The Day Badi Mummy Died
Three years ago for Mother’s Day I wrote this tribute to my grandmother and the women in my family. It begins like this:
My Indian grandmother was born in what is now Pakistan ninety years ago. She was promised to be married at 11, married at 13, had her first miscarriage at 14, her second miscarriage at 15, her first child who passed away at 16, another child who passed away at 17, and then seven children who survived, the middle of whom is my mother.
This Mother’s Day we celebrate her passing on to the next life. This letter is my woefully inadequate tribute to her:
Dear Badi Mummy,
You came here to take care of me and so my mom could go back to work. You were a child bride yourself but you understood that women should have more independence than you did. You raised me like a second mother for some time, and then you went and did it again for our cousins.
Whenever you went to India, I asked you to bring back a gold elephant. You always did. I never connected the dots that the elephants were female. You were our matriarch and we revered you. We touched your feet each time we said goodbye. You must have known.
It’s sad that I didn’t acquire the language skills to understand the parts of your matriarchy that could be more, how do we say this, forceful. Turning over the cups in the pantry to be right side up versus wrong side down after my dad unloaded the dishwasher, admonishing him in Punjabi about the trapped water though he spoke only English.
While I couldn’t really understand you either, we shared an understanding. I always gathered that you loved me and that I should be good, work hard, eat a lot of roti, and know that I was loved. Recently I once asked you through my mom if you could go back in time and do life again if you would do it differently. As a deeply spiritual person I assumed you would say no, nothing different at all. What you said I’ll never forget:
I’d like to have been like my daughters and make some of their own choices. Maybe I would have gotten married at 25.
That’s a long way from 11. I read somewhere they are introducing anti-child bridge legislation in India this week. 88 years after you were born my niece was born, into a world of different choices. You predicted her birth would bring with it great fortune, and it did. She was born the same day as you, providence for all of us. She’s just three generations downstream from you, and yet she seems oceans and a time warp apart in terms of the opportunities in front of her.
In your life I see a vast bridge between a past where women make no choices to a future which looks remarkably brighter. We need only look at the maps of the world to see where this is becoming true and where it’s not yet true. In this look to my niece, I want to believe you mean this: it’s on us now. We will do our best to make you proud. Who would have thought a child bride could teach us so much about feminism.
In that same ‘interview’ I even asked you: what advice do you have for raising Bella? You told me this:
I don’t know. I raised you. Now you figure it out.
Gone at 93, hands clean from lotion every day, showering by yourself to the end, teeth and eyes and ears intact. That we might all live to old age, die of natural causes on our own terms, breathe our last breath with loved ones, and never once have moaned in pain. That we could all have your gratitude and reverence and stoicism and spirituality, through life and death.
I got to touch your feet once last time before you went while you still lived. Tears rolling down my face, I will always be grateful for that.
Indian culture teaches that there is a cycle of life. Your great granddaughter Bella, born on your birthday, is a symbol of just that. She claps when she blows out these birthday candles, but we all know who really did it.
Your five daughters ended up with high-powered jobs: a schoolteacher, two doctors, a physical therapist with her own practice, and a hospital department leader — my mother. You did a lot with the opportunity you were afforded. You taught us the power of spirit, of faith, of infectious positive energy, and of a mixture of daily asceticism, pragmatic routine, and spartan living. It brings to bear the question of who was more ‘educated,’ let alone who is more enlightened.
We love you. Though with you gone now I believe that isn’t exactly the point. I think the point is that you loved us, and taught us what it meant to love and be loved.
We will never forget your incredible laugh.
My only wish is we could go back to that cold Chicago day in the 1980’s, at the Burlington Coat Factory, and that we could find you that purple coat faster. We tried so many on. We didn’t know many years you would still wear it, what good care you would take of it, and of all of us.
Parkash Rani Ahuja
Born: November 22, 1922 in Rawalpindi, Punjab province, what is now Pakistan.
Emigrated to New Delhi, India, moving through many cities, 1947–1952 at the time of partition. Our mom was born in 1949 on the refugee trail.
Came to the US in 1976 to care for my sister and emigrated to the United States in 1985 to live with my family before settling in Valparaiso to care for our cousins.
Died: May 6, 2016 in Valparaiso.