This Woman’s Work, This Woman’s World.

Anna John
Anna John
Sep 30, 2015 · 15 min read

There is a woman crying in my office.

Tears are streaming down her face as she tries not to sob. She is desperately trying to preserve her equanimity even though there are just two of us in the room. Two and a half, actually, if we count the little face with big brown eyes, a tiny nose, and a somber expression who is peering out of an otherwise ordinary-looking black duffel bag, where she is swaddled and easy to conceal from dour co-workers and unforgiving bosses who are impervious to the perils of unreliable childcare. Their inability or unwillingness to be compassionate just adds another burden to the myriad struggles of the single parent in front of me and I wish that I could do something, anything to help.

This woman is failing to remain composed despite her considerable resolve to do so. Hardly proof of weakness, the quiet, unexpected breakdown seems inevitable, considering the extreme exhaustion and anxiety that surrounds her; when she relayed everything that had happened to her today, I recoiled without intending to do so, and when I awkwardly apologized, she waved me off. She has much graver concerns. Understandably, she has cracked under the pressures of a very difficult day, during an extremely difficult week, which is just part of an extraordinarily difficult life.

She has never known ease.

I am powerless to help her; all I can do is feebly offer solicitude and encouragement. Something about her anguish summons a memory to bolster my delicate, repeated assertion that she will be okay and suddenly I’m sobbing too, because 35 years dissolve and I’m back in a hospital I have endeavored to forget.

There are words, pictures, and emotions we bury deeply within ourselves on purpose, which we dare not conjure, because the result is certain agony.

This is one of those things.

Despite an infamous proclivity to be voluble, offline and on, I actually haven’t told the world everything about my life — which may come as a surprise to those of you who have been consuming essays and blog posts about my past since I commenced the first of a thousand attempts to write, way back in the ‘90s.

But some things are too raw to translate into ink or keystrokes. And despite being constantly encouraged to mine exactly that vein, by people I hold in the highest regard — who are privileged enough to type for a living — because “it’s obvious” that willingly returning to the most heartbreaking moments of my now half-elapsed life would create “Art” , I almost always decline. The sole exception to this steadfast pattern of refusal occurred in 2003, when I commenced a fecund period of creation on my first blog, Herstory. Empowered by the stability and ease of a now antiquated platform called TypePad, I worked through my pain and guilt over losing my father to such a compelling degree that it resulted in two milestones in my life: an unappealing book deal and an offer from a kind, excessively talented visionary who asked if I would like to work on a very special collaborative project that I would later name “Sepia Mutiny”.

Upon reflection, perhaps I should descend into the mine, if it leads to such riches.

Astonishingly enough though, my desire for self-preservation combined with my fleeting hopes for a certain level of privacy usually meant that I refused such advice, because I already walk around without skin. A hyper-sensitive empath, I already cry too often, bruise too easily, and carelessly skate around a terrifying abyss with Churchill’s black dog gazing at me lovingly so that I am never allowed to forget that depression lurks at arms’ reach.

Time for self-inflicted contusions. Time to cringe.

::

Once upon a time, when a new babysitter fell through at the last minute, my legendary saint of a mother considered her terrible lack of options, prayed for divine assistance, and then took me and my diapered sister to an important interview. She arrived early, nervously arranging for us to sit some distance away, all the while imploring us to “please, be good and be quiet”. She told me to hold my baby sister close and keep her calm, before explaining she needed to sit apart from us. She fervently reassured me that I’d be able to see her the entire time and that everything would be okay.

A half hour later, the woman interviewing my mother frowned as she noticed her candidate was attempting, and failing to watch over two small brown children in an unobtrusive manner. When she realized what was happening, she looked at my mother like she was garbage. She abruptly ended the interview after insulting my mother’s lack of professionalism, throwing in some nativist comment about third-world countries where such inappropriate behavior was tolerated, and even though I was barely five, I knew something shameful was happening from the way that woman stood up and sneered at me and the sweet toddler who was glued to my side, silent and still, a jaw-dropping feat for a child not yet two. Pure contempt radiated from every inch of her heartless body as she told us to “get out”.

When we took the samTrans bus home — our only option for transportation because my Mother was terrified to drive again after a near-fatal accident almost killed both of us — I asked her if we were in trouble and she closed her eyes, steeling herself before calmly murmuring, “No. We’ll be okay.” And we eventually were. But not on that day. Not even close.

