Content Warning: Possible symptoms of abusive behavior.
By eleven, I was convinced that I knew everything better than my mother. When to forgive, when to sigh, how to sympathise, what to be upset about, what to yell or remain silent about. All of it.
As I grew older, my face, despite its minor structural change from when I slammed my chin on an iron cot, came to resemble hers. Not similar to when she was my age, but if we sat before the mirror together as she oiled my hair, the twenty five years between us ceased to exist. I had absorbed her entire existence and become both of us.
We shared a migraine disorder and a high pain tolerance, thick black hair and wide hips that run in her family, the subconscious reaching out for chikankari when shopping, a love for the Pakeezah soundtrack, the craving for our second cup of tea exactly at noon.
I heard my accent morph into hers whenever I raised my voice and stopped yelling. I learned that her anger in tense situations was actually fear when I felt it myself. I didn't realise she never apologised after speaking without thinking until I taught myself to hold my tongue. It took me years to learn that she was projecting but not before finding a way to blame myself every time she did.
I became her chronic backache with my distaste for physical activity. Her sweet tooth and my near-intolerance for sugar. Her passive-aggression as her defense mechanism and my newfound faith in breathing exercises.
With time I grew aware. I was both of us, yes, for all I ever knew of me came from her. I loved her so much. Only there existed a gap the size of an 'I'm not entirely okay' between us.
I was scared of her, angry too. But I stopped asking questions that aggravated her. I stopped taking names she couldn't bear to hear. I stopped demanding help but silently hoped for it. I learned to keep my distance.
Through this my mother held on to this distance as well. Blamed me for it. In silence, but not quietly. She worked harder on the days I slept in. Placed the dishes on the rack with a heavy thud, folded my clothes slamming them on top of the stack so they bounced and fell over. The poor refrigerator door was shut too hard because I forgot to put leftovers in one night. Loud sighs every time I chopped vegetables too slow which is not too slow in general terms. The anger in her words so searing hot, I'd preferred a punishment. But even as a child, in that little gap lay a truth I was aware of but didn't believe: her behaviour didn't come from me. Like my hurt stemmed from my mother before me, hers must have come from those before her too.
So I went looking for my mother's gardens, found it overgrown and toxic. It held our recipes using coconut in cooking meat, our traditions of filling the belly of a quilt with a piece of bhakari in its centre to ensure a lifetime of warmth, in grind-mill ovees. In zari-padar saris, in the many processes of homemade chilli powder and mango pickle, in the habit of never asking for help, in a heritage that rooted self-worth in valuing labour over the person. We may have progressed, moved on, left our old homes, gone away to college, married by choice, but not healed. These histories held us hostage between the traumas of patriarchy, poverty, injustice, and as often flashed in my mother's face in the second before it softened into a defeated sigh, rage.
How could I possibly ask my mother to relinquish all of this and find time to take care of three dependents while loving herself and not projecting anything onto us and also not discussing it with us because it made us uncomfortable?
My mother carried that garden in her marrow. She didn't ask why. She didn't ask how long for. She didn't ask if she could ever stop. I feared I would have to carry it for her. I feared I would agree to.
I knew I didn't want to. The distance grew as I turned to the outside of the two of us. There, for every good friend, I met a bigoted teacher, for every kind lady on the train, a creep on the station. For every joyous job, a terrible work environment. For every calm night stroll, a fear of darkness. I also found help, I went to therapy. I realised how silent I had been. I read about women like me from times long before mine, I read about mothers and daughters and sisters. For the first time I spoke to my friends who, for the first time too, spoke to me about how we didn't want to become our mothers.
In everything I sought and found, was empathy - the emergency brake to the historical and hysterical cycle of our combined trauma as silenced women.
I couldn't ask my mother to just become okay.
So I asked her if she'd like to get ice-cream with me. I took her on lunch dates. I told her that I am willing to listen to her, that if she spoke, all that she carried might not feel so heavy. I made our afternoon tea, I helped her make a meal plan, I cleaned the bathrooms on weekends, I let her sleep in my bed.
I asked that she forgive me for the days I couldn't keep promises, that she understand I cannot always listen to her and might need her to listen to me, that I will not oil my hair if she doesn't. I asked her to remember I am an entirely new twenty five year old woman now. I asked if a bascule bridge could be built on the distance between us. I asked that my garden is left alone.
Juilee is a Master's student and lover of reading books and eating on public transport. She writes short stories and poetry. Follow her on Instagram @juilee_k