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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

How Stardew Valley Bridged a Connection to My Grandfather

Sometime around September 2019, my boyfriend was trying to convince me to do something I had no interest in: learn to play video games. To be polite, I took the Nintendo Switch controller from his hands and, for the next several hours, snapped with considerable anger whenever I forgot the difference between A, B, X, and Y, or the godforsaken purposes of ZL and ZR. I have made a concerted and largely successful effort to stay away from pursuits that require hand-eye coordination in all my years.

In high school, I hid from the ball during soccer scrimmages. I developed a reputation during college sessions of Mario Kart with friends for picking up the controller and immediately driving my car into a ditch. Everyone else raced through valleys and mountains and wacky cities while I stabbed the controller with impotent rage.

My boyfriend, however, is smart. The game he’d chosen for me to play was Stardew Valley, an appealingly structured game ideal for neurotic, anxious completionists. The player’s avatar inherits a farm in Pelican Town from their deceased grandfather, and in addition to farming a variety of crops, they can fight monsters in the mines, restart an abandoned bus service to the Calico Desert, and revitalize a dilapidated community center through various tasks.

I liked watering my digital parsnips, I enjoyed angering Mayor Lewis, I loved my electronic cows and sheep and chickens and goats (whom I named for various figures in leftist history, like Karl Marx the goat and Trotsky the cow). I derived great pleasure in plopping fruits and vegetables into preserves jars and getting jam and pickles. As a committed communist, I also liked the game’s focus on fighting a corporation known as Joja Mart; if the player rebuilds the community center and chooses to side against Joja, Pierre’s General Store can banish corporate goon Morris and his top hat from the Valley forever.

But because of my terrible hand-eye coordination, my learning curve was incredibly steep. So instead of memorizing what all the controller buttons were, I simply memorized what they did. Like lots of people, I died in the mines quite a bit, and rage-quit the game dozens of times overfishing. I’d angrily hand my boyfriend the controller if I was trying to fish, nearly in tears, enraged by how stupid the game made me feel. But I didn’t give up.

I’m an expert fisherwoman now. I can complete the community center tasks within Fall of Year 2. I’ve created games in all varieties of available farms (the fishing-rich and foraging types are my favorites), and the most recent update was issued to Switch right as I quit my job. With great delight I explored Ginger Island, though I almost rage-quit when finding those goddamn Golden Walnuts proved tricky. Still, as before, I didn’t give up. Mining on Ginger Island is occasionally frustrating, but creator Eric Barone’s commitment to giving the game repeat value is, I think, wholly successful. The game is a comfortable bed and I am Goldilocks. Just last month, when my boyfriend picked up the game again, I was giving him pointers on how to play.


Of course, I’m not the only person for whom an ordinary activity gained brand-new context during the lockdown. Millions of people learned to cook and/or bake for the first time, causing the Great All-Purpose Flour Shortage of 2020. My mother, noticing my fervent attachment to Stardew Valley, asked why I didn’t help her in the garden with the same tasks I was performing in the game. I couldn’t argue with this logic. She was impressed with my arm strength and my willingness to do anything that didn’t involve reading the news. I built her a pollinator garden, full of native plants adored by bees and butterflies. I grew herbs and attempted to grow vegetables from seed. I researched non-industrial pest control and tracked fertilizer prices. I showed my mother how to spray her plants with neem oil to ward off bugs. I even ordered live ladybugs! Releasing them into the yard was a hoot, but despite my best efforts to maintain an ideal environment, they fluttered off after killing all the pesky insects.

Cooking and baking are not new pursuits for me. While everyone else was making a cake for the first time, my boyfriend and I made fresh pasta, using the starchy water in bread dough the day after. My depression, ever-present, worsened, and I randomly burst into tears at least once a day, without any provocation.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I related activities in Stardew Valley to rhythms and loved ones in my life. Growing different flowers each season was reminiscent of waking on Sunday mornings and watching, sleepy-eyed, as my grandfather repotted his beloved tropical plants on the balcony of our flat in New Delhi. Giving gifts to Pelican Town residents was all very nice but what the NPCs really loved was cooked food items—this took me back to the volley of compliments for my grandparents’ cooking at any meal they hosted for friends. To this day there is no match for their cooking—performed not as a chore but as a joy, without measuring cups or spoons or cookbooks—although my parents come damn close.

From the day of my birth, and my brother’s a year later, my grandparents raised us while our parents worked. My grandfather taught me to read, my grandmother told us stories as we settled down for afternoon naps, they both taught me how to eat with my right hand. They taught me how to locate and remove whisper-thin fish bones both on my plate and from my mouth. Eventually, we left them too: by moving to America in 2000. And in the years since, I’d seen my grandparents only a handful of times: two separate trips in 2003 and 2004, when they stayed with us in Texas; and a trip to India in 2006. After that, I’d had neither the money nor the time to visit.

