Missing Dad on Mother’s Day

The Loss of a Father Disarms a Disciplinarian Mother

My mother became my enemy the day I turned thirteen and danced with a boy for the very first time.

It was at the May Queen Ball in a small town in India, where I grew up. Dancing with a male stranger was taboo in a society where girls were trussed in tradition. There were only two other girls my age on the dance floor, one tethered to her brother, the other to her father. I could feel my mother’s gaze follow me as I attempted to sync my awkward moves to the beat of “Dancing Queen” while maintaining a purposeful arm’s length distance from my partner.

The rush of feeling like a teenager for the first time was accompanied by a sudden, intense animosity toward my hawk-eyed mother.

Dad, liberal and progressive as he was, became my beloved ally for years to come. A sailor in the merchant navy who traveled the world, he refused to endorse archaic social mores. Iconoclastic in thought and manner, he reveled in rebellion, choosing to offer his daughter and son equal freedom. He sanctioned my wish to have a boyfriend even as my mother battled him and cautioned against such a liaison. “People will talk,” she forewarned, “Don’t’ forget she has to be married one day.”

All through my teenage years, I found ways to circumvent my mother’s constant surveillance engineered by maternal instinct and her singular ability to smell bullshit.

I confided in Dad — sharing with him select details of my crushes and relationships. My peers were envious of my bond with my “cool dad,” and empathized when I griped about my chivying mother.

Strict. Stern. Stringent. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to describe Mom the martinet. From academic performance to personal hygiene, she set the bar at the highest rung possible for me and my brother.

She viewed our performance and the world at large in absolutes. Good and bad. Black and white. Right and wrong.

My brother and I were petrified of getting “the look.” Mom could drill holes through granite walls with that piercing glare. Her all-seeing eye could track us down to the ends of the earth. And her drillmaster’s voice would sting our ears even when we were oceans away. Even today, if I ever fall asleep without brushing my teeth, I can hear my mother’s voice interrupt my dreams like a drill sergeant’s whistle. “Get up and brush your teeth, Reetika.”

My brother and I believed Mom could predict the future, specifically our “bad choices.” She would always conclude her sermonic discourses with an ominous “it’s your life. I’m not saying anything. You choose whatever you want to do.” Right.

She made Dad look so good. Friendly, flexible, forgiving.

When he passed away two decades ago, I experienced a loss so crushing that it seemed as though all the sorrow in the world had coalesced and targeted me alone.

In the years since, my mother and I have grown very close. I realize now that Dad could play the “cool” parent because he knew Mom had an unwavering, protective eye trained on us. We keep Dad’s memory alive by talking about him often, and imagining what he would say in tricky situations. Mom’s voice always softens to a tender trill when she attempts to intersperse Dad’s buoyant laugh in “serious” discussions.

She makes a conscious effort to recognize the world as it is, and not how it should be. Her expectations have morphed into hopes and dreams. As a mother of two precocious children I am in awe of her willingness and ability to let my brother and I falter and fail as she looks.

Dad would have said to her, “Aha. I see you have turned your high bar of expectations into a pillar of support. Well done! Happy Mother’s Day.”

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