Chicago Peace Roses
Mother's Day in Western culture falls generally in the month of May, with some variation by country. In Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Mother's Day is celebrated on March 21, the day of the Vernal Equinox, as described in this earlier post: The Vernal Equinox: Springtime in Saudi and the Equinoctial Day and Night that Join Us All.
Celebrating Mother's Day or not, depending on familial, cultural, and national practices can be a particular challenge for mixed couples and families. It can be hard for one spouse to celebrate his or her mother-in-law and feel that his or her mother is being left out, no matter the quality of the relationships. Will the one care if they aren't even used to celebrating on that day? Does that matter, or should one explain and celebrate anyway? What about language differences, geographical distances, culture bound gift giving practices, and differing levels of literacy?
I have spent this Mother's Day (Sunday May 9, 2010) weekend visiting my mother and family. Shortly after I arrived, my mother, who had such a big role in my love of literature, and subsequent literary studies, said, "I have kept a book from the library I finished reading, not a literary book, or a famous one, but I liked it, and you might...so, it's here if you want to read it." This is how I sometimes have a relaxing, good, light read of something I cannot possibly turn into a peer-reviewed article, doctoral thesis, book, grant application.
The book was Secret Daughter: A Novel, a first effort by Indian-Canadian-American Shilpi Somaya Gowda. It is in the Realist, omniscient narrator (a chronological realistic portrait of "real" life, where the story is told my an all-knowing, all-seeing abstract voice) style that my mother prefers, and that I rarely write and publish on. Still, it is a very good first effort, and that style makes it at once an easy read and much like a tour with the authorial persona through a number of topics relating to motherhood, adoption, fatherhood, marriage, and life stages. Because it is set in both rural India and the internal migration to Mumbai, and in California where one main character heads for medical studies, marries an Anglo-American woman who is, like himself, an aspiring academic physician and stays, other more specific themes are woven through these universals: male child preference, female infanticide or feticide, poverty, orphanages infertility, dual-career vs traditional marriages, cross-cultural/ cross-ethnoracial/ bi-national/ interfaith marriages and adoptions, and the twists of fate and fortune that mark a life and a family.
The characters are well-drawn, and their thoughts and feelings have verisimilitude (seem authentic). The "evil husband" of Chapter 1 becomes a man doing his best in a patriarchal world, and a loving husband and father whose final scenes in the novel are very moving. Anyone who has been a teen or raised a teen will be able to relate to the family dynamics around that. Anyone who has ever gone to a family wedding in a foreign culture, and not only had "nothing to wear", but no clue how to wear the culturally appropriate clothing will laugh out loud at some scenes. Best of all, it is a comedy in the Northrup Frye sense of the term: a story that starts happy, goes through sadnesses and challenges, yet ends happily with a new forward looking personal, familial, and social order.
To give you an idea, what follows is some information from the author's official website, where an excerpt is also included here:
Shilpi Somaya Gowda was born and raised in Toronto to parents who migrated there from Mumbai. She holds an MBA from Stanford University, and a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1991, she spent a summer as a volunteer in an Indian orphanage, which seeded the idea for her first novel, Secret Daughter. A native of Canada, she has lived in New York, North Carolina, and California. She currently makes her home in Texas with her husband and children.
A stunning debut novel that explores the emotional terrain of motherhood, loss, identity and culture, witnessed through the lives of two families, one Indian, one American, and the daughter who indelibly binds them.
On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to a baby girl. But in a culture that favors sons, the only way for Kavita to save her newborn daughter’s life is to give her away. It is a decision that will haunt her and her husband for the rest of their lives, even after the arrival of their cherished son.
Halfway around the globe, Somer, an American doctor, decides to adopt a child after making the wrenching discovery that she will never have one of her own. When she and her husband Krishnan see a photo of the baby with the gold-flecked eyes from a Mumbai orphanage, they are convinced that the love they already feel will overcome all obstacles.
Interweaving the stories of Kavita, Somer, and the child that binds their destinies, Secret Daughter poignantly explores issues of culture and belonging. Moving between two worlds and two families, one struggling to survive the fetid slums of Mumbai, the other grappling to forge a cohesive family despite diverging cultural identities, this powerful debut novel marks the arrival of a fresh talent poised for great success.
The author speaks briefly about the inspiration for her work, and the challenges specifically in India of a strong cultural preference for sons. The fuller explanation is a short and worthwhile read here. The book itself explores the theme with greater nuance and compassion for individuals caught within a system that makes girls too great an economic burden for poorer, less educated families. For those fond of accents, her American one now dominates her Canadian one!
My Teacher Calls Me Sweetie Cakes
My teacher calls me sweetie cakes.
My classmates think it’s funny
to hear her call me angel face
or pookie bear or honey.
She calls me precious baby doll.
She calls me pumpkin pie
or doodle bug or honey bunch
or darling butterfly.
My class is so embarrassing
I need to find another;
just any class at all
in which the teacher’s not my mother.
