|The Days That Are No More
2020 by Eva Bell
I must confess - I am a compulsive hoarder. It breaks my heart to get rid of books, papers or letters. I always feel that I might want to look through them again. Now our ancestral house which I have inherited, was up for sale. I was moving into a flat with no extra storage space. Boxes of accumulated junk belonging to various members of the family had to be thrown away In the time left at my disposal, sorting through them was impossible. But the carton marked “Mum” caught my attention. In it I unearthed a precious treasure which I might have inadvertently junked.
Among my mother’s things were two slim notebooks. The pages were yellow with age and the black ink had faded. I recognized my mother’s neat running hand, each letter rounded and legible, a legacy of her convent education. As I turned the pages, tears welled up in my eyes. How little I knew of my mother’s hidden talents and her romantic heart! The clean-up had to wait. I stopped what I was doing and stepped out into the compound. Here under a sprawling mango tree, was a bench on which she used to often sit, to keep a protective eye on her brood of children playing hide n seek, or hopscotch or flying high on a swing hitched to the branch of another tree.
Her poems and songs conjured up for me scenes from my childhood, of birthdays, sibling skirmishes, rites of passage, tears, laughter, love or disappointments. And we never once guessed that the ditties and lullabies she sang to us were her own compositions. Suddenly I was reminded of those lines from Gray’s elegy, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and spread its fragrance on the desert air.”
With seven children coming in quick succession and the demands we made on her time and energy, one would imagine that poetic inclinations if any, would have been stifled forever. And from my father who was ten years her senior, she would have received no encouragement. So her facility with words must have been her best kept secret.
But when did she write these verses? Was it in the dead of night when we were all snuggly tucked into bed? Or was it during those infrequent breaks she had between her domestic chores? Or was it a form of catharsis from the frustrations of her life? I imagine her pouring over her notebook, and filling it with her emotions in the light of kerosene lamp, when the rest of us were all asleep.
As far as I can remember, Mother had no life of her own. Her hours and days were inseparably intertwined with the lives of her husband and children. Like the proverbial wife described in the Book of Proverbs, her husband had full confidence in her. To him she was worth more than rubies. She was efficient, cheerful, unselfish and sweet tempered through all our daily mischief and tantrums, our bruises and gashes and fisticuffs. She kept the peace between warring siblings and her ministrations were like the balm of Gilead to our wounded egos.
Mother’s job was to keep the home fires burning, to churn out tasty dishes and turn out delicious dishes and snacks for her perpetually hungry offspring. She had no favourites. Bad manners were promptly corrected, disobedience punished, and sharing of goodies was obligatory. Even our dog Bonzo got his share.
None of us envisioned her as she might have been in her youth. She was a Eurasian from old Malaya. She was always neatly attired in a cotton dress and her hair tied up in a neat bun, with a wavy strand covering the right side of her forehead and temple. Mum stood out among the women in our neighborhood as she did not wear the local costume, and her speech had a different accent which she retained till the end of her life. On occasional visits to town with my father, she would wear an extra garment under her petticoat which she called a chemise. She said she didn’t feel properly dressed for the outdoors without it. She wore stockings and closed shoes even though the weather was stifling throughout the year.
Now as I read through her second notebook, which she had addressed to her grandchildren who were nowhere on the horizon at that time, I visualized a girl of 19,with stars in her eyes and hope in her heart, as she dreamt of becoming a musician and a song writer. Unfortunately she lost her mother while still young, and a step mother put paid to all her dreams. She was turned into a domestic drudge who had to be at the beck and call of her step mother and step siblings.
Then one fine day, a Prince Charming walked into her life. Tall, stocky and very Indian, he worked in her father’s firm and sometimes visited their home. Each time he saw this young girl scrubbing or polishing the wooden floors of their house. She barely raised her head but when she sometimes did, he saw the sadness in her eyes and was determined to rescue her.
Mum had not dwelt upon the details of their romance. Perhaps she didn’t want to elaborate on the troubles the lovers had to go through. But in spite of her step mother’s objections, they were married with the blessings of her father. They moved into their home not very far from her old house, but she never stepped into that house again.
My father was ten years her senior. But he was a kind and loving husband. They lived whole heartedly and over the years had a brood of seven children. On his retirement, he brought his family back to India and settled in his hometown.
It is strange that none of us knew anything about their early life and their love affair. We took everything for granted and thrived on their dependability.
I’m beginning to wonder if Mum considered her married life a feminine mission well accomplished. Was it a choice of her heart? Did she sometimes shed a tear over her broken dreams? Were these notebooks a kind of sublimation of those longings which sometimes tugged at her heart? No, from what I know and remember, she was not someone who played the silent martyr.
I firmly believe that Mother realized how important she was to all her children. She made us feel secure, confident and worthy. She was available at all times, was fun to talk to, and had immense patience with all of us. I heard my father often say, “I’m married to the best woman in the world.” And I’m sure my siblings will join me when I say, “She was a Total Woman.”
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