A few years after that failed attempt at a better life, with no living grandparents on either side of my family to import from India for free babysitting the way all our friends had done, I ended up with a “surprise” stay-at-home parent after our childcare situation turned disastrous. Before I tell that story, let me unequivocally state this: I am eternally grateful and cognizant of how fortunate we were to even consider that possibility, let alone embrace it, because it was a luxury, even if our life didn’t feel particularly gilded at the time. Back then, everything felt forced because we had very few choices. People who are working very hard and struggling rarely do.

My cautious, scared, immigrant parents never trusted anyone to watch over us until they met Laura, the lovely daughter of a local car dealer who had become a good friend of my father’s. My sister and I were obsessed with Laura, a perpetually happy girl who thought my sole sibling was the cutest baby “ever”. Laura played all my favorite games, watched PBS with enthusiasm, and thought it was funny if I picked my nose, something I normally never did except in front of her, because for some reason it made her toss her head back and laugh uncontrollably, which made me feel powerful. She also snuck me jawbreakers, which solidly elevated her to something just short of a deity in my big, round eyes. She watched us because she adored us, not because she was trying to turn a profit.

Eventually, Laura got married. Before she moved away, she came to our little mildewy house one last time, to tearfully bid us farewell with extra tight hugs. She promised it wasn’t “forever”, but it actually was the last time we would ever see her. Somehow, I knew that as I stood outside on my porch, in platform flip-flops with rainbow soles, feeling a dislocated sense of loss as she drove away, her car diminishing to a speck before crossing the railroad tracks that separated us from the more commercial side of our neighborhood. Her raven-haired replacement…well, for all intents and purposes, she kidnapped us on one memorable afternoon.

She had made it abundantly apparent that she hated watching us, even though she had just met us. She repeatedly whined about how she wished she could leave. I remember how apprehensive my mother looked as she left us with this stranger, the guilt over needing to go to work as thick as the massive bun behind her head. I followed her outside and she bent down to reassure me.

“I know she’s not Laura, but it will be okay. Daddy will come home soon.”

I walked back in the house, where my sister was still parked in our brown tweed chair. She was wide-eyed, and I immediately wondered if the new sitter had done something to her. I warily sat down and turned my attention to Sesame Street until someone pounded on our door with such force, I thought it would collapse.

She rushed to open it and started hooting with joy as her questionable boyfriend greeted her with a sloppy kiss. I remember that he was smoking, and something about the way he looked at us made me sidle closer to my sister protectively.

“Let’s go,” he spat at her. “Fuck this place.”

She turned to us, unsure of what to do.

“DITCH THEM.”

“I can’t…they’re little and I said I’d watch them.”

“Fine. They can come with.”

He ended up grabbing both of us, my sister’s almond-shaped eyes widening again with alarm as he haphazardly hoisted her with a forearm. She wasn’t potty-trained yet, but even she knew everything was wrong. He staggered out, intending to throw us in the backseat of his mangled shell of a car, a vehicle so decrepit, I looked at it dubiously as I dug in my bare heels, vehemently shaking my head “no” as my feet slipped out of those damned rainbow flip-flops I couldn’t be pried away from, unless we were going to church.

I desperately attempted to reason with him. “No! We can’t go! I want to call my mom and dad. We’re not allowed to go! Please, no!”

Dread bloomed inside me. I knew this was dangerous, on multiple levels. I had grown up in the garage, an acolyte to my auto-obsessed father who used to brag that I knew every tool in his arsenal before I could legibly write the alphabet; it was a neat party trick, asking three-year old me to bring a specific wrench to his disbelieving buddies, as he beamed with pride over his “brilliant” daughter.

I wasn’t old enough to use two hands to display my age, but I knew that car leaking oil on our driveway was not safe — and I also knew my father would be outraged when he saw those black spots on our pristine concrete. “Excuse me,” I began, suddenly prim and bossy, “I need to get the WD-40 to clean those spots.” He was half-incredulous, half-amused.

“Take her with us. She’s funny.”

I had seen better automotive specimens at the junk yards my dad often scoured, in his quest to restore the neglected, vintage American cars that he bought at auctions (which I also accompanied him to) and lovingly overhauled, all by himself. That month’s project? A’49 Buick. It was lying in primer-colored pieces in our garage, but I wished I could get in that dusty classic instead of the dilapidated scrap heap I was being hauled to as my sister dangled precariously from one arm.

There was almost no upholstery for us to sit on so I pulled her in my lap, lest she get scratched by rusty springs. I asked where the seat belts were and that query was received as another hilarious joke. There weren’t even proper door handles to grip, so every time they slammed the brakes or careened around a corner, my petrified baby sister and I would bounce around violently as they laughed, savoring this unexpected bit of additional entertainment on their joy ride. I wasn’t scared, though. I was seething. There are definite advantages to empowering precocious children so that they feel comfortable pushing back at adults.

