My mother is the fifth-born of ten children, the second daughter amidst five sisters and four brothers, in a family that was financially and emotionally drained by the illnesses and eventual deaths of two of the brothers. My mother, along with her older brother, had to share the financial responsibilities of running a big family with six sisters to be “married off.” As someone who grew up in the relative comforts of an upper middle class lifestyle, I cannot begin to imagine the strains on my mother’s young shoulders especially at month-end when funds were short and the list of basic needs of a family of ten equally long. After finishing her B.Sc. B.Ed, my mother worked two jobs, as a high school math teacher during the day and as a math tutor all evening.
My parents’ marriage moved my mother from one state to another, location-wise and financially—both for the better. Marriage brought with it the prerequisite of her having to quit her job. I find it hard to fathom how a woman who was defined by her work for ten long years and who had never entered the kitchen in all those years, did not think twice before plunging into the domestic dynamics of a joint family. Having three children, my two brothers and I, in quick succession, must have kept her on her toes.
Etched in my childhood memoryscape is the image of my mother poring over The Hindu editorial every morning as if her life depended on it. My mother was as literary as my father was pragmatic. In preparation for elocution contests, Shakespeare’s monologues (“Et tu, Brute?”) were drilled in to us with the same intensity as that of multiplication tables. Having a math teacher for a mother is a double-edged sword—you learn the tricks of the trade early, but also face the wrath of the at-home-math-teacher if you had the gall to make silly mistakes in tests. During the hot summer months when load-shedding meant that we would be without power for an hour or more, my mother turned those times into candle-lit music practice sessions!
My identity as a girl was first formed when all of us would sit around the dining table and listen to my mother recite her Tamil poems questioning the hypocrisies faced by women in modern India. Her voice would boom, “A thousand Kannagis will rise up to obliterate the injustices.” She opened the window for me to hear the music in words and the words in music.
My mother has her flaws. For one, she butchers Malayalam with such impunity that it routinely provides us with comic relief. She mangles manga (mango) and thenga (coconut) in equal measure. Palatal nasal sounds that give Malayalam its signature lilt elude her to this day.
And then there was the time when she was learning to drive a car—oh the terror that was unleashed on the streets of our sylvan colony! It all came to a crashing halt after she rammed the car into the neighbor’s perimeter wall thereby compounding the already-not-so-friendly relations with the said gentleman.
All these vignettes fall way short of describing the person my mother, my dear Amma, was and still is today—a very kind and wise soul who treats everyone equally—be it the maid, the vegetable vendor or the neighbor. She has taught us by example that giving to people in need, from whatever one has, is the way to happiness.
As I start my second decade as a mother, I often get a sense of déjà vu. I catch myself using towards my son the many aphorisms, approbations and admonishments that were the arsenals in my mother’s unrelenting attempts to make a kind, compassionate and thoughtful woman out of me.
Randy Pausch, in his moving book “The Last Lecture,” talked about how he had won the parent lottery. That line struck me, for it gave me a way to express my own feelings towards both my parents.
On this Mother’s Day, I hope that I have lived in such a way that my son, some day, even for a moment, feels that way about me.
Rajee Padmanabhan is a perennial wannabe— wannabe writer, wannabe musician, wannabe technologist. She lives with her iPad and iPod in Exton, PA, occasionally bumping into her husband and son while either of her i-Pals is out of charge.