A memsaab in the making


I haven’t watched any films in the past week or so because I’ve been busy scanning old family photos. It’s been on my to-do list forever (or would be if I had one). A lot of the photos are faded and discolored (my baby pictures are getting close to 50 years old! *yikes*) and I want to preserve them before they get worse. I rant on about neglected Hindi cinema history so I’d best not neglect my own! Of course it may not be of much interest to most of you (although there is something strangely compelling about family albums, isn’t there?) so forgive me for this small digression (I won’t be offended if you skip it altogether).

One of the nice things about a lot of these pictures is that my mother sent them off to my grandparents, and wrote notes on the back so they would know what they were looking at. I grew up in Rhodesia (which is Zimbabwe nowadays, and a sad sad place) because my parents were teachers working for the United Methodist Mission Board. My grandparents lived in the US and only saw us when we came every few years on furlough. Travel was very expensive and time-consuming back then! (We always flew BOAC, and I had a little flight attendant pin, and a captain’s log and everything! No clue where all that is now, but probably Mom threw it away. She always loves to throw things away.)

She also has a certain gift with words on occasion, so I’m sharing her commentary where applicable.


(Actually, my dad—a man of far fewer words than my mom—wrote on the back of this one: “Greta and Gloria.”)

My dad is ill now, in the middle stages of dementia, and it’s hard to see a man who was always reading, studying, teaching—who knew everything it seemed—struggling to find words, or meaning, or his walker (he refuses to get back in the wheelchair!). This photo, and the note on the back, brought tears to my eyes.


Mom wrote:

I’m never sure which one is happiest.

The one below was taken when I was baptized by Bishop Dodge (holding me). I crack up every time I see it at how completely dead asleep and limp I am. It may have been the first time I fell asleep in church, but it certainly was not the last.


Here I think I look like some sort of little gangster-in-the-making. If there were a bubble above my huge bald pate it would say “Why, I oughta!…”


Our favorite stroller to survey the world from and those eyes miss very little.

The halcyon years of being the center of the universe didn’t last long. Here I am being lulled into a false sense of having any say in anything having to do with my little brother Dave being born.


My mother had clearly not started nagging me to keep my legs together yet.

Gotta admit, though, the little guy was cute.


Taken on our front porch. Before puppy got sick. Greta gets that look on her face now when she sees the camera. David just enjoys life.

I’m guessing the puppy didn’t make it (I’m also betting it was already sick, judging from the way it let me plop it face down on my lap). Many of our childhood pets didn’t get very old. Hey—we lived in the African wilderness!


Who wants expensive toys? Just give us the grocery box!

We played with cardboard boxes for years. When we couldn’t both fit in the same one any more we made trains and my sister, after she arrived, was always the caboose.


One of our favorite pastimes. Greta also likes to draw circles and more circles. David would just as soon color the walls.

(Look at my blog head above. Scary, na?)


1964. Mommy’s little helpers (?) In our kitchen. A sink for each one.

I love my mother’s question mark after “little helpers”…that is signature Mom. She could never quite understand why little toddler fingers didn’t do the job as well as her grown-up ones. The main thing I remember about this kitchen is that it was painted bright turquoise. BRIGHT.


…This is our front lane. Needless to say – we filled in this hole with dirt after this. They looked like this all the time at Kitwe.

This was taken in Kitwe (Zambia).


My sister made her appearance in 1966. She makes her way onto these pages too, now that she lives close by and is ever willing to watch fillums with me.


Christmas morn 1966. Each kid had a sock. Marta already opened hers and the other two were busy. Then next was breakfast. The dress I have on was one I had just made. This is so typical of David & Greta sitting together. Usually they are talking too.

So sweet! We still talk a lot when we get together. And laugh even more.

Dave grew up to be a genius as well as one of the kindest, funniest, most generous people I know. Here he is in this weekend’s New York Times Sunday edition: For Virtual Racers, A League Of Their Own (about his auto-racing simulation). The quote in the article that sums him up the best is when he talks about improvements he would like to make to the site:

“We’d like to add the ability to cook your clutch,” Mr. Kaemmer said, “or break some gears.”

That’s my bro!

I believe he was the instigator of this activity as well:


Mom and Dad were pretty mad when we dug this hole in our drive, right where guests were supposed to park (note the presence of the cardboard box). One of them took a photo, though, before they made us fill it back in.

So there you have it: the childhood of the Memsaab, replete with a lot of mud and dirt, short-lived pets, bad haircuts, cardboard boxes and usurping siblings.

