Despite the early onset of her golden years creeping in, my mother still spends her days in the midst of neon pink tutus and toddler tees emblazoned with emojis. She methodically folds tiny pairs of trousers and meticulously counts inventory in the same vein as she has done for the better part of her adulthood.
After work, in my rare moments of stolen liberty, I like to drop in on my mother while she is in her element. Entering the store, I don’t immediately approach her, instead opting to observe from a distance her interactions with the weary, disgruntled parents crowding the cramped floor space.
“What you need, mami?” she asks a Latina mother, a member of the prime demographic of shoppers who frequent the children’s clothing store where my mother dominates the floor.
Working in retail for nearly two decades was nowhere near the grand lifestyle that my mother, or Ammu, had imagined for herself in the land of the free, but it was the life she took on when she made the decision to set aside her degrees, box up her passions and prioritize the pursuit of endless opportunities for her three children over her own happiness.
The stories of broken dreams that countless men and women have left behind in the old country to chase the American aspiration for a better life can be bottled up and sold a dime-a-dozen. The tragedy is how we tend to sweep up the many tales of our parents in their youth, their long-forgotten goals and ambitions replaced by perpetual struggle, and categorically file them under “The Immigrant Experience.”
Such sacrifices are contingent to the “work hard, play hard” rhetoric ingrained in us. They are viewed as a grim necessity — not quite special or unique. In spite of years of long-term suffering, an immigrant parent’s’ ultimate motive for overturning their lives, for the sake of their children, never wanes.
It is Ammu’s altruism that defines her spirit.
Shortly after giving birth to me, her second child, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the papers were finalized and the date was set. In June of 1994, Ammu got on a plane for the first time in her life and moved to the ends of the Earth and away from everything she had ever known.
We immigrated to the United States and settled into New York City, where the absence of money trees and the reality of the hardships to come became immediately apparent. The tried-and-true story that tends to follow is the idea that financial success and stability follows after years of grinding.
That formula didn’t quite work for us for a long time.
A family of five cooped up in a tiny apartment in the Southeast Bronx seemed as metaphorically close to being poor as it could you can get, but I never actually considered us poor. You don’t really notice your lack of wealth when you grow up well-loved, and have a doting mother who hates to leave her children without. Even at the risk of emptying her savings collected over minimum wage laboring, Ammu could never say no.
Money was a perpetually an issue, but I had everything I wanted.
As a child, I wasn’t exactly spoiled, but I did have a tendency to get caught up in the facets of whatever tickled my fancy.
In the second grade, my anime obsession stipulated an endless supply of Sailor Moon memorabilia in exchange for my happiness, and Ammu happily obliged.
A few years later, I entered an early stage of rebellion that called for an appearance change. Convincing Ammu to let me dye my hair and get a second ear piercing took a fair bit of wheedling — and strategically-planned tears — but being the studious one in the family bore its advantages.
Still, I did not recognize my blessings.
It wasn’t until the arrival of pre-teen years that my demands crossed an imaginary line. In typical adolescent fashion, I was swept up into yet another phase — a punk rock identity that somehow warranted the need for an electric guitar.
I did not know how to play the guitar. There were no YouTube tutorials at the time to learn from for free, so lessons would have to be sought. I didn’t consider the equipment necessary for a guitar player — an amp, picks, a case, straps, tuner — but my aching urgency for a guitar surpassed the boundaries of logic.
At twelve, the weight behind purchasing such an expensive instrument went over my head. In my foolish ignorance, I could not fathom the enormity of such an ask upon a woman whose only weakness was her child’s smile. Ammu, who worked long hours earning a grand total of $6.75 an hour at the time, who took me shopping every time I asked, who never received a penny from her spouse, who lacked the ability to say no.
I knew two things: We didn’t have the money for a guitar. But I would still get what I wanted.
Upon acquiring the instrument, the days that followed were agonizing. There was an inexplicably heavy weight on my chest. My mother, however, beamed whenever she saw me running my fingers over the smooth black-and-white body of my most treasured possession.
I had my guitar, but I still wasn’t happy.
My older sister, whose wrath I often feared far more than that of my parents, was beside herself with fury over my new toy. She was relentless in her rage, berating my selfishness and my mother’s soft spot.
In a moment of clarity that had been noticeably absent after years of instant gratification, I knew she was right.
At the store, I watched Ammu pluck an obscenely sparkly pair of sunglasses off the floor. A moment later, she spotted me peeking at her through the clothes racks.
“Prity!” she calls me by my daak nam, rushing over and allowing me to throw my arms around her in an embrace. “Ki korthaso?”
“Nothing,” I reply to her inquiry in English. “I was just around and wanted to say hi.”
I let her drag me around the store and introduce me to all of her coworkers for the umpteenth time and exulted over my lifetime achievements to polite head nods, as Bangladeshi moms tend to do. Finally, I gently remove my arm from her grip and and lead her towards the exit to say goodbye while she chattered away at my side.
“Tumi bashai ki kaithe ashba?” she asks of my dinner plans,. Worrying that, in spite of reaching my mid-twenties and having moved out of the family apartment, I would go hungry at night without her.
“Yes, I’ll come home to eat,” I tell her.
She beams up at me, our six-inch height difference almost comical. Her smile is radiant, exuding a brilliance that inspires melodies immortalizing it in song.
If only I had an instrument to play the notes.
A lot has changed in terms of the context of this personal essay, but my relationship with Mom has only strengthened. Originally written in 2017 as a submission for Brown Girl Magazine’s anthology publishing the lived experiences of the South Asian diaspora, I ultimately chose to remove this story from rotation.
Bonus: I finally learned how to play the guitar in 2020!