My Ammachi

My grandmother died in India on March 23 (22 in the US). The US memorial service was the next day, too soon for me to fully process everything I was feeling. I spoke at her service, but I still wasn’t ready. This is the eulogy I would have liked to have given.

The defining characteristics of my family are sarcasm, sassiness, skepticism, and a nearly unhealthy level of feistiness. That made losing our sweet Ammachi that much harder to bear.

Last week, my grandmother died. Just four hours before getting the news, my mom told me that she was doing poorly. I spent my drive home thinking of finally flying back to India this summer to see her for the first time in eleven years. After over a decade of spending time on myself, my career, and my family, it was time, I thought.

The news came during Jaya’s bathtime. After handing her over to Brett for bedtime, I looked down at my phone. Texts from my cousin and sister, a missed call and a voicemail from my mom, and that was it. She was gone.

It’s surreal to lose someone who was at once so vital to your existence and painfully absent from your everyday life. Aside from the fact that she is my grandmother, Ammachi is part of the story of why I’m here, in Texas, instead of in Kerala with her.

She and Pappa immigrated to the States in 1983. They brought all three of their children with them, and planted themselves in a tiny apartment in Carrollton, Texas. In 1985, the Abrahams went back to India to host a double wedding: my parents got married on the morning of December 29, and my uncle (Velichachan) and aunt (Sherly Chechy) got married in the evening that same day. After a romantic honeymoon chaperoned by Ammachi, my mom and Velichachan came back to the States while my dad and Sherly Chechy waited for their visa paperwork to be processed.

Oh, I’m sorry, were you still thinking about that honeymoon chaperoned by my grandmother? Because, yes, my parents went on a double honeymoon with my mom’s brother, his new wife, AND Ammachi. Here’s the awkward photographic proof:

Ammachi in the middle, the honeymooners on either side, and oh, yeah, THE DRIVER. I can’t make this up. My family is ridiculous.

If you ask them why they chose to bring the matriarch of the family on their honeymoon, all four of them will laugh, shake their heads, say they’re not quite sure, then make up something about how someone needed to protect their purses and belongings while the honeymooners played tourist in Kanyakumari.

After all the wedding festivities and formalities had ended, my mom boarded the plane with a new addition: she was pregnant with me. My dad still had to wait for his visa to be cleared, and it took until I was eight months old for my dad to see me for the first time in an airport terminal. But that’s a different story. My mom hasn’t told me much about that year without him, but I know this for certain: my Pappa and Ammachi were there, caring for me from my first days. Maybe this is why the title of “firstborn” holds so much rank in my family. As one of my aunts put it when she called to check on me this week, I was the only grandchild to get undivided attention from my grandparents. For a brief moment of time, I got all of them–all of her.

I spent the first months of my life sharing that 2-bedroom apartment with my mom, two uncles (Velichachan and Kochachan), and my grandparents. Being only an infant, I didn’t take up much space, but I imagine it wasn’t all that comfortable. I also imagine that Ammachi found a way to make it a home for all of us. She had a warmth that drew people together. And if you weren’t pulled in by her contagious smile or her laughter, you would have undoubtedly fallen in love with her cooking. I’m positive she is the reason why I am so picky when it comes to Indian restaurants.

Our family grew over the years, and we grew out of that little apartment quickly. Pappa and Ammachi had fostered such a strong bond amongst their children, however, that no one strayed too far from the others. Even now, the three households of the three siblings are within five miles of each other, still within the same little suburb of Carrollton. (Needless to say, my parents were a little disappointed when my husband and I chose to live as “far” as 25 minutes away.)

As I collected and arranged pictures for Ammachi’s memorial album, I realized that my fondest, dearest memories of childhood were in the house that my grandparents bought in the 90s. 1902 Baxley Circle. It was a snug 4-bedroom, single story house with the ugliest of all living room decor: wood paneling on each wall. It was my second home. I could go on and on about that place, about the summers I spent in the backyard, about my family learning how to put together a real American Thanksgiving feast in that kitchen, about the many prayer meetings in which the sound of drums and clapping and loud Malayalee singing reverberated from those wood panels. It was the home in which my grandparents lived out their version of the American Dream.

The fun, the laughter, the wood paneling.

When I think of that house and Ammachi, I remember her putting the laundry out to dry on a clothesline. I don’t know if it was because they didn’t have a dryer, or if they had one, but she preferred it the old-fashioned way. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the latter. I remember kanji when I was sick, and cheap $1 “party” pizza to feed all of the grandchildren at snacktime–but only after she had seasoned it with caraway seeds. I remember Pappa driving us to pick her up from her job making flags and pennants for National Banner Company, then driving her home and watching Wheel of Fortune together.