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86 Comments to “A memsaab in the making”

  1. How wonderful! I wish all the blogs I visit would do a day of old family photos, it is so much fun to see and learn more about the people we interact with via the internet…and those pics of yours, Greta, warmed my heart, and I loved the inclusion of your mom (and dad’s) written remarks.

    Thank you for sharing this!!

    • So does that mean Pedro’s parents will be making an appearance? Or yours? :-) I’m glad you liked it. I spent a couple of days wrapped in a warm fuzzy feeling. Am so lucky to have been born into my family…we didn’t have much money, but we had a lot of FUN, and so many rich experiences.

  2. aww.. this was one of the most beautiful posts ever! No, scratch that, this was THE most beautiful entry of this blog. i was wishing it wouldn’t end so soon =(

    ps1: yes, i did scroll up to see the “circles”. lolz

    ps2: your mom is soo sweet! her “I’m never sure which one is happiest” made me tear up a bit too! i think because it reminded me of my own childhood days with me & my dad.

  3. I agree with Ranya. Definitely the most beautiful post!! Your childhood also seems very beautiful, if you can understand why I’m describing it as such.

    Who needs more than cardboard boxes and dirt, anyways? ;) Sometimes I feel like kids nowadays have so much, but are still missing out on so much more…

    • Exactly! We had a lot of fun with dirt and boxes. Don’t think we needed anything more. And I have great memories of my childhood, until I hit adolescence in the mid-70s in Indiana. If you’ve ever seen “That 70s Show” you will understand :)))

  4. I’m so glad to hear that I’m not the only mother who throws away her child’s stuff. Call me unsentimental but I can only take so many “paintings” of swiggly lines and blobs of paint.:-D

    And cardboard boxes are the BEST! My little boy climbed into one the other day and asked to be shipped to his Nana & Nani – one of these days I’m going to take him up on his offer!8-D

    Lovely post…makes me want to go sit in a corner with a M.M. Kaye mystery novel and dream about Africa or India…

    • Ha ha! My mother was MERCILESS. Although having said that, she did keep some stuff that surprises me still when I find it. Love your son in his box asking to be shipped off. Do poke some air holes in it before you do it :)

      I am sure that a large part of my feeling really happy in India is because it resonates with some of my childhood memories.

  5. Lovely. The pictures are simply precious.

    I used to love cardboard boxes as well. In fact I collected empty matchboxes and made stuff out of them. Even Now, my heart breaks when I have to throw out shoe boxes.

  6. Ooh lovely pictures and you were such a purty bebeh! I guess we belong to the same continent- I grew up in Nigeria :)

  7. So very lovely. When one just reads the papers/watch movies you do tend to forget that most people have fantastic families and childhoods and lots of love! Yours looks just so happy :))

    We were into sand and mud ourselves…so appreciate your holes!

    I never threw away any box that came with a toy for my kids: they got a whole lot of fun out of it before it broke down under the strain.

    Weird about those circles…

    • Interestingly, my sister (who is doing her Master’s in Fine Art) is painting dots these days. Hmmm.

      My brother and I even made mud pies and ate them. I honestly think that I never get sick in India, despite being much less paranoid than people would like, because of all those African antibodies I ingested as a child.

  8. Hi Memsaab,

    hope you don’t mind me saying, but when I saw that 1st pic of your parents I thought your mum was a very young Billie Jean King.

    I have also discovered another thing we have in common apart from a love of Hindi Films – the Mark I Cortina !

    That was our 1st car back in England in the late ’60’s.

    Asli Jat

    • AJ you are right! I never thought of Mom’s resemblance to Billie Jean King, but she does look like her, at least in the early 60s :)

      We had that Cortina forever. I remember sitting in it for hours :))) It had a blue stripe on the side too as I recall.

  9. Lovely pictures and lovely write up. Indeed this is the best post of the blog.

    When I watched the fist photo, it was like “back to the future” pt I where the hero goes from 1980s into 1950s and watches his parents. The first picture shows your parents looking so much like a typical 1950s couple with the 1950s hairstyle and dresses. When I watched the baby in her mom’s arms, I immediately recognised it as Greta. That was before I had looked at the title of the post carefully.

    I can see that you have got your ear to ear smile from your mom. Also, your mom then looked quite like you.

    You going to sleep in the arms of the Bishop is hilarious. Bishop and mom look amused but the father looks embarrased.

