Remembering my Mother in Law – Girija Nagarajan

Long before I met her, I started hearing stories about her. About her sweet kozhhukattai and her savory kozhhukattai. About her special karthigi adai. About all the coconut pieces in the karthigi adai. About how she would wash all his clothes even after he had become an adult. About her love for jewelry. About how she dealt with all the problems life had thrown at her. About how she managed to deal with it all with a happy demeanor. About how he was her special kadai kutty (last born favorite child). About how much he couldn’t wait for me to meet her and get to know her.

I met her for the first time in Nov 2000 in her Tiruchy house on the day of our engagement. She was kind. She introduced me to all her neighbors and relatives. She proudly said to everybody “My daughter in law studied M.S. in U.S. But, she speaks with me in Tamil.”

Despite her severe arthritis, she walked a lot on our marriage day. She wanted to ensure everything went smoothly. After the marriage, Kumar and I spent a few days in her house. She showed me here favorite coconut tree. She wanted me to visit all her favorite temples. I did as she said. I brought her back prasadam and flowers from every single temple. She accompanied Kumar and me to the mandatory “newly-married-couples” visit to Vaideeswaran Temple. She told me to pray hard to get good kids.

When nobody was around, she whispered “Kumar is my kutty (little one). Please keep him happy. Feed him good food. I have trained all my boys to help their spouse. He will help you. Just ask him for help kindly.”

What brought me to tears was the following “I had a bad mother in law. She treated me badly. I don’t want to ever do that to my daughter in laws. Always, I will be your friend. You think of me as a friend too.”

I knew then where Kumar’s kindness came from. The apple doesn’t fall from the apple tree.

After our marriage, I got back to California. We would speak on the phone over the weekends. I soon realized, that the first question would be “What did you cook today?” First few weeks, I dreaded that question. Then, I realized there is no getting around it. I made it a point to cook something on the weekends. So, when she asked me the question, I was able to give her an honest answer.

She started sharing recipes with me. My head started spinning. I didn’t have the heart to tell her “Amma, my head is spinning. I don’t think I can do this.” I just noted everything down. I promised her that I would try it and report back next weekend.

She gave me sweet pongal recipe. I reported back “Amma, I don’t know why….but, the pongal was very hard.” She would laugh and say “Did you heat the rice and jaggery too much. Don’t do that. Just a little bit will do.”

She would tell me about all the soap operas she was watching. I thought my head was going to burst. But, she was the kind woman who bore my kind husband. So, I listened patiently. Kumar told her “Amma, she does not like soaps. She considers watching TV a crime. Please don’t bore her.” She could care less what Kumar said. Next weekend, over the phone, I would hear all the latest soap updates. Kumar would say “How can you be so patient with her and so impatient with me. Life is not fair!”

She was elated when she heard that I was pregnant. She was sure it was going to be a boy. She told me “Don’t work too hard. I know you like Rajinikant. I know you want to walk fast like him. But, please don’t do it. You are pregnant. Walk slowly. Eat good food. Drink water. Please don’t stare at the computer screen. Think good thoughts. My grandson is going to do great things. I already know it. “

Adi was her second grandchild. Her joy knew no bounds. But, she was so disappointed that she couldn’t hold him right after he was born. She was 10,000 miles away. She kept asking me “When will I see him? When will I hold him?”

Kumar and I planned to take Adi to visit her for his first birthday in July 2003. We kept sending her pictures. Then, suddenly in Nov 2002, her health worsened. We feared for her life. We didn’t want her to pass without holding her second grandchild. So, Kumar and I decided to make an emergency trip to India. Friends warned us “Don’t do it. Adi is not even 4 months old.” We did not heed their words. The trip was hard. But, we did it. Together.

We did not tell her we were going to visit her. We just showed up at her door step with Adi in Kumar’s hands. That day was probably one of the happiest days of her life. She immediately mobilized her entire family to take care of the baby. She made arrangements for the baby’s thuli (cradle) to be setup within a few minutes after we had entered her house. She stood beside the thuli. She didn’t move. She sang lullabys.

