A mother’s legacy.

©2012 Nim Gholkar All Rights Reserved

The gold medal sat nestled in its velvet bed on the mantelpiece. Other trophies, each received on completing an entire season of sport, stood at a deferential distance from the gold medal almost as though reluctant to distract the onlooker from focussing on the piece de resistance. 

Sarita sat drinking her third cup of tea, a silent thoughtful spectator of her son’s sporting achievements. She still could not get her head around the fact that her bright and handsome Aakash had brought home the gold medal a few days ago for the Zone swimming championship. She, who was petrified of the water, who had never so much as dipped her dainty toes into a pool for fear of drowning, was now the mother of a swimming legend. His high school principal always sought Sarita out from the teeming crowd at every school function to congratulate and assure her how very proud the school was of her talented young son.

It was 1982, and even after ten years in Australia, Sarita still spoke very poor english. At these school functions, she found herself listening tongue-tied while the various teachers came up to her to sing praises and to ask, with barely suppressed curiosity, who did her debonair talented  boy take after? Was swimming prowess part of family history? She would smile shyly and shake her head, unable to articulate confidently  an entire sentence, even now after an entire decade in her adopted country. More often than not, Aakash would rush to her rescue, throwing an arm around her shoulder, grinning his lopsided grin, and joking, ‘Oh, mum is petrified of the water. I must be a throwback to ancient ancestral genes’. This was always followed by a loud guffaw by the teachers, who would pat his head indulgently.

Sarita took another sip of the tea that was fast cooling. She could never enjoy it properly  until it had gone fairly cold, a habit her husband Sanjay never failed to criticise. ‘What’s the point of boiling tea, going to all that trouble, if you are going to wait until it gets cold?’. Sarita never argued. She could not see the point in defending a habit she was powerless to change. Keeping silent was the best option. This approach had helped her through fifteen years of marriage to a workaholic who was rarely home. Sarita had raised Aakash practically single handed in a foreign country, where they had arrived as awe-struck migrants when Aakash was only four. It was Sarita who had held a bawling Aakash on her lap as the doctor gave him his immunizations. It was Sarita who had helped him balance on his bicycle the first time he rode it without training wheels, holding on to the seat for the first few wobbly moments before gently letting go, watching her son sway drunkenly and then, as the wind caught on, glide effortlessly into the distance. It was Sarita who had patched up his bleeding knee, her eyes streaming, hugging and  crying along with him, when he had returned to the stadium as a ten year old after a soccer injury. Sanjay was always ‘at work’, at some ‘important’ meeting he simply could not miss. Sarita never argued. Her one and only battle, when she had fought vociferously, was when she had wanted a baby. Sanjay had never been keen on fatherhood, and relented only when Sarita fought back saying she was prepared to handle the baby by herself. True to his word, Sanjay was an ‘absent’ father….never there when needed. And Sarita, true to  her word, took it all in stride without a murmur of protest.

Sarita, herself, had been raised by a widowed mother who feared everything life threw her way. While her fearless cousins learned swimming in the village pond, Sarita always stood back at a ‘safe’ distance, her pigtails tied with red ribbon swinging like pendulums as she repeatedly shook her head and refused to step closer to the water.  When she ran home to say to her mother, ‘Ma, i don’t want to learn swimming’, Ma had gathered her in her arms, smoothed a stray tendril from her forehead and said ‘Don’t learn then. It’s not necessary to learn everything in life’. That one sentence spoken by her mother all those years ago had coloured Sarita’s thinking for the rest of her life. She grew up saddled with a million fears with rarely any motivation to conquer them, for hadn’t Ma taught her it was okay to fear some things?

Marriage to Sanjay multiplied her fears. She worried constantly about why he spent so many hours away from his new bride, why he worked so hard round the clock, why he had rushed back from his honeymoon to tackle yet another crisis at the office. Although determined to have a child before she was thirty, Sarita approached impending labour with the same crippling panic that clouded every decision she took. As the first spasm shook her swollen body, indicating that the baby was on its way, Sarita was convinced she would die before seeing her child. When she finally pushed out her red-faced, screaming son, she waited in a state of rising panic to see if he had all his ten fingers and toes. Her naturally timid nature worsened as she took on motherhood and her fears multiplied until she could barely think straight. When Aakash was four, Sanjay was offered a job in Australia which was too good to pass, and the little family packed bags and flew across continents to begin life in a new country.

