After a prolonged illness, my mother said her final goodbye to us two weeks ago. I thought I was prepared, but not so. It took me several days to transition from mourning my loss to celebrating her life. Here are the five lessons I learned from her.
- Never ever let negativity define you. My mom was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, but shared her childhood days between Amritsar and Lahore. She witnessed terror firsthand as tensions between Hindus and Muslims turned violent following India’s independence. Friends became enemies, neighbors turned into looters and moms tearfully tucked poison in their daughters’ lockets to give them an option. During this difficult time, her family was ripped apart; those in Lahore had to resettle in India. She also lost her father, adding to the uncertainty and trauma. She carried the memories of those days and recalled them for us, but did not let them taint her fundamental view of the world, a world where all people had goodness in them and all religions held the same truth. She survived, thrived, made friends with people from all religions and exposed her children to all belief systems.
- There is a trail to blaze no matter where you are and what you do. She married into a very traditional
family where more than 20 people lived under one roof, each with a separate bedroom but sharing a common kitchen. Interpersonal conflicts were natural, and compromises were always called for. She followed family rituals and traditions to the fullest but always found a way to be who she was—fundamentally a progressive, adventurous, free-spirited woman! She wore a sari, but was the first one in the family to tie it in the then frowned-upon “progressive” style. Needless to say, that same style became the standard fashion of the next generation. She was the first one in the family to get married without a veil, the first one to form a women’s organization and the first one to ask for a home subscription of a newspaper. In fact, she was reading five newspapers a day until her body lost the strength to sit. She was a master knitter and an experimental cook whose skills and interests knew no bounds.
- You can be intensely spiritual and passionately pragmatic at the same time. My mom was a deeply spiritual person. From going to temples to celebrating festivals to helping the poor to holding her morning chants, she did everything to build her inner strength. At the same time, she was ready to adapt, reform, and modify practices to adjust to the ever-changing life style. “My God is very flexible,” she would say and shorten the prayers in order to get to her social causes, like constructing water wells for travelers or distributing blankets to the poor. The concept of untouchability was completely eradicated from our house as soon as she assumed the mantle of matriarchy. There was not a poor girl in town who came in her contact and was not grilled about her education. She would scold her parents if they did not believe in sending their daughter to school and would often pay tuition if finances turned out to be the reason.
- Love life and be adventurous. In a society where women could not go to gyms or join sports clubs, she took on table tennis. In our town, there were only two tables for playing table tennis, one at the Officer’s Club and the other at our home and each year, there were two champions—the official champion of the city and the other, my mom, the self-declared unofficial champion, having defeated every guest and visitor to the house. She would invent word puzzles and brain games for club parties and test them on us. On my short visits to India from the United States, she would present her quizzes on American politics, capitals and monuments. I would protest by saying, “But I live in America.” To which she would calmly say, “Yes, but let’s see how much you know about America.” For her, everything had to be more than ordinary and every experience had to be more than special. My father loved to travel, and mom took full advantage of every experience. She even traveled through snow-clad Himalayas in her sari and slipper socks, riding a pony for three days to reach the holy temple of Amarnath.
- Family comes first! My mom had a deeply fulfilling relationship with my father. During their first year of marriage, my dad drafted a 75-page, handwritten letter to my mom. My mom’s devotion to my father was also legendary on good days and bad. We—her husband and children–were her joy, pride and life. In a time and age when male children were preferred over female, my mom was gender- blind. She raised my sister and me with the same care and attention as she did my brother. She expected nothing but the best from all of us. I never ever heard her raise her voice or say one bad word about anyone irrespective of what harm anyone may have caused her. She swallowed hurts with grace and always handed out serenity in return.
- Today, my heart aches from the void that I know will never be filled. But I find solace in her words, “If you count your blessings, you will never have time to complain about anything.” Thank you, mom, for teaching me how to count my blessings and today I know that you have been the most precious of them all.