98: Second Mother

98: Second Mother

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Second Mother

A mother understands what a child does not say.

~Author Unknown

In my junior year of college, my boyfriend moved to Los Angeles to start his first job at a technology firm. We had gotten serious in the short time we’d been dating, and we were prepared to begin a long-distance relationship.

We were not quite ready, however, when Rajeev’s parents announced their impending visit from India. He hadn’t yet told them about our relationship. They had no idea that I even existed. Neither one of us was quite sure how they would react. But Rajeev decided it was time to find out.

I arrived at LAX on a late Thursday night flight from Austin, Texas and met Rajeev at baggage claim. As we drove back to his one-bedroom apartment, my heart hammered in my chest.

“Have they said anything about us?” I asked. “About me?”

“My mom is excited to meet you,” Rajeev said. “She’s going to love you.”

I didn’t know how he could be so sure. I wasn’t. His parents expected him to marry an Indian girl. It wouldn’t be unusual for them to arrange his marriage as they had done for his older brother.

When we arrived at the apartment building, Rajeev took my hand and I followed him through the courtyard and up the stairs. He unlocked the door, turned to look at me, and squeezed my hand.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded and tried to appear confident. I wasn’t.

As we walked into the living room, his mother immediately stood up from the couch.

“This is Annette,” Rajeev said, pushing me gently forward.

His mother wore a forest green sari, her black hair pulled back in a low bun, and as she moved toward me, a smile spread across her face. She held out her arms. I paused, then hesitantly embraced her. She gave me a strong, solid hug, a motherly hug, and it took me by surprise.

“Hello,” she said, pulling away to peer at me again.

Rajeev’s father stretched out his hand to shake mine, his businesslike approach a clear contradiction to his wife’s.

I was relieved when Rajeev filled the room with his words and laughter. After several minutes of polite conversation, I felt myself relax. Surely the hardest part was over.

The next morning, I realized it had only just begun. Rajeev announced his intent to spend a few hours at the office. Was he crazy? He was leaving me alone with his parents? What would I say to them? What would we do? He assured me everything would be fine.

After he left, my shock quickly turned to anger, then anxiety. I locked myself in the bathroom and took an extraordinarily long time to shower and dress. The tiny amount of confidence I had gained the night before was lost. His parents were strangers to me, and yet I held onto the hope that those strangers would one day become my in-laws.

Over an hour later, Rajeev’s mother quietly knocked on the bathroom door, and when I finally emerged, I braced myself for all possibilities: small talk, awkward silence, or outright rejection. I had convinced myself it would be the latter. They would tell me the truth while Rajeev was gone. That they didn’t approve of my relationship with their son. That I wasn’t welcome in their family.

Instead, Rajeev’s mother took my hand in hers. “Come,” she said, pulling me into the bedroom. She unzipped her suitcase, rummaged through her clothes, and pulled out what appeared to be a stack of fuchsia fabric.

“You try a sari.”

It wasn’t a question. It was a motherly command.

“Okay,” I blurted, agreeing because it seemed the easiest thing to do.

The California sun seeped through the bedroom window as I stood half undressed in front of an absolute stranger. Yet something comforted me. Was it simply the warmth of the sun-soaked room? Or was it this woman’s calm and quiet presence?

I slipped on the underskirt and blouse, and Rajeev’s mother began wrapping the silk fabric around my waist. She folded the remaining fabric into narrow pleats. I listened carefully as she explained each step in her simple English.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, running my hand along the crisp pleats. At the same time, I couldn’t quite understand what was happening. What did this all mean?

She smiled at me and continued tucking the pleated section into the underskirt. Finally, she draped the remaining silk across my chest and stood back to examine her effort.

“Very nice.” She turned me toward the mirror. As I shuffled forward, my feet catching in the many folds of fabric, she laughed.

Outwardly, I was now an elegant, sari-clad young woman. Yet inside, I was still a shy, naive girl, full of doubt and anxious about my place in this woman’s life.

My eyes drifted to her reflection in the mirror. Her smile swelled. Her eyes flickered. I didn’t see an ounce of scrutiny or judgment. Instead she looked like a proud new mother. Rajeev’s words came back to me, “She’ll love you.”

“Wait!” she said, returning to her suitcase and pulling out a small red fabric pouch. She adorned me in what felt like pounds of gold. Stacks of bangles for each of my wrists, a pair of dangling, chandelier-like earrings, and an intricately carved pendant.

I was still somewhat in shock when she pulled me into the living room to show Rajeev’s father, who briefly glanced up from his newspaper. While she snapped photographs of me standing in front of the fireplace, I couldn’t help wonder if this was her seal of approval. Her acknowledgment and blessing of my relationship with her son.

I stayed in the sari long enough for Rajeev to see me when he returned to the apartment just before lunch. His eyes seemed to say I told you so. Although I should’ve been upset with him for leaving me alone, I knew something important had happened that morning. I had been nurtured, comforted, and accepted. I had acquired a second mother in less than twenty-four hours.

When it was time for me to return to Austin, Rajeev’s mother pulled me into her arms again.

“You come to India to visit,” she said, nodding her head.

I nodded back. “I will.”

Over the next twenty-three years, I would not only visit her at her home in India, I would welcome my second mother into my own home as well, each time remembering the immediate acceptance, unconditional love, and unwavering generosity she showed me the first day we met.

~Annette Gulati

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