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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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December 2009 Archives

Aunt Helen's Scarf

In this season of gifts, I am hearkening back to another December and the unexpected gift it brought.

It's just a scarf - a square of heavy, cream-colored silk, splashed with pastel flowers and big enough to serve as anything from a headscarf to a shawl. I wouldn't have bought it for myself, but it's something I treasure.

It belonged to my well-traveled Aunt Helen, and it came to me when her husband, my even-more-well-traveled Uncle Louis, died a few years ago. Helen had been gone a long time by then.

The scarf was the only item of her clothing that my uncle, not normally a nostalgic man, had kept after her death. "He would want you to have it,'' my cousin Mark said, handing it to me soon after Louis's funeral.

I recognized it on sight. The scarf had been one of Aunt Helen's trademarks, like her turquoise and silver Indian jewelry and the big hardbound journals she was always writing in - the same kind I now buy for myself.

Helen and Louis were not just my favorite aunt and uncle - they were heroes to me as I grew up - even though I was a little afraid of them because they knew so much and had been to so many wonderful places.

Both were military veterans who had met and married soon after World War II, when they were college instructors in North Dakota - she in English literature, he in American history. My cousin was their only child.

I saw them only once or twice a year, and there were years I never saw them at all, because Louis's teaching career often took them abroad to live. They spent a year in Helsinki, when my cousin was little; another in Calcutta, another in England.

Helen took the cream-colored scarf to those places and many in between, but the clearest image I have of her is a snapshot taken on their sabbatical in Finland. She is standing at the rail of a ship, smiling at the camera, while Louis takes the picture. She wears a well-tailored brown tweed suit - and that scarf spilling softly around her shoulders like whipped cream.

Growing up, I longed for a life like theirs, and becoming a travel writer was my own version of it. Once our paths actually crossed overseas. Louis was teaching in what was then still called Leningrad, and I stopped to see them before I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad across the Soviet Union.

We sat in their apartment near the Neva River, drinking tea and talking - carefully, because they knew their rooms were bugged - about ideas, cultural differences, politics, as if we were equals. To me, it felt like graduation.

Unlike my uncle, I am nostalgic, and I usually sequester family mementos in drawers and closets. But doing that to Helen's scarf didn't feel right. It had spent its life on the road, and I thought it deserved to continue. So I tucked it into my travel gear, as a good luck charm. Perhaps she had done the same.

It came to my rescue on my very next trip. I was on my way to Nepal, with a brief stopover in Bahrain, a country I'd never seen.

Bahrain is tiny, and with an efficient guide you can hit its highlights in a day. My guide, however, kept getting lost, so it was nearly dark when we got back to Manama, Bahrain's capital, and stopped to see its crown jewel, the Grand Mosque.

Don't worry, my guide said, it is open till 5 p.m.

Bahrain is one of the more open Muslim countries, but I didn't want to enter the mosque bare-headed. I got out Aunt Helen's scarf, folded it into a large kerchief and tied it under my chin. It was still big enough to cover my hair and ripple down onto my shoulders.

The guide and I kicked off our shoes and walked quietly into the carpeted foyer, where we were immediately stopped by a uniformed young guard who pointed sternly to a sign by the entrance:

The mosque had closed to tourists at 4.

"Ask him if I can come in anyway, just for a moment,'' I whispered to my guide. "Tell him how I have to leave tomorrow morning, and this is my only chance.''

As my guide translated, I noticed that the guard was watching me, and his eyes rested on the scarf. I was aware by then that it resembled a hejab - the head covering that traditional Muslim women wear.

Then the guard took pity on us and went deep into the building to ask permission. He came back smiling and beckoned me into the mosque's soaring, jewel-like prayer hall, its floor spread with carpets, its ceiling ablaze with chandeliers.

That would have been enough, but then he told me I could take pictures. I hadn't expected that, hadn't even thought it would be allowed. I took one, feeling uncomfortable. Take more, he said, grinning now, and I obeyed.

But I didn't need more photos to remember this moment. It was pure serendipity, and I credit not just the guard's hospitality, but the power of Aunt Helen's scarf - as it embarked on its traveling life once more.