The eldest child of pioneering Christian ministers P.T. and Annamma Chacko, the family of eight lived trusting God for everything. Never asking others for help, theirs were “faith homes,” on Regimental Bazaar, Mettuguda and Walker Town.
As a girl in the 1920s and 30s in pre-Independence India, Mary—if not on purpose then in practice—defied patriarchy and cultural dictates for gender and age. Young Mary was a preacher herself beginning at 11 years of age, translating her father’s sermons on bustling city street corners and in remote rural villages throughout Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Fearless, she was beaten because of her commitment to the message of Jesus in which she believed. Today, the lineage of hundreds of churches can be traced to the work done by her and her family
Her early precociousness and diligence were glimpses of what she became in the years to come. She was an outstanding student; a breadwinner for her missionary home as a teacher and principal, worked at St. John’s and Ameerpet schools; a recipient of the Indian President’s Award for teachers. She was also a Bible teacher and a prominent church leader alongside her husband Pastor T.S. Abraham. Known simply to her students as “Mummy,” she mentored and instructed throusands of students. Thousands honored her and came to her funeral or watched the services which were aired globally.
As a granddaughter looking back at Ammachi’s history, I see a woman of resolve.
She was determined in her work, surpassing prescribed expectations for what a woman of her time could accomplish. She was empowered in the highest sense of the word, thanks to not only her inner drive but also her broad-minded parents who accepted no limitations for their daughters. I don’t know if the word “feminist” was a word she would have ever embraced. But to me she embodied it.
She established a stable family home to raise four children who to this day seek spiritual blessings over material gifts. She was unwavering in prayer and prayed for everyone she knew, asking for God to surround them with His love. She was a friend to Christians, Muslims, Hindus and nonbelievers alike.
Ammachi was a whirl and bustle of activity until old age impeded ease of movement. She greeted the dawn with loud hymn singing that family members have rightfully, but affectionately called “worse than an alarm clock.” She couldn’t carry a tune but nevertheless she would sing with her entire off-key being: because all of life was meant to be worship, from the first act of the day until the last. But it was worship interwoven with work. She would ready her lessons. Ready her children. Ready the meals. Get ready for prayer meetings. Always ready.
Ammachi couldn’t tolerate even a moment of idleness, so even on our vacations grandchildren were instructed to memorize Scripture verses, write Christian articles and learn Malayalam. She was a strict disciplinarian but I somehow managed to slip away whenever language lessons were on the table. Others did not escape her seemingly all-seeing eye.
However, I didn’t entirely elude her careful watch.
Ammachi lived with us in America for a few months after my sister Ann was born, to assist with caring for us. I was five years old at the time. And I was a notoriously slow eater. My parents didn’t allow me to leave the table until my plate was cleared, which meant that often I would furtively throw food away in the trash can, layering the scraps carefully under other waste or I would ball it up in napkins and flush it down the toilet when my mother wasn’t looking. One evening Ammachi gave me a wrapped slice of American cheese. I found it disgusting, so, true to stealthy form, I tossed it in the trash. Ammachi caught me in the act. Calmly she told me to take the cheese out of the bin and eat it, saying there were millions of starving children in India who would be grateful for that piece of cheese. She didn’t take well to my suggestion that we should send the cheese to them. One look from her cut through my bravado. In the battle of wills, she won.
I soon learned that not only was Ammachi strong-minded, she was also quick. I had a life-like rubber snake, which for a mischievous kindergartner was a prank begging to be played. While she was cooking with her back turned to me, I carefully laid the toy reptile out on the white tiled kitchen countertop. I backed into the corner, waiting and watching. When Ammachi turned—without a flicker of fear or a moment’s hesitation—in one smooth motion she grabbed the butcher knife and chopped off the snake’s head. I watched dumbstruck. It was the day I fully realized Ammachi was not to be messed with.
One of the sorrows of being the children of immigrants is the loss of growing up without the constant company of your grandparents. As an immigrant child, you learn to cherish the briefest moments spent together.
It was August 1996. My youngest aunt had just gotten married a few days earlier and we were all gathered enjoying one another’s company. I was washing Ammachi’s feet in a small plastic basin as she sat in the center of the room. Transformed by the bend and blur of the warm water, her wrinkled 71-year-old feet and my smooth 17-year-old hands looked like they could belong to the same person.
This woman is a part of me and I am a part of her, I remember thinking as I stroked her weathered skin. From the sheen in her eyes I knew we were connected, not only by blood but also in spirit.
“Thank you,” she said smiling almost shyly. This woman I knew as so strong, was for a moment soft.
As her hearing faded, on the phone, the totality of the exchange was reduced to a few questions, assurances and a benediction: “How are you?” “When are you coming?” “We love you.” “We are praying for you.” “God bless you.” Her voice grew increasingly creaky with age.
We got the news that she had died early Saturday morning here. As I processed what I’d heard and as I watched my father cry, my first emotion was gratitude, my first instinct to pray.
Thank you, God, for allowing us to come from her, I prayed, crying.
After returning from India, I’ve slept with her Bible next to me in bed. I finger the pages. I come across markings in the margins or bookmarks with Scripture reference numbers written on them.
There is a yellowed black and white picture of both of my great-grandfathers, her father and my grandfather’s father, standing together smiling, tucked between the books of Titus and Philemon.
There is a 25-year-old lesson outline, written in English and Malayalam. I note underlined verses.
As I leaf through the Bible I came across one passage, underlined in bright pink pen:
“It is God that girdeth me with strength and maketh my way perfect.” Psalm 18:32
That is my Ammachi: girded with strength and a way—a legacy—made perfect.
Mary Chacko Abraham
September 2, 1925—November 26, 2016.
This article appears as a tribute to mothers and grandmothers everywhere. A version first appeared in The Huffington Post.
Sneha Abraham is a writer and Assistant director of news and strategic content at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Her work has appeared on NPR, Sojourners, India Currents and Good Letters. She was formerly a journalist with The Press-Enterprise based in Riverside.