Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The amazing women in my life--Part 2/Lessons in living and loving

How does one talk about one’s parents without falling into the usual traps of sentimentality or its opposite? Without recourse to familiar narratives of support, opposition, nurturing or its absence? There is the temptation to qualify every statement I make with a disclaimer, a sign of embarrassment perhaps, so I shall do this all at once before I begin.
  • Everyone has stories to tell about their parents.
  • Each one of these stories is unique, touching, formative.
  • Every parent-child relationship forms and grows within specific circumstances which render it special.
  • Within every nurturing relationship there is the possibility of its absence, its distortion, its corruption.
  • Laughter, love, anger, sadness, conflict, confusion...these and other emotions/states of mind are the building blocks of all relationships, and the claim of their presence in one acknowledges both the unique and the universal nature of the relationship being described.
And the list could go on.
But I suppose I should set aside the hesitations I feel and go on with my own narrative. The fear that it will at once say too much and too little must be overcome. But saying that this fear exists to some extent (perhaps) exonerates me from judgment of either kind.
Okay, here I go....
One of my earliest memories of my mother and me together is of us in a park; she is painting while I am doing something close by, maybe scribbling or colouring. We are in Canada, and it is the 1960s. There are other memories, but few of my childhood where it was just the two of us. 
I didn’t think of it as such then, but I suppose I have always shared her with many, many people. And perhaps that is the essence of her, the feeling that she is always available for everyone. In the family, it meant my father could be available for his extended family, no matter what the need. For her sisters, nieces and nephews, it meant she could be called upon for moral and emotional support whenever they needed it. 
For me...well for me, it showed me how to be.
My mother--Lakshmi--was married a few weeks before she turned nineteen. She was in her third year of a BA, and suddenly from being a student, she found herself as the eldest daughter in law in a family of seven siblings, the youngest of whom was just five years old. My grandfather had passed away several years earlier, leaving my father as de facto “head” and main support of the family. Within the year, they sat in loco parentis at two weddings, and then became parents themselves. 
For the first fifteen years of my life, we lived mostly in a joint family, with periods now and then when one or the other brothers traveled abroad or on short transfers within the country. The household consisted of two married brothers and their children (by 1968 it was two each), the youngest brother who was just seven years older than me, and Chitti, my grandmother (but more about her some other time). Between her duties as a mother, daughter in law, wife, sister in law and other sundry roles, she found a little time to explore other interests. She taught school briefly, kept in touch with tailoring and embroidery, and of course gave of herself--something that is I think essential to who she is. In 1965, when she had to follow my father to Canada--then a cold, completely unfamiliar country--I can only imagine the sense of uncertainty and apprehension (never fear) that she may have felt. In the three years we lived in Calgary, she discovered what it was like to live without family, waiting three weeks or more for a response to a letter (remember, those were the days before direct dialing and the internet was a secret hidden deep in the defense department), experiencing cold that could not even be imagined in south India, and getting used to being stared at as she walked around in her sari and long plait. She learned how to drive, to punch computer cards, to shop in large supermarkets, and also, to manage the early months of pregnancy without the doting attentions of family (my brother was born soon after we returned to India in 1968).
We came back once again to life in a joint family, with its own joys and frustrations, good times and bad. Decisions had to be shared, time was never one’s own. But it is perhaps to her credit (and of course the other adults in the house) that for the children, it was a wonderful place to be. There was always someone to play and fight with, and someone to stand up for you when one of the parents was mad with you.  Amma and my aunt, Vijaya Chitti, did most things together. They sewed together, shopped together, planned festivals together, took trips apart so there was always someone at home to take care of things while the other was all, it appeared to be a completely harmonious existence. Only now, as an adult and mother myself, do I understand the dreams and desires that a young woman (she was 28 when we returned) may have had to set aside to create such harmony.
Amma went back to teaching many years later, having done a BEd through correspondence after she was done with “mothering”--I had gone off to the US to do my master’s and my brother was “safely” in college. When my father retired and they moved into their own house in Secunderabad, she went back to being a full time homemaker. Her weekends were filled with visits from grandchildren, and she rediscovered some of her other interests--gardening, reading, and craft.
Her ability to give of herself found fulfilment during this time, when she joined a group of like minded people who were running a counseling centre called Seva. It was in Seva I think that she has found a space that nurtures this part of herself, her ability to give unstintingly and without favor. She listens with as much compassion and interest to a young girl who has been left in the city by poor parents, to fend for herself, as she does to a middle class housewife experiencing domestic discord, or a software professional trying to come to terms with varying expectations from family and work. 

I suppose you could say hers is an ordinary life--insofar as any of us live "ordinary" lives. But for me, I cannot begin to count the ways in which she has contributed to the person I am. It is more about what she has not done--or more correctly, what she has abstained from doing. She has never told me what she expects of me, or what I must do or not do. My life has been remarkably empty of parental force or direction, but it is precisely because of that that I have found a direction that is my own, and I am stronger for that. She listens without judgment, and when I complain, she neither supports me nor tells me what to do--but that tells me more than any specific piece of advice could. She is perhaps the most noninterfering and nonjudgmental person I know. One of my friends said "there's a quietness" about her that radiates a sense of peace and comfort.
I have much more of her now than I ever did as a child. She makes it possible for me to have a successful career, for me to pursue my own dreams and desires, and her home continues to be an extension of my own. It’s a space that begs to be shared, just like its owner, and we have taken full advantage of that. She, along with her friend, my mother in law, have added touches like the kolam on the terracotta walls of our compound, that make our home a welcoming and friendly space. My friends have often said that they feel more welcome in my mother’s house than my own, and my children lounge around with their friends in “Ammamma’s house”  more often than they do in mine. She continues to be engaged with art and craft, and spreads her work around generously. Almost every member of the family has received a Thanjavur painting done by her, and almost every child has worn a smock or a frock embroidered and tailored by her. She has been available for nieces and nephews, sisters and sisters in law, just as much as she has for me. What it’s meant for me is a legacy of goodwill and affection, the spoils of her exercises in giving!
And that continues to be a lesson for life. It’s a tough one to learn--but watching her, I am amazed at how easily it comes to her. To give of herself--her time, her attention, her energies--is first nature to her.