“Ammi, I’ve been seeing someone.”
Her eyes darted to mine. “Okay.”
I was in the family van with my mom, her profile backlit by an overcast sky as she drove, and we’d never had this conversation before.
For a long time, she was the only driver in our family, so we spent a lot of time together in the car — our first was a used maroon Ford Tempo that cost $500 — as she drove me to dance class and band rehearsal and all iterations of school, from elementary to university. Most of our chats consisted of confirming when she needed to come get me. Even now, with two degrees under my belt, she still picked me up from bar shows and, as was the case that afternoon, friends’ apartments. She insisted that money for taxis had better uses.
I had recently entered my first serious relationship at 21, a fact that becomes hilarious when I recall a preteen me, begging my parents to lower the age of permissible dating from 15 to 14. Back then, I had no prospects beyond imaginary trysts with boy-band crooners and scrawny actors with sun-kissed mushroom cuts and cherry lips. Still, I’d sit at the foot of my parents’ bed, pushing them to pull back a year. They gave in, amused, presumably assuming they wouldn’t have to worry about boyfriends at either age. They were correct.
“Who is he?” she asked.
I told her his name, what he did for a living, that we had been introduced through mutual friends. And then, bracing, I told her he was white.
This was the moment, I had decided. She’d shout and threaten disownment. She’d resolve to send me back to Sri Lanka for a suitable suitor. She’d throw a palm to her forehead and dramatically blame this on bad karma from a past life. Most of all, she’d be disappointed in me. This would be a moment where my relationship with my mom would be forever altered.
But it wasn’t. Ammi spoke tentatively, yet was undeniably cool: “As long as you think he is good for you, then that’s okay.”
I was relieved. And surprised. The cynic in me would say she was just happy I was finally with someone. After all, she was already married by the time she reached my age. But I know that wasn’t true; not once has my mother pressured me to settle down. When my aunts ask about my marital status, she nonchalantly defends me or jokingly questions why they’d wish me the fate of a hardworking wife. She has always been on my team.
And so came the realization that, as I anticipated her disappointment or outrage, maybe I should have given her more credit. Moments like these were not what I expected. Moments like these proved how little I knew my mother.
It was disorienting to realize I had reached adulthood without a firm grasp on who she was. Here was the person with whom I had spent the most time throughout the two decades of my life so far. She had made me: my skin, my bones, my blood. She was coursing through me — how could I not know her?
Mother-daughter narratives are a particularly enduring staple in most cultures, found everywhere from fairy tales to the big and small screen. After all, it’s an easy in: Most people have a mom. It’s a relationship that’s often our first frame of reference for our relationship to the world. Mothers are our creators, our primary source for anecdotes, our initial means of self-definition. But in so many of the stories I’ve read and seen about mothers and daughters over the years, the framing of these relationships seems to swing between extremes — and I couldn’t relate.
The dynamics depicted are often tight-knit (e.g., Gilmore Girls) or fraught (e.g., Ladybird), or an oscillation between the two. Meanwhile, I grew up feeling neither close to nor far from my mom. We weren’t having girls’ nights or exchanging coded glances over the dinner table, but we weren’t screaming at each other, either. I was obedient, and she was obliging, though we never demanded much of each other.
I’m not sure if most people see their mothers in fictional characters (and if they do, I’m curious if the mothers would sign off on the casting), but these characters plant ideas of what moms should be like, and how a parent-child bond becomes a story worth telling: through conflict, estrangement, or heartfelt intimacy. I’m used to not seeing myself represented on the big or small screen, so for a long time I didn’t overtly question why I didn’t see my mother, regardless of race. But I was still subconsciously looking for her. I couldn’t help but wonder why the quieter, simpler, more subtle relationships between mothers and daughters were never shown.
I remember watching Bend It Like Beckham during my first year of high school and — finally — relating to the soccer-playing protagonist, Jesminder, in so many ways. I was no athlete, but I also had dark skin and childhood scars I hated showing to people. I also felt caught between two worlds. I also had a father who was soft-spoken, cautious, and thoughtful.
Then there was her mother. There were traits I could recognize: a neatly tied bun of black hair, a melodic voice, an expressive, tilting head. But beyond that, her mother matched other one-dimensional onscreen depictions of immigrant matriarchs: shrill, controlling, and usually clueless. Desi mothers in particular are often portrayed as Mrs. Bennet–esque caricatures — obsessed with their children’s matrimonial prospects — and while this resonates with a lot of young South Asians, to me it seemed reductive. They’re not seen as good or caring moms. They’re comic relief. I knew my mom wasn’t like that, but she was still a mystery to me.
