By Hema Padhu
As I saw my mother walk out of the international terminal at the San Francisco Airport barely able to push the cart stuffed with two enormous suitcases, I hardly recognized her.
The mother of my childhood was a stout, severe-looking authoritarian. “Don’t just sit there wasting your time—do something!” was her favorite mantra. She played the role of a mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, and career woman with a sort of zeal that was impressive, intimidating, and almost always exhausting to watch.
Now my eyes rested on a short, drooping woman in her late sixties. Her shoulders curved in weighed down by some invisible burden. Her once long, dark hair, turned salt and pepper, was gathered in a small bun at her nape. White sneakers stuck out conspicuously, at odds with her festive silk saree and the bright red bindi on her forehead. She blinked nervously, scanning the crowd for my familiar face. When exactly did my mother, the invincible superhero of my childhood, shrink into this fragile, vulnerable person? The transformation felt both rapid and stealthy (hadn’t I seen her just a few years ago?). I was not only unprepared for it, I was suddenly aware of the role reversal and unsure of how to navigate this new shift in power.
I hurried towards her, trying to mask my surprise, and gave her a hug, breathing in the familiar smell of Ponds cold cream and coconut oil. I felt her papery lips kiss me on both cheeks and sensed in her touch both excitement and trepidation as if she couldn’t believe she had crossed the ocean to visit her daughter in America. The country I had chosen over my birthplace. The country I now called home and to which she had lost me almost fifteen years ago.
When I left Madras for Chicago, I was twenty-five and too old to be living at home with my parents, but this was the early nineties and Brahmin girls like me left home either married (usually arranged) or dead. Neither option was particularly appealing to me. Luckily, I wriggled through a loophole that middle-class India, especially Tamil Brahmins, couldn’t resist: education. I headed to Northwestern University to get my master’s degree.
That day, our home was a tornado of activity, and my mother was at the eye of the storm with a single-minded goal—sending her oldest daughter safely to America. Dad reconfirmed my flight, and my brother was dispatched for the third time to check on the taxi’s arrival. My sister, with rising exasperation, was stuffing my suitcase with things my mother deemed necessary, if not critical, for my life abroad: rice, lentils, spices, pickles, a pressure cooker, and an Idli steamer. I, of course, had no say in the matter whatsoever. “When you land in Illinois”—my mother enunciated the s at the end with a hiss—“and want to make sambar, you’ll thank me.”
I was raised in a traditional “Tam Bram” (short for Tamil Brahmin) home, and my mother had decided that her primary duty was to equip her daughters with skills essential to fulfilling their life’s mission: finding a suitable husband and raising a family. This included learning to cook all the traditional South Indian dishes, studying classical Indian music and dance, and learning the bafflingly nuanced rites, rituals, and superstitions that came with an orthodox Tamil Brahmin way of life—touch your right elbow with your left hand while lighting an oil lamp, prostrate two or four times (not thrice!) at the feet of an elder, and my favorite, when you leave the house never shout, “I’m leaving,” say “I’ll be back.”
I watched my mother juggle the binding responsibilities that accompanied a woman born into an orthodox Brahmin family and a career in banking (unusual in those days) with only a high school diploma. She could have a career as long as she didn’t neglect the duties and obligations of a good Brahmin woman. This meant she was the first to rise, often as early as four a.m., and the last to retire. She kept up with all the rituals and traditions expected of her, tended to the needs of our five-member household while advancing her career and doggedly pursuing her various interests that ranged from learning Sanskrit to playing the violin. Like a bonsai tree, she found a way to grow within her established confines and she somehow made it all seem effortless. She had, without explicitly intending to, passed on her independent, ambitious spirit to me.
My mother careened between pride and despair as the days of my impending journey neared. Part of her was deeply dismayed about sending me to a country thousands of miles away, one she had only seen on TV. She worried that the conservative values she had so painstakingly instilled in me wouldn’t withstand the liberal assault of the West. Part of her was very proud and excited that I was making this westward journey—a first for our family and a woman, no less. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor but had to give up her education to care for her sister who had been incapacitated by polio. She married my father at the tender age of nineteen and had me at twenty-one. My siblings followed shortly thereafter. Her life was never carefree, and she wanted more for her daughters. She wanted us to live freely without societal expectations clinging to us like a petulant child.
I, on the other hand, was already in Chicago. In my mind, I had left the familiar landscape of my Indian life far behind to stroll the streets of Evanston, drive along Lake Shore Drive, and soak up campus life. After years of living under the iron fist of a highly competent but controlling mother, who had either directly managed my affairs or influenced my life decisions, I couldn’t wait to leave it all behind and start fresh in a new place. A place she couldn’t get to easily.
My mother responded to my excitement with an equal measure of fire and ice—one minute sending the household into a tizzy with her rapid-fire marching orders to prepare for my departure, and the next sulking in the prayer room with her books and prayer beads. When friends or neighbors threw a party for me, she would make excuses not to attend. I was annoyed by what I misjudged as petulance (she should be happy for me!). I failed to understand that my eagerness to get away from the home and family she had worked so tirelessly to create only substantiated the fact that I could leave. She couldn’t even if she wanted to.
