When I was a child, I’d sit on my mother’s bed, my dress and orna getting wrinkled as I slid, feeling the side of the mattress horizontally against my back like the movement of a cat rubbing up against a wall.
I’d watched her straighten her long black hair in her tiny pink bathroom where she stood on the cold tiles, a warm light above the mirror, which was itself above the sink, glowing against her face. Her saree would be wrapped around her body, a piece draped over her right shoulder. I’d ask her if I could straighten my hair too. She’d let out a light laugh. ‘Your hair is already very straight’, she’d point out.
Now, she peeks her head in, leaning against the door frame of the bathroom, and stares at me through the mirror as I apply my makeup. She smiles when our eyes meet in the reflection.
She tells me how beautiful she thinks I am. I smile back at her and tell her how beautiful I think she is.
To this, my mother rolls her eyes, her dimples deepening before her attention reverts to her own reflection, her smile less vibrant; the impact of my compliment slowly wears off as she observes her skin coming loose, the dark bags underneath her eyes, her short hair damaged from black dye. She digs her fingers into her cheekbones and lightly pulls the skin back.
My mother was a few years younger than I am now when she married my father and had my older brother. She left her family and moved into my father’s childhood home, where my uncles lived with their wives and children – my cousins. When my mother was pregnant with my brother, her belly very round and ripe, my father flew back to Canada, where he ran his embroidery business, leaving my mother in the hands of the women who had watched my father growing up.
My mother, only nineteen, didn’t understand that she was going into labour when her water broke. She screamed, frightened that this was where her life would come to an end. Ignoring my aunts, who pleaded for her to stay quiet – worried that the entire village would hear her cries – my mother’s life began flashing before her eyes.
All I can think when my mother tells me this story is what a short life she must have seen; one where she only received care but hadn’t yet been able to give and receive the kind of love a child needs.
Once, I told my mother over breakfast as she ate her toast, stopping once in a while to press her hand against her cheek because of the toothache she’d had over the past couple of weeks, that it is nice to choose whether or not one would like to have children. She frowned and let out a dramatic exhale before announcing that I will, in fact, have children.
For a long time, the process of raising children for my mother was the ability to take care of them. But to allow your children to make choices that are outside of your reality was losing grasp of your children’s safety.
To my mother, allowing your children to create their own futures by following their own realities is also allowing them to get onto a path they might not be able to return from. To allow choice is to accept that loving a child does not solely mean protecting them, but it is also accepting that the love you have learned must be unlearned.
In bell hook’s All About Love, hooks states: ‘To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.’
Throughout my childhood, my mother gave me the form of love she recognised. The one where you knew you were being taken care of, but your feelings and your ability to make choices for your future were discouraged. Yet, as I entered my twenties and observed my mother soften with age, she began reflecting on her own childhood; she made a shift in the way she perceived me, interacted with me, and began to understand a kind of love my grandmother failed to give her.
There is something meaningful in the space between reflecting and reacting.
Having a multitude of choices materialises time and makes it sacred. Perhaps it is the lack of choices and the lack of opportunities to break a cycle that makes life feel so short.
My mother and I continue to look at each other’s reflections in the mirror.
Observing the texture of our skin, the colour of our hair and the wrinkles in our smiles, we start recognising how fast time has passed.
As she looks away from our reflections and leans in for a hug, my mascara wand in one hand, the tube in the other, I realise that my mother, with time, had recognised the need for a transformative love.