I felt I knew her only through the practical things she provided: rides, food, signatures on permission slips. I knew she was beautiful. I knew she watched All My Children and One Life to Live religiously — shows she’s since exchanged for whatever’s on CNN (more drama). I knew she was kind and generous — cooking for everyone from friends and family to Buddhist monks to the homeless and hungry community of Halifax — but tough when she needed to be. It was a toughness I always wanted to cultivate, but I now recognize as built from impact: the premature death of her father, the responsibility of essentially raising her five younger siblings, and then a never-easy life balancing duties as both a new mom and newcomer to an often icy (both literally and figuratively) foreign country.
When I was 10 years old, we took a monthlong trip to Sri Lanka. It was our first time back since moving to Canada when I was a baby. We stayed in my maternal grandmother’s house, a bungalow made of cream-colored concrete with a terracotta-tiled roof that was also home to two of my uncles, one aunt, six dogs, and a small family of cats.
I felt like I was quietly tracing the steps of my mother that summer. I’d stare at a garlanded photo of her father that hovered over the living room — handsome and bespectacled, a brown Errol Flynn look-alike — wishing he were still alive so we could spend time together. I lived off of foods she grew up on: crescent-moon slices of mangos and rambutan and kiribath (milk rice) and mutton curry and dodol. I drank florally fragrant faloodas and fresh coconut water and milk tea whose perfect sweetness still feels irreplicable in North America. If I had a headache, Grandmummy rubbed ayurvedic oils on my temples, like I imagined she once did with Ammi. Even the pain felt precious.
My uncles and aunts had spoiled us with thoughtful gifts and luxuries upon our arrival: freshly made ice cream, imported mini Kit Kat bars, a television set that played then-new MTV India, yellow gold jewelry that looked funny paired with my overworn Little Mermaid T-shirt aesthetic. But my favorite acquisition was my mother’s old stamp collection. I’d study the albums she had filled as a young girl, tracing my fingers over the slightly weathered, waxy paper safeguarding the faces of Queen Elizabeth II and Bahraini sheikhs I didn’t know. My mother, a philatelist? What else could she be? I didn’t know, I wanted to know, but was always too shy to ask.
Seven years after that anticlimactic conversation in the car, the relationship I’d been so afraid to confess to my mother was suddenly over, a unilateral decision delivered by phone during a weekday afternoon. We had lasted longer than expected for a first love, but still shorter than I had hoped, and I felt (in hindsight, naively) blindsided.
I had been staying in Halifax with my parents at the time, having recently finished a six-month job in Toronto, and considering a more permanent relocation. But that phone call left me shattered and staggering, unsure of my next move. So I stayed put. What was supposed to be a pit stop at my parents’ home turned into a year-and-a-half-long retreat.
Twentysomethings moving back in with their parents have progressed from trend to punchline (did I mention I was living in their basement?). But it’s not uncommon for adult children in South Asian families, and despite the psychic toll I was undergoing — I was depressed, and it was hard — that period didn’t feel like one of defeat or regression. The way the relationship had ended felt unnecessarily cruel, making it a motivating blessing; I knew I deserved better. I went into overdrive trying to override my sadness. I began exercising regularly — yoga and a very unglamorous spin class — at a university gym whose proximity steamrolled any excuse to not go. I meditated daily. I listened to Christmas songs in the middle of July.
Meanwhile, my family members gave me space, checking in on me from time to time. They’d find excuses for us to all go out for dinner. If my mother had to go shopping, my father would ask with a glint in his eye if I’d like to go along, as if the mall were secretly Disney World. Sometimes, despite their caring and my proactive positivity, the valve would release. If I was having a rough or weepy moment, I’d usually go to my father. An artist of paranoia, he’s outrageously overprotective of me and my siblings, and always delicate with our emotions.
My mother, on the other hand, can’t handle tears if they’re spouting from her children. Sometimes I wonder if I’m to blame; my mother boasts how I rarely cried as a baby and if I did, she’d recite a chant with my pet name (“Doni wasthuwa, mage wasthuwa; mage wasthuwa, doni wasthuwa”) and I’d quickly stop. Now, in the face of my adult heartbreak, she was at a loss.
“Why are you crying? Why cry?” my mother demanded with exasperation, when she found me moping one day, my dad nowhere in sight.
Why was I crying? It didn’t feel good, but it felt better. I was grieving. But my mother mistook my tears for a symptom of pining, a wish to reunite with my ex. She’d declare that if someone didn’t want her, she’d want him 10 times less. As proof, she offered an anecdote: When my parents began seeing each other, my father joked about one day marrying a rich woman (which my mother was not). She kept quiet, but ignored his requests to meet for days after that until he went to her home, with a feeble excuse that he and a friend needed to borrow her camera. Ammi had good game.
But I was not my mother. I didn’t want to prove a point; I wanted to feel understood or comforted. So I took her terse questioning as insensitive, yet unsurprising.
