder for jokes.

Scaachi Koul

What do you mean that they're merciless about--

Brother

Have you ever tried to speak a language that they know in front of them?

Scaachi Koul

Yeah.

Brother

Yeah, how'd that go?

Scaachi Koul

Um--

Brother

Yeah, exactly.

Scaachi Koul

I'd say it's a spicy experience.

Brother

That doesn't mean anything to me, but OK.

Scaachi Koul

Do you think that we turned out the way he wanted, that he'd-- like when he--

Brother

No. No, I don't think we did, at all.

Scaachi Koul

If we didn't turn out the way our dad wanted us to, well, my dad bears a lot of responsibility for that. For one thing, instead of forcing us to learn Hindi, he made us learn French.

Scaachi Koul

Why instead of making me take Hindi classes at the temple, did you decide, oh, I know, I'm going to put them in French immersion for some reason?

Dad

Because Canada is a bilingual country. And I was hoping that the Hindi would come automatically because at home and other Indians.

Scaachi Koul

My dad is loquacious and wry and thinks he's the smartest person in the room. He's also stubborn as hell, and so am I, which means we're often trying to murder each other. After I first got together with the man who would become my husband, the way older white guy, my dad didn't talk to me for a year. When I first asked him how he feels about me taking these classes, he's his typical self-- dismissive and glib.

Scaachi Koul

What did you think when I started taking the Hindi classes?

Dad

I was amused. Since you do whatever you want to do, I thought maybe, OK, good.

Scaachi Koul

What does that mean, I do whatever I want to do?

Dad

Because you are a very independent-minded person. You do not take any instruction or anything. So I was glad that at least you are doing something for your betterment. Because, like I said, having knowledge of another language can never hurt you.

Scaachi Koul

Don't be fooled by his detached attitude about whether I speak Hindi. He has other feelings as well, depending on the day. He used to get upset about it. When I was younger, sometimes he would speak to me in Kashmiri and quickly get frustrated that I could barely understand it and couldn't respond. He gave that up after I moved out.

But ever since I started my Hindi classes, he's trying again. Now when I call my mother, he'll barge into our calls and demand that she speak to me in Hindi and Kashmiri. I had to ask him the same question over and over again before he finally admits that, yes, he's absolutely thrilled at the idea of me learning Hindi.

Dad

And hopefully, one day, you will converse with somebody in Hindi. And you should go to India. I'll go with you, but let you lead so that you can speak with taxi drivers or auto rickshaw drivers or shopkeepers, and try to haggle with them in Hindi. I bet you it'll be hilarious. It'll be wonderful.

Scaachi Koul

Were you surprised that I started taking lessons?

Dad

Yeah, I was. Because you were-- both you kids were extremely whitewashed. Maybe I had something to do with it. I didn't purposely do that.

Scaachi Koul

Exactly what my dad had to do with that goes all the way back to his arrival in Canada. This is who my dad was when me and my brother were kids-- 125 pounds, 5 foot 4, ambitious, and working hard as a pharmaceutical representative. It was all so we would eventually have all you could ever want-- house, two cars, a yard, university educations. We were middle class in Canada, all with traditional Hindu names. It was the Indian dream.

We didn't have much family near us in Calgary. I didn't go to school with any other brown kids until I was well into high school. My brother and cousin spoke to each other and me in English. My father had this idea that we'd pick up Hindi at home, but that's ridiculous. My parents spoke Kashmiri and English. Hindi was reserved for Bollywood movies and when my mom needed to speak to her jeweler. What form of osmosis is my dad even talking about?

Dad

I thought that this language, mother tongue specifically, would come a little later on. And I should concentrate on you being totally assimilated with the Canadian culture, if you will, whatever that culture is. But somehow I should have created some sort of infrastructure where you would be-- you would learn and be at least proficient in one of the languages-- Indian languages, that is.

Scaachi Koul

Well, why didn't you make me take lessons for either Hindi or Kashmiri?

Dad

I don't know. I don't know why. I ought to have done it.