    Playing with mud and being taken to task by the parents- so the world is a small place after all.

    I must say that there are not too many parents who are careful enough to have a camera ready to click pictures like these. And there are not too many parents who would be sentimental enough to keep old memorablia intact for future reference. That way it is so nice of your parents to take these lovely pictures and reatined them. The pictures certainly speak volumes about a happy a close family.

    Discussing old movies, old songs etc ( that you as well as I do), I have realised that every person has about 30-40 years in this world when he is at his prime. 30-40 years ago our parents were chronologically in exactly the same stages in their lives in which we find ourselves today. 30-40 years from now, our kids will be in the same stage in which we are there today. This cycle will continue.

    Ability to look back into the past with the help of photographs and other such memorablia is a lovely convenience that humankind did not always have. I thank you a lot for this lovely post full of nostalgia. I absolutely loved going through this post and the photos. Just wonderful.

    • I realize reading your comment that I didn’t include any photo of my dad smiling—I actually have HIS smile, it’s even wider than my mother’s. My siblings have it too. I do look very much like my mother now though.

      I think the reason so many of these photos were taken and have survived is because of the distance between us and my mom’s family—she was diligent about writing to her mother (as she likes to remind me) and sent many pictures etc. with anecdotes on the back of them. My grandmother saved them, and I snagged a lot of them when she passed away.

      Although when Gemma was a puppy I took so many photos of her that one day when I took my film to the developer, the guy behind the counter said: “Hey! 36 more pictures of your dog?!” I guess I come by that honestly :-D

  10. I adore all your pictures – from Mommy’s little helpers (you’re looking especially cute there!) to the grubby twosome in that lane in Kitwe. Just looking at your photos gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling! I now have an idiotic grin on my face and a resolve that someday I’m going to dig out my old photos and have a look at them again!

    Thank you. Loved that.

    • I gave my mother some grief about the question mark last night on the phone. She was laughing. One of her constant refrains was: “If you want something done right, do it yourself!” (while redoing whatever it was we had done for her).

      I’m going to be visiting them in a few weeks and my dad wants to go through his old photos while he still has some remnants of memory to try and figure out who/when/what. I’m looking forward to it :)

  11. Love this! My mom once told my brother something like “When we were growing up, we used to have hours of fun with just a cardboard box!” He teased her mercilessly, and everytime we’d see one lying around in the trash or something, he’d elbow her and ask if it brought back memories. I always knew she couldn’t be the only one…

    This was so much fun–more more more!!!

  12. Parents during their childhood photos would be most welcome! What fun that would be to see.

    I grew up in the 70s also, Greta…so I know EXACTLY what you mean! Oof, the 80s were not any better. Talk about scary pictures.

    • Be careful what you ask for, LOL. My mom had such an “Americana” childhood—on a farm in Ohio.

      The 80s were bad too, I agree, but at least adolescence was over (at least for me)…but I just think of it as a period of shoulder pads and big hair (although I never got on board the big hair thing).

  13. Really cute! I have a similar album in my Facebook profile called ‘Sepia’ (it’s a tad monotonous though – I am an only child). And now I know your name!

  14. What lovely pictures!!!! I treasure all the old family pictures that I have and am also in the long process of scanning everything.

    Through reading your blog, I already felt like I knew you but this really gives another dimension to that knowledge. It puts another perspective to your writing. It’s wonderful that you are brave enough to share this with the world.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks Suzanne, for both your sweet comments :) Aren’t we lucky to be able to scan them? And as Atul pointed out, that we even have them to scan? I’m glad people have enjoyed reading this, I just felt like wallowing for a bit. Having a blog is so very self-indulgent!!!

  15. Love all these pictures – they are so cute, AND such beautiful windows into the past. More such pictures, please! The first picture is of your Dad smiling, and I agree that you inherited his smile.

    And you were so lucky to be allowed to play in the dirt (kiddie heaven)! I cant remember a single instance of that from my childhood – but then we lived in urban jungles, for the most part, with no gardens or trees in our backyard. Our play usually consisted of making a “house” in a tent of sheets slung over chairs and wearing Mom’s discarded dupattas as “saree”!

    • Allowed to play in the dirt? We were FORCED to play in the dirt. “Go outside and play!” my mom would yell when we got on her nerves (usually by 8:30 am).

      Then she’d yell at us when we came in all dirty. I am sort of joking (not really) but we were grubby little urchins. Never wore shoes either.

