Grandmas, Moms, Daughters and Granddaughters

It has been so long since I wrote anything that I am having some trouble taking the first few steps again. I feel as though I might stumble and fall and I picture myself falling off a wheelchair, crawling ahead while a glowing figure in white beckons, signaling me forward saying, “Come on, you can do it, you can do it, it’s just like riding a bicycle!”

(This all knowing, glowing figure in white didn’t do enough research to find out that I never learnt how to ride a bicycle either…but that’s a discussion for another day.)

I was reading obsessively and thinking about things while I wasn’t writing. I felt (actually knew it with certainty) as though everything I would ever want to say had already been said and that my thoughts and ideas weren’t novel and there wasn’t anything unique or singular about my perspective. So why write?

I am trying to overcome that particular speed bump today by telling myself that if I can’t stand out from the multitudes then perhaps I should add my voice in unison and just write about whatever everyone else is writing in this viral world of ours.

My friend Shankari tagged me on a mommy post yesterday (I doubt there are any blogging mommies left who haven’t received this tag yet…time to move on to daddies). This was a rather welcome tag because there was some hope that it would pull me out of the writer’s block in which I find myself firmly cemented.

(The last few paragraphs are still me crawling on all fours toward the muse-like figure in white. I am struggling with the ordering of my thoughts, struggling with coherence. Perhaps this entire post will be a long struggle, followed by some warm-up exercises, some stretching; some flexing of fingers with the hope of eventual culmination into an ordered and coherent march of words. Readers would have to sit through some meandering and random thoughts and lots of backstory before I actually get to the Mommy tag. Also, note that I said I have been reading obsessively so be prepared for some random quotes.)

I don’t have the words to explain how I felt when I saw a black and white picture of my mother from the time when she was five years old, c. 1946. I had never before seen a picture of my Mom as a little girl. There were tons of pictures of my Dad at every age but no pictures of my Mom in any family albums. As a kid I used to go through the old scrapbooks with their quaint little corners painstakingly glued to each page and each picture carefully inserted within. But they were pictures of my Dad, my paternal uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins. The first time my Mom was ever photographed appeared to have been after her wedding. We wondered about the absence of photography in her family (as I write this I feel like spoofing “The Flintstones” theme song – Jha-jis/ you were the Jha-ji’s/ weren’t you a modern stone-age fam -i -ly …don’t be mad, Mommy!). It wasn’t as though photography wasn’t relished by all in the 1940s.

The story we were told was that all my Mom’s pictures had been spirited away by her younger brother, my uncle, the self-appointed family archivist. He had left home early for studies and then for a mining engineer’s job in coal town – Dhanbad. His visits back home were infrequent and he was never with his albums on the rare occasions that we did see him. I don’t recall our family ever making a trip to Dhanbad. Whenever the subject of pictures came up we were told that pictures existed and that my uncle had them all.

So my brother and I had always been very curious about how our Mom looked as a kid, who were the people she had been photographed with, what unique expressions characterized her childhood.

My uncle, who had been so distant to us and to the rest of his family over all these years, is closer to us now in this era of super connectivity through social networking. We still never get to see him but we chat with him often and he is now scanning some of the pictures from his collection and emailing them to us. The first picture to have arrived in our mailboxes the other day was this one:

Photobucket

When my brother first saw it I was told he said, “I’ve waited 39 years to see this picture!” He started waiting for it the year he was born. I am a couple of years older but I really have been waiting that long to see it.

To other readers of this blog this would just appear like a faded picture from a stranger’s past but when I first saw it a few weeks ago I couldn’t stop staring at it. Even after these past few weeks my fascination with it hasn’t waned. I click it open once every day, just to take another look. I am not sure why it holds my interest to such an inexplicable degree. Perhaps it’s the uncanny resemblance between my Mom at that age and my daughter now…the style of her dress, the headband in her hair. Perhaps I am surprised at my oldest uncle sporting sunglasses; an image of him that I can’t reconcile with how he looks now. My archivist uncle is standing in the middle. My grandma, in whose expression I see glimpses of my own, is holding her fourth surviving child (her seventh – she had five others after him) – a late and favorite uncle who grew up to be an artist, a musician, a sculptor …someone who burnt bright before he left us all in 1986.

But it’s my Mom who holds my interest the most. She looks exactly like her granddaughter would look sixty years from the time when she posed for that photograph when she couldn’t even imagine that one day she would be a much adored grandma.

