On Mother’s Day this year, like the Mother’s Days of the past seven years, I am reminded of a woman who was once the guiding light of my life. My mother passed away on April 29, 2005, leaving my father, brother, sister, and me with little to hold on to but the memories. At the time I did not understand the significance of what had occurred and how could I? At the age of nine I was much more concerned with getting up for Saturday cartoons than I was about her frequent visits to the Stanford University Medical Center. I tried to act as if nothing was happening. But before I knew it, the walls of my life had come crashing down. On that day, a part of my childhood passed on along with her. Her cooking. Her hugs and smiles. Our late night watching of the Food Network together.
It would never be the same again.
With time the wounds healed. Friends, family, uncles and aunties came and went and sometimes it was hard to know who to trust. Thanks to the love and care of the kind hearted individuals close to our family, we were able to keep it together. It was hard on my father. Even today it is hard. He has endured things that no man ever should so early in his lifetime. Often times I was unsure of what was going to happen. The move back to India always loomed over the heads of my siblings and me. As a whole I experienced a major loss of faith. I wondered, if there was a God how could he let this happen? How could he take my mother from me? But on the days we did pray, in the dark as I stared into the lamp light, my thoughts always moved to her.
When I was in 6th grade, my father decided to remarry. A new woman? How could he ever think to replace my mother? She had brought with her a son whom she loved dearly, as any mother would. Although she and I did get along, it quickly became evident that she could never love us as much as she loved him and this led to problems. Fights. Arguments.
Shouting. Before I knew it they were on a plane back to India. Just another woman in and out of my life.
More time passed. I am now 16 years old, a junior at Mission San Jose High School. I am studying hard and enjoying the high school experience. All around me are friends who support and share my likes and interests. But only my closest companions know why there is no Mrs. Menon to greet them every time they come over.
This year I became a staff writer for the school newspaper, The Smoke Signal, and began to express my thoughts on paper. The thought had crossed my mind before to write about my mother, but it just never happened.
I was scared. Scared that I wouldn’t remember enough. Ashamed that I had forgotten the woman who raised me.
I was wrong.
I will never forget.
My mother would be proud of who I am today, a strong, intelligent, hardworking individual with integrity. I know that I will never see her again on this Earth. I know that no woman will ever take her place. But on this Mother’s Day, I have come to terms with these facts, and I am okay with it. Somewhere my Amma is looking down at me with her infectious smile. And someday we will meet again and I will smile right back.
Vishak Menon is a junior at Mission San Jose High School.
My Greatest Strength
On a clear California morning, I sat down with a cup of tea in a home I’d recently moved into, wondering if my mom would have liked the house. For the past several years, mom was a part of every major decision we had made. She would have said, “It’s very spacious, like our tharavadu (ancestral) house, I like it.” Being with her, I had learnt to read between the lines at a very early age. Like the word “spacious” meant “do you really need this big space? You will have to clean it. It’s more work for you.”
During my teenage years in India, I discovered her dream, during our daily walks to the market, “I would have been a writer,” she once admitted, in her faint soft voice. These walks were therapeutic for both of us. We debated authors and politics and discussed general knowledge, family history, movies, while carrying bags of fresh vegetables and groceries. I learnt that her favorite flower was the rose, she really enjoyed playing chess, Humphrey Bogart was the second most handsome man after my dad, and even back then, her views on life were too liberal for her society to handle. She was a minimalist, in words and in her personal needs.
We were polar opposites. She was the epitome of silence, I was the chatterbox, constantly questioning her and she always had answers. She would say, “I want you to be different from me. I do not want you to be tied down by society’s strings. I want you to be free and be able to speak your mind.” She was subtle and simple, I was brash and blunt. She was extremely organized and clean, and I lived for the moment. But we did share a few things in common, our love for reading, cooking, nature and, yes, our stubbornness.
