On my annual summer visit to my parents’ home in India, my mother isn’t waiting for me, as always, on her throne in our living room.
The 30-year-old Jayabaratham cane chair is missing its rightful occupant, its rattan strips unraveling from the knots on its legs. Where my mother’s elbows rubbed its rounded sides, the green paint is fading, baring the straw-colored wood underneath. The burgundy cloth pillow on my mother’s favorite seat is limp and creased, awaiting the weight of a familiar body.
Over by the telephone, on a wooden stand with a Formica top, my mother’s little black book of phone numbers lies open, expecting its most frequent user to thumb through the pages to locate a phone number. Behind and under the telephone stand, two spiders weave confident, elaborate webs. They haven’t heard a pip from the lady of the house in weeks.
In the kitchen a cook toils in what was once my mother’s kingdom. The cook pours oil into the skillet, scoops the drool on the side of the oil pot with the index finger of her right hand, forgets to wipe her fingers on a cotton towel, and then moseys on to the shelf to open my mother’s stainless-steel spice rack.
My mother wouldn’t have approved of this during her reign. “Haven’t I told you, whenever you use oil, to wipe your fingers on a towel? Else everything you touch afterwards gets sticky,” my mother would frown. There are many other kitchen decrees of hers that my sister and I follow in our lives to this day.
“When you’re done with the grinder, wipe the base clean with a wet and then a dry cloth before you stow it.”
“Don’t ever make soup in a vessel in which you boil milk.”
“Never leave the tupperware out on the counter. Dust settles on the lid. Too much dust in Chennai, you know.”
“Drape the microwave with a cloth … like this … if you’re done using it. The outer surface gets grimy in a kitchen because of steam and oil vapors.”
My mother held a tight yet gentle leash on her household help. If someone became my mother’s subject, it followed that she became her slave. The troops in our home stayed on for years, becoming first my mother’s closest companions and then her deepest mourners.
One blazing July day when my mother returns home after four weeks of brain radiation, she doesn’t know the difference between a blender and a spoon. A week after that she doesn’t recognize the urge to go to the bathroom. Worse yet, she doesn’t care how the bathroom looks. My mother’s maid of many years is devastated. “She used to stand outside watching me as I scrubbed. I got precise instructions every day of the week. I want that person back,” she weeps, over my dying mother’s newborn indifference.
Indeed, all of us—my 82-year-old father, my sister, our maid, our cook, our relatives and I—desperately want perfection back in our lives. Perhaps wheeling our mother into her castle will spark that desire to rule, again? So my aunt steers her excitedly into the kitchen, into a court where once my mother presided from dawn until dusk.
“Don’t you want to see your kitchen? Come on, let me show you how we’ve kept up your kitchen while you were away in the hospital,” my aunt cajoles her from behind the wheelchair.
“Don’t want. Don’t want kitchen,” my mother grunts, her words hoarse and indiscernible, her stare vacant. “Sleep … Bed …,” she peters out, her countenance wearing the shroud of death.
So we lead her out of her old den where she used to fuss over diminutive scratches on her pots and pans, past a fancy Electrolux refrigerator that my dad bought her last August, past the dining table with two red HotSpot silicone pot holders (heat resistant to 675 degrees F), past a paper towel holder with a two-ply paper towel (imported from a Singapore grocery store by my sister), past the blown-glass vase with dusty silk flowers, past walls of photographs of my mother in the 1960s when she wore her black tresses in a heavy, snake-like braid. We lower her gently onto the bed and set her barren scalp on a skinny pillow covered by a thin cotton towel.
Just a few days later, at sunrise on a Saturday in July, while morning coffee drips through a filter in her kitchen, my mother’s life trickles to its end.
The relics from my mother’s 75-year-long tryst with life now populate her 1,500 square-foot palace. Where do I begin?
A panoramic Tanjore painting depicting a battlefield scene from an Indian epic hangs directly facing our front door. My mother commissioned the work from a skilled local artist. She fretted over its frame. She convinced my dad that it needed a spotlight right by our front door. Step into our home and the light bounces off of Krishna’s crown bedecked with gold leaves and semi-precious stones.
Can I fail to mention the hand-carved teak Mancala board that she had flown in from Indonesia? Or the Makonde carving from East Africa—that she personally supervised the making of—which now rests on my mantel here in the United States. And dare I forget the Givenchy perfume that she sought in Paris at Sephora’s in the Summer of 1998—simply because the bottle was quirky and sensuous? (It’s still unopened, unused, like the Chanel from years ago.)
Then there are those finely crafted and embroidered handmade cloth bags from Kolkata of which she ordered not one but 10 to gift away to her near and dear. And certainly we shouldn’t miss my mother’s intricate bronze uruli (vessel) from Kerala, custom-ordered for her by her sister-in-law, cast in a clay mould and implemented per my mother’s kilogram and gram specifications.
My mother’s almirahs burst with jars of Yardley powder, Parker pens, elegant copper-bottomed cookware, stone casseroles, pewter cups, silverware, leather bags, glass beads, and more artifacts that she collected with a passion. “Of course I’ll use them some day, I’m just waiting for the right time to release them into my daily life,” she’d insist.
During 61 years of marriage, my mother’s impulses were the butt of my dad’s jokes. My mother, undeterred by his taunts, quietly added to her eclectic Treasury of Unforgettable Objects as the Executive Head of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Acquisitions.
As I look back on that fateful morning when my mother left her home never to return, I realize that she has taken nothing with her. Yet, it seems, she has taken everything.
She has flown the coop—armed with the hand that made the finest South Indian coffee. She has eloped with her eye, the eye that knew the classy from the classless. And she has decamped—with a tongue that knew how to drive a mean bargain. And she has absconded, yes, she has, taking with her that mental rolodex of people, names, faces, things, events, gossips, recipes, and what have you.
I guess, like the Pharaoh of Egypt, she has taken everything with her. Even though she forgot her throne.
Kalpana Mohan is a freelance writer in Saratoga.