Like many other Dutch-Indonesian refugees, our family took only a few meager possessions with us when we made the journey across the Atlantic from Holland to America. I was almost 4 at the time and once we arrived, we settled into a cramped and dark 2 ½ room apartment above an auto parts store on a busy street corner. Because we were starting with nothing, our apartment was sparse, but there were two objects that I will always remember in that bleak space.
One was a beautiful batik fabric that my father artfully folded and fanned across the wall of our living room. I would stare at the fabric for hours trying to decipher images of lizards, fish and ants out of the bright red, gold and amber lines. The other was the stone cobek ulekan (mortar and pestle) that sat in its own place of royalty on our kitchen table. It was called to action practically every evening when my mother so patiently and rhythmically ground garlic and small red peppers into an aromatic paste of sambal. These two objects from my parents’ homeland in Surabaya on the island of Java were the connection to their earlier lives and to our family’s history.
Through years of milestones such as graduations and weddings as well as tragedies of death and illness, the batik and the cobek were the mainstays of our lives. They were always there to remind us that every day was a part of the journey. The batik and the cobek had become a comfortable presence in our lives to help us move forward.
Fifty three years after we arrived in the United States, the memory of the beauty of the batik and the cobek in such dismal surroundings still resonates with me. I can attribute its inspiration to my love of adventure in cooking. Though I no longer use the oelekan, I have adapted to the modern world, and usually grind my sambal spices in a blender or food processor. It is a process that always reminds me of my family’s own cultural past. And the batik had even more impact on whom I would become all these years later. I am a textile artist – I design and weave handwoven fabric to use in the home and as fashion accessories. That lovely batik was one of the few bright spots in our early lives as Americans. And I cannot help but think that its presence moved me forward as an adult to embrace the world of textiles.
Felicitas Sloves, July 27, 2012