If you are an adult seeking instant sympathy, try saying these words in public: “My mother-in-law is visiting.” No sooner than I uttered them I got compassionate clucks and plenty of well-meaning advice. One co-worker, who is not even married yet, actually patted my hands. Perhaps no other relative has the power to evoke this kind of collective dread across cultures.
I had not bargained for all this commiseration when I expressed an apprehension about the arrival of a summer guest from overseas—my husband’s mother from India. It is not that unusual for first generation immigrants to have elders stay with them for days on end or at least as long as their tourist visa is valid—about six months.
I did not have an arranged marriage. I met my husband in New Orleans when we were both graduate students. Our families graciously accepted the fact that we would be married in a civil ceremony in America. Of course, they were disappointed at being left out, but they probably realized that an Indian wedding would have been a logistical nightmare.
They lived in two different cities and came from two different faiths. To do this right they would have to knock on the doors of long-forgotten relatives and well-wishers, give each one a personal invite, and offer a lengthy explanation of the circumstances of the union. They took the practical alternative of giving us their blessings long-distance.
Given this scenario, traditional ties between the families were almost non-existent, but my parents seemed eager to make amends when they heard about the upcoming visit. Nothing short of a framed certificate of good conduct from my mother-in-law at the end of it would please them, it seemed. Indian friends found this a good opportunity to tease me and said I shouldn’t be mean to my visitor like I was to them. The pressure was building up with all the conventional expectations.
Mummy, meanwhile boarded her first international flight solo. She prayed to the yet-to-be-sainted Sister Alphonsa of Chenganessery for a safe journey. For good measure she prayed to the patron of lost objects, St. Antony, as well. If she went off course in the air terminals, she hoped some kind stranger would put her on the right plane. She landed in Boston, minus her luggage, after an otherwise uneventful trip which, she confessed charmingly, she had made with “my heart in my mouth.” The good saints had got one part right.
Years of caring for a sick and difficult husband have not changed her sunny nature the slightest bit. Recently widowed, she has years of deferred enjoyment to catch up on if she would only let herself. Happily mixing up the religious beliefs of her native land with her faith, she is certain she will have a wonderful afterlife. Though we tease her about considering a change in her prayer schedule in the new time zone, she never fails to petition the good Lord on our behalf.
Her upbringing does not allow her to stay idle, and she has taken upon herself the task of cooking us excellent meals everyday. Frozen dinners in front of the television seem like a distant memory now. Not that she doesn’t watch television. Like most pre-independence Indians, she insists on a daily fix of BBC news. Now she is almost hooked to a serial she is watching for the first time—Law and Order. She sat mesmerized through a Galaktika’s gamelan performance—the closest she would come to enjoying an evening in Bali.
I have gotten to know through Mummy the neighbors, the relatives, close and distant, and all the people from my husband’s growing up years. I feel more drawn into his world now. To quote the poet A.K. Ramanujan: “Really what keeps us apart at the end of years is unshared childhood.”
That “apartness” is gone now. The only thing Mummy misses in America is the company of her grandchildren, especially her youngest who calls twice a day to check on his Nana who lives by herself. She will return to the warm embrace of the rest of the family in Mumbai soon and fondly hopes we will add to its numbers.
When she comes back to America another time, I hope to break it gently to everyone. Maybe I can just say my child’s grandmother is visiting. And grandmothers seem to be the best loved people the world over.