Scaachi Koul

I don't think my dad is equipped to directly talk about how hard it was to leave India. My mom can talk about her sadness easily, as if all those feelings are still right at the surface of her skin, waiting to bleed out of her and drown me.

Mom

I had to say goodbye to my dad and my mother. That was very hard. That was really, really hard.

Scaachi Koul

My dad was the family's sole breadwinner, and in her early days in Canada, my mother was alone a lot with my brother, just a toddler. She noticed he was losing his Kashmiri three or four months after they arrived.

Mom

And I would talk to him in Kashmiri, and he would answer me in English. And I said, OK, this is it. He's not going to say anything back now. And I would push him and say it in Kashmiri, and he would say it in English. He would not say in Kashmiri.

Scaachi Koul

So then why didn't you push him to keep it up?

Mom

Well, how can you make him do-- push-- how can you make him to speak?

Scaachi Koul

When bhai got a little older, my mother and father considered signing him up for Hindi classes. And it turns out their reason for not doing so is the exact same practical, yet lazy one my big brother gives about Raisin.

Mom

Papa said Sunday morning, I don't want to get up at 10 o'clock and take him to Hindi school. That was only because Hindi schools, that's what the timing. Sunday's the only day when I had my day off. And I was not that confident driving that time on the Deerfoot in wintertime. So that's all. Fell apart.

Scaachi Koul

My mother says that years later, they actually put me in Hindi classes. I was maybe five then. She says that I'd wander out of class, which was held in the basement of our [INAUDIBLE], and would trot up the stairs to find her. I don't remember this at all. They stopped trying to force it. At the time, I'm sure I was thrilled that they left it alone.

I pushed against brownness in every way I could. I recoiled when my white friends would call and overhear my parents speaking Kashmiri in the background. I didn't want to invite them over because they could smell sandalwood in the curtains. I resented my unpronounceable first name and passively let people call me Sasha or Sara or Scratchy or Sushi or whatever examples of genteel racism were permeating my life.

Scaachi Koul

Are you disappointed that I can't speak Kashmiri and I can't speak Hindi?

Mom

I wouldn't say disappointed. But I feel sad that it would have been nice. Because sometimes if I want to tell you something, and I have to change the language, it loses its-- what I want to tell you. So that time, I'm really frustrated. I say I wish she could understand what I'm trying to tell her.

Scaachi Koul

Sometimes I could see my mom struggling to find the right word to convey the right feeling. Has she always felt a gap between what she wanted to tell me and what I was able to grasp? When I moved away for university, I worried my mom would be lonely. I resented that I worried about her. But I wondered who my mom would talk to when I left home. I never considered that maybe the language we were speaking left her feeling lonely, before I even moved away.

Scaachi Koul

Did you want me and bhai to assimilate in Canada?

Mom

Yeah.

Scaachi Koul

Did we assimilate too much?

Mom

Well, I will say yes and no to that. It would have been nice if a little bit stayed towards your heritage, towards your culture. But I guess it was supposed to happen, and there's nothing I can do about it.

Scaachi Koul

This idea from both of my parents makes me nuts. Of course there's something she could have done about it. I know that my parents made the best choices they had at the time. Now, though, I feel like I missed out on something that I desperately want.

Scaachi Koul

I wish I could have spoken to your mom when she was alive.

Mom

Yeah, well, I wish that you--

Scaachi Koul

I mean, did that-- did she say anything to you about that, that she couldn't speak to her grandchildren?

Mom

Yeah, she used to cry and cry and cry. She says, I cannot speak to them, and they don't understand me. And I wish I could talk to them. So it was hard. It was a shame that you guys couldn't talk to her. She would have been overwhelmed if you would say just a few words. Now it is all gone, so it doesn't matter now. Anything else?

Scaachi Koul

Of course there's something else. There's always something else.

Scaachi Koul

What are we making first?

Mom

You said you wanted to see how we cook green beans, right?

Scaachi Koul

Yeah.

