By Jennie Baird

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

My brother and I were waiting outside for our mother.

That morning she’d dropped us off at this suburban hotel, a nondescript, low-slung building among many similar buildings, set back in a parking lot off a local highway not too far from our home. All of the buildings and parking lots along this stretch of road were the same to me – the fabric store, the paint store, each of them had big plate glass windows and painted signs. Our mother often took us from this place to that place running errands. Into the car, out of the car, stand here, wait there. Occasionally, she let us wait in the car. But today was different. We weren’t running errands and we weren’t staying with her.

“This day is very important,” our mother told us. “Pay attention to everything. Do whatever they tell you. And behave.”

The three of us walked through the lobby. I clung to our mother’s side as she stood at a long table talking to a man and writing something down on an index card. Then she said goodbye and told us that she’d meet us on the curb outside when it was over. Josh was in charge and I was to stay with him at all times. I would never think to do otherwise.

A young woman who was wearing a white robe and had long wavy golden hair ushered us into a large room. She must have spoken, but her voice was quiet, almost as if she could speak without making a sound.

There were lots of grown-ups inside the large room, most of them also wearing white robes. Some of them accompanied children, while others talked amongst themselves. The room was full of children, ordinary children just like us. At five, I may have been the youngest. There must have been chairs and a podium at the front, too. We stopped just inside the doors and found a place on the floor. Nearby, two girls played Miss Mary Mack and Oh Little Playmate. They clapped palms and backs of hands. They held hands and pulled each other to and fro, whispering the lyrics of the songs. I loved the words: “Oh little playmate, come out and play with me, climb up my apple tree, slide down my rainbow, into my cellar door and we’ll be friends friends friends friends forever more more more more.” I didn’t know what a cellar door was, but I wanted one, just so I could slide down a rainbow into it.

Josh took up with a group of older children sitting on the other side of him. They were talking about I don’t know what and of course he joined right in. That was part of being older. I wasn’t included, but I stayed close, making sure I always had my brother in my line of sight. I would be older one day, too.

Soon, there was an announcement over a loudspeaker asking for quiet and then other voices came on as well, but Josh and his new friends kept on chattering, though more quietly than before. They weren’t the only ones, either. The low buzz of children whispering and shifting and wriggling continued. I can’t remember if I wasn’t interested in the voices on the loudspeaker. Maybe I just couldn’t make sense of what they were saying. I kept my eyes on my brother. It was a crowded room. If I lost track of him, I would be lost. And without him, I would never find my way back to our mother.

After a while, we were told to go with a particular group of children to a smaller room. The woman with the golden waves led us there. The sun shone into the lobby and cast a spray of light around her hair and I thought to myself, “This is what angels must look like, only with wings.”

She led us to a dimly lit room filled with soft pillows and brightly colored curtains and fabrics. To my delight, there was even Hi-C, an orange drink I’d seen on TV commercials but had never tasted. It didn’t taste as good as I’d imagined, its flavor not quite orange, with a metallic, almost medicinal, aftertaste. But it was thin and sugary and perfect for washing down the oatmeal raisin cookies they passed around on flimsy paper plates. I would later come to recognize these as institutional cookies – the kind that came in crinkly bulk packages and that were served in school cafeterias, at summer camps and in hospital wards. I couldn’t say they were delicious; those cookies were dry as sawdust. But that didn’t mean I didn’t love them. Probably because cookies and Hi-C and pretty much anything that came in a package or looked tasty was banned from our house.

Our house was the house of the Salton yogurt maker, which produced warm, runny, sour yogurt that our mother sweetened with jam or honey. Our house was the house of Meals in Minutes, sealable plastic bags full of frozen food my mother made from recipes in a cookbook whose black cover featured a stark image of an ice cube wrapped in a red-and-white twist tie. Whenever my mom went away to the ashram, my father dropped one of these plastic Meals in Minutes bags into boiling water, and that was dinner.

I wasn’t sure how long we stayed in the cozy room of delights, sipping Hi-C and nibbling on cookies, but it could have been half a day. We did puzzles and drawings and played with the other children. There was quiet music that sounded like bells. The Golden Angel Lady talked to us in her magical quiet voice from time to time, suggesting a new activity or a game for us to play. It wasn’t clear to me why we were here, but it didn’t bother me. Nobody fought. Nobody cried. I didn’t worry about getting lost. My brother was here. Golden Angel Lady was here.

Eventually, it was time. Golden Angel Lady collected our crayons and puzzles and paper cups and a man came into the room. He wore a long tunic over what looked like pajama pants. He told us how important this day was. He explained that in a few minutes we’d each be taken to another room to meet with a very, very important man. This man would understand us and know us. He would give us a word – a mantra – that would be the key to our happiness for the rest of our lives. “Keep your mantra to yourself,” he said. “A mantra is not for sharing. It is for holding close to you, holding in your mind and for focusing on and repeating every day of your life.” We needed a mantra to be able to meditate. Meditation was going to change our lives forever.

