Olga had always dreamed of a mother. Her school mates and friends had mothers; most lived with them. She didn’t have one. She didn’t even know how her mother looked. She had no picture of her mother. Her mother had left when she was an infant, and she had no memory of the person who had brought her into the world.
Olga lived with her uncle, her mother’s brother, whose two children were like her brother and sister, though they were really cousins. Her true anchor had been her grandmother, whose unflinching love had sustained her through childhood years. But even she had balked questions about her mother. She knew, without even asking, that her uncle would be just as reticent on the subject.
Her aunt, mother’s only sister, lived nearby, and often came along to see her. Sometimes, when she didn’t have school, Olga went with her and stayed in her home for a few days. She knew instinctively that her aunt wouldn’t like to talk about her mother either. Nobody wanted to talk about the person who, as she grew up, had increasingly occupied her thoughts.
The only thing she had been able to know was what she had overheard. Her mother’s name, Edilma. The name reverberated endlessly in her ears: Edilma. Edilma. Day by day, perhaps even night by night, an image had formed in Olga’s mind of her missing mother. Not just her face. The way she talked, walked, smiled, even touched her daughter. Surely she must have loved Olga. Then why had she gone away, she asked herself repeatedly. She wanted so much to love her mother – yes, she loved her as any daughter would – but, the next instant, she would be overwhelmed by a giant wave of resentment. How could she leave the daughter she doubtless loved? How could she stay away so long without coming to see her? There was nobody to answer her questions. Even to hear them.
Olga could see her uncle’s face freeze into an expression of staunch resolve. Yes, he said firmly after a pause, Edilma could see her daughter. That was all. She could not take her daughter. She had long forfeited that privilege. He did not want to see Edilma, but would allow Olga to visit her aunt’s home for a brief period to meet her mother.
It was the longest night for Olga. She had a tough time falling asleep. She felt excited to think of the morning when her aunt would come to fetch her. When she finally slept, it was a fitful sleep. Yet she woke up early, feeling restless. She had been to few big events in her small town, some weddings, three christenings and two funerals, but this was too prodigious an event for her mind to grasp easily. All her life she wanted to see her mother, and now she was going to see her. To talk to her. To ask her the question that had forever nagged her mind.
When her aunt came to fetch her, she was long dressed and ready. There were some people sitting in the living room of her aunt’s home. She ignored them and started going in.
She heard an unknown voice call out her name, “Olga!”
She turned and saw a middle-aged woman coming toward her, her arms outstretched, her face streaked with tears. “Olga!” The woman cried out again.
This then was her mother. She looked older than what Olga knew to be her age. A hard life must have done that to her. Olga stood petrified.
The woman came and put her arms around her. She was now crying almost hysterically and saying, “Olga. Olga.”
This is the moment Olga had waited for all her life, the mother she had longed for. But it was not happiness she felt, not satisfaction, but a kind of relief. A dam burst. She found herself sobbing uncontrollably.
She cried for a long time. The woman who held her cried too and kept looking at her. It seemed to Olga a look of expectation. Perhaps for Olga to say the one word her mother wanted to hear, a word she had waited to hear for seventeen years. Mother.
But the word never to came to Olga’s lips. What she felt surging was a sense of deep resentment. Why did she leave me behind?
“I didn’t want to leave you,” said Edilma. “Please, please understand. I had no other way. I was an unwed mother. I couldn’t live in this town any more, except a life of shame. I had to run away, as far as I could.”
She cried. “I had no alternative. I thought and thought, and could think of nothing, except to leave. Without even my daughter.”
“I had no place. I had no way to feed you, look after you. I thought you would be safe here. I had to go and find a way to live.”
“For seventeen years? You didn’t come once to see me?”
“I couldn’t. Believe me, I couldn’t,” Edilma said, “I lived a life I couldn’t tell you about. I just survived. I couldn’t make you a part of it. I wanted you to have a decent life, with my brother and sister, who I knew would look after you well. I longed to see you, but I couldn’t.”
“I missed you,” she added, “perhaps more than even you missed me.”
They just held each other.
Olga is my friend. She was telling me the story some thirty years later. Yet her eyes sparkled and moistened as she recounted the seventeen-year-old’s story. She never went with her wandering mother. She already had a mother-like figure in her young life, her aunt, whom she loved like a mother. She had a father-like uncle too, who, she knew, loved her and protected her as one of his own. Her grandmother, now dead, a paragon of affection, had shown what unstinting love could be.
Olga stayed with her uncle and aunt, but her mother kept in touch with her. When years later, she married and had children, her mother came and stayed with her periodically and showered on the grandchildren the affection she had missed extending to her daughter. The grandchildren loved her in return and filled some void.
Olga lives her life, with its sharp turns, joys and miseries. Her mother, who had stayed away seventeen years, can no longer let seventeen days pass without touching base with her daughter or her children.