I used to be a Daddy’s girl. Eldest child. Sure of myself and my place in the world. ‘Aunty ki bachi’ my sisters would mockingly call me alluding to my people pleasing nature. I always thought my dad was right. He was the tallest, the strongest, the ‘rightest’. The one with the best stories and biggest hugs. I rarely sided with my mum. Papa was like a ‘friend’ to me, Mama was my ‘Mother’ through and through.
But after I married and moved to a different country, I suddenly saw my mother in a different light, a way I had not given much thought to. There was this palpable shift. Suddenly our phone conversations were longer, we were laughing on things that had never before been common ground. I found myself realising that yes, my dad had sometimes been wrong!
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised that this change in perspective happened after I got married, but I was. How was it than in 25 years I had only seen my mum as ‘Mama’. Only appreciated her as my Mother, never seen her as the woman she was before I came along.
Within a week of our wedding day, my husband and I moved to the States. He had been there for a year already, but for me it was my first time travelling across the Atlantic ocean. Only now, having to set up life in a new country, did I pause to think of another young woman who married at a younger age than I did and moved to four separate countries within the first eight years of her marriage.
So, yes, just like Mama, I too was to move with my husband to a country I had never set foot in.
The first year of marriage is a steep enough learning curve without the added learning that is required when one moves from the place they grew up.
How Mama navigated language, culture, pregnancies and travel without any help from relatives is not easy for me to imagine. 30 years ago very few people in Kashmir had telephone connections and just making a call to her mother was a huge ordeal.
I have memories of her writing letters back home. She couldn’t just send my ‘Nana’ a cute photo of her girls or ask advice about a recipe as I was so easily able to. And in doing all these things, I was only just starting to gain a glimpse into the tip of it all. I mean, I had no relatives here, but you know, I had The Internet. Compared to her situation, and thanks to skype, I could have my mama right in front of me.
Initially I remember being pretty blase about moving. I never imagined to equate it with my mum’s experiences – Friends would say – ‘Wow’ New York! Some would say ‘How will you adjust?’
Secretly I thought ‘What’s the big deal? Surely it wouldn’t be that different from the UK. I mean, they all speak English right? It’s not like I was going to live in a country where I needed to learn a new language? Right?
How wrong was I ?! Suddenly I was the person in the room with an ‘accent’. There were many phone conversations with service people, banks, doctors ect where the person on the other end couldn’t understand a word I was saying! ‘Are you British?’ they would ask, followed by “OMG I love your aaaa’ccent”.
Still, I had never experienced this strange phenomena before. I was now a ‘foreigner’. Is this how mama must have felt?
Although her accented English unfortunately mustn’t have been met with exclamations of ‘I love your accent!’ I felt a sudden wish to hug that strong woman, who despite the challenges of a first generation immigrant went out everyday and showed her young daughters how to face the world. I might not have needed to learn a new language but the learning of many new things was just beginning.
Once all of us were in school she enrolled in ESL classes and learnt to drive. Much like people do after they have had their first child and realise what their parents must have gone through, no child in sight for me yet but in sudden appreciation of her experiences – I called her and said
‘How did you do it?’
How did I never as a child look at you and see the struggle? All I saw was Mama. Mama always there for us, Mama walking us to the local library, then bags heaving with books walking back home with three of us in tow, 8, 5, and 3 years old. Mama welcoming all manner of guests into our home, cooking up the best Kashmiri delicacies. Back then did I ever pause to think how did she learn to cook? Of course not. She was Mama, she must have been born with the talent. Years later while struggling with you tube videos and calls made frantically to establish how to make certain Kashmiri dishes, I would remember her and only then wonder who must have taught her.
More importantly I called Papa and told him “You can never imagine how she did it all, but I am beginning to.”
Mama who was the only lady I ever saw around me that wore hijab. We lived in a town near Newcastle,a Northern city of the UK. Women of my mother’s generation simply didn’t don the hijab, it was certainly not a fashion statement nor was it a common sight on the streets of England as it is now. In fact I remember my dad and not only him but other women, ‘aunties’, encouraging her to remove it. Nobody wears it here – you don’t have to. Years later one of those aunties,after herself taking up the hijab, apologised to my mother. “Your mama is a strong lady” she had told me then.
I never thought I would only realise the extent of this statement till much life intervened. There are so many experiences that bind us as women other than ‘motherhood’. Maybe you always saw through to the girl and woman your mother was before you came into her life, but I guess it just took me a while.