She hated it when Kumar and I tried to cover up Adi with a diaper. She made the rules in her household. No diaper under her watch. So, through out that trip Adi went diaper-less. I lost track of the number of times she helped me change his clothes every single time he peed (frequently and a lot!).

That trip was during the Tamil month of Karthigi. I got to taste her famous Karthigi adai. It was yummy. It had a lot of coconut pieces. Just like Kumar had described it to me years ago. She had me light lamps around the house for Karthigi.

She told me that Adi would bring Kumar and me closer. She said “Ambal, What you teach Adi is what he will carry with him for life. Teach good things. Work hard for him.”

She came to visit us in Jan 2004. She loved America. She loved the Golden Gate Bridge. She loved Muir Woods. She kept asking me “Ambal, how many years old are these redwood trees?!”

Couple of weeks after her arrival, she feel very sick and we had to admit her in the hospital. Those few days with her in the hospital were an eye-opening experience for me. She never complained. She never grimaced. Whenever any hospital folks came to see her in the room, she would say one of the few words she knew in English. It was either a cheery “Hello!” or a heartfelt “Thank you!”.

She was constantly making observations. “Ambal, this hospital looks very clean.” “Ambal, these doctors have such a warm personality.” “Ambal, that old doctor would make a good boyfriend to me. What do you think?”

Whenever I visited her in India, I got treated like royalty. She would ensure that I was always fed well. She lived with my sister-in-law whom both of us called Manni. Together, they would cook up a storm. She knew all my favorite dishes. “Manni, let us make beans osili for Ambal.” Then she would call her eldest son “Dey Kanna, don’t forget to buy fresh corn from the market. Let us make that in the evening for Ambal.” “Manni, today let us make bringal varavul (fry) for Ambal.” “Manni, today let us make poddi vengaya (small onion) aruchu vitta sambar for Ambal.”

Kumar became very jealous. He would say “I can’t believe this! You have used your “friend making magic wand” on your own mother-in-law. How could this be?”

Many years passed. She lost her husband in May 2007. I told her to come live with us for a few months. She said “No Ambal. I have to complete all the pujas for the departed soul for next one year. I will come later.”

Ari was born in August 2008. Exactly, 15 months after her husband had passed away. She was confident that my father-in-law’s soul had taken rebirth and come back to live with the family.

We went to India for Ari’s first birthday. She couldn’t be happier that Kumar and I decided to do exactly what we did for Adi. On both of their first birthday, we took the boys to her home. We did the first year puja in her home. She appreciated that very much. She knew it was expensive for us to fly back and forth from India to US. But, we did it. Because, we wanted to the boys to be with their family. To be where it all began.

She came to visit us in Fall 2009. We became very close that year.

She was a traditional South India lady. But, had a wild streak to her. She had always wanted to sport a “bob-cut”. But, she was too shy to ask her sons. She asked me, rather shyly “Should I get a bob-cut?” I said yes. She loved it. She was like a little girl. Excited. Anxious. She worried about what Kumar would think about her new hair-cut. He didn’t like it. But, I asked him to be supportive and to compliment her. He did. She was so happy to get his approval.

Due to her diabetes, I put her on a strict diet and urged her to walk. I became the strict parent. And, she became my obedient daughter. She followed my exercise rules…to the dot. On Fridays, she would ask “Ambal, I have been so good this entire week. Can you get me some onion rings? Or, how about some ice cream?”

She had to use a walker. And, she walked very slowly. I don’t know how…but, I grew patience that year. Kumar often said “You are so impatient. You want to talk fast and walk fast. Doesn’t her slowness bother you?” Yes, it did bother me. But, I also thought about the miles she must have had to walk as he raised Kumar. Then, my impatience vanished. Only patience prevailed.

So, she went everywhere I went. To drop Adi. To pick up Adi. To the store.

She loved shopping at Walmart. She loved stocking up at Costco. She loved checking out the Farmer’s Market.

That year, I got more than my share of recipes. She insisted I write them down. She said “I will be gone one day. I want you to have these recipes and cook delicious food for Adi and Ari. There is no food like a mom’s food.”