They drove us to Tanforan mall, where they groped each other while strolling along, ignoring my litany of commands that they tell my parents where we were.

“You didn’t even close our front door!”, I exclaimed.

He turned and looked at me over his shoulder. “Does she ever shut up?”

His partner in crime shook her head, rolling her eyes.

At some point, an alert police officer did a double take at two tiny, concerned Indian kids getting punted around by white burnouts who seemed to be enjoying themselves far more than we were. He demanded we stop and after questioning the suddenly nervous couple, he realized we were the two little girls who had been taken from the little brown house where the front door was left swinging in the peninsular breeze.

My father later said he thought he was having a heart attack as he pulled into our driveway after work that overcast day, eagle eyes noticing unfamiliar oil stains on the cement that he cleaned obsessively, his darkest fear confirmed after seeing the gaping entrance to our home. After roaring our names and hearing eerie silence instead of my typical, gleefully chortled, “Daddy’s home!” he knew we were gone. We had a ritual, he and I. He’d walk in, dapper in his trenchcoat, and immediately grab me and swing me in the air. Then he’d smile as I harassed him about which of his pockets held my hidden, beloved, daily treat of a swirled red and white Lifesavers lollipop, which was only bestowed if I said “may”, “please”, and “thank you.”

Coming home with a police escort was startling enough, but the fury contorting my father’s features was terrifying to behold, as his eyes narrowed, focusing on the sullen boy being dragged toward him by a cop. He lunged for him, threatening to kill him, and I thought he just might until the police intervened. My father wanted to press charges, but the cop inexplicably, nonchalantly proclaimed the equivalent of “Eh. No harm, no foul.” and said he’d give the “kids” a warning. They peeled out so quickly that their car produced even more smoke than it had before, effectively obscuring them from view just as my mother arrived, consumed with panic.

Seeing her was like a spark igniting. My father channeled his helpless rage and hysteria into an astounding tirade of furious accusations against my dazed and exhausted mother, who finally snapped and said, “If you are such an expert at raising children and if you are that perfect, quit your job and stay home.”

My mother had always been quiet. Demure. Hearing her clap back, I was frozen by her wrath, which is so rare, it doesn’t even surface once a decade. It was stupefying. My father, as astonished as I was, merely nodded, once, then walked away.

He quit the next day. Our local community of Indian immigrants never let him forget it, constantly questioning his manhood and accusing him of all manner of indolence and neglect. My father was a ferocious, proud man from a “good” family in Kerala, a family of means. He never tolerated disrespect, quietly threatening people by asking if they’d like to step outside to settle things because he was a man of his time; born in 1937, possessor of a sumptuous South Indian moustache, and defined by an inability to brook any slight.

He was one of eleven children (ten boys and one girl), the penultimate child in a massive family, so he was generally ignored. Completely fine with that benign neglect, he planted himself in the home next door to our villa, where he was informally adopted by the Palakkad Iyer family that had birthed his best friend “Swami”. They cherished him and made time for him — a luxury my grandparents, who were well into their 40s when he was born, could not, and did not provide.

So from the orthodox confines of a Brahmin household that was so strict, a telephone was once disposed of after it became contaminated by an unwelcome touch, a little Syrian Christian boy grew up idolizing his elder siblings for their striking choices to be artists, ascetics, freedom fighters and activists. He chattered about his siblings excitedly over meals with this doting crew of Hindus; he was the only non-family member ever allowed to eat at their table, drink from their cups, and yes, use their telephone.

We are Iyer-style vegetarians to this day, ostensibly because we are hyper-Orthodox and observe a permanent lent, but the outsized impact these now-deceased foster grandparents had on my adoring father always made me wonder if it was their influence in addition to his extreme devotion to his ancient faith that resulted in my fastidiously eschewing meat 65 years later, on another continent, in another world.

Being ignored meant plenty of opportunities to get in trouble, and my father was derisively alleged to be a “rowdy”, an especially shameful term to apply to a boy from an affluent family. But he was rowdy. And he would and did throw down, puffing up all 5'5" of his slight stature to menace people regardless of how tall they were — after all, he was the runt of the litter, the annoying little kid pestering older boys who were all 6' or taller, never concerned about the disadvantages of his abbreviated height after scrapping with them his whole life.

