Dancing in Marina Aunty’s Kitchen

One of the relatives snapped this photo of me last week, dancing in Marina Aunty’s kitchen with my mother at her 70th birthday celebrations. It’s a nice picture, but it’s misleading. What it doesn’t show is how sad and strained much of the weekend was.

Amma has been sick for a long time, struggling with mental health challenges. At this point, she’s having a very hard time holding on to the present moment, and a hard time generating understandable language — we’ll often get fragments of a sentence, usually only in Tamil, and then she’ll trail off, raising her hands in frustration.

Those who spend a lot of time with her probably understand more of it than the rest, but even they are often stumped, trying to figure out what Amma’s saying. And she’s anxious most of the time, so we’re all trying to reassure her without always knowing what she’s asking for reassurance about. Mostly, it’s pretty hard to connect with her.

For the 70th birthday weekend that my sister arranged, we were able to give her some good moments, I think. There are times when Amma was carried by the laughter of the group, by music and dancing, and she looked like the girl she once was. Amma’s happier when there are children about; I think they don’t trigger her anxieties the same way adults do. She appreciates good food, and is still willing to critique food that doesn’t come up to her standards.

My mother and I — we’ve always had some real differences, and had a lot of trouble getting along when I was growing up. She was very young when she had me, and as she told me decades later, Amma regretted some of her parenting choices, looking back. I could have handled it all better too, in retrospect. We all make mistakes, sometimes bad ones.

As an adult, Amma and I were pretty distant from each other for a long time, and honestly, that was probably a good thing — with time and distance and apologies, we were eventually able to repair some of the roughest spots. We found some common ground — any skill I have as a cook comes from Amma, and even now, she still makes a better curry than I can. Her hands remember, even if her mind has gone wandering.

What was most touching about the weekend was seeing how hard everyone — my father, her other daughters, her siblings and their families, and her oldest, dearest friends — worked at trying to give her some good moments.

You could see it, in the worry on their faces; you could hear it, in the affection and strain in their voices — they wanted her to be happy, so much. There was a lot of kindness in those rooms, this past weekend, and a lot of care.

May we all live to be loved that much.

This Thanksgiving, I’m wishing you time with people you care about, as much time as you and they both want, and at least a few good moments to carry you on.

Eat well, and be gentle with yourselves.

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