Tia nuzzled next to me while Sanjay cuddled me from the back. I woke up to a flurry of wet kisses and ´Happy Mother´s Day´ wishes. Tia, 5 year old nestled a huge flowery greeting card and fancy earrings in-between the curves of my bosom and tummy. She had made the card herself with some help from Sanjay.
I was in for a bigger surprise. Father and daughter brought me breakfast in bed – hot coffee, pancakes with strawberry sauce and whipped cream, sunny side up and bacon on the side. I had my eyes rolled up by now. This was unbelievable for a man who didn´t know how to crack a boiled egg and my 5 year old. By the looks of it, I must admit that they did a pretty neat job.
Sanjay told me to take my time getting up from bed. He said we´d be going out for lazy lunch and dinner. Tia commanded:
“Mummy, no house work today. Today is Mother’s Day. Besides, I don’t mind the lil mess. You are not supposed to work today.”
Father and daughter left me to rest all by myself. I stretched lazily on my bed feeling blessed for all the love and attention bestowed upon me by Tia and Sanjay.
Was motherhood a blessing?
This random thought flashed across and Zara came to my mind. When was the last time that I spoke to her?
My first memories of Zara were of crossing paths with this beautiful, extremely fair, middle aged lady, smiling at each other. Neither of us bothered to go beyond that polite and customary American “Hi!” ritual. She was always modestly dressed in cool cotton, long sleeved salwars in soft pastel colors. Her hair was always concealed neatly inside her chiffon dupatta. I presumed she was Muslim, simply by the way she dressed and that she lived pretty close to our block in the apartment.
After a few months, we upgraded to an extra bedroom apartment within the same community. We shifted to an apartment that was right next to the kids park. Going down the park was a daily and much anticipated event for my pre-schooler daughter then. During one of those regular park days, I met Sumaiya, a young lady who had come down from Chicago for vacations to her aunt’s place here in California and Amina, her daughter. While Amina and Tia quickly became friends, so did we, their Moms. She was from Pakistan and we would chat for long, the similarities and differences in our respective countries. One fine day, Sumaiya bought Zara, her aunt (the one who she was staying with) to the park. And Voila! This was the same beautiful middle aged lady I’d bump into frequently next to my earlier apartment. She flashed back a knowing and acknowledging smile as well.
“Aap ke baare mein bahut kuch suna. Maine aapko bahut baar dekha.” (I heard a lot about you. I have also seen you many times.), she said knowingly. This was the very first time that we chatted. From that day on, Zara also started joining us everyday at the park. While the kids played in the park, my new found Pakistani friends and I yapped in Hindi whole-heartedly, feeling bonded together as the days flew by. A lot of dishes were common in both our households, thanks to the Mughal/ Nawabi influence in Hyderabad where I hailed from. Be it the katti dal or Shammi kebabs or kheema, we found a lot of likeness in language, cuisine, cultural values, politics, the Indo-Pak tension and ofcourse, Bollywood. Sumaiya and Amina eventually went back to Chicago after the vacations. But Zara continued coming to the park everyday to meet Tia and me.
I remember being completely in awe when I visited her home for the first time. Not because it was grand. Far from it, it was modest but extremely neat and pleasing to the eye and soul just like her. All the qualities that she possessed simply shone through her home. There was so much warmth, serenity and love in that home. I quipped, “Aapke ghar toh hospital se bhi saaf sutra hain” (Your home is cleaner than a hospital). She welcomed me into her home with utmost hospitality, and we feasted on her kheema, naan and masala chai. The kheema was eerily close to what we made at home. As we spoke, we both agreed and came to the conclusion that had it not been for our politicians and their lust for power, the people of India and Pakistan would have been living together in love, peace and harmony. Just like us! Or Sania Mirza and Shoiab Malik.
Zara was not just a home-maker as I initially presumed. She also worked as a full time baby sitter and had her own humble food catering business. She was baby sitting a couple of babies within the community. I heard some fantastic reviews about Zara and how exceptional she was with babies from some friends in the Indian community. The patience, love, kindness, warmth and playfulness that she displayed was noteworthy. She loved these tender souls just as much, they looked forward to her arrival. She entertained them, bathed them, fed them, cleaned and changed their diapers, taught them something new everyday, cuddled them and sang them sweetly to la…la…land. She was their ´Mother away from their Mother´. And that is a tall shoe to fill in. But only Zara could naturally and effortlessly fill in that space. Albeit for a while but in all purity, sincerity and genuine love!
