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 Post subject: The lessons my mother taught me
 Post Posted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 6:38 pm 
The lessons my mother taught me

By Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala
@ ST / 05MAR2006


I stand in front of my mother, with all the confidence of a nine-year-old presenting what she thinks is a water-tight case for getting yet another pet. My mother listens, and then says “En- o NO is no”, enunciating clearly. I turn away dejected. Even at nine years, I know that this short and brutal spelling lesson meant one thing: my mother would not give in.

Now, several decades later, I think that for the last year and a half, she has looked death in the face and told it “En- o NO is no.” At 83, my mother is difficult, stubborn and often a right honourable pain. The best selling novelist Amy Tan says that whenever her mother talks to her, she begins the conversation as if they were already in the middle of an argument. At 2.00 a.m., arguing hotly with my mother that she needs to be nebulised, I think of this quotation, but am not amused.

My mother thinks that my hair looks like that of an Israeli terrorist; that my choice of clothes is ‘chronic’; and, among many other things, that I was barking mad to make my career choices.

Despite her freely given opinions, she steadfastly allowed me to make my own choices, even at a young age. At a time when girls were supposed to learn how to cook and run the house by the time they were teenagers, she let me splatter paint on canvas and hang round my father learning about animals and plants. She will learn how to do these things when she needs to, my mother told a visiting aunt. Although I did not learn to cook from my mother, I learnt many other lessons from her growing up.

Determination has always been a hallmark of my mother’s character. From a very early age, she taught my brother and me that to achieve the best, one must rarely, if ever, give up. Despite infirmity, despite hardship, despite countless obstacles, she taught us to keep on trying until we got what we wanted. In the last one and a half years since she has been ill and infirm, my mother has epitomised this quality.

In the space of a little less than three years, she has had four falls. Each time, I hold my breath that the damage will be too much for her to walk again. Each time, she perseveres until she does.

My mother is a strict disciplinarian. As a child, it seemed to me that my mother laid down far too many rules and was far too strict about things (Settle down to study on weeknights precisely at 6 p.m., no more pets, no keeping books under my bed… ), but as an adult I understand clearly that much of this external control stemmed from a finely-honed inner discipline. Even now, when she is riddled with multiple ailments, plagued with pain from osteoporosis, every day, Mum walks up and down the living room, for a measured length of time.

My mother’s self-discipline and determination resulted in inner strength. I have watched her take the deaths of all but one of her siblings and two of her favourite nephews with stoicism. I have watched her keep her head in the midst of serious medical emergencies in her steadfast belief of God’s good will. Although she grew up at a time and in a culture where women’s emancipation was merely a thought in someone’s head, she and her sisters grew up to be truly liberated, strong women.

These character traits are coupled with a near-brutal honesty. Mum abhors what she calls hypocrisy. As children, we learned very early that Dad could give a really barmy answer to a serious question if he was in a rambunctious mood, or clown by slowly crossing his eyes if we told him to be serious. Mum, on the other hand, could be counted on to always give us the clear, unvarnished truth, and if necessary, to give it straight to the chin.

Mum also finds laziness an anathema. One of the worst things she can say about a person, is “She/he is LAZY.” Except for a sacrosanct afternoon nap, Ma was rarely still: sewing, cooking, doing her accounts, gardening and looking after us at the same time without disrupting her own programme. Even at 83 and ill, she feels that sleeping out of her routine hours is a waste of God’s good time, and that she should really be attending to ‘her work’ instead.

As children, saying that we were bored if we had no company was a cardinal sin. We had our imagination: we simply had to find something to do. Home during the Christmas holidays was hive of activity. She insisted that no decoration went up on the Christmas tree unless we had made it ourselves; no Christmas card went out unless we had drawn it ourselves. As a result, she taught us as children to fill our days creatively; as adults, she has taught us to fill our days with work and has therefore, given us the legacy of a solid work ethic.

Punctuality was also one of her virtues, although she sometimes carried it to such extremes that it bordered on being a vice, perhaps because she had to always counteract the effect of my father, who couldn’t recognise punctuality if it rose up and bit him in the face. My aunt recounts the story of my parents’ wedding: without my grandmother’s knowledge, Mum had Dad stop on his way to church and peep through her window to assure her that he would be in church and on time before she was.

God has blessed her with a powerful intelligence and a flair for mathematics. Sadly, she was born at a time when careers for young girls were prescribed: doctor, lawyer, etc. Born three decades later, she would have been a high-flying financier in a blue chip company. As a child, I was out sick from school for a term and returned to find that I could catch up with all subjects except maths.

Faced with the tome of Hall and Knight’s Algebra textbook, I panicked about logarithms and simultaneous equations. Faced with the knowledge that I would be a prickly student, difficult to pin down for tutoring, my mother put her flair for maths to good use. She methodically filled one exercise book after another, solving all forty problems of each chapter and left these on my desk. All I did was refer to these meticulously worked problems when I was stuck with a problem, and logs and simultaneous equations soon became understandable. Because she is so bright, in my mother’s eyes, doing something thoughtlessly and behaving stupidly ranks up there with laziness. The worst criticism she could hurl at us (and still does) was ‘Don’t be an IDIOT!’

As an adult, I lament the disuse of that powerful intellect but know that a large part of her choice of a career as a housewife and mother was because of us, her children. I am as grateful for the choices she made as much as for the choices she allowed me to make.

My parents kept an open house for friends and relatives. Mum’s maxim for hospitality was simple: make yourself at home; mealtimes are at such and such, we would love it if you could join us, if not, root around in the refrigerator and find your own food. Our guests loved this casual warmth. Mum always cherished a plaque that one of my brother’s friends gave her, after living in our home for three months. I can only remember a couple of telling lines: ‘Come in, sit down, do! Help yourself to our easy chair, unless of course, I am sitting there!’

As I look back on the untroubled days of my childhood, I realise how much my mother has taught me. If my father taught my brother and me about how to enjoy a little lunacy, how to fly with creativity and imagination, my mother taught us how to deal with the vagaries and vicissitudes of life and to keep our feet firmly anchored in reality.

Old age and infirmity are skulking faceless thieves who are now robbing my mother of her mental acuity, her strength and even her dignity. But thankfully, not her determination and discipline. To paraphrase Ira Gershwin, ‘No, no, they can’t take that away from her.


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