Cooking is the only place where I don't know the English equivalency of most words, evidenced by how many times I go to the grocery store and ask for amruth or elaichi, and struggle to name it in English. In the kitchen, my pronunciation is flawless. And for once, I don't feel like a fraud when I speak in Hindi or Kashmiri.

When I was a kid, I wouldn't even let my mom pack me Indian food for lunch. No one wants to be different in a grade school cafeteria. Then I moved away for university, and I realized all I wanted was my mom's cooking. I wanted her to braid my hair and rub my back and wax my mustache off for me, all these blips of intimacy with her I once had. I've been learning how to make her food ever since.

Scaachi Koul

My beans always turn out weird.

Mom

Why?

Scaachi Koul

I don't know. They get too salty.

Mom

Maybe you are putting too much salt. Simple.

Scaachi Koul

Yeah, Mom, I know. God. How is that helpful?

My Hindi, after a few months of lessons, is finally good enough that I can have slivers of conversations with my parents. Recently, they visited me in New York. And on a walk with my husband barely two feet ahead of us, my mother told me in Hindi, your husband has no butt.

One day, my parents will die. And when that happens, we'll all forget the insults and the sounds and the way my mom rolls her Rs. I can't even imagine how lonely I'll be without her sounds. Maybe it'll hurt less if I learn how to make these sounds on my own. For now, I'm still stumbling over how to say "I love you" to my mother in her mother tongue.

[SPEAKING KASHMIRI]

Mom

Thank you.

Scaachi Koul

My mom now tells me constantly how proud she is that I'm trying to learn Hindi. More than anything, that's what keeps me going to class.

Ira Glass

Scaachi Koul, she writes about culture for BuzzFeed News, and she's also the author of a collection of essays, One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter.

[MUSIC - "DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD" BY NINA SIMONE]

Coming up, they didn't mean it. They really didn't mean it. They really, really didn't mean it. Right? That's what they say. Mother and daughter, and the song they chose to sing at a very significant family event. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: You Probably Think This Song is About You

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on the program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, "Too Close to Home." For the holidays, stories of family get-togethers where somebody shows up with something they think the entire family has to deal with, or at least, discuss. And they're ready to force the issue. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, You Probably Think This Song is About You.

So in this act, two family members show up with a message. The message is contained in a song, which makes sense because the family includes a bunch of musicians. The dad in this family is Loudon Wainwright III, the songwriter who started putting out albums in the 1970s. He is father to singer-songwriters Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, and with a different mom, Lucy Wainwright Roche. Lucy's mom is Suzzy Roche, who got some notoriety in the band The Roches. Lucy and Suzzy came into the studio to tell the story of this song.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

We sang this one, actually, at one of my dad's weddings.

Ira Glass

To be precise, her dad, Loudon, had gotten married for the second time. And this was a party to celebrate it, maybe 50 people. Lucy went with her mom, Suzzy, who'd never been married to Loudon, but they were together for years.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

And he asked us if we wanted to sing something, and we said, sure. And then he was like, OK, well, pick whatever you feel like singing and surprise us. And we'd been learning this song that was a cover song that we just really liked. And sometimes when you're learning a new song, you kind of have a little crush on the song, so you just want to sing it all the time. And so we were like, let's just do that new one that we've been learning. And we just didn't really think it through.

Suzzy Roche

Yeah, I would say that that's an understatement. I don't know what we were thinking. I mean, it was one of those kind of situations where you're standing in front of a roomful of people, and they all have their champagne glasses. And they're looking at you, smiling. And you start to sing the song. And so just imagine that you're at a wedding, and--

Lucy Wainwright Roche

Yeah, you're--

Suzzy Roche

--these people are going to sing.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

You got your champagne, and then this happens.

Ira Glass

All right. Let's hear the song.

[MUSIC - "DESPERADO" BY LUCY WAINWRIGHT ROCHE AND SUZZY ROCHE]

Lucy Wainwright Roche

(SINGING) Desperado, why don't you come to your senses? You've been out riding fences for so long now. Well, you're a hard one. I know that you've got your reasons. These things that are pleasing you can hurt you somehow.

Ira Glass

OK, so at this point, what are they thinking?