  16. Loved this post and the pics within. The pic of you with your dad and your mom’s caption is wonderful.

    Your post has inspired me to take up a scanning project of my own now. Not too many pics of us as kids though..still whatever there are should be good.

    Thanks for sharing ;)

    • Hooray!!! I had way more fun than I had imagined when I started actually scanning. Don’t know why I procrastinated for so long! I was very pleasantly surprised to find all my Mom’s notes on the backs of many photos, since they’d been in an album I didn’t know they were there.

  17. Lovely pictures and wonderful comments. God bless your family.

  18. What an amazingly heart-warming post this is from you, Greta !
    It, together with the one you wrote a while ago about your mom describing her experience with your dad in a wheelchair, is really wonderfully special !
    You seem to have had a lot of good and loving times in your childhood, especially with your parents and siblings.
    I think this explains, to some extent at least, why you have grown up into a warm and friendly person. :-)

    Although not quite having such an international African experience, I consider myself lucky too to have had a wonderful childhood too.
    Grew up in verdant surroundings with loving siblings and parents – would not trade that for anything !!!
    Have very few pics of those times though. (:

    Was fantastic to read about your childhood days, Greta.
    The pics – and comments – are lovely too. Thanks for sharing with all of us.
    Your parents deserve a lot of credit for you – tell your parents I said that. :-)

    • I am so pleased (and not surprised given how supportive you guys always are) that you’ve enjoyed my trip down memory lane (unpaved). I will tell my parents what you said (they already know it though!) :-) Glad yours was a happy one too—maybe you can write about it one of these days on your blog!

  19. Lovely, heartwarming! I was not wrong in telling you some time back that when you need a pick-me-upper hie off to Memsaab’s :-)

    Clearly, that smile (from picture 3, with your dad, when you were a tot of a few months?) was something you were born with and it hasn’t changed! I echo Raja–kudos to your parents. And hee on ‘cooking the clutch’ :-D But why have you been modest about your artistic skills? Drawing circles was just the start.

  20. Splendid post, Memsaab! Spent some great times in my childhood in Tanzania and Kenya, so at least we have that connection (close enough, LOL!). :)

    If you were asked to give this post some music, which piece would you choose?

  21. This is an interesting post! And it is interesting that you grew up in Rhodesia. Are you familiar with the writer Doris Lessing? (When I was reading about your childhood in Rhodesia, that’s the first thing I thought about. But Doris was an influence on my writing sometime back…)

    I understand completely what you mean about your father. I’ve felt about the same since my father had his stroke a dozen years ago.

    Ditto Bollyviewer’s comment about the “urban jungle.” I can say a similar thing about my childhood in The Bronx – minus the part about the dupattas. :)

    • Yes, I know Doris Lessing :) Love her books! I’m sorry about your father :( Getting old is no picnic. I don’t think I want to do it (some would say: too late!)…

      LOL@lack of dupattas. You are making up for lost time now, with your penchant for old Indian film dancing and music!

  22. Very How did you manage to dig that deep a hole in that last screen cap. Thats a lot of work!!

    I am also happy to see that there actually is a stage in the life of a woman when she doesnt care that much for shoes!

    • It took quite a while to dig that hole. It’s a commentary on how little supervision we had while playing outdoors (it was a simpler time, I guess).

      I still don’t care that much for shoes! And still prefer being barefoot over anything else :)

  23. The comments on this post are so lovely too!

    Bollyviewer: We lived in the city but like memsaab, were always “sent out to play”, many times in empty plots of land in the neighbourhood. I think all that sand we tunneled through was from when someone was constructing something, a “gadda” would come and dump some for the mortar. Someone was always building something.

    I have photos of my mum even as a baby and Dad had quite a few but his were all lost in some incident.

    A few years ago, on my parents 40th wedding anniversary, my sisters took an old photograph of my parents taken a few months into their marriage and then “commissioned” a painting from an amateur painter who works in the office.

    My mum happened came upon them unexpectedly when they were trying to hide it. And her comment,”Who are those? Thats a very handsome sardar!” (Bahut sohna sardar hai!)

    • I am loving the comments, always do though :)

      LOL@your mom still thinking your dad is bahut sohna! That’s a good sign even if she didn’t quite recognize him :D

  24. Greta! That is the cutest thing I’ve seen on the internets in a long time! And I go surfing for kitty photos!

    This reminds me that I need to scan old photographs myself although none of mine looks this amazing. There are some old ones of my mother that do look great though. Grrr, why did they invent color in time to ruin my photos?

