The One About Nani and My Mom. 5/13/18
If you know me, you know that I reference my Mom in literally every conversation I have. I can’t help it, honestly, and it’s probably because she’s spent so much of my life trying to build a Lorelei-and-Rory type relationship with each of her daughters. Well, it worked, because I can’t stop talking about her— and there’s no point in me writing about our relationship today, because our story is woven through every one that I write. So, this one will be my Mom’s story about her relationship with her Mother, my Nani (Nani being the Gujarati word for maternal grandmother, pronounced “Nah-Nee”).
I don’t remember much of my childhood, save for a few snapshots of my mom being in the kitchen or working— but one memory that I can recall like it was yesterday was how my Mother would always pour me a glass of fresh passionfruit juice when I got home from Pangani Girls School. It was a quick moment of respite in the day, and while my siblings were out playing or watching TV, I sat with my mom at the kitchen table, and just relaxed next to her for a few minutes. My Mom was always on her feet, working or doing something for someone, and it was in those few minutes that I really began to appreciate how hardworking she was for us. My parents supported the family, and we weren’t rich, but Mom never made us feel like we were poor. She taught me the importance of earning what we needed and wanted, and that even if for cultural reasons she couldn’t use her voice, we would not grow up without knowing the presence of ours.
In my teenage years, I witnessed my mom’s true voice. Before then, I’d only seen her as a shy and timid woman— never raising her voice higher than the men in our family— but I remember one occasion where one of my uncles was scolding her about how me and my siblings were monkeying around too much. Literally monkeying around— we were in Kenya, playing monkey and climbing trees. My uncle had said something to berate the way she raised us, and in a flash, I saw my mom transform into a true Wonder Woman. She retaliated and defended us, and in doing so, I saw my mom as a completely different person. I saw her as my idol. Granted, because she spoke up, she was labeled as “disrespectful” by the family— but that didn’t matter to me, because I knew that my mom would do anything to defend us. Seeing her use her voice motivated me to find my own.
As I grew older, it was time for me to start my second level of schooling. My parents needed to make ends meet at home, and I understood that I had to be respectful about their wishes to send me away for school. We weren’t wealthy enough for the luxury of staying together, so when the time came, I went England to study and stay with my Dad’s side of the family. I don’t want to talk about what happened there right now though, I’m still not ready— but the gist of it was that I needed to get out of there. [Authors Note: This is a time in my Mom’s life that, to this day, still haunts and torments her— so we’re tabling it and unpacking that at a later time] Once again, my Mom came in to save me like the Wonder Woman she was. She called her brothers, and in a few months, I was on a plane to start my American Dream. When I was 17, my Mom and I came to America for the first time, and as scared I was about this new beginning, it was her calmness that reassured me.
It wasn’t until a few years later when I married, that I truly connected with what my Mom was going through during my childhood. She was a young girl who had married into a big family, and in an instant, she became responsible for everything and everyone. At 20 years old, I was falling into the same footsteps. I was the oldest in my family, so I was terrified that if I said or did anything against tradition, word would get back to my parents that I was disrespectful and I’d ruin future marriage prospects for my sisters. I knew that I had some family members in my corner, but speaking out over every little thing just wasn’t worth the risk. I felt like I had to prove that my parents raised a smart, good girl. But, I still had my mother’s voice in me, and her lessons— so I chose my battles carefully. For example, I was (and still am) very passionate about American Fashion. I wanted to wear jeans, and style myself in the western clothes that my classmates and coworkers would wear, and I wouldn’t let anyone stop me. I had your Maa on my side to back me up when I rebelled in my little ways, and I’m grateful for her letting me stand my ground. When I was pregnant for the first time with twins, I was told that becoming a mother so young would take too much time away from taking care of the rest of the family—but still, I persisted and carried my babies. I ended up losing one of my twins during the pregnancy, but when your older sister was born, that’s when I came full circle with my respect for my own mother.
I missed my mother, so much. I was here in America, starting a new life, and a new family, and every time I ran into a problem, I just wanted to call my mom and go over to give her a hug. But we were on opposite sides of the world, and it was something we could only do once we were more established here. I did go back to Kenya though, when Meera was a child, and I sat down with my Mother to thank her for everything she’d done for me. I finally knew what it meant to be a mother. It was more than carrying a baby and giving birth— it was protecting them, it was educating them, nurturing them, and shielding them from conflict and struggle. I finally understood the sacrifices she made so that her kids could grow up and have a better life. Ten years later, you were born, and she came with my dad to see you. I’d never seen her smile so hard when she held you, because you were still a baby. I’d have given everything to see her smile if she got to hold Devika as a baby too.
My mother was murdered when I was 36 years old, two weeks after my birthday. She was murdered at her home in Kenya, by a serial killer who still runs loose. I hope you tell this story later. My mother died on one side of the world, praying for my sick baby daughter, while I was watching Devika fight cancer in an ICU on the other side of the world. There isn’t one day that goes by where I don’t think about how grateful I am for my mother’s role in my life, and not one day that goes by where I don’t feel grateful for the strength she gave me. It killed me that as the oldest child in the family, I couldn’t even go back home to plan her funeral– because I was watching my own baby fight for her life. Just the year before, I watched her plan the funeral for my little brother, and I had promised her that down the line, when the time came, I would take the responsibility and do her rites. But I wasn’t there. It was the hardest time in my life— because I realized that I wasn’t just a daughter anymore, I was a mother too.
Every day I think about my Mom. I think about the passionate way she cooked, the effortless style she kept, and the hugs she always gave that made me feel like I was whole. When things get hard with Devika, she’s the first person I want to pick up the phone and call— until I realize that I can’t, because she’s not going to be on the other end of the phone. I think that’s why I’m so much closer to my sisters now, because I feel like we all have those moments when we miss her. It’s hard, because you just want your mom to help you fix things sometimes, but you have to figure it out on your own because she’s not there anymore.
But she’s not all gone, I still feel her presence in my life— through my cooking, through my friendships, and through my relationships with other maternal figures. No one can replace her, of course, but having close maternal figures to lean on helped me in ways you don’t understand yet. They helped me heal, and even still I rely on their advice for things. But at the end of the day, there is a void that no one else can fill. My Mom was still my best teacher. My Mom taught me how to be a Mom, and that was the best gift she could’ve ever given me.