“You don’t understand,” I said, walking away. It was more a conclusion than an accusation — she had married her first love, so how could she relate?
About a week later, I sat in a corner of the living room, engulfed by an oversized chestnut leather chair. I was flipping through TV channels absentmindedly when my mother came over to me and kissed my forehead.
She touched my cheek, reassuringly. “He was too old anyway. ”
It took a second to realize what she was referring to. Then, two thoughts. First, a flaw: She and my dad share the same age difference. Second, a switch: She had never taken my pain lightly. I had taken her poor pep talks as dismissive or disapproving, but I now realized they were more likely a product of frustrated helplessness. It was a small gesture, a minute shift in perception, but it felt like a window opening into the woman I had been trying to know, trying to understand, for so long.
Over the course of that year at home — a year that, on paper, looks like I was doing nothing — my relationships with everyone in my family deepened. But the time I spent with my mother felt like a discovery.
I learned she was funny, shockingly so. I saw her find unexpected joy through her new garden, which hugs the front and sides of our house. She’d take portrait-style photos of each bud and blossom as a personal victory, and curse the deer that occasionally feasted upon her roses. Every time there were two blooms beside each other (often), she compared them to me and my sister. She would take their photo and present it to us. Every time.
I realized that, despite a tough exterior, she craves affection and appreciation. She shows her love mostly through acts of service, with food as her favored currency, so I tried to bake occasionally. It felt silly sometimes. What can a rookie offer a master? But Ammi always encouraged me, directing me to utensils and supplying ingredients from label-less containers. Once I made biscuits and she told me they reminded her of back home, so I made them again.
I saw how insecure she is from her lack of higher education, even though she’s incredibly resourceful and smart. I saw how curious she was about my taste and the men I deemed attractive, particularly while watching The Bachelorette (she had a favorite too: a dark-haired, blue-eyed white man whom she perplexingly claimed looked Sri Lankan). I watched her join Facebook and engage — first shyly, asking my youngest brother to post photos for her, and now zealously — with relatives, long-lost friends, and a wider world. I saw just how much she craved more, and as I eased out of depression, I realized I could relate to my mother in at least one way after all.
But I also realized that searching for clues and likenesses between us, as I had since I was a little girl, could never really validate our relationship. So many women I know say they’re slowly turning into their mothers, but my mother and I seem to veer further and further apart. We began with similar profiles: both eldest daughters, both (eventually) first-generation immigrants, yet now we are wildly different.
By the time my mother was my age, she was married with two children, and very much a homemaker, whereas I’m happily single, childless, and still manage to butcher fried eggs. She’s glam and feminine, while I haven’t worn earrings in a decade (she still buys them for me, though, insisting that my piercings can be salvaged with the help of some Anbesol). She juggles a million tasks and thoughts while I get overwhelmed by other people’s expectations of me. She’s great in crowds and I shy away from them. But the more we diverge, the more deeply I love her.
I recently told my mom that I had wanted to feel closer to her growing up (an admission that, even in making it, proved to me how much closer we are now). She was surprised. “If you weren’t close to me, then who?” she asked.
It’s a good point. I can distinctly remember childhood moments with my dad, him teaching me to write Sinhalese characters or me sitting in the pooled bottom of his sarong — a makeshift swing — listening to folk tales his parents told him. But he was also at work a lot, trying to provide for us. I’m realizing now how those times were memorable for their breaking of the norm. Meanwhile, my mom was always with me, glued, a constant. And constants are often overlooked. There was never a great mystery to solve; the evidence had been under my nose all along.
On a sunny afternoon in June, two weeks before I was moving out, I lounged lazily with my sister, giggling about who knows what — we always found something — with our feet tucked beneath us on the living room couch. The TV was on, competing with the sonic clash of dishwashing my mother was carrying out by hand from the open-concept kitchen.
“Doni, I put some money into your account and will get you some US dollars before you go, too.”
“Okay, thanks, Ammi. You don’t have to.”
“And if you go out for dinner in the city, use our credit card. Don’t forget to take it.”
“Don’t be stingy. Buy good groceries. Make sure you eat well.”
The clang of warring pots and pans had halted, so I looked over. I couldn’t catch her downturned eyes; they were on her sudsy, motionless hands. But then I saw her chin was trembling.
My sister nudged me forward. I slid off the couch and walked around the counter to where my mother stood in front of the kitchen sink.
“I’ll eat well, Ammi,” I promised, putting my arm around her sloping shoulders. “Don’t cry. Why are you crying?” ●
Sandi Rankaduwa is a Sri Lankan–Canadian writer, comedian, and filmmaker who’s written for The Believer, Rolling Stone, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Exclaim!, and The Coast. She splits her time between Brooklyn and Halifax.
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