On Thanksgiving 2020, my boyfriend and I had just cleared the kitchen after my mom celebrated the holiday with us and went home. We were watching The Great British Baking Show when the phone rang. It was my mother, telling me not that she had reached home safely, but that my grandfather was dead.

Dadu was like the Gulmohar tree that towers over our New Delhi flat. Tall, strong, long arms, capable of providing shade and shelter for birds and humans alike. The tree was planted when my family moved in, to share three bedrooms amongst seven people, sometime after I was born in 1990. The Gulmohar became a neighborhood landmark—“see if you can find parking under the Balials’ tree,” “hide and seek starts under the tree NOW!” Everyone knew my grandfather and his tree. They made an impressive pair, looming large in our little lives. His interests remind me of the Pelican Town community center bundles: largely food-related, with a bit of everything else thrown in.

And while the tree still stands, its counterpart does not. My grandfather, age 86, didn’t wake up on November 27, 2020. As my boyfriend and I ate Thanksgiving dinner with my mother, a series of strokes, like those performed by axes on cathedral trees, felled Dadu. People, including me, compliment death during sleep as “an ideal” departure method, but when someone I loved died, I reacted with violence to the suggestion. I sat on the sofa, sobbing, my boyfriend quietly listening as he wiped my angry tears. I ranted, “What, did his organs have a meeting and just decide to call it a day? Who decided this? They can’t just do this.” There was nothing peaceful about Dadu’s death because there was so little peace in his life. His son and daughter-in-law moved with their children to America, and his daughter, now married with two teenage sons of her own, did her best to visit with her boys, but Dadu was a broken record. He just wanted to see his granddaughter again.

When a friend loses a loved one, I usually express my condolences by saying something along the lines of “They don’t really leave us, not really. They’re just not here in the way they used to be.” However, if someone were to say this to me, I don’t know how well I’d receive it. He didn’t know the woman I became. I never saw him defeated, yet I knew he’d given up. He never saw me wrestle with the catastrophic guilt of absence, nor did he know about my depression. Did he think I stayed away because I discarded him? Did he think I no longer loved him and so I left him to die alone?

I was Dadu’s taste tester. Small morsels of chicken, lamb, goat, or fish, tucked into a small steel bowl with a little broth and a dainty spoon, would arrive in my lap as I sat reading or drawing or scribbling in multiple notebooks I kept crammed in a cloth bag. No one else was trusted with this task. Dadu watched, beaming, as I tasted what he was concocting. Every damn day I regret that I never had anything but simple compliments to give, for the bowl’s contents were always phenomenal. “It’s really good!” I’d chirp, handing the bowl and spoon back wiped clean. He’d smile, nod, and go back to the kitchen. I wish I’d paused to consider the salt levels, the acidity, the prevalence of spices, the ratio of onions to garlic and ginger. But I hadn’t been the person I am now. The small steel bowl was just a forecast of the large plate I’d eat off later, that brief happy exchange a prologue to the many conversations we’d have about spices and stews and grains when I grew up.


Perhaps his most indelible contribution to my life was quite literal. Every weekend, Dadu sat me down with a cursive exercise book. With great care, I recreated each letter of the alphabet, in both upper and lower case, in both pencil and pen, over and over and over and over. Much like my responses to his cooking, Dadu was always pleased with my efforts. When I expressed frustration over my lower case g’s and capital N’s, he patiently showed me how to correct both. He told me in Bengali almost all of O. Henry’s short stories, having read and loved them as a boy. 

Telemachus, Friend was his favorite, and each time he told me the story, perhaps as he tucked me in for the night, I would sleepily remind him that in Greek mythology, Telemachus was the son of Ulysses and Penelope; he left home to find his father, only to discover that Ulysses came home before he did. Dadu would commend my memory and proceed with the story. I was in college before I noticed how eerie it was that Dadu translated into Bengali the stories of one of America’s best known short story writers, who, like me, lived in New York City and Texas, long before my grandfather could’ve ever known I’d reside in both places. When I lived in Manhattan on Irving Place—where O. Henry himself lived, worked, and drank for many years—I bought a drink at Pete’s Tavern and wept happily, thinking about the day I could tell Dadu about my one-block pilgrimage.

In all the years I spent away from him, I hadn’t noticed all the ways I’d become like him. As per my grandfather's instructions, I first write in pencil, longhand, then write a second draft (a “fair copy,” in his words) in fountain pen. He prized fountain pens—unfussy ones—appreciative that they were relics of a time when people had to trust and care for their instruments, instead of taking them for granted. I treat my handwriting as an art form, as Dadu did his, and send letters by mail to friends all over the country. If I’m watching any sort of food television, everyone around me needs to shut up so I can listen and learn. The very nature of food helps me feel closer to people, that they can gather to toast each other’s company over a meal I’ve prepared. Dadu taught me cooking for others may seem benevolent but what the eater has to give to you was far greater than any meal you could prepare. You gave them a few plates of really good food, but they gave you their time, energy, love, patience, openness, commentary, gratitude. You were able to witness their happiness. What greater gift could there be?