Lucy Wainwright Roche

I feel like as soon as you sing, "Desperado," people think, oh-- oh.

Suzzy Roche

They're talking about Loudon.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

I bet more than anything, they felt like, what is happening right now?

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Lucy Wainwright Roche

Like, is this OK?

Ira Glass

Is this a message?

Lucy Wainwright Roche

It's a slightly hostile thing to sing at your father's wedding, or your ex's wedding.

Suzzy Roche

But we were thinking, (SINGING) G, G7, C, C Minor. And basically concentrating on playing it, because I didn't know it that well.

Ira Glass

OK, keep going.

Lucy And Suzzy Roche

(SINGING) Don't you draw the Queen of Diamonds. She'll beat you if she's able. You know the Queen of Hearts is always your best bet. Now it seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table. But you only want the ones that you can't get.

Ira Glass

What do you think people thought at that point?

Lucy Wainwright Roche

I think that is the most cringey line in the song.

Suzzy Roche

In this context.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

Yes.

Suzzy Roche

Yeah. "It seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table, and you only want the ones that you can't get." I mean, that--

Lucy Wainwright Roche

That seems rude. You don't often hear a wedding toast that says like, and what I love about him is, lucky you. He never wants the things he can get. That's not--

Ira Glass

No, I haven't heard that at a wedding. Weird.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

No. I think that's the low point of what we've done here.

Ira Glass

Let's go into the next verse. "Oh, you ain't getting no younger."

Lucy Wainwright Roche

Right. I would say this is the second to worst line of the song.

(SINGING) Desperado, oh, you ain't getting no younger. Your pain and your hunger are driving you home. And freedom, oh, that's just some people talking. Your prison is walking through this world all alone.

Ira Glass

So how do you think people might have heard that?

Suzzy Roche

Oh, it's so sad. That is so sad.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

It is so sad.

Ira Glass

Now the line, "You ain't getting no younger," how old was your dad?

Lucy Wainwright Roche

Old.

[LAUGHTER]

Suzzy Roche

He was not getting any younger.

Ira Glass

So you're singing this, and you're looking around at the faces. What are you seeing?

Lucy Wainwright Roche

It didn't feel like it was the most well-received thing we'd ever done.

Suzzy Roche

Yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

Yeah, I mean, there was a kind of a feeling of being looked at without a lot of expression, which is sometimes not a great sign. [LAUGHS]

Lucy Wainwright Roche

I think they were probably thinking a thought that I think a lot when something happens that is uncomfortable. And when something like that is happening, like, just make the right kind of face right now.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS] And maybe this will be over soon.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

Yes. Like, just make sure your face is right.

Suzzy Roche

I mean, the truth of it is that nobody has ever mentioned it again to us.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

To this day.

Suzzy Roche

Yeah.

Ira Glass

What did he say afterwards?

Lucy Wainwright Roche

Nothing.

Ira Glass

Did he say thank you?

Suzzy Roche

No. Not really, no.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

The horrible thing about this is that people must have felt like we were doing something passive aggressive, or aggressive maybe.

Suzzy Roche

Right. And the sad thing is we were completely oblivious. And I know that that probably sounds like maybe it's not true, and unconsciously, we had some sort of thing we were doing. Perhaps, but it didn't feel like that at all.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

But I think then after that, a couple years later when we first performed this song in a show, I might have said to the audience for the first time, oh, actually, we sang this once at my dad's wedding. And then the absurdity of that really hit us.

Suzzy Roche

Right, and also the song kind of turns into a comedy, instead of the beautiful song that it is.

Ira Glass

Let's hear a recording from one of those concerts.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

(SINGING) Desperado--

[LAUGHTER]

--why don't you come to your senses?

Ira Glass

It's weird that you can get a song like this to play as comedy.

Suzzy Roche

I mean, people get hysterical when they hear it in that context, which makes it obvious that there was something strange about it.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

(SINGING) Now it seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table. But you only want the ones that you can't get.

[LAUGHTER]

Desperado, no, you ain't getting no younger.

