When I was twelve years old, my sister and I were trapped in a house with no power when it rained cats and dogs outside. Our mother had gone to a temple nearby locking us inside. It was not the thunders and the intensity of the rain that frightened us but the fact that she was all alone god knows where. And back then, we didn’t have mobile phones. I remember us standing near the entrance of my house holding the bars of the sliding gate looking out yearningly, just like prisoners in movies do. And as we stood there we saw our favorite tree, that was at least 8 feet tall, fall over. The rain eventually slowed down to a drizzle. My mother came back and found me squatting near the fallen tree and crying. She immediately brought out a shovel, dug the mud around the roots of the tree, lifted the tree up, added more mud to the base and the tree was standing again in no time. It lived for many years to come. That day, my mother was my hero.
When this happened the three of us, my mother, sister and I, were living in Madurai, while my dad worked in Bangalore. He called us once a week and we had to keep the call short so the phone charges don’t add to our financial burden. He would come over some weekends and we were always there at our local railway station to receive him. We would walk back home and have our breakfasts together. Those were hard times but that was when we all connected as a family.
My mother had more troubles than she’d tell me then. Our grandparents lived with us and she had to take care of four of us and our home-sick, out-of-station dad. I liked my grandparents. But they were not so kind or understanding with her. My mother learned to ride a bicycle at the age of forty to get to places sooner. We all ran with her as she first pedaled through our neighborhood in the middle of the night. I was proud of her. But my grandmother found the thought of an obese woman on a bicycle hilarious. I would tell my mother about the fat joke grandma made in her absence and she would act like she didn’t care. She’d tell me “never let them get to you”. She’d tell me not to be weak. “If you give in now, you’ll give in forever”, she’d say.
Later on, when our dad and us started living together again, our financial situation had moderately improved and I started spending a lot of time talking to my mother about religion, marriages, books and life in general. We had amazing arguments until my dad shushed us and forced us to sleep. After which we continued talking in whispers. She would tell me the scientific reasons behind religious practices, she would explain the metaphors in Mahabharatha, and we would have endless arguments about love marriages and arranged marriages. She had great imagination. She wrote poetry. She felt caged inside the middle class housewife’s body. If not a hero, I still thought she was the smartest person I knew. I even wrote a poem thanking her for being the best mother.
But then, she started complaining. When I got old enough to understand adults, she started complaining about her life incessantly. She told me that when the tree fell she was actually scared, that she felt very bad about the joke grandma made... She told me a lifetime worth of sad stories and secrets, things that I did not want to know. I became tired of listening to her, of comforting her, of urging her to follow her dreams, of getting mad at her for giving excuses. I was not proud of her anymore. And now, when I read the poem I wrote for her when I was twelve, I think I was naive.
Parents stop being heroes at some point. And the circumstances leading up to it are always ugly. You realize they made the wrong call more times than you can count. You realize that the world didn’t screw them over; their worldview is screwed. You get frustrated when they don’t listen to you telling them to not make another mistake. You give up.
It came to a point where my mother and I had nothing to talk about. She waited for me to chat with her about life in general, like I did when I was a kid, but I didn’t have anything in common with her. And she started preferring the kid me.
Recently, she did what I always told her to do. She took an initiative; she learned a new language at the age of fifty and became a teacher in a school. She changed her life in a matter of months. When she called to tell me that she got a job as a teacher, I was very happy and I felt the closer to her than I’ve felt for ten years. But she was eager to cut the call sooner to talk to a friend of mine who’d been supportive to her through this. I felt jealous and sad.
I have listened to my mother complain about every incident in her life that she remembers. I have a total life experience of 73 years and I still screwed up a relationship. I want to fix it. I try to find out what my friends do, how they talk to their mothers. I get nothing out of it because I am not like them and my mother is not theirs. I try to help her out with chores even when she doesn’t ask me to, but that doesn’t impress her. She still wants me to talk and I am stumped.
She passed on a lot of insecurities and fears to me, which I consciously try to keep in check so I don’t turn into her. But she also passed on her habit of reading and her extensive imagination. When she forgave me for my million flaws, I couldn’t forgive her for tarnishing the image of her I had as a kid. I stopped being there for her when it got difficult. Now the roles are reversed and I dial her number hoping she’d have something to share with me this time.