The hardy Australian race taught her what her own mother had been unable to in her growing up years. Although unable to string an entire sentence in English together, Sarita nonetheless managed to befriend local Australians. It might have been her shy smile or her generous cooking or her endless hospitality….whatever the catalyst, Sarita became a much loved member of the local community. Her new friends seemed bewildered though by her timid nature. ‘Su-ree-taa, letting your son pick up a lolly from the floor and eating it is not going to kill him, you know.’ they would say, giggling openly, as Sarita would frantically open Aakash’s mouth to remove the lolly he had just popped into his mouth after having first dropped it. Or ‘Su-ree-taa, no one is going to kidnap Aakash if you are two minutes late picking him up from school’ they would admonish, when a red-faced Sarita would run up panting, and nearly collapse at the feet of the class teacher who was waiting with a worried looking Aakash.

Slowly Sarita began her metamorphosis into not exactly a lion-hearted mother, but at least a less frightened one. Although she had managed to shake off several of her fears, including heights ( Leanne and Alice, her neighbours,  had finally taken her to the top of Centre Point, the tallest free standing structure in Sydney, turning a deaf ear to her shrieks of panic), her fear of water was still very much intact. So much so, that she had not even bothered inquiring about swim lessons for Aakash. Ironically, she was now in a country with some of the prettiest beaches in the world, where poolside birthday parties were the norm rather than a novelty. How was she going to raise a child who could not swim in a country that thrived on its ocean culture?

It was the only real major fear that remained to be crushed. Oh, her mind still feasted on the tinier worries ( she could still not leave home without checking a million times if she had switched off the gas, or she still could not walk away from her car without going back a few times to make sure the door was locked and many others). The bigger ticket items though, like fear of heights or darkness or driving had been successfully banished thanks to her new friends. She could attribute no part of her new identity to Sanjay who, as the years rolled by, became progressively more involved in his burgeoning career, having little or no time for his wife or son.

As Sarita walked into the fitness centre, holding five year old Aakash by the hand, she could smell the chlorine in the pool from a distance. Something about that smell filled her with rising panic. A part of her wanted to turn around and run as fast as she possibly could. Surely it didn’t matter. Her son would survive without learning how to swim, just as she had. And yet a quiet voice in her ear, probably belonging to the sane side of her nature, whispered ‘ He must learn. It is a life-saving skill. He must learn’. Sarita managed to put one leg in front of the other, willing herself to drag her reluctant son, who seemed to have inherited her distrust of water and finally found herself facing the rosy-cheeked young girl at reception.

‘Hello….Does your little boy begin lessons today?’ she asked in a bright and cheery voice.

‘Yes’, Sarita nodded a few times for added effect. She seemed to be convincing herself that that indeed was what she was here for.

‘C’mon then, young man. I will take you to your instructor’.

‘Ma, ma…i don’t want to go…i don’t want to learn swimming. Why do i have to?’ Aakash protested loudly, huge tears filling up his hazel coloured eyes. It was as though time had stood still. Sarita was back to being the little girl with the red-ribboned pigtails asking her frightened mother if she must learn how to swim. Sarita could still remember the distinct  fragrance of her mother’s saree, a heady mix of cumin and ginger,  clinging to her from the meal she had just prepared,  as she had hugged her and said it was alright not to learn.

She had watched with a thudding heart as Aakash had let out a piercing scream when the baffled instructor attempted to get him into the pool. Aakash knew his mother was watching him from the other end…knew she would not ignore his distress…knew she would rescue him before long if he continued protesting long enough. Watching her son through troubled eyes, Sarita knew this was a turning point in both their lives. She could either turn into her own mother, and pass on the legacy of fear to her child. Or she could choose to look away.

Furiously blinking away her tears, Sarita walked slowly to the other end where Aakash was having a tantrum. He turned around hopefully, about to embrace his mother and expecting to be taken away from this horrid instructor. His mother the saviour had arrived. Kneeling onto the wet floor so that she was at eye level with her son, Sarita placed her palm on his head and whispered in hindi, ‘ You can scream until the roof comes down. You will remain here…you will learn….I will come back in half an hour to get you’. And then without another word, stopping long enough to offer an apologetic smile to the young, exasperated instructor who looked barely out of school herself, Sarita walked out of the centre without a backward glance. She knew that if she had stayed there, watching her son and his own fears, she would have lost the battle without a fight.

That had been nine years ago.

She stood up, carefully placing the empty fine bone china teacup onto the side table. With both hands she gathered the gleaming gold medal her son had won only a few days ago….zone swimming champion. She wiped a fleck of dust off it with the tip of her burgundy shawl. The gold medal looked back at her silently.  It had heard a million praises sung in favour of the son. But the medal knew, as it lay gleaming in her palm, that what remained unsung was the inner journey of a mother. A mother who had turned a deaf ear to her child’s fears, as her own frightened heart silently broke into a million fragments, only because she had loved him enough to let him confront his own fear and rise above it in triumph.

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A Moment in Time

This is a fictitious story i have written about a suburban housewife, who has spent most of her life being simply a wife and mother, with nothing more exciting to her credentials.
It recounts the events of one charming evening. For one moment in time, she becomes someone she has always aspired to become, someone she may well have become had she gone down a different road in life.