I look at the picture and I think about the things that could have been going through her mind. I wonder if she had a similar relationship to her mom that I’ve had with her and that my daughter has with me. My grandma’s attentions had to have been divided between four young kids at that time. Did she have time to pamper my Mom as a five year old should be? Or is pampering an invention of our time?

I also can’t help thinking, had I seen this picture when I was a child I would have thought of it as unbelievably ancient. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, the 40s felt too distant to contemplate; heck it was “pre-Independence”! Now, when I look at this picture I feel as though this wasn’t so long ago…as if the passage of time is a meaningless construct of the mind.

Anoushka, at seven, thinks about the things that happened to her when she was four or five and says,”Mommy, that was such a long time ago!” I am always momentarily stunned when she says that because that was only three years away for me. I moved to the US twenty one years ago. It’s as though I blinked and lost twenty one years in the process. So the photograph above is only three or so blinks away, by the “blink” standard I’ve devised today.

What was it like for my Mom when I was seven? Or for that matter when I was seventeen or twenty seven? Did she wonder about the passage of time? Through all those years I was nothing if not entirely self-absorbed. Most of my thoughts were about me, the selfishness was perhaps natural for that age but deplorable in retrospect. I can’t say I’ve changed much now but I am certainly trying.

Today I wonder what it was like for my Mom to be my mother over those years, did she sacrifice her dreams and passions to feed the monster that was our selfishness as kids? What did she think about when she wasn’t thinking about me or my brother or my Dad? What was her inner world like; a world where she wasn’t Pragya or Samir’s Mom but herself, just herself?

I remember her enrolling for French classes at the Alliance Francaise in Delhi for a brief period. I liked it when she did that. I do remember feeling proud that she was doing that for herself. But it was a superficial thought, a fleeting one, after which I retreated into my world of schoolgirl anguishes, wants, needs etc.

I read an article about moms and daughters this morning, in The New Yorker. It made me think about an amusing incident from the day before when my Mom, who is well versed in email, Internet and social networking was suddenly stumped yesterday while chatting with me when I casually used the abbreviation “brb” with her. I had a visitor in my office and I needed to tell her that I would be right back (brb) but she was quite flummoxed at that. She typed, “What is brb?” before disappearing from chat. After my visitor left I had to call her back to tell her I wasn’t being rude and that brb simply meant “be right back”. It was fun to call her back and explain that bit of chatting jargon to her.

The article was about the emails Moms of a certain age send their grown up daughters and the daughters thinking how these missives were often amusing and “quaint”. It was an enjoyable read. But within this article was a mom quoted as saying:

“Children are always at the center of the parents’ universe and parents are always at the periphery”.

That quote certainly gave me some pause as I thought about the one-way street that parental love so often is. Parents of every generation end up at the periphery of their children’s lives. I can almost picture neverending concentric circles, from the beginning of time, with peripheries and centers constantly flowing out into each other, ad infinitum, underscoring with such undeniable certitude that our roles in life are nothing more than being transmitters of the human genetic code through time. All other concerns, anxieties, angst, plans, joys, sorrows are just fleeting images during our code-carrying lives.

As I think about these things I finally feel ready to add my bit to the mommy tag where I am required to write about the five things that I love about being a mother.

I had mentioned to Shankari that this was a tough tag in many ways because I doubt I have ever thought about the things I love about being a mother. When I look at my daughter I think about the things I love about having a daughter.

I suppose the selfishness and self-absorption that I talked about earlier in this long ramble hasn’t quite left me yet. Within me there is still this desire to be at the center of my own universe as well as hers. I am still very resistant to the idea of accepting with grace that no matter how it seems during these early days of my daughter’s childhood, there will come a time when her world will not revolve around me, when she won’t need me as much and there would be times when she wouldn’t even want me around.

But what I love about being a mother and having a daughter at this point in time is that I am learning to share my central spot, in my own universe, with my daughter. She is slowly but surely bumping me to the edges of my existence, but I am enjoying the gentle bumps and am still very much in the center. I like sharing that spot with her, I love not being alone in this spot.

I love the finesse with which she manages to strip away from me my creeping cynicism, with one twinkling look in her eye.

I love to watch her sleep; I can stare at her for hours on end without any desire to tear my gaze away from her. She enchants me and leaves me at a loss for words to describe how I feel about her and when I am so lost for words the meaning of ‘love’ finally becomes clear to me. This vast feeling of ever expanding joy and fullness that I feel when she falls asleep in my arms of drapes her arms and legs all around me as she sleeps.

