On Mother’s Day this year, the person who brought me into this world is enjoying a trip of a lifetime with a person that I brought into this world. My mother and her firstborn granddaughter are at the tail end of a two week excursion to Vietnam, enjoying the sights, the food, the cultural activities and most importantly each other’s company. I am pretty sure this has been a good Mother’s Day for my mother, and it makes me happy that I was in some small way able to contribute to her joy by providing her with said grandchild…one who shares my mother’s passion and enthusiasm for travel and trying new things.
Their journey led me to thinking about my own maternal grandmother for whom I was the first grandchild. As a small child growing up in Sri Lanka, I have fragmented memories of her visits to us. She was shorter than my mother ( who we all tease about being short) and always dressed in her sari, worn in the Sri Lankan Kandyan style when she came to visit. Her black hair was neatly combed into a bun at the back of her head, and I remember as a little girl being fascinated by the long hairpiece that she used to construct that bun. She carried a black rigid purse with short straps and a clasp closure tucked under her arm. I also remember a long chain made of some sort of multicoloured, irregularly shaped beads or stones that was part of her visiting outfit. I called her Athamma which is Sinhalese for Grandma.
For my grandmother to visit, she would have had to walk down a long path of steps from the hill where she lived, and take a bus from the town where she lived to the town where my parents lived. At the time I was born she would have had 3 children of her own, who were still less than 16, at home to look after. It was no small thing for her to make that trip to visit her grandchild…and she came often. I loved it when she came to visit because in the ways of grandmothers everywhere, she managed to make me feel like I was the most special child in the world. I have no memories of her ever being angry or upset with me. When I was 6 years old, my family left Sri Lanka to come to Jamaica, for what was supposed to a 3 year stint, but ended up being ultimately a lifetime move. The person I missed the most when we left Sri Lanka was my grandmother…and she was the one I most looked forward to seeing on our trips back.
Our first visit back was in the summer of 1980. Daylight was waning when we reached the foot of the hill path that led to my grandparents house. We had journeyed more than 13 hours by plane across the Atlantic ocean and two continents. This was followed by a journey of several hours in a car from our port of entry into Sri Lanka to the town where my grandparents lived. The final part of the journey was that hill path which was navigated on foot. It was dark when we got to their house, and in the lamplight (because there was no electricity), there were tears of joy, and hugging, and exclamations on how we had grown. In the lamplight, that same first night, I can remember my grandmother pulling out powdered milk tins filled with Sri Lankan sweet treats ( “kokis”, and “kaung”) that she had made in preparation for our visit. The next morning we woke to the sound of a rooster crowing loudly in the yard. I think my sister, who would have been almost six at the time, was terrified that there was a monster in the yard.
I have a vivid memory of her combing and plaiting my hair. Her touch was gentle, and she did not pull the plait so tight that it hurt my head. I learned how to tell when her chickens, which roamed around the yard and parts of the outdoor kitchen and storeroom, had lain eggs, and she taught me how to collect those eggs. She made the most delicious Sri Lankan sweet treats, and traditional food. To this day, just thinking about the devilled potatoes and the beef cooked with black pepper that she used to wrap up with rice in banana leaves makes my mouth water. That visit for me was filled with love, laughter and food. I fell asleep each night to the sound of my maternal grandparents talking quietly to each other in the nearby bed. The sound of their hushed voices in the darkness was my reassurance that all was well with the world.
The next visit was in 1982, for my grandfather’s funeral, and a lot had changed. There was no longer a hill climb to her house because my grandparents had moved into the house that my uncle, their oldest son, had built for them, close to the main road. This was the house where my grandfather passed away. There were no chickens, and no lamplight because this house had electricity. There was food, but there was also lots of tears and sadness on that short visit and I missed the sound of my grandparents whispering to each other in the darkness. It is only now as that memory floats to the surface that I realise how devastating the loss of her husband and partner must have been for my grandmother.