She didn’t like my strategic approach of “cook for 2-3 days and stock it in the fridge”. She thought it was an absolutely idiotic approach. She would cut fresh vegetables every day. My job was to cook as per her instructions. Initially, it was pure torture. I wanted to fill the trunk with all my books, get in the car and drive far away from home. But, I resisted that urge.

I decided to show up and just give it my best shot. I murmured a prayer every time I went near the kitchen “God, please give me patience. Please.”

Between my crazy work and home schedule, I learnt about frying lentils and grinding many types of powders for cooking. I learnt about the perfect way to make idiyappam. I slowly warmed up to the notion of cooking a fresh meal every day.

During the winter months, she huddled up in a warm coat and cap. Every night, just as she was ready to go to bed, I threw her blanket in the dryer for a few minutes. The blanket came out warm and toasty. I rushed to her bedroom with the warm blanket and tucked her in. She would be so happy as I tucked the blanket beneath her legs. With a gleam in her eyes, she would say “Thank you Ambal. Good night.”

She made friends will all my friends. Because, she couldn’t communicate in English, she would speak with my friends through sign language. She became friends with Adi’s piano teacher.

She would help Adi with his Tamil homework. She would say “Adi, listen to Amma. She is working so hard to teach you this Sanskrit sloka. She will be so happy once you learn it perfectly. Come here. Practice it with me.”

She did not like my constant running around. She would say “Ambal, come here. Sit down beside me. Eat slowly. Enjoy your dinner. No, I mean it. NOW! No getting up and running around.”

She did not like the fact that I got so absorbed in work that I would forgot to drink the coffee while it was still hot. She would say “Ambal, you remind me of my Appa. He never drank his coffee hot. He was absorbed with work….just like you. Why don’t you drink the coffee before it gets cold? Come here. Enjoy the coffee with me. It will only take a couple of minutes.”

Every evening, Adi and she played Uno. We called her the “+2 Queen”. Somehow, she ended up with +2s and +4s. She would dole them out, at the right time, with an evil grin.

She constantly inundated me with soap opera updates. “Ambal, he did this. She did this. They split. They got together. They had a child. The child left.”

She would make garlands for our Nataraja statue. My job was to pluck flowers from the backyard. She would tie them together. I had to get the garland from her hand and respectfully place it on Nataraja statue.

Adi and she loved to go to all the local parks. She loved Lake Elizabeth in Fremont.

I asked her “What do you like to do? Should I get you books from the library?” She told me about her long lost passion of embroidery and knitting. She said “Those days are gone. I don’t think I can do that now. Not with these arthritic hands.” Given the feminist I am, the word “knitting” was taboo. To me, it signified girly girl. But, I wanted to cheer her up. I told her nothing is impossible.

I went to the library. I brought home every single book that said knitting. Her face beamed. Because she didn’t read English, she didn’t understand the text in the books. But, she didn’t have to. She looked at all the pictures and admired them.

I worked up the courage. I decided to tread on grounds that I had never tread on before. I wheeled her wheel chair into the yarns section at Walmart.

She became a child in a candy store. She picked out yarn and knitting supplies. She came home and started knitting. She knit caps. She knit scarfs. She asked me to hand them out to my friends who had a special place in my heart. She instructed me clearly “Not to everybody. Just the special ones.”

Then, I took her to another store that I had never set foot in. Joann’s Fabric. More yarn. More colorful yarn. More caps. More scarfs. More handing out to special people.

Kumar and me started discussing moving to San Ramon. She said “Why do we have to move? Let us stay here. All our friends are here. Good schools in San Ramon?! What do you mean good school district? My grandson is smart. We don’t need good schools. He is already good.”

She wanted me to take cuttings of all the rose plants from our Fremont house. She insisted I take many cuttings from our special pink rose plant. She said “Remember, that plant is from the rose bouquet that Kumar gave you for the very First Valentines Day you celebrated in this Fremont house. We can’t leave this plant behind.” She helped me plant them in our San Ramon house.

She helped me pack for the move from our Fremont house to the San Ramon house. She woke up on the morning of our house warming puja. She made pongal. She instructed me on how to boil the milk for the puja. She told me to light the lamps.

