By Zahida Virani, lawyer and writer
The Spaces in Between
Besides for the obvious reasons (she gained a ridiculous amount of weight to carry me around for 9 months, gave birth to my 9 and 1/2 pound overweight self who then transformed into a small monster with too much attitude for my size until the age of 24 by which time I had gained about another 120 pounds and flew the coop) – My mother understands me more than I understand myself and my mother is remarkably always there no matter what happens, whenever it happens or even while nothing is happening at all.
The interesting thing about leaving home is that at some point it dawns on you that “taking care” of someone touches so much more upon the spaces in between. The spaces in between the words, the hugs, the kisses and even the lectures and the shouting matches. Taking care of someone or being there for someone, in the manner in which my mother has been there for me, is to infuse love into every single interaction – whether it be physical or emotional, intellectual or spiritual, across oceans or across a room.
Thinking back to my earliest memories, I visualize my mother’s affectionate smile, her embrace, her childlike innocence when grabbing me and my brothers to tickle us or offer us chocolate or sugared roti. And then watching us with absolute adoration as we devoured every last bit of food she put in front of us. I remember Easter egg hunts in the house, I remember waking up to baskets filled with hearts and candy on Valentine’s Day, I remember costume shopping for Halloween, and I remember presents every December. This religious Indian Muslim mother of mine always made sure to remind us that these presents were not for Christmas, but we didn’t care, as long we were getting presents, we were happy.
My mother’s presence felt like a warm constant glow. Always there, always shining light into any sadness or upset. I was her baby and she wanted to keep it that way. Then one day she grabbed me to hold me in her lap and realized that I just didn’t fit anymore. She then resorted to just holding my head in her lap and playing with my hair for hours. I remember looking up at her that day and seeing tears in her eyes. I asked her why she was crying and she said, “Beta, you are growing up so fast, I wish you could just stay like this longer.”
You Just Don’t Get It
But growing up was inevitable. And oh what an adventure that was. I argued with my mother on a daily basis from about the age of 13 to 18. We argued about what to eat (and what not to eat), what to wear, what color to dye my hair, what size pants I should be buying to cover up my butt (the butt, I might add, that she gave me, thank you very much). Arguments ranged from benign banter about how I would never understand what a mockery I was making of myself by wearing “tiny” jeans with “ridiculous space shoes” and black lipstick, to the more dramatic, with her asking God (spatula in hand, roti on the stove) what she had done wrong in life to deserve such an evil undisciplined ungrateful child.
During those moments, I remember feeling so angry and frustrated and even enraged with my lot in life. How did I end up with this overcautious overprotective Indian Muslim mother who just didn’t “get” me? Me, the Canadian westernized girl. The girl who wanted to be everything at the same time, who wanted to be everywhere and experience all of it (without any of the pain or the consequence, of course). I learned early on that with experience comes both pleasure and pain. I learned much later that this in and of itself is the beauty of life experience. And through it all I realized that this westernized girl was still inevitably pulled by her eastern values.
No matter the occasion, despite my mother’s upbringing in a small village in Uganda, her traditional Indian mindset and her disciplined religious practice, my mother adopted almost everything that surrounded our suburban Canadian home. She embraced the culture, the food, the holidays and the community around us. Yet she always made it a point to remind us where we came from, what we represent and what we should strive for. I love my mother because she has always lived the path that she espoused – Proud of her roots, adapting to the now, finding strength in diversity, holding onto her values and growing through new experiences.
And because of this, no matter the experience, whether it was drinking, partying, dating, traveling or working – the ethics and values that come with being brought up in my mother’s household were there (via mummy’s accented English). But they were inside me, via me as well. I wanted to be true to myself. I wanted to have respect for myself and others. I wanted to be kind and charitable. I wanted to be honest. I wanted to love myself. And I did – because I learned to take care of myself through her.
I was overweight in my youth. To give you an idea, my brother used to poke my stomach and say “wohoo!” like in the Pillsbury commercials. Remember those? Oh yeah. That happened. My mother would snatch away the tablespoon that I was using to scoop out chocolate pudding and replace it with a tiny little teaspoon, instructing me to “eat like a lady.” My father on the other hand was proud, and glowing with pride, would tell anyone who would listen that his daughter was healthy and hefty. . .Hefty – sound familiar? Yep that’s another commercial – for Glad garbage bags. Suffice to say, I realized early on that if I wanted to make it through the mandatory run every Phys Ed class in high school without collapsing or having the entire class wait for me as I huffed and puffed my way through, I needed to start exercising. As I started to take care of my body, my body changed. As my body changed, my attitude changed. As my attitude changed, the boys came running.