Zara´s maternal instincts weren’t restricted to just her job but also warmly extended to us as well. I remember coming home one day to find a packet hanging over the door knob, only to quickly discover inside that it was some fresh, delicious home-cooked meal. If one day it was rich and creamy sevaiyan with dry fruits, the other day it was a royal Pakistani style Yakhni chicken biryani. Another day, it was a light and zesty pasta salad with chick peas, crunchy vegetables and lots and lots of olives. It wasn’t the meal that mattered as much as the love and thought behind the whole gesture.
She’d gently chide me and advise me when it came to matters of home, family and children. “Don’t let your daughter play in that dirty mud.” “Beware of your daughter’s company with those older kids. They are bad influence.” “Don’t ever check the phone while you are working”. And many more such gentle cautionary words of advise came typically from her. Much like any protective mother would do. She quintessentially became the mother away from the mother for me as well.
For my daughter’s birthday, I requested Zara to cater two trays of aloo chat salad for the occasion. When the matter of payment came up, she refused to take any money for her effort. When I insisted, she looked at me, her eyes slightly moistened, “Apno se koi paise lete hain todi? Aap toh meri apni beti jaisi hai”. (Whoever takes money from their own? You are just like my own daughter.) I was touched and appreciated her all the much more, knowing fully well, the importance of money in their humble lives. Another time, she altered a huge load of my clothes without taking a dime again for her efforts. Greed was alien to her.
Zara never had any children of her own. Life may have killed her dreams of becoming a mother, but it didn’t squash her maternal spirits one single bit. She was always bursting with so much unbridled love. In her role as a wife, she loved her husband beyond measure. Many a times, she was taken for granted but she had the true heart of a mother. It was a long, long time since she ever took a vacation. She never squandered her husband’s hard earned money on anything but the very basic needs. She told me that she didn’t need much or desire much either. You could guess the size of her wardrobe by what she wore everyday. A couple of regularly worn but well-maintained cotton salwars in pastel shades of beige, pink, blue and lavender. Simplicity of her thoughts reflected so well in her modest yet tasteful choice of clothing. She loved, respected and supported her husband whole heartedly, turning their extremely humble home into a rich home of heavenly paradise.
Zara once opened up to me how she conceived a long time ago. But, she there was a minor problem, which if it had been attended to on time, could have saved her baby. She rued the long emergency wait times that she held responsible for the loss of her unborn baby. At that instant moment, I wished I could help her somehow. There must be some way, I thought. If I had a magic wand, I’d grant a baby right that instant, in her godhi (lap). But I knew I couldn’t help her in any single way except to lend a ear and listen to the cries of her heart. Zara was well past the menopausal age. I asked her if they ever considered adoption as a solution. She said her husband was wary of the stringent American laws when it came to adoption.
Strange indeed are sometimes God’s ways. I wondered those times…Why He chose not to grant some wonderful and good women out there, the baby that they pined and longed for? When some of them like Zara were so clearly cut out for motherhood!
I found some consolation in Zara´s approach. She willfully and graciously accepted her situation and His will. Life or God’s designed plans didn’t render her broken-hearted, cynical or bitter but instead she triumphed over her situation coming out sweeter, gentler, tender and more giving than ever before. I had a newfound respect for her and found myself ironically, learning some of my best lessons in motherhood from her. Because to me, Zara will always be a mother as she didn’t behave any less. As a matter of fact, she was the epitome of motherhood.
Motherhood is a blessing bestowed on some. It takes a lot from you but what is life and love without giving anyway! It is always a blessing, whether you experience this beauty they called ‘Motherhood’ once, twice or more. And in Zara’s case, it is a blessing bestowed even on those who can claim none as their own.
It’s the spirit of Motherhood that makes one a true mother. Zara enlightened me by being a living example of how a true mother is identified not by the fertility of their bodies but by the fertility of the soul. She might be barren in her body but she has the most fertile mind and soul.
Zara changed the definition of a mother for me. To cherish and treasure more preciously what I already have been blessed with. To opening and laying bare my heart and to being vulnerable. To really feel and savor the pain that naturally comes with the hurt of loving deeply and unconditionally, while nursing back to healthy recovery, the sore wounds. To keep on loving and never ever stopping. To look beyond the traditionally accepted and rightly fully proclaimed mothers.
To look beyond the physical dynamics of motherhood and delve deeper into the spiritual universal connotations that come with being a mother. To embrace, love and accept not just a few but the whole of humanity as your own child.
Therein lies the answer, the definition and the spirit of motherhood. Tia woke me from my reverie:
“Mummy, when I grow up I´m going to marry you!”
I laughed out loud, grabbed my little munchkin close to me, snuggled up to her under the blanket covers and started to eat her chubby cheeks while she lay still, basking in all the attention.