She liked the San Ramon house. But, her favorite was the Fremont house. She said there were too many good memories there.

I started training for Mt. Whitney in Spring 2010. She did not like one bit of my constant chatter about how I was going to conquer Mt. Whitney. She said “Don’t go. Why are you stressing your body?”. Then, she suffered through more of my constant chatter about Mt. Whitney. She became curious. She started asking questions “Ambal, when you are at the peak, will the clouds be beneath you or above you?” That is when I knew I had hooked her. As much as she hated my hiking, she wanted me to scale that peak.

In June 2010, she left to India with Adi and Kumar. The house felt empty. There was nobody to nag me to drink the hot coffee. There was nobody to ask me to sit down and enjoy my dinner. Joann’s Fabric became “No Ambal’s land” again.

She would ask me “How are the plants doing? Are you watering the banana plant regularly? How is that pink rose plant doing?”

I visited her in August 2010 in her home. We did our usual temple tours. She told me ancestor stories. We went to Kal Anni (Stone Dam) in Tiruchy. We visited her extended family.

She found every opportunity to brag about Adi. “My grandson. He speaks very good Tamil. He is born in America. But, he knows a lot about our tradition. He can recite more Sanskrit slokas than all of you.”

She bragged like it was nobody’s business “Yes! Why don’t you serve him vathza kozhambu (South Indian curry) in vazhai illai (banana leaf)? He will eat it like a typical Tamil boy. Try it.”

As I was getting ready to leave, she said “Ambal, I know you don’t like jewelry. So, I am going to give you something that is far more worth than my jewelry. Take all my Golu dolls. Some of them have been in our family for many decades. Take them. I know you will appreciate them. I know you will hold on to them. Keep them in Golu this year and invite all your friends.”

I explained to her that I won’t be able to take all of her Golu dolls due to baggage restrictions. She still urged me to look through them. They were so beautiful. They were made out of mud. But, they were precious. She had a story for each one of them. About who had given the dolls to her. About where she had bought some dolls. I picked a few and asked Kumar to pack them securely.

We drove back from Tiruchi to Madras. The driver dropped me off at my parent’s place and drove away with her. She waved good bye and told me to take care of the three boys. That is the last time I saw her in person.

I sent her 100s of pictures of her Golu dolls after Navarathri 2010 passed. She was so happy to see the pictures and here all my Golu updates. She told me “My Golu dolls have found their right home. Now, it is your turn. Raise Adi well. Make sure you pass on these dolls to his wife.”

In April 2012, she fell very ill. Kumar rushed back to India to help and nurse her back to health. She enjoyed that time with him. But, she worried about how I was going to take care of the kids without him.

Today, the inevitable happened.

I did not want to believe my ears. She had been sick before and she had come out of it every single time.

So, no. It can’t be it. There should be a pulse on her. She must be breathing. How could she not be breathing?

Then, it slowly dawned on me.

The person who gave me my most wonderful husband was no more. She passed away. She had passed away peacefully in her sleep.

She had just turned 70 last month. But, she had decided to leave us. She left me with her kadai kutty Kumar.

How am I going to shower the love she showered on him? How can I deal with this? How can I?

Who is going to remind me to drink my coffee hot.

Who is going to ask me “What did you cook today?”

Who is going to tell me “Be kind to Adi. He is yours. And he is mine.”?

Who is going to bore me to death with details about the latest soap operas?

Who is going to torture me with never ending cooking recipes?

Who is going to tell me how to raise the boys?

Who is going to make the osili that I love?

Can I tell her how much I appreciate the wonderful gift (her kadai kutty) she had blessed me with?

Can I eat her karthigi adai one more time?

Can I have her back?

Can I?

I want to be like her.

I want to smile through this adversity.

I want to smile through this curve ball life has thrown me.

But, I can’t. There is no stopping these tears. I want to follow her advice and think good thoughts. Think happy thoughts.

I can hear her voice –

“Ambal, Keep the good memories. Just the good ones.”

Help me say good bye to my most beloved mother-in-law and friend Girija Nagarajan.

And, keep the good memories. That is what she would want us to do.

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