Sarah Hepola

Whatever path you choose
or whatever path chooses you

The Tibetan handmade gifts store is right around the corner from my old apartment in NYC. I went inside on my last visit, because my yoga-loving, slightly Buddhist mother had been charmed by this store years ago, and she had a birthday coming up.

“Let me know if I can help you.” The woman behind the counter is small, in her 50s.

I don’t even know what these things on the shelf are. Intricate incense holders, bells, statues of icons I can’t identify.  “I’m looking for a gift for my mom,” I say.

“Does she have one of those?” She picks up a wide metal bowl with engravings on the outside. She runs a small black mallet along the lip and the bowl emits a sound that is otherworldly. Part angels, part spaceship. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. A singing bowl. I thank her and tell it is perfect. We chat as she packs it in newspaper for my flight home.

“Are you married?” she asks.

“I’m not,” I say.

“Ever been married?”

“Never,” I say. I didn’t mean to be a 40-year-old single woman. It just happened, I often say, although that isn’t quite accurate. Choices were made. Priorities were kept. It doesn’t bother me most days, and then some days, I’m like: What the hell?

“I have two daughters like you,” she says. “They’ve never been married.”

“Does that frustrate you?” I ask.

“Oh no,” she says, eyes wide, shaking her head. She explains that she was married at a young age. I can’t remember the age she told me now. Maybe 20. Maybe 18. She says she didn’t know him at the time. He’s a nice man, but still. They came to America soon after they wed, and she cried every night for years. Her eyes mist up at the memory: So much of her life, determined by someone else. She tells me she used to call her mother back home, but she would never let herself cry. “I didn’t want her to know,” she says.

“I understand,” I say. I have tried to protect my mother from painful knowledge, too, the same way my mother has tried to protect me.

“I wanted a different life for my daughters,” she says, handing me the package. Choice. The choice of their own lonely path, or triumphant path — whatever path they choose or whatever path chooses them. “Your mother will love that,” she tells me. And she was right.