Something I Learned From My Mother
Paradise, the hadith goes, lies at the feet of your mother.
My dad first told us this hadith in Bengali. Its literal translation into English makes it more like ‘Paradise is under your mother’s feet’. I remember how – in my younger and wiser days – my brother and I would concoct strategy after strategy for finding heaven – usually involving suspending her from high places, and digging under her feet.
What? We were practical AND imaginative children. We were also absurdly pleased by the symmetry of our mother’s name actually being the same Arabic word for paradise 😄 (Perhaps it would double our chances?)
I’ve been staring at this topic for days (in between a certain amount of school-related meltdown), wondering just what I am meant to say – where to start, how to stop. I went to visit with a fellow writer at home during the weekend, and fell into conversation with her mother, remembering to them how we started out in this country, nearly 30 years ago, recounting the difficult – what now we would think unbearable – circumstances of their lives and living conditions. Overwhelmingly, to me, it seems that everything I know of my mother is her constant, unending sacrifice.
Big things? Little things? Everything. She never eats anywhere but that she brings something back for us. She won’t eat until she’s served everybody else. Only today, my sister gave her a piece of chocolate – a PIECE, from a BAR – and she took a nibble and offered the rest to me. We made samosas the other day (yes, she did teach me to make samosas, and no I did not secretly eat the filling XD), and she took a bite out of the corner of one and passed the rest around for everyone else to have some.
Writing this, I realise how much the barakah in our house must be because of her hands. The barakah that comes from mothers isn’t an accident. There’s a reason that Allah (swt) honours a mother beyond any other person.
When we were small, and times were harder and money had to stretch further, I remember what a treat a chocolate bar was. After school, we might be lucky enough to go to the shops where we would buy the awesome 10p crisps (they’re 25p now, huh), and occasionally, we could stretch our money to a chocolate bar. And how far that chocolate bar went! My mother would divide it up equally between all of us – forgoing her share, of course – and you know what? It might only have been a mouthful, but chocolate tasted better then. And you know why? There was barakah in her hand, that no amount of money we spend now – no matter how fine the chocolate – can reproduce.
I realised some years ago how little I really knew about my mother’s real likes and preferences: her favourite foods, her favourite colour, her favourite pastimes – her favourite ANYTHING. She would never express any, so great was her diffidence! She’s impossible to buy a present for, because she won’t ask for anything, even if we pester and beg her to tell us. She only smiles and tells us that our good behaviour and good feelings between each other are a big enough present to her. I don’t think I’ve ever bought her flowers – and it was not for lack of trying! (‘What will I do with flowers?’) I did buy her a chilli tree once, though. (It had lots of chillis on it!) (But then it died.)
Do you think this is a shadow-woman, weak of will? A woman without colour or life or personality?
More than ever, the longer I live, the more I understand that strength is not as simple as standing up for your rights, as we are so often told to do. Strength is being able to put your desires aside for the sake of other people; it is being able to recognise their limitations and to choose to be the one who can change and bend and give way, and shape yourself around someone else’s edges and peculiarities. The real strength isn’t in being able to take what you want or need, but in being able to give it up. It may seem a bit weird and counter-intuitive to the way we are taught to think, but I’ve lived on both sides of that, and I know which is the proverbial empty vessel.
I’ve learned that no matter how much older I get, how independent I think I become, I will always need her, and want her, and be in her debt. She may sound clichée and storybook and fairytale and unreal. But she isn’t. She’s my mother, who doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. I may have inches on her in height, but her soul is more vast than mine might ever be. If I could be even an eighth of the woman – the wife, the mother, the daughter, the sister, the Muslimah – that my mother is, then that would be a victory, indeed.
I know sacrifice inspires sacrifice.
May Allah have mercy on her in this life and the next.