When she decided to live with me, I was impressed at how very quickly mom adapted to life in America. The clean roads made her smile. She felt Americans have the biggest of hearts and yet couldn’t grasp why they would settle for the blandest of foods. Her favorite hangout was the Farmer’s Market. She loved Julia Roberts. She religiously watched Oprah and General Hospital. Once hearing a neighbor complain about the bank she said, “He just needs to step out of this country, he will appreciate this system so much more.”
Mom came back after one of her India vacations, seeing all the places she wanted to see and meeting every relative she wanted to meet and hinting to them that it was her last trip back. Ten days after she got back to California, she had a stroke. During one of our many ER visits, she said, “ I have my one way ticket here, all I need to do is wait for my train and I hope it is much sooner than later”. Mom never feared death. In fact she welcomed it. She said, “Once you have become a burden to your loved ones and a burden to society, it’s not worth the time left, society needs to help people like me, who have had a good run, and are ready to retire from life with a happy face.”
My son asked me who the strongest person I knew was; I said “Your Thathi (grandma).” My relationship with mom was clean, simple and honest. It had no expectations, no restrictions and was extremely freeing. I guess that’s why it is harder to let go. I have learnt to accept this state of mind. It is a journey that all of us, who have loved so deeply, will have to endure. As time goes by, I will go about my life, with the same spirit and energy as ever, but with her memories framed to my heart and her voice recorded in my soul.
Praba Iyer blogs about cooking at rocketbites.com
This One’s For You
A forgotten memory came to me recently as I waved goodbye to my daughter. She was headed for a weeklong jaunt away from my vigilance. It was a memory that had to be dusted free of cobwebs, yet inexplicably it retained its original emotional shading. I remember standing clutching my mother’s hand tightly, painfully, as she was preparing to hand me over to the Dormitory Supervisor at Bishop Westcott in Ranchi. I was four years old and I remember my mother’s eyes being abnormally swollen. That night was the first night I spent apart from her, and as time went by and numerous such separations occurred I accumulated these memories and buried them under the detritus of a childhood spent in boarding schools.
My mother and I grew up in completely different worlds. She grew up in ManKombu, a place I’ve only encountered in her childhood memories. During my youth, I seemed as alien to her as she seemed to me, with my father attempting to bridge the gap between us. Now, as I settle into maturity and with my father long gone, the gap between my mother and me no longer seems as deep as I had once imagined. For one, she is as avid a reader as I am and as passionate about music as I’d like to be. She is a Sudoku maniac, alive with interest in local politics, impatient with religious fanatics and more broadminded than many of my peers.
In a few short years, after moving to the US, she reconstructed her reality in a manner that made sense to her; creatively, resourcefully. So when once the fire department personnel arrived after the fire alarm had triggered, my mother explained to them in broken English and in thorough detail how she had forgotten to turn the exhaust on when she was cooking dal for the sambhar. I have no idea what the fire department employees understood from what was said that day, but we still haven’t received the bill, so I assume all is forgiven. On another occasion, when she was alone at home, the police arrived and threatened to take our obnoxious pet away for barking too much. She stood her ground fiercely and wrested the mutt from their clutches. They were no match for her.
Throughout my childhood, numerous well-meaning aunts, uncles and cousins have declared very categorically, “you’re not as close to your parents because you never grew up with them.” Indeed, the last part is true, my brother and I didn’t grow up at home, or in our parents’ company, spending just three out of twelve months with them. However, I felt then as I do now, it’s not the frequency but the intensity of a relationship that really matters, and it is my parents’ love that sustained me through those long months apart. It was an affection compacted by the brevity of our interactions and yet lengthened by the longing for our moments together.
Don’t be under any illusions that it is always sunny in our multigenerational home. We fight, we bicker, we quarrel, we argue and we criticize. But at the end of the day I know that my mother is there, just a shout away, watching out for me, caring about what I ate for lunch, urging me to slow down once in a while.
