When my parents got married, almost sixty years ago, Valentine’s Day was a concept as foreign to them as the very notion of falling in love.
I often referred to my father as a wandering encyclopedia, my number one source of information. He may well have been able to tell you about Saint Valentine, a widely recognized third-century Roman saint. But love and matters of the heart were not accessible to him or his brilliant mind.
As was the custom, my parents had an arranged marriage. My mother was almost 22, it was time to get married.
If anyone fell in love with my father, it was Thathappa, my maternal grandfather.
My mother saw the joy in her own father’s face; the two men got along famously and that was that.
It was time to leave home and make a new life for herself.
It was also her duty to her parents.
“If anyone fell in love with my father, it was Thathappa, my maternal grandfather.”
In the years that followed, my parents had three children.
I was the first to be born outside of India.
After seven years of living in the traditional joint family system, this was their chance at freedom — and I, the symbolic manifestation of that freedom.
I always joked with my parents that I would not have been born, had they not moved to New York.
Shortly before my second birthday, we moved to Vienna, Austria.
Vienna in the late ’60s had never seen anything like us before!
Surrounded by a culture that dated, danced, courted, fell in love, kissed, hugged, and said “I love you” to each other, I grew up in a confused state of mind.
Within our own four walls, there was no indication, no sign of anything that vaguely resembled what I considered to be love between my parents.
My mother referred to my father as “avar” and addressed him as “neengal” (the formal “him” and “you” in Tamil).
My father never called his wife by her name, unless he was talking to someone else about her.
There was never any PDA.
Yet, we grew up knowing we were loved.
My mother loved us, unconditionally.
She held us tight, smothered us with her sweet kisses, showered us with all the love and affection she could find in her heart.
She made up for everything our father was not able to give us.
She made every dish to celebrate every special occasion and all the foods that you see on the streets of India. She bought a book of fancy children’s birthday cake recipes, from which we could choose freely once a year.
“Yet, we grew up knowing we were loved.”
Every two years, we spent the summer months in India.
Back then, you could barely find a tenth of the spices now available in Vienna.
We would spend the last days of our bi-annual home leave, waiting for hours on end at Roopak stores in Karol Bagh. My mother would place a big trunk in the middle of the room and fill it with dals and spices, which had to last for the next two years.
Sitting with my mother in the kitchen was a magical awakening of all the five senses. Every dish was prepared with care and precision, as she moved around with such grace and ease, her sari pallu neatly tucked into her waist.
The love that may never have been expressed in words was here:
In every detail that went into creating these works of art there was a memory from her own past, her own stories lovingly passed down to us through her soft hands, new memories formed with every new dish she learned to master.
I savored every bite, every moment with her in that kitchen.
Each Indian household has their own way of making the very same dishes.
My mother learned quickly from her mother-in-law: their ways were different.
Being the first daughter-in-law of the house, she had to be vigilant and pay attention.
She observed, remembered and prepared every dish the way she was told my father liked it.
For years to come, my father would insist on a different meal every night.
Her life was far from easy.
Still, she fulfilled what she believed to be her duties, never stopped learning, never stopped forgiving.
She lived a wholehearted life — practicing love, acceptance and kindness every day.
She was the kindest person I ever knew.
My Amma left without warning or time to see her before she departed. She left a big hole in my heart, soon to be filled with every memory I can find in my 51-year-old brain. I find myself smiling when I stand in my own kitchen and hear her voice, gently reminding me of one thing or another.
She left my father behind.
She also left a gift for me.
In the month that followed his wife’s departure, I finally got to know the man I knew to be my father, the man I had always loved.
She gave me the gift of time.
Time I did not have with her.
Time I did not need with her.
Time I needed with him.
Time to reconcile all my feelings of anger and resentment towards him.
Time to get to know him.
Time to learn.
How much he loved and missed her.
How sorry he was.
How unfair it was of her to leave before him.
How he knew that she was unhappy.
How he was suffering.
How he yearned for his own father who had left him too soon.
How he had given up on any concept of God after his father died.
How much he loved us.
He spent most of the day lying in his bedroom, begging that he too could let go, begging to be let go.
His wish was granted. Seven weeks after my mother’s departure, he was allowed to join the love of his life.
My father left on Valentine’s Day. My mother loved yellow roses.
“We’ll send you off
With yellow roses
Your sweet Valentine”
* * *
Sumitra Nanjundan is a singer/songwriter/pianist, of South Indian descent, living in Los Angeles. She writes short stories all the time, mostly as a basis for her songs. “Yellow Roses” is taken from a line of a song entitled “Valentine’s Day,” released on her latest album, Still, available on iTunes and CDBaby.