Three weeks later, as I was navigating the aisles of the local grocery store in Evanston, I stood there, teary-eyed, unable to choose from among the numerous brands of neatly stacked shelves of tea. My mother would have picked out just the right type of black tea to make that perfect cup of chai. My sambar never tasted like hers, and my kitchen could never smell like hers—a seductive mix of sandalwood, turmeric, and curry leaves. I missed her strength, her confidence that everyone’s problem could be solved with a good home cooked meal, her remarkable faith in some universal power that would make things work out just fine for everyone, especially her children. I missed her rare and awkward display of affection (“you’re so thin, eat some more” or “don’t be out in the sun too much, you’ll get dark and then who’ll marry you?”) I even missed her marching orders.
Fifteen years had passed since I left my hometown and a lot had changed in both our lives. My sister married and moved to Malaysia. My brother followed me to America. Suddenly, empty nesters, my parents were nearly strangers. Their marriage, a brittle shell they both chose not to shed. A marriage that was once bonded by children was now held together by familiarity and obligation.
My mother followed my life from afar, reading and hearing about it through snippets in e-mails and static-filled phone conversations: graduation, new jobs, new homes, new adventures in new cities with strange names. Each step forward in my American life seemed to drive a wider wedge between us. The more independent and confident I became, the less I relied on her. She had a life scripted for me: a successful Western life on the outside—respectable education, career advancements, and professional success—and a traditional Eastern life on the inside—a successful (preferably wealthy) Indian husband, a couple of adorable kids, a suburban home where I kept all the Tam Bram traditions alive. I couldn’t blame her—it was what she wanted for herself.
While I happily embraced the former, I resolutely rejected the latter. I married a kind artist who lived modestly after abandoning his career as a geologist to pursue his passion in filmmaking. Although a South Indian like me, his Tamil was terrible. He could barely sit crossed legged on the floor (a basic requirement for a Brahmin) let alone be well versed in all the Tam Bram traditions. Neither of us wanted to have children, which bitterly disappointed my mother. She was convinced that I was missing out on a defining life experience. I refused to blindly follow the Brahmin traditions, declaring myself spiritual and not religious. With every passing day, I was becoming more of a stranger to her. She struggled to understand my new life and the different set of values I was embracing. Yet secretly, I wanted her approval, wanted her to accept my choices, even as I defied her traditional wisdom.
When my husband and I separated amicably after seven years, I agonized for days about sharing this news with my mother. This was yet another first in our family and not a first to be proud of. I had to share this news across a transcontinental phone line, not an ideal medium for such a personal conversation. I mentally prepared myself for her reaction. How would I respond if she reproached me? What would I do if she hung up on me? What if she started to cry or scream at me? I had replayed all these scenarios over and over in my head and crafted “mature responses”—take the high road, I told myself—for each of these potential outcomes.
Finally, one morning I gathered the courage to call her. She listened patiently. After I finished, there was a long pause. Just when I thought that she had hung up on me she asked, “What took you so long?”
It was the one scenario I wasn’t prepared for. Surprised, I blubbered incoherently and she said simply, “I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to spend a minute longer in a life where you are not happy.”
She refused to let me dither about in self-doubt and pessimism and with her trademark unflappable spirit she reached across the ten-thousand-mile divide—I could almost feel her hand on the small of my back—to guide me gently yet firmly towards a brighter future that she was certain was waiting for me. She was in my corner after all. In fact, she had never left.
Over the next few years, our bond, which had floundered due to distance and years of separation, strengthened. I found myself sharing fragments of my life I had never dared to share with her: my fears and anxieties, my stumbling dating life, my travel adventures and misadventures, my hopes of rebuilding my life after my divorce. In the beginning, she mostly listened, but slowly she started to open up. About her own dreams, disappointments, failures, and joys.
I felt privileged. Singled out from my siblings. Her confidante. I remembered a time, not too long ago, when we couldn’t have a conversation without either one of us bursting into tears or storming out of the room. We argued incessantly about everything from hairstyles to grades to boys. After years of mother-daughter strife, we found ourselves embracing our strengths and vulnerabilities, instead of being repelled by them. We were connecting as adults, as women from different generations trying to find our own place in this world.
Now she was finally here. I would have her all to myself for three whole weeks. Our past stood between us both binding and dividing us. My life here continued to puzzle her and I was just beginning to piece together hers. Somehow we managed to establish a connection between our divergent worlds and we found ourselves clinging to it. Each day provided an opportunity to strengthen that fragile bond. As I walked her to my car, my arm around her thin shoulders, I felt that same anticipation that I felt years ago when I left her home. Only this time, I couldn’t wait to bring her into to mine.
HEMA PADHU is a writer, professor, and marketer. Her writing has been published by Litro Magazine and American Literary Review. She lives in San Francisco and is working on a short story collection.