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Notes From Boomerang Creek: A remembrance of Faerial Mahmood

Cathy Salter
Cathy Salter

On the first night of October 2020, a “Harvest” full moon shone as bright as a giant lantern that had broken free from its earthly bonds. The next morning as Kit and I set out on our morning walk, the brilliance of the moon and stars began to fade with the approaching dawn. At that moment, time fell backward to a journey Kit and I made 18 years ago to celebrate the life of his niece Faerial Mahmood — daughter of his eldest sister, Kate. What follows is that remembrance.

Sitting in the Bradley Field air terminal as we prepare to fly home, there’s finally time to reflect on all that has happened over the past two days. I’m holding a bouquet of long-stemmed pink roses pulled from the rich abundance that recently filled the Mt. Carmel Congregational Church in Hamden, Conn. My heart is full.

A stone at the entrance to the Bradley terminal dates the structure. “1951,” I’d pointed out to Kit as we entered the building, “is the same year Faer was born in Rawalpindi.” The terminal, we learn from a security agent, now serves only American flights and will soon be torn down. I want to argue that 52 years is hardly old enough for a building to be condemned or a young woman filled with life to die.

As we approach our gate, Faerial’s roses begin to work their magic. The pre-flight tension that often fills airport lounges seems to lift. Each time I make eye contact with a passenger or stewardess, a smile greets me as though I’m a bride about to begin a new phase of life. How can I tell them the roses are funereal? I won’t, I decide, just as Faerial never let on that she knew she was dying.

Rather, I would like them to know that her life’s story is a beautiful one that began Aug. 28, 1951 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. She was the stepdaughter of Katharine Salter Mahmood, wife of the late Sayed Mahmood, a Pakistani military officer. Faerial was a devoted older sister to Kashya Hildebrand and three brothers — Danny, Timur, and Tariq. More recently, she was the much-loved Auntie Petunia of a 3-year-old niece Natalia who she affectionately called Sweet Pea.

Following her Pakistani father’s death in the mid-1960s, Faerial arrived with her American stepmother, Kate, and four siblings to begin life anew in Hamden, Conn. For Kashya, Timur and Danny, Faerial became a second mother. For Kate, she remained a life-long companion and devoted daughter, sharing tea and biscuits early in the morning as had been their custom in their earlier life in Pakistan. As her younger sister and brothers grew into their new surroundings, Faerial saw to it that candles were always burning at meals, especially on occasions when her Pakistani chicken curry was being served.

Faer’s shared her Pakistani Chicken Curry recipe with me when I first met her in the summer of 1977. Cooking from memory, she made it with a dash of this and a pinch of that, guaranteeing that the outcome was always a slightly new experience. What never changed was its sensory impact on everyone who entered the kitchen as the pieces of chicken slowly simmered in ground cumin, turmeric and cardamom until the meat fell away from the bones.

On that first visit to the Mahmood homestead that Kate called Halcyon, I noticed Faerial’s citizenship certificate hanging on a wall in the kitchen. With twigs and buttons and fabric, a family friend had made a stick figure of a girl and glued it to a poem that had been tucked into the frame with Faerial’s citizenship certificate.

At the visitation before her funeral, the certificate and poem — now brown with age — were displayed along with photographic collages from Faer’s life. Nearby there was an enormous bouquet of 52 ivory white roses interspersed with silver dollar eucalyptus leaves, a small basket of petunias and sweetpeas, and bodacious bouquets of pink roses. The poem left us all smiling through tears—

“There once was a girl named Faer,

Whose skinny legs were her worst nightmare;

But she could cook to a tee,

And a nurse she would be,

Now she’s as American as pie, I declare!”

Indeed, Faerial did become a nurse, and had a career at Yale New Haven Hospital that spanned three decades. “An accomplished caregiver,” her obituary reads, “she will be best remembered for her colorful, vibrant character and the valiant and unassuming way she met with her two-year bout with cancer. Her unique and charming presence will be missed by all who knew her.”

Following Faerial’s funeral service, family and friends plucked armfuls of roses from the bouquets that surrounded her pewter urn and drove to Spruce Bank Road where Faer and her mother Kate loved to walk. There, along a quiet stream bank lined with ancient oaks and native spruces, her ashes were scattered with roses into the clear, fast moving waters at a bend in the creek.

Home again, a votive candle burns next to a vase of Faerial’s pink roses. And, as if to lift our spirits, October has arrived with brilliant morning light following a night of cold September rain.

Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come. (Rabindranath Tagore)

Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.