My heart breaks at the slightest thing that makes her cry. She shed anguished tears last night when her pollen allergies made her eyes itch and burn and when she couldn’t sleep at night because her nose was blocked. Tears were streaming down her face as she told me how much she hated the allergy season. These were tears of frustration at minor discomfort, not extreme sadness. But they wrenched my heart and all I could think about was getting her to smile again. In that instant I wasn’t thinking about myself at all. She was my only thought, my only concern, her immediate comfort my only goal. I love the fact that she can bring out that side of me, she makes me feel human, grounded, capable of providing comfort, care and hope.

I think about my own asthma attacks as a kid and how panicked my Mom used to be. My Mom also tells stories of the time when she was ill as a child. She says she was weakened by illness and her parents used to keep watch at night, all night to make sure she was still breathing. She was the first surviving daughter after three who hadn’t made it.

I love being a Mom because my daughter puts me in touch with the part of me that’s good and wholesome, the part that’s not on an endless quest for illusory satiation.

And that very long ramble, my friends, is what I have been thinking about for the last few days.

Monsters under the bed

We had a discussion last night about how in a couple of weeks, after her 7th birthday, she would really need to start sleeping in her own room. She has made several failed attempts but somehow the monsters under the bed have been relentless in their pursuit of little girls and she sleeps with us, legs flung across my belly.

I leave home before she wakes up. On most days I don’t see her again till 8 at night and I can’t put myself in her position, even though my memories go as far back as the time when I was three years old. I remember things with great clarity and haven’t forgotten how it is to be a child, not yet. But I don’t know what it’s like to not have one’s mom around all the time.

On certain occasions, I remember how a band of pressure used to build up right across the bridge of the nose and then spread to the eyelids before the deluge of tears started. I remember how easy it was to cry, for awhile…for a few years… and then how much of an effort it took to learn how not to cry…in later years, despite the unbearable pressure on the bridge of the nose and the eyelids.

Last night I insisted that she should start thinking about sleeping in her own room after September 17th. She told me she would try but introduced a contingency whereby if she got scared she would still have the option to come back to our room. I held my ground, saying that coming back to our room wasn’t an option because she is a big girl now and because she knows there are no monsters and no nameless scary things in her room. I saw her staring straight ahead for sometime and then I knew at once that she was feeling that familiar pressure…sure enough tears were just a fraction of an instant away.

I am realizing now that I can’t bear to see her cry, there is no force as powerful as her tears, as far as I’m concerned. I am always ready to give her the world, if she so desires, but her tears would always make me give it to her sooner.

I know it isn’t because of some misplaced sense of guilt I feel about not being around too much and I know she can learn about this power she has over me; kids are good at developing formulas of the nature: tears = rewards, but I react this way because I am convinced about her inherent gentleness. I see qualities in her that I never possessed.

In many ways, I see myself in her; I see a younger me. There are some very familiar signs…only… she is not me…she is so much better, someone with a heart of gold as her teacher insists. There is so much innocence, such gentleness, such fierce intelligence and creativity in those twinkling eyes that it breaks my heart if I ever see tears brimming over those eyelids.

So, I relented, of course. I told her she could come back and sleep with us if her room got too scary for her. I wiped her tears away and asked her to smile.

She gave me a bright smile but said, “I don’t know what it is about tears, mommy. They just don’t stop once they start coming. I am not sad now, I’m happy…but tears are funny. Sometimes they just don’t stop.”

I told her I knew exactly what she meant.

And here’s the little one


DSCN2035
Originally uploaded by pragya_67

Enjoy!

She clambers over things

When we’re just having a conversation about things, she clambers over the bed post while talking and punctuates her sentences with the last thump of a somersault. She paces when she is on the phone; in perpetual motion. I marvel at the energy.