Meditation! I knew this word. I knew this was what my mother was doing when she couldn’t be disturbed. I knew this was what she did went she went away to the ashram.

The man stepped out again and Golden Angel Lady started organizing us children to file in one by one to see the maharishi.

I waited patiently in line, watching each child ahead of me disappear into the maharishi’s room. I was nervous. None of the children spoke when they returned. They came back wide-eyed and wandered over to the area where not so long ago we’d been playing and eating. They settled on pillows or a couch, quiet, so quiet.

As my turn neared, I grew more nervous. Josh was ahead of me in line, preceding me on this momentous occasion just as he had in everything in our lives. There had never been a “me” without him. Though of course, there had been a “him” without me and he knew it. He had independence, a sense of himself in the world that I still lacked. He knew how to do everything faster, better, more than I did. I couldn’t imagine having the confidence or the bravado I saw in him every day. I looked to him to guide me and to teach me how to be. When he skinned his knee, it was the absolute worst pain in the world. I always tried to comfort him, but he’d tell me to stop — I could never understand how awful his pain felt. I’d offer to switch names with him, so I could be him – I reasoned that that would take his pain away and give me a chance to experience something for myself. But that little trick never worked.

Now, my brother was in the room with the maharishi, receiving his very special word, the key to his lifelong happiness. Next, it would be my turn. I was going to have the same experience as him, immediately after him.

Silently, Josh emerged, staring straight ahead, with a look of – was it bliss?   He walked by me, and I tried to catch his eye, but he didn’t look over. A robed adult arm waved me in.

I took a deep breath and stepped forward. With butterflies fluttering in my stomach, I now stood in the maharishi’s antechamber, another dim room lit by candles and covered in curtains and fabrics. There was a sweet heavy smell in the air. In front of me stood an old man with dark skin and a long white beard. His robe was light purple. His eyes were kind but serious. He put a hand on my shoulder. I was sure he was God.

“Child,” he said, “I am going to give you a word, a word to hold in your heart and to keep only for yourself. This word is your mantra.” His voice was like hot cocoa, rich and smooth and warm. “Each day, sit quietly and repeat this word, silently to yourself, for at least 20 minutes. When you’re sad, remember your mantra. When you’re scared, remember your mantra. But whatever you do, you must never say this word aloud. You must not share it with anyone. This mantra is yours alone and it holds the key to your happiness and your success in this life.”

I held my breath. I knew this was it. The rest of my life was here, in this room, with God before me, about to tell me my truth.

The maharishi leaned over and whispered in my ear. My mantra. It was so simple. Had I misheard? I asked him to repeat it. He whispered again in my ear. No, I hadn’t misheard. It WAS that simple. I repeated it, silently to myself. I felt at once somber and elated. God had shared a truth with me. Something that was all mine.

I turned and left the great man and the candlelit room full of promise. I floated into the circle on the floor where the other children sat, eyes closed, focusing on their mantras, silently speaking the unspeakable words to themselves, each of them, like me, at the beginning of their journey. A lifetime of happiness was laid out before us with our one precious little word. I sat in this cozy cocoon of a room, repeating my mantra silently to myself, over and over and over again.

Then, a chime sounded, bringing me back. The Golden Angel Lady congratulated us and wished us well and said goodbye. My head was foggy as we left the room and walked back down the hotel’s long corridor. The light in the lobby was startling, but I concentrated on staying with my brother, on not getting lost, and of course, on my mantra and the happy life ahead that God and the Golden Angel Lady had bestowed upon me on this very very important day.

Josh pushed open the heavy glass doors to the outside world. The air was warm and thick. My eyes had to adjust again to the bright daylight. I looked about for our mother, but she wasn’t there. I felt nerves rise in my chest, but then I remembered, I didn’t have to worry. Josh would find her and now I had my mantra to protect me. I looked at the clouds drifting by in the sky above and thought about this incredible day.

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” Josh said.

“What?” I asked.

“Your mantra. What is it? I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I need to keep it for myself. I can never say it out loud or it won’t work.”

“Come on, don’t be such a baby. I’ll tell you mine and you know I wouldn’t do that if it meant it wouldn’t work.”

I thought about it. “I’m not sure. They said never to tell anyone.”

“You’re really not going to tell me? You think it’s a magic word? Don’t be so thick.”

I said nothing.

“Well, you can forget hanging around with me after this. Don’t even be my sister. Just go play with your baby friends.”

Not have Josh to play with? How could that be? Without Josh I was nothing. I had nothing. What would I do all day if I couldn’t be with my brother? Besides, he said he’d tell me his if I told him mine. If he shared his mantra with me, we’d each have twice as much to meditate on. That could mean twice as much happiness for both of us. I took a deep breath. I knew what I had to do. I faced my brother. I looked deep into his eyes. My constant companion.

“Ing,” I said.

I looked at him, waiting for his response, waiting for him to tell me his mantra. But in a flash, he turned and ran. He was heading at full throttle down the sidewalk that ran along the asphalt parking lot. “There’s mom! Let’s go!”

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  • April 28, 2015