Monday, April 1, 2013
Dinner with Mrs. Pea
Having driven out of Chiang Mai, we arrived in an area of cultivated fields and small rural homes, along with some grander establishments that constituted a sort of very dilute suburbia. When we turned into Mrs. Pea’s drive, we were greeted by a two-year-old ambassador on the lookout for guests and then by Mrs. Pea herself. Her welcome was gracious indeed, warm yet aristocratic; her cordiality was sufficiently celebrated that she was familiarly known as “Sweet Pea” among her educated, English-speaking friends.
Her home was designed following the affluent variant of domestic Thai architecture. The rambling place was a series of rooms connected by spacious areas too large and irregular to be called hallways. Each child, though hers were now married or away at university, had a room. These living quarters were on stilts, creating a first floor, in this case walled in but undivided with the kitchen facilities in one corner.
She offered miang kham, an appetizer of small morsels – coconut, peanuts, possibly some bits of fish or shrimp, tiny fragments of ginger, lime and peppers which the diner wraps in a wild betel leaf and tops with a lime/fish sauce. “We used to have such a healthy diet, even for snacks” she lamented, “but dishes like this are less popular these days.” I recalled that she had asked that we not give her grandchild a lollipop. In this account of a dinner, I find myself omitting the dinner. I could hardly detail the fabulous meal she laid out: meat and seafood curries, vegetable dishes galore, a few legumes, rice, noodles, desserts.
With the well-being of a full belly, I headed upstairs to the home’s main floor. Mrs. Pea pointed out the shrine room with incense burning for the Buddha images. The room was empty except for the altar and, in an opposite corner, a cushion and a heap of books and magazines. “I like to go there to read,” she said. “It’s so peaceful.”
She lifted a small container from the altar. It was, she said, her great-grandfather’s ashes. He had been prison administrator at a time when he owed his appointment directly to the king who then gave him the name Unlimited Punishment, which must have impressed both him and the populace. She then displayed several long and sharp swords which doubtless made an impression beyond that of the appellation alone. I felt as though I were in the home of the descendant, at any rate, of a Lord High Executioner nearly as fabulous as Ko-Ko.
It was a dark night, the stars sharp and intense. Mrs. Pea had provided the party with a dozen or so sky lanterns (khom loi), paper structures with a flame attached to the bottom, burning wads of paraffin-soaked toilet paper and providing hot air, causing the boxy rice-paper lantern to float slowly aloft. In northern Thailand, they were originally a sort of offering to acquire Buddhist merit, but their enchanting beauty led to wider use. They are still used to envision one’s anxieties and cares wafting into the distance and disappearing. As they moved skyward, our lanterns looked now like a sort of drifting constellation, now like a school of luminous sea creatures in a lagoon of the mind. There was little wind, only enough to create a fascinating edge of uncertainty as the lights went up and up, just barely visible fifteen minutes after they had been released. After the ritual, it was difficult to believe that any viewer had not shed a worry or two at the least.