I remember driving up to the house in the weekend afternoons with my parents. The house would be quiet, the lights dim. All the doors to the bedrooms were closed because everyone had gone to take a nap. And so we would watch TV quietly. Slowly, Pappa and Ammachi would rise and come out. Pappa would eventually say something that got a quick retort from Ammachi, and the two would bicker until someone eventually cracked a joke and the fighting would stop with laughter. (Granted, I’m sure I’m remembering it with rose-colored glasses, but this is how I choose to see it.) And then, Ammachi would feed us. Have I mentioned her food was magical?

The years with Pappa and Ammachi at Baxley Circle were the golden days of my childhood. The world made sense, we all got along, and I had my whole family–my whole heart–with me. It was that time of life when my world revolved around my family. And Ammachi was there for every step of it. For that, I am forever grateful.

When Pappa and Ammachi decided to retire in India in 2002, I was entering a new stage of life: the selfish and self-conscious years of early adulthood. Since getting news of her death, I’ve spent the days hating myself for those years. I was so focused on establishing my own life that I had convinced myself that it wasn’t feasible to travel all that distance to see them. After all, they were such a powerful, constant force in my life that I couldn’t imagine a world in which they weren’t in it. I was young and foolish; I can forgive myself for that.

Fear and shame distanced us even more than miles ever could. I was ashamed that I could not speak Malayalam fluently, and afraid that I would hear disappointment in her voice because of it. So I grew to avoid talking to her over the phone. I was afraid of seeing her and Pappa as they aged. I wanted to see them as they were in Baxley Circle: vibrant, strong, sharp-of-mind. In my selfishness and fear, I forgot that essential part of family duty: to be there in strength and weakness. To be there from beginning to end. It’s here that I can’t forgive myself. Not yet. But where I can’t find forgiveness, I can at least find gratitude.

How I’ll always remember Ammachi: chilling in the kitchen at Baxley Circle, wearing random 90s t-shirts.

I believe my mom and Sherly Chechy knew early on the burden of the immigrant family: to lose people who are so intimately tied to your personal history, but to lose them from such a great distance that it feels both unreal and unbelievably painful. We cannot easily drop everything to visit ailing family members. We cannot go on with our weekday routine, fulfilling our duties at work and with our children, then drive to a Saturday funeral to get closure. My parents’ generation have lost aunts, uncles, and parents in India while they were here in the States, and they know the pain, guilt, and loss that comes with it. I believe this is why Mommy and Sherly Chechy always insisted that I talk to Pappa and Ammachi on the phone. This is why they pressed the phone into my hands, so I could connect as much as I could before they were lost. For that I am grateful. We even had a few Skype conversations. For that I am grateful.

Ammachi was gracious and forgiving. She was never petty. Her faith and wisdom taught her that family and love mattered more than pride. Although she did not express this, I am confident that she did not feel the disappointment that I was so afraid of. Even though I am angry with myself, I know she was not. For that I am grateful.

Whenever my guilt began to tear at me this week, Jaya found a way to invite me to play or ask me to snuggle or, in some way, move away from myself so that I could be with her. I believe this is Ammachi’s way of showing me that it is OK to move on, smile, and find joy. In the years that I had her as a second mother, she showed me the depth of motherly love, a deep love and bond that I feel myself extending to my own daughter. For that I am grateful.

The last picture I took with her. 2008.

She was a woman who at times could be so gentle and anxious that we forgot how strong she was. She was unafraid to state her opinion, and strong enough to forgive and choose love over holding grudges. Despite her sweet nature, she was able to battle wits with the best of them. (And in case you’re wondering, Pappa is the best of them.) She was resilient. Although we all worried about her fragility, she bolstered herself with prayers and community. She was the kind of woman who defined herself as a mother and wife, and who found power in that. And I say she was gentle and sweet, but if you messed with her meticulous organization system or messed up her plans, she could also lash out a tirade that would make you never forget to leave her things alone. For all of these things about her, I am grateful. And I am so very proud to be her granddaughter.

It’s ludicrous to claim that death and suffering happen “for a reason.” But I am learning we as survivors can choose to learn and grow from the guilt and loneliness that we feel after each tragic loss. Losing Ammachi has shocked me back into remembering the value of family–not just my tiny little nuclear one, but my extended family, the family that she created, and all the family that I have in India. Losing her has made me face years of anger, shame, fear, and guilt that had festered within me. Looking back through pictures and remembering Baxley Circle have rekindled something. I hope to let it grow and let it heal me.

Goodbye, Ammachi. You gave our family joy, love, and laughter. You taught us kindness and grace. We will miss you.

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