As I listen to Barack Obama giving his farewell address to our great nation, I am taken back in time…
Actually, I have been transported back in time during these entire eight years. During the first Obama campaign in 2008, I had the privilege to shake Barack’s hand. I said to him, “Masi bisa Bahasa Indonesia?” (Do you still speak Indonesian?) He answered, “Masih bisa.” (I still can.) Then I said, “I knew your Mother.” That got me a doubletake and a second handshake. I mumbled something about the Ganesha Museum, but the reality is I did not remember how I met her, only that I knew her.
Today is the last day of Obama’s administration and still, I have not uncovered the mystery of how I met Anne Soetoro. Nor have I finished this article. Two things happen when you write memories from a distant past. Remembering the past brings on a nostalgia and yearning for days gone by. It also awakens one to the fact that our memories have holes — areas where the memory is not complete, where the surrounding details are lost. All I really have are impressions of the past. The following are my impressions. I don’t promise to be accurate. Memories are never accurate. The most important thing is that the impressions are a reflection of the impact events create.
In 1981 my first husband, Vinod, and I moved to Jakarta, Indonesia. In the first six months of arrival, I gave birth to my youngest son. I managed my time taking care of him, but immediately jumped into learning and living within the culture. I enrolled my daughter in a Balinese dance class. I looked for opportunities to meet Indonesian women and to learn from them. I was also active in the American Women’s Association (AWA), singing in the chorus and at the American Club, learning tennis (a lesson was just a dollar). I often sat for tea with other expat wives or read voraciously from our book club collection of books. Still, I longed for a deeper connection to the country I who was hosting me.
I had already experienced many admirable moments during that time. I had, as an AWA singer, sung for events held by Martha Holdridge, the American Ambassador’s wife. Our group also was invited to sing for the President of Indonesia and his wife, Ibu Tien Soeharto. We posed for a picture behind Ibu Tien as she sat in her chair at the Palace. I remember lightly touching her chair with quick reminder’s by her guards that it was inappropriate to touch Madam First Lady’s chair!
Sometime in those first few years, I heard about an informal interior decorating course taught by a wife of a key embassy personnel. (I do not remember her name and never knew his position. I could only guess that it was key by the house they were assigned.) The woman who opened her home to our small group of six was a beautiful and welcoming person. Her lessons resonated with me. I learned the importance of focal points and especially ones with a bit of humor or that invite laughter. Her’s was a stuffed cat with its leg up and head bowed as if licking itself that sat on her beautiful, stylish sofa. Another that we used during lunch was a brass fly that one of our members brought.
It was in this course that I met Anne Soetoro. Anne was the one who brought the brass fly. The above picture is not the one she brought, but a similar brass fly. They sold brass flies in the marketplace. Often, they were ash trays in disguise. We used it as a focal point or centerpiece for a dinner table arrangement.
Anne was an interesting person in our group. Quiet and softspoken, but full of fascinating information about Indonesian culture, she enchanted us with her stories. Some stories were what I called “Indonesian ghost stories”. She talked about a tree that needed to be cut down and nothing anyone did would release the tree from its place in the ground. After many frustrating tries, the government changed the road to let the tree remain in peace. The belief was that this tree had a powerful spirit and therefore should not be cut down. Another story was about someone who had problems with their electricity. They called a dukun (a kind of medicine woman or man) to see what the problem might be when the electrician could not fix the problem. The dukun had them dig a hole in the backyard and they found a box that looked like it was floating in the hole. After it was removed and prayers said, the electrical problems disappeared and never bothered the family again.
But Anne had a wealth of information about Indonesian art and culture. I always looked forward to Anne’s stories at our meetings. I also marveled at the “finds” our hostess received from Anne. Once Anne found a beautiful ebony board that our hostess used to create a room divider. It was exquisite! We usually had to coax Anne to talk. She was generally quiet and reserved at our meetings. Because Anne worked, she was not always present at our meetings. We missed her on those days.
Our interior decorating class developed into a kind of interest group that met for almost a year. We started doing regular activities like visiting each other’s homes and sharing our decorating interests. I remember visiting Anne’s home. I believe Anne lived near the American Club in Keboyaran Baru. It was a modest home compared to the large homes provided to us by the oil company my husband worked for. The home had many plants outside lining the veranda. The interior was full of interesting cultural artifacts from different areas of Indonesia.