[LAUGHTER]

Well, here's the other thing about it. I don't know if I should say this, but I mean, on the one hand, it's a terrible thing to sing at a wedding and at that wedding. But on the other hand, it's kind of the perfect thing to sing at that wedding.

Suzzy Roche

I know.

Ira Glass

How do you mean it's the perfect thing to sing?

Suzzy Roche

Well, because you're basically-- the lyrics, if you really study them, are basically saying you've got to let somebody love you.

Ira Glass

So you're saying, unconsciously maybe, it was the perfect pick for the wedding.

Suzzy Roche

Right, I'm starting to change my mind on this whole thing and say that, yes, of course we meant to sing this song.

Lucy Wainwright Roche

I'm not.

[LAUGHTER]

Suzzy Roche

When I see what it's actually saying, what it says to me, if there is a subconscious message that we were aiming at Loudon-- or I'll speak for myself, me-- is just, I see you. I see what you've been through, and I see your pain. And we're happy for you that you've found somebody to be with.

Ira Glass

Suzzy and Lucy Roche. Their version of "Desperado" is on their album Mud and Apples. Lucy's most recent album is Little Beast. I did, by the way, check with Loudon, Suzzy's ex and Lucy's dad, to see what he thought about "Desperado" as their choice of song at the party, since they really had no idea at all. And Loudon told me he definitely remembered it.

Loudon Wainwright Iii

Oh, yes. Yes. I remember thinking it was hilariously funny and ironic. And I thought it was a kind of really ironic, cool choice of a song to do.

[MUSIC - "WHAT ARE FAMILIES FOR?" BY LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III]

Act Three: Pigeons on a Plane

Ira Glass

Music from Loudon Wainwright III, which brings us to Act Three of our show. Act Three, Pigeons on a Plane. So we have one more family member on a mission for you today, and this mission was made possible by a government official, a government official in Mexico, namely the Secretary of Migration in the Mexican state of Michoacán. And a little while back, this official, he started to hear that lots of elderly people in Mexico were dying without being able to see their kids. Because their kids were living in the United States and were undocumented. And the kids didn't have the papers to cross in and out of Mexico.

The migration secretary wanted to help, and he set up a program to help these elderly Mexicans with families in the US get tourist visas. They have special days at the US embassy for them to apply, buses to take them to the embassy. And then they organized these trips, these trips were they fly them to the United States en masse. These elderly people get regular tourist visas with the same rules as any other tourist visas, but good for 10 years so that they can come and go and see their kids and grandkids in the US. You have to be 60 years old qualify for the program.

And since 2017, over 9,000 people have come to the States this way. Not one of them, we're told, has ever overstayed a visa. Over a dozen other Mexican states have created their own versions of the program. In Michoacán, the elderly travelers are known as palomas mensajeras, the messenger pigeons. Reporter Kevin Sieff tagged along on one of their trips. He started in Mexico and flew to the US with them.

Kevin Sieff

I'm standing with a group of 70 elderly palomas mensajeras. They're all wearing matching T-shirts and have lanyards around their necks with these big clear pouches, holding their airport tickets and passports. It looks like a giant group of really old schoolchildren. To make sure no one's wandered off, the chaperones take a roll call.

Chaperone

[READING NAMES]

Kevin Sieff

We're at a small airport in central Mexico. The people in this group have some very specific things in common. None of them has ever flown on an airplane before, and they're all headed to Chicago to see their kids for the first time in more than a decade.

The biggest migration boom from Mexico happened in the 1990s, nearly 5 million people by the end of the decade. The exodus was especially big in a city called Ciudad Hidalgo, where these parents are from. By 1998, roughly 10% of the city's population was living in Chicago. Today, the kids who cross the border as teenagers and 20 somethings are middle-aged undocumented immigrants with children of their own, US citizen children who've never met their grandparents.

Those are the grandparents I'm with now. They board the plane slowly, so slowly, as you'd expect on a flight where almost everyone is elderly, on canes and wheelchairs, and utterly unaccustomed to air travel.