…And there stood my mother. Not physically of course (well, sometimes). But she was there, in the back of my mind (and in the front of my mind at the most inopportune times). Reminding me of my self-worth, my brilliance, my pride and my values. And when things fell apart, as they inevitably do in the cycle of regression and renewal, she was there. She held me despite herself, as I cried and stopped eating and lost the spark in my eyes. My world fell apart after my first boyfriend broke up with me. She told me I had yet to even see the world and experience it. She warned me against letting my heart go so easily, yet her open loving heart was the one that taught me to be so affectionate, giving, caring and loving. So while her words were to “proceed with caution-always,” her actions were to proceed as this was my last day on earth, so to “love, live, give of yourself, serve others and always be kind.”
And because of that, this is how I always approach life and relationships – with openness and love. Despite her reproaches, telling me, “you are so smart with everything else, why do you let yourself get so hurt by people who don’t care for you”, she stood by me and always told me to continue being the person that I am. To hold my head high with the passion and integrity with which I approach every day and to never let anyone hold me back. She taught me to take care of myself.
Day to Day Dreaming
There were times when I was not completely honest with my mother. I didn’t want to hurt her or disappoint her. I could handle angering her, I could handle irritating her, I could handle annoying her – but disappointment in her eyes – there could be nothing worse for me. As I sit and think about why that is, I realize that is because I respect her so much that I want to mold myself after her. A woman that moved from Africa to Canada as a refugee, learned a whole new language, worked multiple jobs, got married and reared three children. She did all this and brought us up with a softness, tenderness and care that can only be true of someone that is so in touch with their godlike essence and true love. That is not to say she didn’t lose her temper or smack us a few times. That is beside the point. Her essence, her true being, is unconditional care and selfless love.
Recently I lived in Tanzania for two years far away from my family in Montreal. I saw my mother maybe 3 times in those two years. Every phone call, she took care of me with just a few words or even with a running list of the foods she was making that I would eventually get to eat when I came home. I missed her and home so much, but I constantly and consistently felt the love. And even when things fell apart, thousands of miles away, she was there, ever present with wise advice for situations she had never even experienced. I’ll never forget the day I called her distraught and she simply said, “You remember when you were a baby you would talk about your dreams and wishes? Have you stopped? Don’t stop dreaming beta, there is so much more to come.”
Someone remarked to me once that they had seen my mother at her office and it seemed as though she floated from place to place because she was so content with her day to day activity. How many of us can say that we are happy or even content with the day to day work we do? How many of us can say that we find joy is just sitting down on the bus or subway home in utter relaxation? How many of us can say that we smile and giggle and laugh when it’s raining outside because we are just so happy to be inside the house staring out at the cold? That is my mother. This is what she does. She finds pleasure in everything. She finds beauty in everything. And this is why I love my mother.
My mother has not taken a course in meditation, nor has she read any self-help books. She has heard of Deepak Chopra through me and she has watched a few Oprah specials. But really and truly, my mother is naturally in tune with the very nature of humanity, that is to say, the spiritual and loving kindness that flows within us and through us. I on the other hand, have read a myriad of self-help books, I love the Chopra Center’s 21 day meditations, I take time out to do yoga and center myself and always focus on being positive in my thoughts and actions. All this is beautiful and I truly do enjoy balancing din and duniya, as I do believe that our life experience should be balanced between the worldly and the spiritual. But when I look at my mother I see how she naturally lives to love and care for others around her. And that taking care of others, that being there for others, that love for others, for humanity in general, for your kin and even for strangers – that brings a glow, a presence, a happiness to your heart and home like no other.
As I’m living my adult life, my mother has switched it up on me. Now when I talk about losing weight she tells me I am perfect and I should just be healthy and take care of myself and not stress about it (this is the woman that once told me I shouldn’t be eating as much chicken as my two brothers). When I talk about relationships, she tells me she understands what I need and what I want and that she is proud of me no matter what.
When we talk, it is like we are taking a walk together somewhere ephemeral, somewhere sacred, where no one else can go, where no one else can understand – only a mother and a daughter, with 30 years of bonding and love between them. My mother takes care of me and on this Mother’s Day, I want to tell you, mummy, that I love you and will always take care of you.