08 May 2011


Amma, in tamil, means mother. It’s what I call my mother, and because my friends didn’t realise that “amma” is just our word for mother (or, quite possibly, because they realised it), they ended up calling my mother by “Amma” as well. I think that it secretly pleased her, because she never bothered to correct it.

Amma tells me stories about how when I was young, I would constantly have her in my line of sight somewhere, and keep a peripheral ear out for what she was talking about. I actually know what she’s talking about, because there are multiple occasions when she thought I was playing with my friends, and I’d quote what one of her friends was saying. Whether it be because she spent the most time and effort on her pregnancy and childhood with me out of all her children (or so I like to think so; she would drink a large tumbler of grass juice every morning to ensure healthy milk for me, and that’s just one sliver of the things she would do to make sure I got only the best of the best of everything), or because of all her children, I think I have had a relationship with her as a peer as well as a son, I am truly her son. She never addressed me with things like “You’ll do so because I said so,” or “You wouldn’t understand.” She taught me from a very young age that if you ask, you’ll eventually find an answer. Maybe not immediately right at that moment, but to trust her that she’d come back to me with an answer that was considered and thought out.

It was like when I asked her why we’re vegetarian. She explained that it was because in our culture and family, that’s just what we did. I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, and she admitted that she had never really thought about it. Over time, however, she took me to vegetarian potlucks, and introduced me to various vegan and vegetarian activists, who did have a more cleanly articulated line of thinking for leaving the animals alone. Although she didn’t give me the answer as soon as I asked it, she lead me to find it on my own.

That’s the other thing. She never dismissed any of my questions as trivial. She somehow knew that I’m one of those people who considers, and reads, and looks for it on his own before having to ask her or anyone else. I remember one summer when I decided to read the as many of the Hindu scriptures as possible. We had multiple copies of multiple books around, and I had the spare time to do it. I stumbled across something discussing the four Yugas (divisions of Hindu mythological history). I knew we are living in the Kali yuga, but I didn’t know how far along we are, or how long each one is. She admitted that she didn’t know, but that she would find out if she could. A day or so later, she came back to me and explained that she had called a priest at the temple, and asked him. He gave her the exact breakdown in years, and she jotted them down for me. Most people would have left it at “I don’t know.”

She fostered my love for being in the kitchen. When you’re feeding a family of six, you’re going to end up spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Since that’s where she was, I’d go hang out with her there. She’d then assign me some small task, and the two of us would keep talking, while working on the meal. Over time, she grew to trust me enough to handle entire dishes, or in some cases, the whole dinner, for when guests came over. She would openly brag to her friends that her son is not only well read, can keep conversations with people much older than himself, and didn’t watch junky TV as much as he watched nature documentaries and the like, but he is also a talented cook, who is comfortable in the kitchen, and is happy to help her. The other mothers would turn green with envy, thinking of the hours they’d spend alone in the kitchen.

She values my opinion. When we get the chance to chat on the phone, the conversation often stretches from a few minutes, and a quick question, into a marathon session for a couple of hours at a stretch. Mind you, she’s the type of person who will take multiple viewpoints, and eventually come to her own decision, after thinking it over for a while, but I know that she gives what I have to say a lot of weight in the grand scheme of things. When she was skirting the edges of menopause, I went out and read every book, journal article and website I could get my hands on, and distill it down into a conversation about what’s going on and how to cope with it. She’s always been so proud of that ability of mine. I enjoy reading things that teach me something new, and I enjoy talking about what I’ve learned.

I remember one night, she listened to me rambling on about some of the reading that I had done about language development in children, when she was nervous about my sister’s son’s speech. He didn’t start talking as soon as she’d seen other children talking. (For the record, this is no longer an issue; the trick is to get him to stop talking! He’s too cute for words, and speaks clearly and at length.) I don’t know how long I chattered on about it, but she patiently listened to it, with only the occasional diversion or question.

I can talk to her about nothing at all, or everything, and both of us enjoy it. We joke that whoever is responsible for wire tapping my phone must be ready to end it all, because we have the most boring, mundane conversations. Frequent (and I mean close to half the call) topics include the cost of rice, vegetables, and the sales we got at the various stroes we shop at. Then, we talk about what we made with the things we bought. I’m seriously not joking. Then, in between, there will be some philosophical discussion about human nature, or a quick story about what her grandson did that day, or how Steve did something else.

She taught me that the best seasoning for food is having people you enjoy being around to share it with. That food is at its most powerful when it’s shared with as many people as possible. That the value you give something is far more important than its cost. (Actually, come to think of it, the value of something is often increased exponentially with how little it cost. I made her this ugly, lumpy bowl in art class in 6th grade. She kept it for years to hold her pens. I think she still has it somewhere, still holding pens.)

She reinforced, time and again, that no problem is too big or scary to talk through. That the way to get around things is to talk it out. That literally /no/ trouble her children get themselves into is too great to get past, and move on from. Steve came into our lives five years ago. He came suddenly, and without discussion. “How was your summer, Dinu?” “It was great. I got married.” (This is after they got back from being in India for a year.) “Oh. That’s great. What’s her name.” “His name is Steve.”