I have been rather static and conservative with my ranges of motion. For the longest time (even now) my parents and other ridicule me for doing things with one hand. I never quite understood that bit of criticism, I wondered why they wanted to see me using two hands when one hand sufficed for the action…it wasn’t as if I was dropping objects that I chose to only hold with one hand. But that’s it, they still say things like, “फिर एक हाथ से…” (again using only one hand). Maybe the criticism is about something deeper than just my manner of doing the task at hand. Perhaps they are envious of my potential energy reserves 😉

One clear memory of animation is from my first trip to the US embassy in Delhi. I had gone to get my American passport. Had been sitting in the line, drinking Cherry Coke, something I hadn’t had outside of the embassy and marveling at the cool American things that would soon be within reach. When the time came to go inside and pick up my US passport after pledging allegiance, I noticed a person at the counter, chatting with her friend. Perhaps she was describing an event from the night before or just something she had been doing, but she was talking with her body, her arms, her legs, she was in a very animated state. I watched her and wondered if all Americans were so energetic, so animated. I read something later on in a book going to America for the first time, it mentioned the bit about 3 feet of space between people and that this unstated space convention often caused discomfort in interpersonal interactions. I remember thinking to myself, no wonder they need all that space, they need room for the hand gestures and the swirls and twirls.

So from my sedate state I now witness my clambering, somersaulting daughter in perpetual motion and wonder if it is a cultural thing or is it a deeper reflection on our personalities.

Tell me the truth Mommy…

She isn’t fooled too easily. She is increasingly convinced that things that appear fictitious are generally fiction. She takes pride in providing the recently learned scientific explanations of things. So when this question penetrated my rather preoccupied consciousness the other day, “Mommy, tell me the truth, nothing but the truth!”

“Ok baby, ask!”

“Is Santa real?”

So I said to her, “No, honey, Santa isn’t real. Usually Dads dress up as Santa and leave gifts under the Christmas tree.”

After making my true statement I went back to doing whatever it was that I was doing. That is, until the silence in the room was interrupted by stifled sobs. I stopped what I was doing to pry away the hands that were now covering the tear-stained face.

“What happened, baby? Why are you crying?”

“You said Santa wasn’t real!”

So much for “nothing but the truth”

“Oh no! I was just messing with you sweetie! Of course he’s real! I was kidding! Now stop crying, c’mon, wipe away those tears.”

And just as easily all was right in her world again, Santa returned to his rightful place in reality.

The next morning there was a letter written and addressed to Santa and the search for stamps and envelope was on.

The problem with the Santa bit and the Christmas tree and tinsels, ornaments, gifts etc. is that it isn’t a part of my history or my traditions. I have nothing against Christmas, in fact I have no thoughts about Christmas at all! But now I need to try and not break her heart and think about putting in place some sort of Christmas/Holiday traditions. Then what about Hanukkah?

She made me a beautiful picture of the Star of David and a menorah and wrote a special Hanukkah message for me on it. I called it beautiful and tacked it up on the refrigerator, listened with great concentration and real interest to whatever she had been told in school about Hanukkah. Then somehow, the Hanukkah picture slipped off the refrigerator door and got lost and once again I had a sobbing little girl asking me what happened to her Hanukkah picture. We had to turn the house upside down to find it.

My thoughts naturally drift to how little we did for Diwali. There were no cards or pictures made for Diwali, not much mention of it at all except when we did a sort of Puja in the evening along the lines of what Mom had suggested. But not much else.

The teachers in her school didn’t say anything about Diwali, and the little Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa celebrators didn’t go home to their mommies and daddies spreading Diwali cheer either.

Should they? I don’t know.

Is it important for her to know about Diwali? Again, I don’t know.

There’s a chance she’ll grow up and ask, “what do WE celebrate?” or we might turn into this Christmas and Hanukkah celebrating family so that the questions about our celebrations never really arise and I don’t know which I prefer!

Smiling Sun

The sun is always smiling as it hangs on the bright blue ceiling of a cloudless sky while smiling people with long eyelashes, pert noses and upturned mouths take walks with their kids and dogs and cats on the green grass floor. They never stray too far from the tall home with curtained windows and elaborate, transomed doors. The hearth must always be warm as the smoke leaves the chimney in swirling wisps, birds fly in formation and no picture is ever complete without hearts, flowers and butterflies.

Every picture declares love in letters that took on a distinct personality, a definite tilt and an undisguised flair only yesterday. Every picture is a priceless gift that transforms itself into instant refrigerator art.

May the sun always smile on you through cloudless skies and yes my dear, a heart full of love is the most important thing in the world!