Sort of chaotic now as everyone's boarding, a lot of confusion about where people are sitting. This woman's asking, am I in the right seat? Is this the right seat? She's actually in the wrong seat.

The parent I ended up talking to the most was a mom named Lupita Neri. At 67, she was one of the younger parents on the trip. She sat in the front of the plane in a window seat, wearing a yellow dress and heels and bright pink lipstick.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

She's saying she expected the plane to move like a truck, but it didn't. Lupita's son, Daniel, and daughter, Marilu, have been in Chicago for almost 20 years.

Kevin Sieff

For you guys, you've only been able to talk over the phone. Is there anything you've been waiting to talk to them about in person?

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Well, I'm going to, of course, get there. And then I'm going to greet my children and my grandchildren. But then there are some things that we're going to have to talk about once we're at home, about what they are going to do. Because I want my kids to come here to be with me. Because I'm all alone here.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

In fact, this was her mission for the trip. Like parents everywhere, she wants to convince her children to move back home. For months, she'd been preparing what to say, practicing her pitch in the mirror.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Yeah, I mean, I actually will, like, talk to myself. I'll say, OK, well, are you going to stay here forever? Or are you going to come back? Because I've said this before, but Chicago isn't your homeland. This is your homeland. And you've already had the opportunity to enjoy Chicago, to work there, but now it's time to come back. So please come back so that you can be with me.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

This won't be news to her kids. She's brought it up before.

Kevin Sieff

How often do you bring it up over the phone?

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

About three times a year. I don't do it too much because I might get hung up on.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

It's very touchy to talk about that kind of stuff over the phone because my son, he'll get upset. And he says, well, Mom, if I'm earning money to help you, then if I come back there to be with you, how are we going to live? And I tell him, well, from your perspective, you're seeing it as something that's so impossible. But it's not.

Save up some money over there so that you can come back here without needing to go back to the United States. And yes, maybe we'll live humbly, and we'll be eating beans and eggs. But you'll at least be here in your home. And my son says, well, I'll think about it, Mom. I'll think about it.

Kevin Sieff

Like a lot of the parents I talked to, Lupita never expected Daniel and Marilu to be gone for so long, at most just a few years. Save some money, and then come back to Mexico. That was their original plan. Daniel even bought a calendar and penciled in the date when he would return.

But they kept pushing back the deadline, telling her they needed to save more money. Then they had children and houses and dogs and friends. It got harder to leave. Lupita was losing her patience. She'd been living alone since her husband died four years ago of cancer. She wanted her kids with her.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Both of them have told me, Mom, just give me time. Just give me time. And I say, but I've already given you a lot of time.

Kevin Sieff

Lupita had another son, Isaac, who moved to the US and died of pneumonia a few years ago. She never had the chance to say goodbye, even over the phone. It made her feel like that could be her, dying without them. She wanted the kids back now.

Daniel was the first to leave Mexico, back in 1999. He got a job as a dishwasher and then kept working his way up to bartending at fancy restaurants. Marilu joined Daniel in Chicago soon after. She was a single mom with five kids who needed more money for her family. She took cleaning jobs in Chicago. Now she works three jobs, including back-to-back night shifts, cleaning at a restaurant and a health clinic.

Lupita says when she's brought up coming home on the phone, she's been pretty gentle. She thinks in person, it'll all be different. She'll be more aggressive, and her kids will really have to hear her out. Her plan was to wait until she'd been in Chicago for about a week before springing this conversation on them.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

So you got to just wait till everything is calm. Because if I do it immediately, then it'll be like dumping a bucket of cold water on their heads, and that might scare them off. So I'm going to wait for a day when my son takes me out to go sightseeing. And that's when I'll talk to him. We'll maybe go out to have a coffee, maybe eat a hamburger. And then I'll start talking to him about it.

Kevin Sieff

And Lupita kept making what sounded like a half joke, half backup plan about her son Daniel.

Interpreter

I think sometimes it would be so great if they could actually deport him back to be with me.

Kevin Sieff

I asked Lupita what her kids would think if they knew she was saying that.

