Novita Dewi started writing poetry and short stories during her elementary and middle school days. She published in Si Kuncung and Bobo, children magazines, as well as wrote for the children’s columns featured in Kompas and Sinar Harapan (now Suara Pembaruan). She now nurtures her interest in literature by writing articles about literature and translation for scientific journals. Novita is widely published. The short stories translated and published by Dalang Publishing are her first attempts of literary translation.
The Last Mitoni
Sitting alone in the backyard of the house I inherited from my husband, I look at the withered tree. I think my time will come soon. I do not know when it will be, but, sooner or later, the angel of death shall come to unite me with my ancestors. Death is a certainty for everyone, especially for a woman of my age. But, before my time comes, I just want to feel, witness, and bless my children so that they become healthy, honorable souls. I’d like to give them what my ancestors gave to me.
I have given birth to seven daughters and six have given birth to my adorable grandchildren. My youngest daughter, Setyaningsih, has been married for two years and has yet to have children. All my children and grandchildren have received their parents’ blessings in the traditional Javanese way.
When Eka Yuningsih, my eldest daughter, was pregnant with her first child, everyone was happy. When she reached her seventh month of pregnancy, following revered Javanese custom, we, her parents, held a mitoni, a ceremonial celebration to bless the mother and unborn child. We did this also for our other children.
All of my relatives and neighbors came with their children to every celebration. The children enjoyed the entire affair. They crowded into the yard, laughing. Sometimes they came to watch how we poured water, scented with flower petals, over our daughter and unborn grandchild.
I knew for sure that the children craved dawet ayu, a Javanese cold drink made of coconut milk and flavored tapioca balls, and all the food we provided for these celebrations. I allowed the children to make a lot of noise while an orchestra played Javanese music. Sometimes, I pretended to be angry and told them to be quiet and wait in the front yard. I asked them, “Have you brought kereweng with you?” At a mitoni, these roof-tile chips are used as tokens to exchange for dawet ayu and other snacks.
“Yes, we sure have,” the children chanted.
But all my efforts to quiet them were in vain. Nothing but dawet ayu could quiet these noisy little creatures whose stomachs were as wide as the sky and as deep as the sea. And, even though they had poured bowls of dawet ayu into their bellies and stuffed their tummies with snacks, they wanted more. Ah, that’s just the way children are.
Everyone seemed to be in a frenzy. But the flurry of activities made us parents happy. We all knew that the efforts made by relatives and neighbors who had gathered for the event reflected the light and blessings from the sky — blessings that we then bestowed upon my child and the grandchild inside her womb so that, later, they could pass on these blessing to their children and grandchildren in a similar manner. This is the Javanese way.
Back then, in my childhood, I also acted like those cheerful village children when there was a celebration. One held for a prospective mother was no exception. As soon as we heard that there would be a celebration, my kangmas, brother, and I immediately ran happily along the village road to collect shards of roof tile, fighting over them with other children. Later, we would exchange the shards for a glass of dawet ayu and other snacks. My father also allowed us to watch the puppet show afterwards.
Usually, children would find a way to get more dawet ayu. They would line up many times until, finally, the old woman in charge of the dawet table scolded them. “That’s enough!” Frowning, she would add, “Let others have a turn. Don’t keep coming back for more.”
We always loved celebrations of all kinds, without exception. We all knew that through these celebrations our elders showed us how to be grateful and respect our environment, how to revere the land that grows all our needs, and honor Sang Hyang Widi, The Great One, in heaven. Above all, my father said, mitoni is the way Javanese people show love and respect for their life on earth. It is the ability to live a life full of blessings from our parents, who fulfilled the task of protecting the environment for future generations.
Unfortunately, Setyaningsih, my youngest child, thinks a little different. When she finally became pregnant, she refused to celebrate the occasion with a mitoni. She said that the practice was too old-fashioned; it no longer reflected her community and social environment. She said that in Western countries, like America, where she received her education, people do not have traditions like those of the Javanese. She intended to celebrate the rite of passage, but in a different way. A simpler way. She said the celebration was called a baby shower in English. I had never heard the expression before she used it.
“All my friends throw a baby shower, Mom,” Setyaningsih said, trying to convince me.
“What’s the difference?” I said. “Besides, why do you have to be like your friends?”
My daughter hesitated for a moment, then said, “Mom, a mitoni is troublesome, complicated, and absurd.”
“That’s not true,” I said, hurt.
“Of course there is no mitoni over there in America. Every culture has its own traditions.” I looked at my daughter’s clean, smooth face. She was a beautiful woman. Prettier than me. Smarter than me. She had everything that a woman could want. With her money, she shaped her face and body any way she desired.
All of her shapings had made her so beautiful that I wasn’t sure if she really was Setyaningsih, my daughter. All her features seemed changed: the curve of the eyebrows, the shape of the lips, and the nose that had turned pointy. Nothing about her was mine or my husband’s.
I began to realize that change was easily made in this world. Everything would always change. Apart from death, there was no certainty. My daughter, Setyaningsih, had also changed. She was no longer the child I had raised and cared for so that she could grow into a Javanese woman who confidently took care of her own children.
Instead, it seemed that Setyaningsih was fascinated with a world different from her own. Setyaningsih now spoke a language her siblings did not use. She dressed like her friends, the straw-haired noni-noni, young women of Dutch descent.
Her husband was no different. Pramono, a successful businessman who lived mostly in a foreign country, started to have difficulty pronouncing words of our Javanese language. He followed his wife’s footsteps and said to me, “You don’t have to bother preparing for the celebration. Let us handle it ourselves.”
Of my seven daughters, Setyaningsih is the different one. Just as the old saying goes, nothing is perfect. I don’t blame her, especially considering her education that gave her the ability to think differently than most people. I just want her to be herself, a Javanese. To perform a ceremony that has been a tradition of our people for a long time is all I want. I am old and likely to die soon. Even though only God knows when that will happen, I just want — one more time — to feel how beautiful it is to bless my grandchildren, to hold a mitoni with relatives, neighbors, and children who are mischievous but loveable, while I still have time.
Eka Yuningsih has helped to convey all my wishes to Setyaningsih. Yuningsih told me to be patient. Setyaningsih had her own opinions and wanted to make her own plans. True to the spirit of her generation, she wanted to be like someone of another nation.
“Perhaps, your prayers are the most important,” Yuningsih said after she failed to persuade Setyaningsih to change her mind. She added, “Mom, if you continue to force the issue, you will get sick. You have to take care of your health, so you can watch your grandchildren grow.”
“Am I wrong for wanting to bless the womb of my own daughter? Say the prayer no one will hear again after my death?” I saw Yuningsih turn uncertain.
She quietly kissed my hand and said, “Mom, don’t say that.”
I’m sitting in the backyard of the house my husband left me, staring at the bare cotton tree a tree that loses its leaves in the dry season. Listening to a megatruh, a Javanese song that reminds me to be ready to meet the angel of death, I contemplate: Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I am some kind of a willful parent. Maybe I am imposing my own will too much on my children. A parent who is not in sync with the aspirations of the times, oblivious of what her children want. Hmm ….
Between the bare branches of the cotton tree, I see a clouded sky. My sadness is not only a result of me not getting my way. Or, maybe it is. I can’t pretend. But my sadness also comes from the knowledge that my death might mean the death of my ancestral heritage in its very own place of birth. The expiration of the blessings from heaven. Ah, I do hope it won’t. I still hope that Setyaningsih, my beautiful daughter, will come to her senses so I can for the last time bestow my blessings upon my children and grandchildren in this celebration before the angel of death comes to collect me. I do hope so.