A Day with Princess Aurora

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

It was still dark outside, the stars were out and she was probably in the final stages of the deepest part of her sleep cycle. I was wide awake and dressed, rushing around collecting my keys, my gloves and other things that get dumped into the cavernous spaces of my large, brown, leather bag. I was probably going to miss my bus again and I knew I was forgetting something. I ran through the list of things that I always needed to carry and couldn’t think of a single missing thing, but the feeling remained. I decided to leave. As I was walking out I caught sight of her legs. They had poked out of the blanket. I had left them there in that position as I had extricated myself from their possessive comfort about an hour ago, those tiny legs that stayed flung across my belly all night long. I smiled at her nightly request, “Mommy, can you please come to bed now so I can throw my legs around you?” And that’s where they stayed through every turn and changing of sides. For the rest of the day all I would have of her would be the memory of those cute, yet graceful legs that were peeking out from under the blanket this morning.

Another one of those days that would see us separated by 54 long miles. I would have no way of knowing how her day was going. Miss Maguire would stuff her backpack full of notes that I wouldn’t find or read until it was too late. She always draws smiley faces next to a polite request that we open up our child’s backpack for important messages from the teacher. I remember to do it three out of the five days of the week. It still hasn’t become a habit. I can foresee a time when the notes would end with frownies instead of smileys. Meanwhile the neighborhood kids are registered in gymnastics, ballet, tennis or karate classes. Their moms are dutifully transporting them from one event or another to the next thing in their busy little schedules. My daughter is surrounded by little ballerinas, black belts or gymnasts while I field stern gazes and sanctimonious lectures from the neighborhood delinquent mom patrol. I have women telling me how important it is for me to be with my child, another who wants me to do something to ease my husband’s levels of stress, apparently it’s his stress that’s making such a smoker out of him. He needs his cigarettes you see, a need of which I am unaware.

The sanctimony of gossipy neighbors aside, I was open enough to the suggestion that my family is probably not getting as much attention from me as they should be. There are signs of frayed nerves everywhere, signs that we all need our lives to take a different course. The realization that baby steps in the right direction would help me get there allowed me to spend Halloween at home. It would have been too much to ask hubby to be in charge of the costuming and make-up of Princess Aurora’s trick-or-treating day as I lived it up as a cubicle fixture at work. It was probably the best decision I had ever made. Trick-or-treat was a delight, a pure treat for me.

I had been hearing about Princess Aurora for months now. The figurine at the end of her pink umbrella was Princess Aurora I was told. I asked who Princess Aurora was and never got an answer that went beyond, “She is a princess!” No one I knew had heard of this princess, yet this is who she wanted to be for Halloween. Someone then asked if it could be Princess Sleeping Beauty and sure enough a Google search confirmed it! So now we knew! I woke up early and made sure my Princess Aurora looked pretty in pink, not a hair out of place and the tiara perched atop. Sleeping Beauty was awake, excited and radiant. This was the first time in five years that I actually took the time to enjoy Halloween with her. It isn’t an Indian celebration and it has never been a day for which I cared. I didn’t bother to dress her up as a pumpkin or a honeybee the first two years. In her third year I adapted a black sweater of mine to serve as a witch’s outfit for her, no one knew what she was supposed to be, poor thing! Last year I wasn’t around but her Grandma made sure she went out to collect her treats dressed as Cinderella, I only saw pictures. So this year was my first mother-daughter Halloween experience. It also was the first time that I waited with her at the bus stop, saw her climb up the stairs, find herself a seat in the yellow bus and wave to me for a long time as she shouted, “Bye Mommy!” while the bus pulled away. Yes there was a pressure behind my eyelids and tears were straining to spill.

I counted the hours on Halloween, staring at the clock, waiting for sunset so I could take her a-begging for treats and showing the Princess off to the neighbors. I picked her up from school, touched up her make-up and off we were! There were oohs and ahs all around as people told her how pretty she looked and dropped candy in her bag. She was beaming and I was beaming right back at her. It was a sweet day indeed.

Now it’s two days later, I couldn’t sleep past 4 AM. I am typing away, her legs are still draped around me. I stared at her for an hour before picking up the computer, observing the rapid eye movement stage of her sleep. Her eyes are moving, they are half open, I am wondering where she is in her land of dragons, unicorns, princesses and fairies, for there is a mysterious wisp of a smile on her face. And then her hand reaches out and curls around my neck.

It is still dark outside but the clock says it’s five, the time to pull myself away from the tiny limbs draped around me, leaving tiny feet peeking out from under the blanket. But I know baby steps will get me there.

  • Follow Curlicues's Weblog on WordPress.com