Sometimes I stop to think about all the hours, days, weeks, months, years he must have spent waiting. Like Telemachus’s mother Penelope, he wove a shroud, made of memories, photos, festivals, holidays, peaceful rainy days spent cooking and watching India play Pakistan in one-day cricket, knotted together with dreams of reunion. My father wandered the Earth, away from his parents for the sake of his children, and eventually found himself working in Mumbai, able to visit his parents off and on. Some part of me knows he was waiting for them to die. My mother’s parents are dead too. A few days after my grandfather’s death, as we followed the news of covid-19 vaccination distribution, I joked to my mother that the nice grandparents have departed this Earth. That’s in very poor taste, my mother said, laughing. “Lack of taste?” I asked innocently. “Has that been going around lately?”

At major holidays over the last 15 years, my mother would organize a conference call so I could bid my grandparents some banal religious greeting. It wasn’t long before I hated these calls, almost as much as I hate the canned conversations with all the townsfolk at each Pelican Town festival. Neither Hinduism nor my mother are at fault, and I can’t blame Eric Barone for not writing unique dialogues for subsequent years of festivals. I could not bear a voice I did not know pretend to be my grandfather. This voice was male, weak, strained, relieved, and agitated, speaking as though he were suspended in water. No matter what I said he’d forget it within a minute and ask me the same question again. This was not my grandfather. Dadu was a giant, towering over everyone, intimidating but gentle—at least with his only granddaughter. The bond we shared belonged to ghosts, whom we two strangers with a bad Internet connection had replaced. He never met me as a grown woman, struggling to cope with joblessness and severe depression, able to discuss literature and art and politics with him. I never met him as a tired, beaten-down husk to whom joy was a nearly extinguished memory. The last time I saw him I was 15, and all I remember of our harried trip was eating and appreciating his food, traveling to Calcutta briefly to visit my grandmother’s side of the family, and trying to dodge the New Delhi summer that makes Texas look like Siberia.

I did at some point acknowledge to myself, after hearing of his death, I would be able to talk about this in therapy. To take my mind off things, I picked up the Switch to play Stardew Valley. Day 1 of Year 3. Grandpa Returns, to assess the quality of your farm. Tears burst forth like I was setting sail on Noah’s ark. My vision blurred as the blue and white Grandpa provided quiet commendation of his farm. Is this the only place I’ll see Dadu now? I wondered.

This isn’t how I wanted to see him: as a ghost in the machine, waving to me from beyond. No, I want him to stand on that balcony behind the Gulmohar and wave to me. I want him to stand at the stove and show me what combination of spices and oils and vegetables and love he adds to a pot. I want him to make chai the way he used to every morning, before anyone else was up. I want him to put on his Nepali hat and go for his two-mile walk in the park with all the other old neighborhood men. I want him to pick up samosas and jalebis from the market for our tea, which we will all devour as we discuss what we’ll eat later in the evening. I want him to laugh as we watch Baby’s Day Out or Beverly Hills Cop. I want him to see my penmanship, to see how carefully I've maintained it, improved it. I want to tell him about being so depressed that death feels welcoming. I don’t want his compliments on my farm. I don’t want to hear Willy the fisherman talk about drinking in my grandfather’s honor. I want to bake for Dadu, to see him tuck into a plate of my cooking the way I did every day into his. I want him back.

When Dadu died, I’d been working as a high school English teacher here in Fort Worth. I took a day off to grieve, to cry and try to summon my memories of him. Upon returning to work, the school district, from which I had myself graduated in 2008, did not offer condolences upon my grandfather’s death, but asked me for proof that he was dead. I forwarded them a photo from my shocked father—“you need what?”—of Dadu’s death certificate, written and signed in Hindi.

The Stardew Valley Grandpa, in his introductory note to the player, writes, “If you're reading this, you must be in dire need of a change. The same thing happened to me, long ago. I'd lost sight of what mattered most in life… real connections with other people and nature. So I dropped everything and moved to the place I truly belong.” If Dadu had written me this message, I could tell him I delivered on half of its mission: the pandemic led me to gardening, which even now does wonders for my mood and anxiety. There is a calm and joy in coaxing herbs and vegetables to take root that cannot be found in, say, eating spoonfuls of Nutella while reading about daily infection rates. But the other half of the message haunts me. I never went back to Dadu. My connection to him remains incomplete. I want, with a desperation I have never known—a desperation that crawls up my skin and settles on my scalp and seeps back down as cold sweat—to just talk to him again. Just once. I will have to make do with the knowledge of his love, encased in amber memories of the past. And maybe, someday, I’ll catch a glimpse of him, when the balance of salt and heat hits just right in a bite of food, or when the glossy leaves of a thriving plant feast on the sun.

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