Interpreter

Well, I think they'll get mad. They'll say, what are you talking about, Mom? But yes, this is something that I've thought about, that it might be better if they're deported because then they'll be deported to be back with me.

Kevin Sieff

She says in the past, she's gotten so frustrated about her kids not being home that she thought about going to the US embassy to report them.

Daniel

[LAUGHS] I don't think she will be capable to do that.

Kevin Sieff

This is Lupita's son Daniel. I caught up with him in Chicago.

Daniel

But maybe. You never know. [LAUGHS] I don't even get mad if she does. I'll be like, OK.

Kevin Sieff

You wouldn't get mad if she did that?

Daniel

No.

Kevin Sieff

What?

Daniel

She's my mother, so. She gave me life, so. [LAUGHS] I started laughing, to be honest, because make me feel like, oh, she loves me very much.

Kevin Sieff

Just as Lupita landed in Chicago with the rest of the parents, Daniel and Marilu and more than 100 other families were waiting in the basement of a packed church. The chaperones had specifically told them not to come to the airport. It wasn't a good idea to have so many undocumented people in a place with so much law enforcement. The organizers tried to keep details about the reunion secret. There's the sinking worry that ICE could find out. Some families worried that the whole thing could be a ploy to deport them.

In the church basement, about 300 people, all families, squished together, long folding tables piled with flowers, homemade posters, and heart-shaped balloons. There are grown men walking around with teddy bears for their moms. Then an MC standing near the door started giving updates about the parents landing at the airport, getting on buses headed to the church. The mood got rowdier.

[CHEERING]

Lupita's son Daniel and her daughter, Marilu, are sitting at a table near the center of the room. They crane their necks to watch for the bus. Marilu has been waiting in the church basement for hours. She left three children in Mexico when she came to Chicago, and she brought two younger kids with her. It gnaws at her not seeing her kids back in Mexico. And she worries about her mom dying alone.

Marilu

I feel sad. She's by herself. I worry about her. Sometimes I'm thinking about, what about if something happened to her? What'll we do? I don't want to let her die without me.

[MARIACHI MUSIC]

Kevin Sieff

Suddenly, this famous mariachi song came on. And Marilu started singing along, loudly.

Marilu

[SINGING IN SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

The lyrics were pretty on the nose. "Beautiful and beloved Mexico, if I die far from you, let them say that I'm asleep and have them bring me back here."

Marilu

[SINGING IN SPANISH]

[APPLAUSE]

Kevin Sieff

The MC at the church gives an update. The buses with everyone's parents are just minutes away. Marilu suddenly gets quiet. Tears are running down her face. She lets out a sigh.

Marilu

[SIGH]

Kevin Sieff

Daniel wipes his eyes, too. Outside, the bus pulls up in front of the church.

As they drove to the church, the parents were looking out the windows, commenting on how drab and ugly Chicago is. Well, it isn't beautiful, one of them said to me. But once we parked, everyone got very excited. Lupita says, I'm going to spring to hug them, to greet them.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

She's the last parent off the bus. She enters the church building and wades into this intense scene, with little pods of families all over the place, hugging and crying.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

I don't want to cry.

Kevin Sieff

But she doesn't see her kids. It's chaotic. Finally, Marilu and Daniel walk up, each of them holding a flower. Daniel is shaking a little. They surround Lupita and start hugging.

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

They're saying, I'm so happy to see you. And it's my mom, my mom. Lupita says, it's so amazing to see you, my daughter. I love you.

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Marilu gives her a big kiss. Then Daniel says, it's been 20 years since we saw each other. They linger and take a picture together. Lupita meets a great-grandchild, Marilu's grandson, who she's never met before. She tells him that he's so handsome.

Then her kids grab her two bags, full of more than 100 hand-sewn sweaters, table linens, and scarves that Lupita has been working on for a year. They joke that they're filled with rocks. She had dreamed of eating at an American restaurant with her family. And suddenly, there she was, in Chicago, and her kids were telling her that they were going to take her out to dinner.