A couple of weeks later, Steve moved in. All four of us lived together for a year. I’m not sure what acceptance means to others, but having your gay husband living with the family, and introducing the both of us to their friends looks quite accepting to me. No, she’s not marching in a parade, but that’s likely because it’s hotter than the nine hells in June, and her feet would start throbbing within the first mile or so. Yes, we had our problems, but living with someone else is always going to present problems. If I were to see Steve’s family on a daily basis for a year, I’m sure stuff would likely come up that would test the limits of all of our patience. The fact that we’re all still on good terms (good enough terms, that is, that Steve even made a trip or two up to Connecticut to visit with my sister, her husband, and my parents without me) is a lasting testament to that acceptance.

She’s very proud of all my talents, but won’t hesitate to call me on it when she thinks that I’m being an idiot. When Amma and Appa (Appa = father in Tamil) moved up to Connecticut to help my sister settle in, they left Steve and me back at the Florida house. Steve and I lasted about four or five months before giving up on the entire state, and heading for the hills. And by hills, I mean New York. The whole thing was decided and orchestrated in the space or a month. Amma was furious and hurt, not that I was moving, but that I hadn’t said anything until it was too late. Even then, she still kept a couple of her friends on standby, in case we needed a couple of days to land somewhere before finding an apartment. “If you had said something, I could have helped make this so much easier on you. Why did you think you couldn’t talk this over with me?” She always said that she had no illusions about anyone in her life. She saw, and accepted, the good and the bad. It’s why people trust her to give them honest feedback. She doesn’t give empty compliments. If she says something is good, it’s because it’s good. If she says something can use some work, you take that into account, and fix it for the next time.

She taught me, through her actions, that the only person who can stop you from success is yourself. Let everyone else say what they want to say. You just keep your head down, and keep at it. When I was about ten years old, Hurrican Andrew hit Florida, and ravaged Miami. All the apartments that were left over were now going for premium prices. If I’m not mistaken, our landlord wanted to bump up rent after the hurricane, and my mother didn’t think it was feasible for a family of six to live in a three bedroom apartment. She wanted a house.

At the time, my father was pulling in minimum wage. This meant that any house my mother would be looking at had to be, above all else, affordable. The bank wouldn’t approve a loan to someone who doesn’t have the physical money to pay for. Amma worked as a homemaker, and Appa worked at an office. Her requirements were that the house be larger than our apartment, have more than 3 bedrooms, have at least 2 bathrooms, have a decent sized kitchen, be in a decent school district, be in a decent neighbourhood, and be priced at less than $80,000, give or take. Bonus points for being near major highways, and near the Hindu temple. Mind you, this was 1992, but we’re still talking about a state, that in those days, was getting about 700 new people in it every day (stat I learned in summer school of 7th grade). To say that it’d be challenging to meet all her goals is an understatement.

Most of the people we knew at the time thought that she’s completely nuts. It took a lot of searching. She spent hours with realtors, looking at ugly tiny house after ugly tiny house. Some would be fairly decent sized, and in OK repair, but be in horrible neighbourhoods. Others would be townhouses, or in developments, which would mean freakishly strict and intrusive rules (like no clothes lines, or no planting fruit trees in your own yard), along with hefty association fees, paid to a bunch of jerks who didn’t really do much of anything, except to enforce said arbitrary and intrusive rules. Others would be almost ideal, but situated in neighbourhoods that were one inch away from mob rule. You know all those bizarre news stories coming out of Florida? That’s because we have more than its share of crazies. Pair all of this with everyone she knew telling her to relax her standards, or her pocket book. She flatly refused, and kept at it.

The kicker? She didn’t drive. She had a learner’s permit, but didn’t actually drive herself until well after we moved into the house. Also, she couldn’t exactly afford a babysitter to watch after the kids, and my dad didn’t get home until fairly late anyway. Also, first Saturday of every month was a bhajan group that she attended for years, and wouldn’t think of missing. Also, every Sunday was temple day. She’d arrive (along with family in tow) well before everyone else got there, and leave well after the last stragglers left. This is also paired with random Saturdays being given up for religious events, weddings, birthdays, and all kinds of cultural and social events. Oh. While we’re mentioning things: she also would cook for pretty much every event/function we’d go to. She’d cook /every/ Sunday, in large quantity, to comfortably feed the 100 or so people that could show up to the temple.

I don’t even recall how she managed to find that house that she eventually bought, but she did. She got the house, and held a housewarming that had well over 120 people or so. (Life is funny though. Both my brothers moved out, leaving an extra bedroom. My sister and I both went to Magnet schools, so the local school district was moot. A short time after moving up, we stopped going to the Hindu temple, because 99% of the people there were [and still are] snobby, classist, small minded, back stabbing, gossiping, loathsome jerks.) Fifteen years later, she paid off the mortgage in full, and owned it outright.

Our relationship was never perfect. We’ve both managed to hurt the other. However, I don’t know of any relationship that I have with anyone, that doesn’t involve some level of challenge at some point. That’s just how people are. The important thing is that we do still seek each other out, however infrequently, because we both really do value the other person.

Thanks, Amma. I love you.