My parents were, like other couples who succeed in making a go of their marriage, were both similar and different. Father was outgoing and gregarious. He loved company and made no secret of it. His work fortunately permitted endless socialization. He invited friends and strangers alike at the drop of a hat, to the occasional discomfiture of mother. He played tennis, his adversaries invariably turning up eventually for tea at our home.
Mother was essentially a more introspective person. She went along with father’s bent for hospitality, ardently cooking up a storm when father overdid and invited a large number. But she shone best in one-on-one talk with people she really liked. She had been an educator, but for many years she was just a homemaker rearing her children, yet her wits were razor-sharp. She listened quietly and avidly, but when her views differed, she expressed them gently but articulately.
In societies where it is customary for children to pay adoring homage to their parents even when the parents are far from ideal, it may seem invidious for a son to comment objectively on his parents’ relationship. I do so in an earnest effort to understand the air I breathed and the untraditional template I saw. Of their three children, I lived the longest with them, even through my college and university days, and saw their relationship change direction many times. Yet there was a vibrancy to their link that somehow endured.
The clearest sign of that was the way they handled their differences. Given their different backgrounds, their perspectives often varied. Mother came from a relatively comfortable middle-class family; my father had been through financial straits. He had a streak of concern about security that my mother, though cautious, usually lacked. Father came from a small family, his two sisters had careers and were independent; he tended to seek friends outside. Mother was the youngest of a huge family and was the darling of her brothers and sisters; all her thinking started with them. Father loved travel and was prepared to rough it. Mother was essentially a homing pigeon, liked nothing better than a pleasant palaver over a cup of tea.
It is interesting the way they reconciled their oddities. Father handed over family finances to mother entirely, trusting her scrupulous record-keeping, and felt free of worries. His sisters were old friends of my mother anyway; he went about developing a warm and close relationship with two of mother’s closest brothers. Mother wasn’t keen on travel but went along with father’s enthusiasm for vacation travel twice a year; at other times, she let him travel on his own, if he wanted.
When I visited friends, I immediately noticed a surprising difference in their family. You could see immediately the lack of power parity between their parents. The males clearly dominated, took major decisions; the women went along, though often resented it, sometimes harbored a grudge. At home, mother’s soft voice and dulcet tone scarcely concealed that she was a fully equal partner. Mother was the early riser and made their private morning tea. The day she took a job and went back to work after many years, father started making the tea. When they moved to a new home near her place of work, mother took back the function. When father retired from work, he swiftly resumed the charge. They shared work – and they shared power. Father never learned to cook, just as mother never learned to shop. They both learned to respect the other’s preference even while they followed their own preference.
Mother was a teacher and administrator before she married. When she went back to work, she again assumed a similar role. She did well and was loved and admired. I knew her capability at first hand. So, I was surprised, in fact a little disappointed, when father died suddenly in a botched surgery, she seemed to come apart. I had not anticipated her acute vulnerability. Then I realized that that was the dark side of a successful relationship: when it works, it is very pleasing; when it ends, it is very crippling.
I needed to wait. The mother I knew returned in time, a little aged, a little scarred, but return she did. It was a measure too of my father’s legacy of magic in her life. She savored her new innings. At ninety, I asked her, “Tell me, which was the most remarkable year of your life?”
She replied, without a moment’s pause, “Why, of course, this year.”