Lupita spent three weeks with Daniel and Marilu in Chicago, and they didn't want me hanging around with a recorder, which I understood. But three days into the trip, before Lupita launched into her campaign to convince her kids to move home, Daniel sat down with me for an interview. And he told me, yeah, he knew what was coming. But I ran down the details with him anyway.

Kevin Sieff

Your mom, when we were talking about it, she was saying like, she has this whole plan for you. Like, she's talked to the high school principal. Maybe he's willing to hire you to teach English.

Daniel

[LAUGHS] I don't know if that's good. That's my mom's dream, not mine.

Kevin Sieff

Daniel is single with no kids, something his mom constantly reminds him.

Kevin Sieff

She's trying to arrange things so that she has a perfect place for you. She wants to find you a woman for you to marry. She said you can live in the same house.

Daniel

Oh yeah, she's been finding candidates for that. I'm like, no, this isn't going to work at all because I don't know how to say this, but fortunately, or unfortunately, I have absorbed so much stuff from this culture. And when I talk to people from Mexico, they're like, what he's talking about?

Kevin Sieff

Marilu had a different take. She wants to move back to Mexico, but not right now, not for 10 more years. She says she has to earn more money first.

I think nothing Marilu and Daniel told us would have been a surprise to Lupita. Lupita knew it would be a hard sell. But she'd convinced herself that she could pull it off.

Across Mexico, kids from this generation are coming back voluntarily. Mexico has become a wealthier country in the years since they left. Some of those kids are moving back and starting businesses. Others are retiring, spending more time with family back home. They did what they came to do. I called Lupita after the trip to find out what happened.

Kevin Sieff

Did you stick to your plan about how you were going to ask and how many times you were going to ask?

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Well, I planned it out, and I did it, but well, it didn't work.

Kevin Sieff

How many times did you try?

Interpreter

Oh, heaven, almost every other day, I'd say something to them.

Kevin Sieff

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Every other day.

Kevin Sieff

Every third day.

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Yes, every other day, so that I wouldn't bother them. If not, I was going to annoy them.

Kevin Sieff

She ran the lines that she rehearsed. But her kids had their own response ready. They reminded her that her visa was good for 10 years, that it would be easier for her to visit them.

Kevin Sieff

Did you feel disappointed? Were you surprised by what they said?

Interpreter

Desperate. Desperate and sad. Sad at the same time because I said to myself, my God, I think my kids are going to stay there. So when it's my time to go, what's going to happen? They said, our lives are here. Mom, let's not talk about that right now because we're happy, and that will make us sad.

Kevin Sieff

She says that's when she understood that their answer was definite, unchangeable. She stopped bothering them about it. She wanted the reunion to remain pleasant. But the truth is there were moments when she became really sad, like when her daughter was at work and she was alone in the house. She kept that feeling to herself.

Back in the '90s, millions of Mexican parents watched their kids leave for the US, often with just a backpack and an address. The parents never imagined that the next trips would be theirs to make, elderly moms and dads with 10-year visas, convinced by their kids that it was their turn to cross the border. Like Lupita, she'll be flying back to see her kids now and then.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

They beat me, she said. I'm not going to say anything more about it.

Ira Glass

Kevin Sieff, he's the Mexico Bureau Chief for The Washington Post.

[MUSIC - "TOO CLOSE TO HOME" BY RHONDA FUNK]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Sean Cole. The people who put together today's show include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Emanuele Berry, Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Andrea Lopez Cruzado, Whitney Dangerfield, Damien Graef, Michelle Harris, Seth Lind, Jessica Lussenhop, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Gabriela Munoz, Ben Phelan, Nadia Reiman, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Our managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum. Special thanks today to Dr. Vaile Wright, Virangna Kaul, Jaya Saxena, Philip Good, and Bernadette Mayer.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of nearly 700 episodes. Also, there's videos and tons of other stuff there. Or get our app, which has all that stuff and also lets you download as many episodes as you want. Again, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He told me that he bought me a Hanukkah gift this year on his trip to Mexico. I asked him what it is. He was very vague.

Lupita Neri

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.