    I would probably get along really well with your clutter-free mother – maybe we could switch?! And I don’t blame your father for refusing to get in that wheelchair of doom.

    • Amrita, really? Kitty photos? :D

      Your mother is probably closer to my age than you are, LOL! Guess there was some benefit to childhood in the dark ages. I’d love to see your family photos—I always think when I read posts about your family how similar we all are! The clutter thing seems to skip every other generation, doesn’t it? My sister and I are both highly tolerant of it (my brother has a wife to control whatever penchant he would otherwise have).

  25. Memsaab,

    Yes, it was quite good she didn’t put her foot in it…

  26. aww. Kid brother IS a genius. Must have got it from his father. :)

  27. Aww..lovely photos memsaab! You had such a fun family – I remember hours pf playing in the dirt (grew up in Bangalore in the 70s, when it was a peaceful, cool place!), someone usually had to come hunt for us at the end of the dat along the street – those days of no supervision seem so distant now!


  28. I adore the pictures, and the commentary! Your dad looks absolutely delighted with you… How lovely to be the center of the universe, even for a little while. :-)

  29. Just returned here after a gap of nearly a week to find this here!!!!

    I think this is just what we need. Pictures from the 50s and 60s. :-)
    In the second picture (the first black and white picture) you resemble your mom very much (as seen in a picture of yours here).
    The comments are lovely and I’ve enjoyed reading this post very very much.

    The cardboard box reminds me of my childhood toys, which were normally stones and grass (we were perpetually cooking grass on/in stone pots :-D

    • Hope you had a lovely holiday (if you were off celebrating Diwali) :) I do look very much like my Mom now, although for a long time everyone said I resembled Dad. The comments are lovely, I agree—they almost always are the best part of any post on here!

      • dhanno says: i love this article. the picture of you and your dad got me emotional too as im the emotional types. but i love all the pictures and im sure i want to read you some more.

        banno: I came back too from Diwali holidays, really, really glad I didn’t miss this post. What lovely pictures. Felt like you were back in India, and we were having a long chat in the afternoon.

        • Awwww! Dhanno I am very happy to hear from you!! Do stop by more and let me know how you are doing. Hope to see you again soon!

          Banno: Happy Diwali to all of you, and I wish I were hanging out with you having a long chat :) We will again, definitely though… (Where are the photos Teja promised to email to me, hmmm???) :D

  30. Such cute photos!
    And your head doesn’t look big it looks beautiful.
    Your photos look like the ones, which middle class families in india hung in their homes in form of posters, with some meaningful quotes below it!

    Give us more!

  31. Such an adorable and warm post, I enjoyed reading this, didn’t know you grew up in Africa at all, the song below totally fits the 2nd & 3rd pic where your dad is holding you and you’re smiling joyously

    Lots of ishq

    • Oh YES. I’d forgotten about this song (I don’t really love Aradhana, I have to admit). It’s such a lovely parent-child song…thanks for reminding me of it!

  32. This was a very sweet article. Great pictures too. Sadly, I know what it’s like to have a relative go through dementia. My great grandmother used to be the adult in my family who always had to spank me for being evil (because frankly…I was rather a little satan’s spawn as a child) and I regret now all the times I made her life miserable, seeing her gradually fall apart. Especially because she might have been a disciplinarian, but she also always cut the crusts off my sandwiches, and was for a good deal of time the only adult who would give me the time of day as a child.

    Again, beautiful pictures. Sweet stories.

    • LOL@Satan’s spawn! She sounds like my mother actually—the strict disciplinarian, but we knew she loved us even when we drove her nuts and she yelled at us, which was all the time. But it is hard to see someone lose his/her mind, essentially. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through it too. I guess since people are living so much longer now it’s going to be much more common…

  33. Absolutely lovely post! Really enjoyed looking at those photographs. Growing up in Rhodesia must’ve been fun, although I daresay it’s no longer much fun for people living there.

    Awaiting the next installments: Memsaab’s Adolescent Years, Memsaab’s Misspent Youth… :-)

    • Saddened to hear about your dad. It can’t be easy, watching someone go like that.

    • I wouldn’t trade my childhood for the world :) Thanks re: Dad…it is hard sometimes, but he and my Mom both have great senses of humor and we all laugh a lot together.

      Maybe there will be a misspent youth post, but nobody needs to see the adolescent years, and I don’t want to think about them! :D

  34. memsaab
    October 21, 2009 at 8:47 am
    I am loving the comments,

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