When my mother first returned from America in 1968, strong on tongue and starry-eyed, she loved to talk about the affluent and avaricious Americans she saw on the soaps and sitcoms. “Even a janitor comes in a car with his brooms and bucket,” she said. “You see more cars than people on the streets!” Coming from India where a car remained a status symbol, and only one in a thousand families owned cars, she could not excuse the extravagance and clucked her tongue in disapproval.
To my mother, who never lost her curiosity for things new and improved, my sister’s house in Huntsville, Alabama, provided an awesome montage of electronic gadgets: a washing machine swishing and swooshing, percolating the sudsy water through her saris, instead of a washerman beating them down on a stone by the river; a dryer working without waiting for the rain to stop or the sun to shine; the hot-water tank that needed no prodding with sodden wooden chips; a blender grinding her dhal into a creamy smooth batter; the oven roasting her eggplant with no one blowing through a hollow metal tube to keep the embers from dying; the dishwasher foaming and rinsing the dishes without having to scrape or scour; central heating and cooling keeping the house warm or cool with the flick of a switch; and best of all, the television entertaining people day and night! This wonder of the modern conveniences lasted her a lifetime.
She was shy. In the shadow of my father’s stature as the town’s government doctor, she deferred to his decisions most of the time and swallowed her opinions, except when it came to our education. She was adamant about getting every one of her children educated.
When she learned that we were relocating to America, she sat me down and spoke with a sense of urgency: Don’t open the door to strangers; don’t go out alone after dark; choose your friends wisely; you’re too trusting sometimes and that could cost you your life; don’t let your children play outside without supervision; con men may accost you on the streets and shoot if you mouth off, play dumb and give them your purse; don’t eat with your fingers like you do in India, they’ll think you’re a junglee, use the spoon and fork; they call them silverware for some strange reason, even if you’re just using stainless steel.
The same tone and urgency I had used with my daughter when she left for college.
The last time I visited my mother when she was still living independently, I lectured her about the dangers of living alone in a remote village at her age, just as she had lectured my sister and me when we rented an apartment in the city, and embarked on our adult single lives. I fought with her both times and we ended up crying for all the dangers that lurked in the shadows ready to gobble us up, and for that point not appreciated by the other side. It’s probably because I’m a daughter. Society gives daughters a responsibility and grounds to remain tied to their mothers, emotionally. I’m not talking about the mothers who did not mother their children.
She sat crouched in front of a brick and cement stove in the backyard making coffee, fighting the smoke that billowed into her face and a veil of ash that settled on her clothes, as she blew into the embers through a foot-long metal tube that her generation had used since we were children. The gas stove remained idle inside the kitchen. “These are natural resources God has meant for us to use, not the cancer causing chemicals, like gas,” she said. In spite of her fascination with the modern amenities, her resistance to use them frustrated us until we realized that it was one of her bonds with her own past that she was reluctant to let go, even into her 70s.
Her friends from the village said that she had raised the bar for them and their children, by talking about her own. The rickshaw-wallahs and those who provided transportation for my mother to get to town, to shop and visit the doctors, formed a happy bunch since formed she showered them with tips and coffee. They even hung around the house to tempt her to go out.
She had never told us about what she wanted from life. She could not see beyond her children and husband. Even after we had grown and mothered our own children, she still viewed herself through us. By this I mean she continued to put us ahead of herself. All she wanted towards the end was to be bathed and fed on time. Her time for coffee was at five in the morning, breakfast at seven, lunch at noon, snack and coffee at three, and dinner at six—times unbendable.
Her unfulfilled ambition was to speak English, and talk to those white women who waved, smiled and said hello to her as she stood by the gate in her daughter’s yard in Huntsville, Alabama. She was on a visit to America to help her daughter with her first delivery. The man who tried to teach her English, a brother-in-law to her son-in-law, was on her mind for many years, even after she went back to India, until her desire to learn faded completely.
What did we give her? Nothing significant in terms of material things but we understood her better and loved her more just as she had taught us. Her connection to the outside world was the daily newspaper in vernacular, which she read from beginning to end. That kept her reflections active enough to give her an opportunity to talk about world issues with adult visitors, who may not have read anything at all. When her eyesight faded, she let go of that luxury. It was not the same when we read it to her as when she read it to herself.
Mothers devote their life to their children. Mothers demand it of themselves. They expect to cook, clean, bathe the children, dress, and send them on time to school, to after-school tutoring, to the library, and arrange for them to be picked up at the end of the day. They also plead on television for the life of their runaway or kidnapped children. Measured against this background, my mother, in spite of her limitations and biases, turned out to be good.
In the end she died without my youngest sister and me around her. We had just returned to America after visiting her when she had a stroke. Life did not provide me with an opportunity to be by her bedside with short notice. Until the end her memory was sharp and she remembered that two of her daughters were not with her. Being a physician, I could have stopped the pokes and punctures, spared her from the pain of being tethered to the tubes and machines, and the uselessness of the last-minute efforts to keep her on a respirator. I would like to have held her hand and let her know one more time, how much I loved her.
She remains in my thoughts, a lot at times. More so since I’m passing through that stage in life when you begin to reflect on how your mother handled her own late age issues.
I used to be plagued by the questions on the origin of the universe to which the scientists do not have an answer yet. Now I’m intrigued by the origin of life and where we go after death, just as Democritus and Plato tried 2,000 years ago. In a nutshell, the progress we had made since Plato can be reduced to the fact that the littlest particle that’s important is the atom for sure, vital information contained in the DNA to be more specific. In The Universe In A Nutshell Professor Hawking helps us understand the generalities, but what happened to my mother’s DNA and soul after her death remain unanswered.
I’m one of those who believe in rebirth; probably it’s just one of those convenient myths. The way I see it, to die is an opportunity to redefine oneself and be perfected before rebirth. I visualize my mother’s DNA entity happily traversing the space between the stars and the galaxies, finally settling back on earth somewhere to be reborn as a modern woman.