“I have a riddle for you,” my mother said, one recent morning, as I was packing lunch boxes, preparing breakfast and prepping for dinner, before heading to work. “Not now, Amma,” I said impatiently but relented when I saw her face. “Name two things that cannot be turned or taken back,” she asked. I gave it a perfunctory mental glance before I saw her waiting look. “What?” I asked. “Time and the spoken word. Isn’t it true?” she asked excitedly. “Words once uttered, the chollu, can never be retracted,” she added.
These are my spoken words for you, Amma. Thank you.
Jaya Padmanabhan is an award winning writer.
Things My Mother Taught Me
My mother died in 1997 on May 17, six days after Mothers’ Day. I remember being caught in a paroxysm of grief and asking my oldest daughter, “Will I ever get over this?” We Indians do not celebrate Mothers’ Day, yet the proximity of the two dates makes it difficult for me not to think of her this month, every year.
Memories of her crowd my mind … of running up and down the veranda in our bungalow in Machlipatnam, while she fed me balls of rice with a triangle of pappadam stuck on one side to emulate a kuruvi (sparrow); her cool hands on my forehead soothing a fever; her hands holding me while I went through labor pains; of teaching me to make dosas with a dollop of butter in the center, smoothing the batter evenly in concentric circles on the griddle.
One memory stands out; the pain in her voice when she told me how at 19, while still in her final year at college, her marriage was “fixed.” She only had a year left to finish college. Her father, who was actually a progressive man for his time, decided arbitrarily, as parents sometimes do, that she did not need that degree. But she only married a year later, and always regretted that she hadn’t completed the course, “ … and I would have been able to say that I, too, am a college graduate.” But she just stayed home that year. Meanwhile, her two older sisters graduated; her oldest sister received a Masters in English Literature and her other sister became a doctor, much loved and revered. She voiced her feelings to her mother, but they were overlooked. It was an injustice she never forgot. So she lived vicariously through her children, helping us with our homework, encouraging us, supporting whatever we wanted. She let us take part in dramatics, sports, run for office at college, anything she thought would give us an advantage or build our confidence. She taught herself Hindi when it was introduced into our school and instructed my younger siblings. She would have made a wonderful teacher.
Years later, when my six-year old daughter was grappling with multiplication problems and my husband gave up in despair, my mother came to our rescue. She asked for two weeks. I sent my daughter to her in Chennai and by the end of that fortnight, my daughter was chirping away, her multiplication tables firmly in place.
My mother also taught herself chess so she could play with my brother. She was highly competitive and hated to lose. In our riotous games of rummy, her delight when the loser had to bray like a donkey was infectious. She could on occasion, be obstinate when playing the board games she loved. I remember a vehement argument during a game of Scrabble about the existence of the word “dood” as the past tense of “do.” She sulked throughout the game when I emphatically said she could not use it.
In her mid-thirties she hitched up her sari, tucked it around her waist, donned a pair of tennis shoes and attacked the tennis courts. And won a district championship! According to my brother who went on to become a university cricket player himself, she understood the nuances of cricket and tennis better than my father could. Often, when they watched a match she would yell “viddhi” (idiot) when a player did not do what she thought they ought to.
We understood that education was important. When my future father-in-law wanted me to marry his son three months before my final exams at university, my mother lobbied for a later date; but my father wavered. So she suggested that I write to my husband-to-be, who, fortunately for me, understood my wish. He told his extremely stubborn father that he could not get a leave of absence (a bare-faced lie); our wedding was postponed and I got my Masters degree!
Three years ago when I turned 67, and she would have turned 87 (we share a birthday), I passed a written exam for which I’d worked hard for two years. The subject and qualification matters little—it was a test of faith; and I passed, the oldest in my class.
When I received the e-mail from my examiner in Australia, I thought to myself, “This is for you Amma, and for all the women who are denied their right to study. I celebrate your life.”
Maya Jayapal describes herself as a writer, a teacher, a counselor and a dreamer. She is a regular contributor to Deccan Herald, The Hindu and various other magazines. This article was first published in Talkingcranes.com.