A MOMENT IN TIME – story of a suburban housewife.

Mira stared at the gold and white invitation with “Class Reunion-Batch 0f ’89” written across it in bold print. She had looked at it each morning for the past one week, fretting and wondering, unable to make up her mind. She thought about it as she packed lunch for Dennis and the girls; she thought about it as she waved goodbye at the school gate, looking distractedly at the other mums who greeted her without really noticing them; and she thought about it some more when she got home and went about her daily chores. No matter how much she considered her dilemma, she still could not make up her mind. Should she go? Or should she simply toss aside the embossed sheet of paper and try to forget about it?

In every crisis, Mira always depended on her faithful Lists. They had worked wonders for her in the past, somehow pointing her in the right direction when she was unsure which way to turn. She sat down with a sheet of paper torn hurriedly out of Lily’s workbook, drew a line in the centre of the page, and wrote “For” and “Against” on either side of the line. This simple act in itself seemed to lift her spirits and she wrote with a vigour she had not felt before. Under “For”, she neatly explained how it would be interesting to meet those she had gone to school with after nearly twenty five years. She could peep into their adult lives, see for herself how they had turned out and perhaps even strike a new and enduring friendship with some. When she turned her attention to the caption on the other side, her chest seemed to constrict. “Frumpy housewife”, she wrote, gritting her teeth, “never worked in her life, raised two daughters, married forever and a day”. The thought of meeting a glamourous bunch of strangers, each more accomplished than the first, seemed unbearable. What would she have to say to them? On days when she felt particularly low, she had often secretly admitted to herself that unless it was homework hassles being discussed, or how to get your teenager to clean their room, or perhaps tips for minimising the influence of tv in your child’s life, she would have nothing to say. Her life revolved around her role of mother, wife, and primary carer.

As she stared at her neat rounded writing, something seemed to stir within her. A slow sense of awakening. All her life she had done things by the book, never taking the first step unless she could see the entire staircase above her. Although her heart thudded painfully, her head seemed miraculously clear all of a sudden. In the box at the bottom right corner of the invite, she ticked to say she would attend, slid it into the envelope and sealed it with a sense of finality. Having made up her mind, she resolved not to think about it any more.

The reunion was held on the last Saturday in April, and as Mira ran around the house, one minute checking to see if her hair rollers were in  place, the next peering worriedly at a pimple that seemed to have materialised overnight bang in the centre of her nose, she could not help thinking of the evening ahead with mounting dread. She knew without a doubt that she was going to make a fool of herself.

“You will be fine”, Dennis pecked her on the cheek, as finally, dressed  in her red, strapless knee-length dress bought two years ago for her cousin Tia’s engagement party, Mira waved goodbye to her daughters and husband.

The slim gold watch on her wrist told her that she was more than twenty minutes late. The restaurant  seemed to be bursting with people and the sound of loud, happy voices sailed through the air as Mira stood rooted to the spot at the entrance. Her heart seemed to be hammering away inside her rib cage. She was about to turn around and escape when a thundering voice stopped her in her tracks. “Hellooooo…is that you, Mi-ra?”. Her name was drawn out in two parts almost as though whoever was calling her seemed vaguely in doubt of her identity. Mira turned around to find herself looking into a pair of smiling blue eyes. She smiled hesitantly, giving a half-nod, as though unsure herself of who she was.

“Remember me? Jarrad Simpson”. Of course, Mira thought. The school captain. Balding now, with a beer belly that spoke of countless indulgent summers, but still with that lop-sided, dimpled smile. ” Hello Jarrad. I am surprised you recognised me”, she smiled up at him. It was rare for her to look up to a man. At five feet eleven in stockinged feet, Mira mostly spoke down to people. “Oh, c’mon Mira, you were the tallest girl at school. And you look much the same. Older of course, but still…..”. He broke off mid-sentence and grinned .

And then, without warning, came the words she had been dreading. “So, what do you do, Mira?”. She opened her mouth but no sound emerged. What should she say? What could she say that would not sound lame and hopeless? Before Mira could come up with the perfect answer, Jarrad said: “I heard a long time ago that you took up photography? Is that true? What are you, a big flash photographer now? Eh?” he nudged her, and Mira looked at him in confusion. “Me, suburban housewife of the decade, all of a sudden being mistaken for a glamourous photographer?” she thought , giggling and nearly said “How funny that you should have heard that”. She stopped suddenly, swallowing her words. Her brain, which seemed to have been stuffed with cotton wool ever since she had walked into the restaurant, clicked and cleared. She felt as though she had just staggered out of a dark forest with heavy foliage bearing down upon her into the bright sunlight. Mira blinked a few times and then said slowly, “Yes, something like that”.

