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Diary of a young mother

Diary of a young mother

Issue 3 Jan / Feb 2004

Words Shakina Chowdhury
Illustration Abu Ta-Ha

Ah me! She never knew fully, nor could I show her in my heavy laden-miserable life, how much I had regarded, loved and admired her. No telling of her now ‘five more minutes of your dear company in this world.’ Oh that I had you yet for but five minutes to tell you all!
Diary of a young mother comes this issue not from the realms of the nursery but rather the depths of my memory. The roles will be reversed – I, the mother, will become the child and attempt to recall the relationship I had with my mother, that special child-mother relationship that can be fraught, so enriching, so complex.

My mother passed away in December 1996 aged 57, and I write this on the seventh anniversary of her death. She died from cancer after being ill for several years. During that time she tried to lead a normal life, and it was only in the last few months of her life that she gave away and was unable to do anything for herself. She lay in her bed for most of that time, undoubtedly the greatest time of personal reflection in her life. For me, this reflection on our relationship came not during those fraught last months of her life nor in the aftermath of her death, but in the years that followed, when the void created by her absence became overwhelming.

My mother had seven children and most of her life was devoted to raising them in the best possible way she knew. This usually meant unremitting hard work both physical and emotional, as she grappled with the needs and demands of a diverse group of boys and girls. Economically, our family wasn’t that well off and our reduced circumstances would only have made her life more difficult. I compare this to lives of my own children, who have everything they could possibly want, and the need I have as a mother to provide for them must have often gone sorely unfulfilled in my mother’s case.

My mother never deliberately encouraged us to follow any particular path in life – rather her support was more tacit. This was enough to give us an impetus to follow our own desired route. I did this rather selfishly and for most of her illness I was away at university, largely untouched and unconcerned, as befits one who has just discovered the pleasures of freedom and independence. This unconcerned attitude comes back to haunt me now. It is at the heart of my deepest regret and the reason for the melancholy that envelopes me at times unbearably.

I’d like her to know that what she had said came true. “You’ll understand one day,” she used to say with weary frustration. And I do understand now.  I understand the hopes and fears that a mother has for her children, her concern about how they will turn out, her loneliness and longing. In her autobiography The Kitchen Congregation, the writer Nora Seton says that a man will never understand the depth of his wife’s capacity and loneliness, and so it must have been for my mother, lonely amidst the endless bustle of domestic life. She must have had her hopes and dreams of watching her family grow and mature, not knowing that she would never see its fulfilment.

When I was young, not even in my teens, she made me memorise Surah Yasin, much against my will. This took place every weekend morning, and school holidays too, and was higly unpopular. My two elder sisters and I protested and dragged our heels and invented all manner of excuses, wondering why she bothered to waste her time with such reluctant pupils, but her determination was strong and in the end we memorised not only Surah Yasin but Ar-Rahman too. They are associated indelibly in my mind with her and I’d like her to that I still know them by heart and recite them often in her memory.

Matthew Arnold wrote ‘Come to me in my dreams/ For then by day I shall be well again,/ For then the night will more than pay/ The hopeless longing of the day.’ Once, during a period of time particularly full of painful memories of her, I saw her in my dreams, in sharp focus. The message she brought was clear@ don’t torment yourself, my child, all is well with me. Don’t worry, don’t fret yourself. I can only think that this dream was a response to my soul’s anguished search for some comfort. ‘come as thou cam’st a thousand times/ A messenger from radiant climes/ And part my hair and kiss my brow/ And say – my love, who sufferest thou?’

Another dream had a charming insight into the future. She was showing me how to change a baby girl’s nappy. When my daughter was born a few months later, I like to think that I changed her diapers with greater ease. When my second daughter was born after a short two and a half hour labour, the air above me crackled and hummed as though there was someone hovering above. ‘Look!’ I said to my husband. ‘There’s God. I can see God!’ Was it really God? If not, it could have been the spirit of my mother, metaphorically holding my hand and easing my situation.

Being a mother myself now has taught me something of the depth to which it is possible for a mother to love her children. I didn’t know this before of course, and often as a child it seemed to me that my mother was unnecessarily harsh and unyielding. But this attitude was necessary for her in order to retain sanity in the face of demands of seven children. Cruelly, as children do, we disliked her for it, thinking her hard and forgiving. But many years later as she lay on her deathbed, we asked if she forgave us. She said she forgave us many years ago. We realised then that she had never held anything against us, had forgiven us easily and as quickly as only a mother forgave her children. But I know many things now that I never knew then.

I have an ardent desire to reunited with her and tell her many things. Mainly that her bolshy daughter turned out to be ok. What remains of memories of her? Sadness, a quiet grief, a restless longing. But above all what remains is love and gratitude. 

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