The third visit was the summer of 1986. Many of the high points of this trip also revolved around food. I can remember going with her to pick string beans, and also picking leaves to make a “malung”. I also remember admiring the speed and expertise with which she sliced the onion, fresh chili peppers and other vegetables on the “katha” which was a big curved knife mounted on a wooden stool. She would sit on the stool and shred the items directly into a pan or plate positioned below the blade to catch the cut up items. I was not allowed to use that tool, and I could see why… the slightest lapse in focus, and your finger would be sliced into tiny pieces. She cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day, in spite of my mother’s protests that she was doing too much. It was on this was the trip that I was allowed to drink tea with the rest of the adults …an activity that was forbidden on previous trips by my mother who thought we were too young to drink tea. It is a habit that has now become an integral part of my life and it began in my grandmother’s kitchen. At the end of that visit, Athamma gifted me and my sister with the ceramic mugs that we used to drink the tea from that summer. I still have my mug though it is now cracked and no longer able to hold tea or any other liquid.
As the visit drew to an end, a minivan was hired for the airport trip, to accommodate all the extended family who wanted to accompany us to the airport. It was a long drive, and for a portion of it, I sat beside my grandmother. A little before we reached the airport, she took my hand and started crying because we were leaving, and she didn’t know when she would see us again. I am pretty sure I must have cried too…but I remember her tears more than mine. My last memory of my beloved Athamma, was of her weeping at the thought of being once more separated from her beloved grandchildren. I wonder if she sensed then that she would not see us again. Two years later, she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and in 1989, a little before I sat my A-level exams, my mother got the news that she had died and had been buried. That tearful goodbye at the aiport in the minivan was the final one.
Six years, two summers, and 2 weeks was the time I had with my grandmother. The impact she had has lasted my whole life. She was not a world traveler, she did not speak English, and she did not get to see me reach adulthood. But with her husband, she raised 10 children who have become world travelers and speak English. In the short time that we had with each other, she gave me a gift the value of which I did not appreciate fully at the time I received it. It is only now with a better understanding of how early childhood attachments lay the groundwork for the type of relationships one builds as an adult, that I understand the value of what she gave me. At a crucial time in my development, she gave me the gift of feeling loved and important for simply being me. As I got older, the interactions I observed between her and my grandfather, also provided me with a real life demonstration of an important feature of a healthy relationship with a life partner…someone you want to whisper with in the darkness, at the end of the day, about things in your life.
When I had my own children, I made a deliberate decision and expended considerable effort to ensure that they had the opportunity to build a strong relationship with their grandmother. I persevered in that effort, even in the face of emotionally violent disagreements between me and my mother, when it felt like it would have been easier to cut the ties. I am grateful beyond words that I did not give up because the Vietnam trip is one of the many returns on that investment and effort. On deeper reflection, I realise, even though I may not have been able to articulate it before, that it is the recognition of the value of my grandmother’s gift to me that made me want the same for my children.
The mother that my mother describes is not the grandmother I experienced. The grandmother that my children experience today is not the mother my sister and I experienced. I think the separation of a generation provides a perspective that adds a whole new dimension to matrilineal interactions. So grandmothers can do things in a way that mothers cannot and fostering those interactions had added a richness and depth to my daughters’ lives. My mother is here because of her mother. I am here because of my mother, and my daughter is here because of me. In a way, my daughter and her grandmother are enjoying this Mother’s Day, an ocean and two continents away, because of the powerful impact of my own grandmother in my life. My mother and daughter are carrying on the journey my grandmother and I began which was interrupted by her death 30 years ago. The circle of love continues and I feel a sense of completion in the way things have worked out. In more ways than just DNA transmission, none of us would be here without my grandmother, and I never got a chance to thank her for all that she so freely gave me. So as I wish my mother a Happy Mother’s Day, I dedicate this reflection with love and gratitude to my Athamma whose unconditional love and affirmation of my worthiness helped to lay the foundation for the person I am today.