So a man prone to and fond of violence, a man with no fear unless it came to the sanctity of his two beloved children (who were born to him later in life and were all the more precious because of it), a man who had presented an indelible example of machismo to all who had known him would walk away when pelted with insults from other Indian men.

He’d say, “My children are my priority.” before turning the other cheek and refusing to engage in their mockery of his courageous, iconoclastic, gossip-inspiring choice.

It meant less money in our bank accounts, less opportunities for my parents to interact with the motley crew of immigrants who were now more precious than our own blood, and the sad truth that we’d have to move 90 minutes away from San Francisco if we ever wanted to own a home, but we moved east, if not forward. Then, after many years of sweat and tears, my parents were finally able to exhale, because my mother’s extreme work ethic and unparalleled wisdom meant ascension at her hospital, and my father shepherding us to school and back — in a virulently racist neighborhood that we were too invested in to leave — meant that we were safe from rusty springs and chain smokers. We didn’t just survive, we prospered.

::

My mom applies all her effort, love, and talent to her garden now. Pomegranate trees bob and curtsy as she approaches, giant red fruit threatening to fall at any minute. There are Meyer lemons, three kinds of peaches, apricots, plums, persimmons, even banana trees. A full Indian vegetable garden. And flowers. So many gorgeous blooms, including my favorite blossoms: hydrangeas. There is a shiny BMW in her garage, and next to it, a hand-me-up red Honda I once bought that she now keeps “to get parking lot scratches”. They gleam next to an extra refrigerator which contains the bounty of her backyard, blanched, pickled, and frozen, so I can be delighted all year-long by surprise packages that arrive smelling of home-grown curry leaves and bittermelon, one of my favorite vegetables, long after the vines that bore such strange fruit have withered away in what passes for cold in stunning northern California.

It is a beautiful home, tastefully decorated with cherrywood French Provincial furniture, an annoying grandfather clock she can’t be bothered to wind, and my beloved baby grand piano. For a retiree, it has too many bedrooms, spread out on a corner lot (and that’s just the home she lives in — there are others, which she rents out). She volunteers with the church she helped found and donates generously to, on the weekends. During the week, she fusses over the grateful, adopted Telugu family she inadvertently acquired when she discovered a stricken young doctor from India hiding in her office several years ago; the poor girl was overwhelmed by a new hospital and unsure of whom to turn to for help, so she sought out the legendary Molly. Like most Americans of her age (65), she has a stock portfolio she mutters about regularly as she enjoys early retirement, which she giddily elected to choose at 63.

On top of everything she accomplished, she sent me to Montessori, then private schools, including a rather pricy one that cost more than the state college I later attended. She paid for me to attend the University of California so I could graduate debt-free. She co-signed my loans when I said I wanted to go to the most over-priced graduate school ever, and she was waiting when the East Coast temporarily chewed me up and spit me out in 2002. Thirteen years later, even though I’m in my fourth decade of life, she would still drop everything in an instant and come here if she heard my voice tremble in a certain way.

She is a titan of a woman and I fail to live up to her supernatural example on an hourly basis. She is a legend. I know she is, because others tell me that regularly, as if my own assessment of her isn’t enough.

With my mother’s sweet face in mind, I impart all of this to the poor young woman who is still crying in my office.

Before, the saltwater streamed down her face because she was terrified of getting in trouble for the sleeping bundle hidden among her bags, the result of her precarious decision to risk everything but her baby’s life and safety because they both desperately need her meager paycheck. Now, she is crying out of potential relief; after I tell her my story, a shimmering example binds us together, a sense of possibility tantalizingly offering her a light at the end of a very long tunnel. For the first time today, she seems hopeful. As she looks at the duffle bag, and then looks at me, perhaps picturing her own child at work one day, after earning two degrees and various mediocre accomplishments, she exhales deeply, newly fortified and ready to take on the world outside my door.

She walks away, and as she does I pray she will end up in a safe, lovely, abundant home of her own one day, surrounded by spectacular hydrangeas, with a reliable, “nice” car in her spotless driveway.

I pray for her and all the other lone parents like her, and I am suddenly exhausted as I contemplate everything my own scared, 30-year old mother had to endure, before she was safe. Before she could lay her burdens down, and not worry about the possibility of being exposed, for not having enough.

::

I started writing this essay some time ago but only finished it recently, so no conclusions should be drawn about my current employer, the patients we serve, or how I interact with them.

Anna John

Written by

Anna John

Erstwhile NPR journalist. Current comedienne. UCB, Malayalee, Orthodox, Vegetarian, ΔΓ. Frenchie devotee. Sepia Mutiny cofounder. https://about.me/suitablegirl

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