--From a Grade 5 cursive exercise book
I found this poem as one of the entries in my nephew's homework book when I sat down at the kitchen table for lunch. I thought it was fitting in so many ways: the day, the fact that my mother was a teacher, and the familial challenges of cursive writing.
In Grade 6 I got a C (gasp!) in penmanship on my first report card of the year. My mother, the busy new high school teacher, who was visually reviewing my report with a kind of "tick through the A's" mentality, stopped abruptly and said, "C? a C? you got a C?! I TEACH PENMANSHIP! Let me see your handwriting....CHICKEN SCRATCH! CHICKEN SCRATCH!! Just like your father's! Let me watch you write...NO! NO! Use your whole arm, not your hand! Never mind, I'll bring home the Grade 9 penmanship book. CHICKEN SCRATCH!" Needless to say, I got only A's in penmanship subsequently.
My father came by his "chicken scratch" thanks to being a left-handed, younger than the rest, boy in a Catholic school at a time when the nuns used to use the sharp edge of the ruler to whack the offending left hand and make the child switch the writing instrument to the right hand. I once met an older man from Goa, the former Portuguese Catholic colony of India, who had the exact same handwriting and the same story. My father did everything he learned at school, writing, woodworking, using tools, right-handed; and everything else, playing baseball, dealing cards (!), left-handed. At the end of his life his handwriting was chicken scratch plus Parkinson's, so he switched to printing.
My sister is truly ambidextrous, while my mother and I are clearly right-handed--though I breathe left while swimming the front crawl, a correlation with left-handedness, do sidestoke left-sided, and synchronize swim left-legged, just as my dad was a left-legged football kicker. When my nephew was an infant my sister was most concerned to let him have the handedness his brain, not society, gave him. To this end she would present objects to the mid-line of his body and let him reach for it with the hand of his choosing. Like most babies he was ambi-undextrous. When he graduated to a high chair she would put his food in the centre of the tray, and most importantly his spoon dead centre at the top of the bowl with the handle down, not off to one side to suggest with which hand it should be grabbed. Gradually he showed a very marked preference for his left hand.
He never quite made it to "chicken scratch" because he printed so badly that his Grade 3 teacher recommended he have an assessment by an occupational therapist to determine why he couldn't learn to print better despite excellent fine motor control for other tasks. My sister took him of course, all the while muttering "But he chose his own handedness". This was one of those times when auntilary cautiousness regarding intrusions into sibling mothering was most frustrating. I had never fully voiced the opinion I'd held for years: "He is left-handed, he is a boy, he gets little printing instruction from the teachers, and his mother the primary specialist with a negative view of early 'pencil and paper work' won't teach him, and won't let anyone else do it either." The official assessment yielded a more politically correct opinion: as a leftie he needed more instruction than he had been given. It was so close to "learning cursive time" that he was enrolled in special cursive classes, and skipped printing. He gets A's in cursive (but still can't print!).
Toward the end of the day of Mother's Day I was reminded, by finishing Secret Daughter, of Robert Munsch's book,Love You Forever, about the never ending love of a mother for her child.
American-Canadian children's storyteller Munsch wrote this initially to aid his grief, a father's grief, over the loss of his 2 stillborn children.
“I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
as long as I’m living
my baby you’ll be.”
It began with the song above, which he couldn't sing for a long time as it made him choke with tears, but eventually became a story, and a book that is a classic, and speaks to children, parents, and grandparents. The full text is here, but the illustrations are exquisitely complimentary.
Robert Munsch reading and singing Love you forever. I have my own voicing of this in my head (Munsch tells us to make up our own!), but it may be a valuable listen for others and certainly is beautiful visually.
Before the day was over, I gave my mother this year's gift and card, my nephew barbecued, and my sister took us out for ice cream.
I bought my mother one of these hydrangeas,
as it reminds me of the ones she gave each year to my grandmother,
and that she herself loves
Eventually it will join the others in the garden and look like these
To all mothers, aunts, grandmothers,
and maternal figures
Happy Mother's Day!
How did you spend Mother's Day?
What are your special Mother's Day memories?
What do you think the role(s) of aunts and grandmothers is/are?
Have you had cross-cultural Mother's Day challenges?
How have you resolved them?
How would you answer the questions in the second paragraph of the opening of this post?
These days a given child may have a biological mother (egg contributor), gestational mother (womb contributor), an adoptive mother, and a social mother (eg a maternal figure of any type). Given that, who gets included in Mother's Day?
Should adoptions be open or closed in your opinion?
What is the impact on each of the family members biological and adoptive?
What is your view of cross-race, or cross-cultural adoption?
What special challenges does it present?
If raising a child takes a village, who are the mothers of the village?
Any other comments, thought, experiences?
* My apologies for the slight delay in posting about this celebration (unless you are living in an unusual time zone, Mother's Day just past). However, it is here before Father's Day, which will get its own post too!