“That’s great. C’mon, lets go and meet the others. There are a lot of doctors and lawyers and bankers in there, but no glam photographer. None before now, that is. They would love to meet you again after all these years”, Jarrad said and took her hand as he elbowed through the crowds. Everyone seemed to smile at him, and there were cries of “Jarrad, old boy” and ” cheers, Jarrad” as they made their way down to a table at the front of the restaurant.

Mira recognised a few of the faces as they looked up at her curiously. Jemma the basketball champion, Eve the school scribe, Tom the class clown, Roger the debating miracle. It was strange how their names seemed to link themselves to specific  memories. In their tailored suits and flowing dresses, they bore little resemblance to the scrawny kids they had been over two decades ago and Mira once again felt tempted to flee. But Jarrad stood behind her, his arm lightly placed on her right shoulder. “This is Mira. Remember her? She is a renowned photographer now”. Mira squirmed, and a dull flush crept up her neck. “Come and sit, Mira” Eve the school scribe patted the empty chair next to her encouragingly. “I want to hear all about you. I have never met a photographer. At least not one who has turned it into a career”. That makes two of us, Mira thought miserably, as she sat down.

“So, tell me all about your most recent assignment.” Eve looked genuinely interested, and Mira remembered how Eve had never had any time for her back then, when she was being sought after for providing the juiciest articles to be published in the school magazine, and Mira had been just a very tall girl with no talent. “Ummm….it was in Paris at the Eiffel tower” Mira said desperately, grabbing the words out of thin air. She suddenly recalled the two week European holiday which she and Dennis had taken the girls on last year, as a reward for Lily having completed her School Cert with flying colours. “How interesting” Eve breathed in a husky voice. “Who did you photograph. Anyone famous?”. Mira cleared her throat which seemed to be choking on something small and sharp.”Oh, just two young models. No good, these young upcoming models. Gave me a tough time”, Mira said, remembering vividly Lily and Amy squabbling with each other as she yelled at them to stand still. She wondered if they had even noticed the amazing Eiffel tower which loomed over them in all its majesty, so busy had they been arguing with each other.

All heads at the table nodded in sympathy, as though there was nothing unusual about dealing with sulky difficult models under the Eiffel Tower. Mira’s head was buzzing and she vaguely noticed a drink being placed before her, as someone else asked her to tell them more. What was this, Mira wondered to herself, twenty questions? She seemed to be getting into this charade deeper and deeper. There was no way out now. She could not suddenly snap her fingers and say, “Don’t believe a word i have said. I am just a bored housewife, with nothing better to do than spin a yarn about a fictitious career i can never hope to achieve in a million years”.

“Ever photographed a handsome, dashing young man?” Jemma winked, and Mira wanted for a brief hysterical moment to laugh out loud. “Oh yes, a few times” she said, closing her eyes for a few seconds. A vision of a scowling Dennis as he posed in front of the Trevis Fountain in Rome rose before her eyes. She had been urging him to throw a coin behind him into the swirling water without actually turning back to look at it. Dennis had found the whole exercise pointless, arguing as she frantically clicked that he just did not enjoy being photographed. “Trevis Fountain” Jemma said reverently, clasping her hands in a theatrical pose. “Oh Mira, what an exciting life you lead”.

The next two hours seemed to fly. Mira found out that her ex-school buddies were now accomplished members of society, some powerful, some rich and some both. As they asked her questions about her glamourous career, questions which she fielded with a talent she never knew she had, they seemed to welcome her into their fold, making her feel part of them as they had never had when in school. She no longer felt like the useless, suburban housewife with nothing interesting to recount. As she clinked her glass of wine, and spun an imaginary story about the glamourous jet-setting photographer, her heart seemed to swell. She could not remember the last time she had had so much fun.

The evening came to an end all too soon. “You must keep in touch, Mira” she heard people say as they pressed their glossy business cards in her sweating palm. She nodded, she smiled, she blew air kisses. There was no awkwardness. She was part of the clique. “Taxi” she called out, and with a final wave, opened the door of the taxi that had pulled up at the kerb, and got in. The warmth of acceptance was no longer engulfing her, and she felt suddenly cold. Wrapping her shawl around her strapless dress, she turned around for a last look at the glittering circle she had left behind. She could still see the now blurry figures inside the restaurant, laughing, talking, simply being. For a brief moment in time, she had been a part of them. She had belonged. She would remember this evening forever. Tomorrow she would take up again her role of suburban housewife, wrapping herself with its familiarity and comfort. It was the only thing she knew how to do best. And also, if she were honest to herself, the only thing she had grown to love being.  But for today, just for a few hours, she had transformed into a Mira she may well have become, had life taken her down a different path.

She turned the key with a gentle twist and opened the front door. “Dennis, Girls, I’m home!”

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