Later, Anne arranged for us to visit the home of one of her friends, Halimah Brugger (at least I believe it was hers). Halimah lived behind the Cilandak campus of the Jakarta International School. I believe she taught art and music. When we visited, she was not at home but had provided us with entry. I remember the living room having ten or more large batik pillows lining the living room floor. No furniture, only pillows. I loved the concept and how this minimalist look was so inviting. It was fun to see how others decorated their homes so creatively with local flavor.
I was so happy when the class came to my home. Anne was there as well and I shared my collection of Indian saris and batik sarongs. This singular visit changed my trajectory in Indonesia. One of the women in our group said, “You love textiles.” Before this, I had already become inspired to learn Indonesian culture by joining a study group on Balinese art and culture through the Ganesha Society (an Indonesian museum volunteer group). This single comment made me want to study Indonesian textiles and learn more about the history of textiles. Anne told me there was also a textile study group. I joined the textile study group and presented a paper on Patola Influence on Indonesian Textiles. Somehow, I also managed to contact Iwan Tirta, a prominent batik designer, and borrow his antique textiles. He also asked me to write about this topic for an India-Indonesia exhibit of textiles. I am proud to say my article was published in an official book about textiles. I also think that Anne was the person who translated my article. Though, I have to admit she told me she did not get my copy in time to translate the difficult concepts I had included. The translation is not exact in my edition of the book, Cindai, Pengenbaraan Kain.
During those days, Anne also told us about a great art exhibit by a Balinese up and coming artist, Dewa Nyoman Djati, that her friend, Kay Ikranagara, was sponsoring. I was very excited to attend. I fell in love with the large painting I bought that is in my living room today. Looking back, I think it’s funny how I never realized that Anne Soetoro had influenced so many small shifts and changes in my life and yet she did not play a central role.
Here is the painting which I have often said is a representation of who I am:
The most important memory I hold and the one I first remembered about Anne was a conversation we had outside the gate leading to her home. I was waiting for my driver to bring the car around. I remember Anne leaning on a cement wall with her long, thick hair and batik kaftan. We talked for a long time about our backgrounds. She shared her first and second marriages to an African and then an Indonesian. I shared my marriage to an Indian. We talked about what it felt like to live inside a culture — to experience it as a wife rather than as a typical expatriate. I told her how much I wanted to experience more of Indonesian culture from the inside and not as the wife of an expat. We shared our deep interest in culture and the values we brought. I shared how out of place I often felt with the wives of other expatriates. I seem to remember her telling me her son was going to go to Harvard. I was so impressed because my son at five or six wore a Harvard T-shirt and proudly exclaimed he was going to go to Harvard. (He did not, at least not yet.) At the end of the conversation, we both agreed that a closer friendship would be right for us, but we also realized that her lifestyle and mine wouldn’t allow it. She worked during the day and I made it a point to be with my family. My family was everything to me. There was no time for us.
Looking back I am amazed at how deeply I was touched by the brief and fleeting moments in Anne’s company. We knew each other, but barely. And yet, we respected one another and recognized in each other a camaraderie and connection as two people with similar values, goals, and lifestyles. This is why I look at Barack Obama as the son of a friend. Someone who is not unlike my own sons. I admire Anne and all that she did in her life and I understand her. Because she is me. I too have a life that drifts like tumbleweed on a wide plain. I, too, have a love for Indonesian culture and Indian culture, and any culture that I touch. I, too, have a deep love for my family and have experienced the inability to fully give them all that I would wish.
There is really too much to talk about. Barack Obama is moving on tomorrow. But, the memory I have of him, his family, and Anne will be deep and enduring.
It took me forever just to write these few paragraphs. Every time I would start to write, I would check out if I was correct or confused. I left out dates because I know during the time I knew her I would hear reports of her visiting India or Pakistan and that we met only a few times during the nine years I lived there. Still, we knew the same people and walked in the same circles. Much of my experience was influenced by the few exchanges we had. My Indonesian experience is deep and enduring and one that I hold dear.
The pictures in this article were taken from the internet. The fly was downloaded from eBay and is of one reportedly made in Italy. The painting is my own and taken with my phone. The house is a similar house in the neighborhood where I lived.