It was the day I was moving into the LUMS hostel.
Ami was there, of course. She helped me put on the red checkered bed sheet over the single bed in that tiny cubbyhole I was to share with another girl, we set out the lamp she had helped me choose and then we opened up my suitcase. Ami found out where the ironing table was and took it upon herself to iron my kameezs and dupattas, coming back with the clothes hung neatly on plastic hangers, with the burning August heat of Lahore drawing rivulets of perspiration down the sides of her face and back. I didn’t know anyone in that strange, foreign university then and having my mother next to me was a comfort. Also she had just ironed a week’s worth of outfits just so I wouldn’t have to!
I also remember exactly an year from then, at the start of my sophomore year when Ami came to drop me off to the dorms again, and I left her in the new cubbyhole, distracted by calls from friends I hadn’t seen in two months, stories to share, hugs to exchange, giggles to disperse and plans to make. “I guess you’ll be alright to unpack yourself,” she said to me and I had nodded, “yes, definitely, you should go, I’ll be just fine!”
Ami never huffed, never puffed. She just gave me a hug and left.
It isn’t easy to be selfless, I have discovered and continue discovering again and again.
I always pepper my selflessness and sacrifices with meaningful looks and reminders, clearing my throat suggestively to show that I’ve cleaned the kitchen without you having to ask me to, a roundabout mention of how I let you take the first pick from the sweaters Abu bought us, demanding thank yous and gratitude, or at the very least, as I like to say, acknowledgement of my hard work, my going the extra mile, my daily grind, my time management, my project implementation, my rigorous scrubbing of the kitchen sink.
My mother, on the other hand, made it look really easy. So easy, in fact, that we all took – and often continue, I’m afraid – to take her generosity for granted. She has always put us, and not just us but most people, before her. She’d always take the last piece of bread, the slice that nobody wants because it’s the thickest and gruffest, and she’d say, “it’s alright, I like it.” What do you want to eat, where do you guys want to go, which one do you want. She did it so completely it was easy to forget that she too has individual preferences and wants and needs and desires.
She always put us first. Waking up in the middle of the night to tend to a stomachache, spending hours sitting next to a fevered child to put cold, soaked cloths on their forehead, delaying her own dinner to feed her daughters or son or nephews or nieces, protecting us from stressful news and all kinds of negativity, absorbing it all as if she was a superwoman.
And I guess she is.
She and so many other women from her generation – I have seen how they always put their family’s needs and feelings before their own – they are the bulletproof vests we wear without knowing it, they’re the pillows our heads fall back onto at the end of long days, they always put a hand out to stop our falls, scratching and breaking their own bones and hearts just so ours will be spared. They listen to our rants and screams and wipe away our tears and our fears without ever sharing with us their own, without ever letting us know that each scream and fear we give out isn’t just brushed away but inhaled by them, falling down their throats and landing with a thud in the deepness of their minds and souls, collecting till there is a 1,000 foot high stack of gray, black and blue thoughts teetering, and how they pray with their eyes closed and their hearts open, slowly disentangling and cutting down that grimy stack – only to have us add to it again…
And how they never, ever demand acknowledgement.
I guess superheroes have to keep their powers hidden.
The truth, of course, is that they are not superheroes. Not really. And we have to stop treating them as superheroes (maybe super humans), because nobody should have to be that powerful.
When I spend hours drawing and coloring Elmo caricatures and hanging streamers on walls, I’ll have my ears tuned to a ‘great decorations, thanks so much!’ Every dinner I make, I poke around – ‘how is it? Don’t you appreciate how I take time to cook healthy meals for us?’ and the occasional ‘you realize I worked 9 to 5 today and still came back and made food? And I even exercised!”, that is I even want a little pat on the back from my husband for taking care of my own health!
“I need my me time,” I’ll tell myself to ease the guilt of watching back-to-back episodes of a TV show (a guilt, I’m sure, men have never experienced because they never heard their fathers say or demonstrate that spending time on oneself is a luxury). You need to put yourself first, because if you’re not happy you can’t keep other people happy, I believe, because I’ve read it so many times and discussed it with other people in my classes, yet, I’ve seen women of another generation prove it wrong time and again, as they power through their sadness or anxiety with delicious meals and walks to the park, braiding our hair and patting our cheeks.
It’s a different era, I realize that. My generation grew up questioning the values and beliefs that were ingrained in the women born in the 1950s and 60s. And accepted by them; if there was resistance to those ideals of patriarchy it was muted and swallowed, enough for these beautiful women to ask us to replicate the same principles, principles of tolerance and patience and sacrifice that are the sole (or at best, the greater) burden of women, the price to silently pay for a successful marriage (and a successful marriage is one that stays – happiness was never a right, nor a requirement).
And then there we came, poking and prodding at these beliefs, bursting bubbles with the prick of a why, providing alternatives to the life where men live on pedestals, being served on hand and foot, silencing women’s ideas and phrases with a shake of their head or a short, abrupt ‘no’. But critical and clever as we may be with our shouts for equality, I have never seen, and could never be, as courageous and as kind as my mother (as my mother-in-law, as my aunts). They have made us strong but compassionate, brave but kind; they have taught us how to weather the darkest of storms and how to look for the light that’s trying to break through the clouds. They have been the wall that we slump against when we’re tired, they’re the blanket that envelops us when we’re too cold, they’re the arms that encircle us when we cannot stop crying, knowing when to ask why and knowing when to just hold in complete, warm, comforting silence. They’re the ones who have taught us how to tie knots on flat a bed sheet so that it’s easier to spread on the bed and the ones who trained us in generosity and giving to the poor, in treating others with kindness and love, in always offering the best to visitors, in always being patient with the young, and respectful to the elders. And most of all, they have always made us feel loved.
And while I can never have a heart as big as my mother’s, nor be as generous and giving as her, I’m grateful because I know there is at least a little bit of that in me, and it makes me who I am today.
Happy mother’s day to all the beautiful mothers I know.