An Ode to Amma

Sunitha Thampi

Amma, you were once a young girl with a step so light on the soil beneath you.  I imagine you with your hair in pigtails and red ribbons, wearing a long skirt, and anklets while you skipped through the paddy fields taking such joy in the small wonders around you.  A time in your life where you were free to dream with abandon of all the things your life would be.  


What did you dream of becoming as a young girl?  Did you dream of becoming a journalist, a doctor, a writer, or did you wish to start a business of some sort? You would have been so good at it.  You managed every last detail of our household with such ease and efficiency. You would spend one dollar in a hundred ways for others when most would take a hundred dollars and spend it one way on themselves. I can only imagine how much you would have excelled at something that you were passionate about, that was just for you. 


You see, our mothers will wash away their dreams while they wash our clothing and they will wash away their talents as they wash the dishes each day. Their aspirations get lost along the way because they spend their lives taking care of their families.  It’s important that we ask them what they wanted to do, who they wanted to become, and that we hand their dreams back to them if we still can.  


It’s easy to take notice of the loudest person, the person with the newest clothes, or a neck full of jewelry, but if you want to connect with someone who knows what life truly is, sit and talk with that quiet, gray-haired woman in the corner wearing an old set saree. The greatest wisdom resides within these women who have endured it all, seen it all, and have been the very backbone of the young families you see all around. 


My Amma taught me some lessons that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  She taught me what true kindness is and that kindness is to look after the other person’s heart even when you’re angry, when it isn’t convenient, or easy. She taught me that you must not ever allow your impulsivity or reactivity to betray the very goodness of your soul – “be still within” she would say.  She taught me that you only judge people by the goodness of their hearts and nothing else.  She taught me that if you can extend a hand, food, money, shelter, or a job to help another struggling soul, you do.  You don’t even think twice, you just do it.  She taught me that it’s important to treat others well irrespective of how they have treated you.  She taught me that nothing we acquire in this life is guaranteed to us from one day to the next, that it is never something to brag about or gloat about, that it is never something we should use to measure ourselves against others, but instead, it is something that we should remain consistently and unwaveringly thankful to God for.  She taught me that we must never lose sight of that no matter what blessings may come our way; that we must remain ready to unpredictably lose everything we have to illness or unforeseen circumstances, but still find the strength and resilience to build our lives back, brick by brick by brick. 


One day you will start to see the heavier rise and fall of your mother’s chest while she lies down to take a rest.  It will be a signal to you that she is growing tired and that she is steadily aging. Her back will hurt when she bends to place her shoes on her feet, so stop what you are doing and place it on her feet for her.  She will start to lose a bit of balance so always have her hand in yours and don’t walk ten steps ahead of her, but instead, walk alongside her as she did with you when you were just a child learning how to walk for the very first time.   


Life is beautifully and tragically cyclical. When you were young, your Amma bathed you, fed you, carried you, and took care of your every need.  In time, that same Amma will start to slowly lose her physicality; she will lose abilities to old age and to illness.  Know that it is not easy for your Amma to accept her new condition, and to accept that you, her child, will now have to bathe her, feed her, clothe her, and carry her.  Make this inevitable transition easy on her.  Do not wait for her to ask you for help.  Just as a mother would naturally care for her helpless child, you will have to do the same without any air of inconvenience in your attitude towards it. Remember, this is the same woman who spent many sleepless nights holding you while you were sick, and rubbing balm on your back while her back probably ached worse. It is never to be thought of as a burden, but in fact, it is the highest and most supreme privilege to care for your elders when they are unable to care for themselves. 


There is something that happens when you lose your Amma.  Her words start echoing in your head and her words become like gold because you don’t get any new words, new advice, or conversations.  You don’t get to run to her to ask for a recipe, for blessings, for prayers, or some comfort.  Instead, you close your eyes and try so hard to hear her voice telling you what you may need to hear, and those words that you are able to retrieve just for a few fleeting seconds become your compass in life.  If you have your Amma with you still, listen to everything that comes out of her mouth even if you don’t agree with it.  If she does not live with you then call her every day.  That phone call from you is something that is so important for her and it will one day become so important for you.  


If you’re lucky enough to have an Amma like the one I did, bow and touch their feet and seek their blessings. Those blessings will be potent for your life and will provide you with an infinite protection.  Know that they spare you every day from all that troubles their minds and hearts because they prioritize your happiness over theirs. Know that they have placed their own dreams and hopes as collateral in this lifetime so that you can have all that you dream of.  


Some people at the end of their lives feel happy to know they did so much for themselves and accomplished every dream, some feel regret for all the things they never did, and then there are our mothers - who are so selfless that even in their last moments on this earth, all they will feel is the solemn peace of knowing that they gave everything of themselves to their families even if they left nothing for themselves. 


I had a mother who fought to bring me and my siblings to this country, worked a hard job for 28 years, nourished us every day, loved us, and taught us everything we needed to know through her example.  Nothing and no one will ever garner my utmost and undying respect more than the back-breaking, sacrificial actions that a humble, strong, and wise woman hailing from rural Kerala took for the betterment of her family; a woman who relentlessly lived a life of virtue, generosity, and compassion towards all until her very last breath – my Amma. 

Dedicated to my late mother, Chandramathi Choloor Amma