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His mother's saris each have a story. Sunil learnt more about her as they packed them away together

By Sunil Badami for Earshot
Growing up, Sunil struggled against his mother Sushila's expectations. Now he understands her better.  (ABC RN: Sophie Kesteven )

Growing up, I often struggled against my Indian mother Sushila's expectations, just as she often struggled to raise my brother and me after my father left. There were times when she'd say to me: "When you're a parent, you'll understand."

Now, as a parent of two teenage girls starting to assert their own independence, I understand.

But it also strikes me, as they become young women, that there are parts of their lives that are secret to me; just as there are parts of my life that are, at least for now, inconceivable to them; and just as Mum's life was to me when I was growing up.

When you're young, like my children, the future looms ahead, almost infinitely distant and full of promise. And yet, as you get older, like Mum and me, the past seems to lurch up behind, even more infinitesimally close, tangled with memories and regrets — and sometimes tangled up in precious possessions.

Parenthood is a long, slow, beautiful, tender, heart-breaking process of letting go. Every day, your children do more and more things on their own until they leave to live their own lives … and until the day you'll finally have to leave them. And since Mum's turned 80, it's struck me that this will happen to me sooner rather than later.

Dr Badami's son

Recently Mum retired after over forty years as a general practitioner in Greystanes in Sydney's Western suburbs, where I grew up. Everywhere we went, everyone would wave and call out, and I was always referred to as "Dr Badami's son" — just as now, everyone calls me my children's dad.

Sunil's mum was determined to continue to wear saris when she moved in Australia.   (Supplied)

While your children seem to always change, your parents always just are. That is, until the moment they aren't: something that happens just as quickly.

Mum was always Mum: vibrant, contradictory, obsessive, bossy, often frustrating — her love so great, it sometimes threatened to overwhelm me and subsume me.

I was always torn between my love and gratitude to her for everything she did — and everything she sacrificed — to give my brother and me the very best she could, and embarrassment at her being too loud, too eccentric, too … Indian.

My brother and I were always reminded how un-Australian we were when we were asked where we were "really" from. Although we were born in Australia, didn't speak Mum's mother tongue and had broad Aussie accents our Indian relatives couldn't comprehend, nothing we did could ever make us "Aussie" enough — especially our mother, resplendent in bright saris and speaking in that sing-song Indian accent that people always imitated.

I still feel bad about that, even as now, I love seeing my daughters in saris, looking so beautiful, proud and confident of their Indian heritage in a way I wish I'd been.

The golden thread of our family

After Mum retired and started to fall, my brother and I did everything to keep her at home. However, when she — always so fiercely independent — refused home care, it became too much for all of us, and she had to move into residential aged care.

Packing up Mum's house wasn't easy, as she was a bit of a hoarder. We argued over bags of rubber bands that might come in useful some day; about disposable coffee cups that couldn't be thrown out because they hadn't been used yet; or long-expired tins of food that she swore she'd only bought last week.

Sushila has collected almost 400 saris over the years and remembers the stories of each one. (ABC RN: Sophie Kesteven)

Everything had a story or relationship to someone or something in the past. As she told me, "I can't get rid of anything. I feel I'm losing a part of me."

It reminded me of Salman Rushdie's seminal essay, Imaginary Homelands, in which he observed that we're all "partial beings, in all the senses of that phrase. Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved."

Sunil and his mother Sushila at his wedding. (Supplied)

As he pointed out, "The past is a country from which we have all emigrated … its loss is part of our common humanity."

Now I realise how Mum's sense of belonging was so wrapped up in her belongings, her career and her children, having given up so much and left so much behind in India.

We packed up most of her belongings for charity or to be disposed of at the tip, but the one thing I didn't want to lose were her saris.

There, amidst the glittering swathes she'd collected over the years, were her and her mother's wedding saris, the latter worn by my Ammamma at her own nuptials a century ago.

Mum's always had an elephantine memory for recipes and relations, Hindu festivals and deities — and for every sari she's ever been given: who gave it to her, when, and why. She must have had over 400, of every colour and pattern and cloth, from golden Banarasi silk to simple tribal cotton. She reckons people were always asking her what the story behind each was. "That's where you get your talent for storytelling from!" she says.

The prints and colours of the saris have long since gone out of fashion, but the swathes of fabric remain. Yet unlike the saris, memory isn't a fixed thing: it's constantly changing, the way that stories do, the way all living things do.

The memories of the hopes, dreams and love that were woven into her wedding sari, which she chose herself — just as she chose her husband and her profession when every other girl around her had theirs chosen for them — are now tinged with the sadness of the end of that marriage she'd thought would last forever.

But Mum insists she doesn't have any regrets. "I've been able to do everything I wanted to do. I've got beautiful children, daughters-in-law, grandchildren I love."

All we leave is love

As I've listened to her sari stories, I've learned so much about her and her life. And just as she started talking to her own mother when she became a mother, our relationship's changed too, and not just because our caring roles have been reversed.

As we spent time together sorting through the saris, I started to understand what might really be important: not the things we hold onto, but the things we share. Our time and attention. Our care and our love. Our stories and ourselves.

Sunil and his mother delicately handle his grandmother's wedding sari, which is more than a hundred years old. (ABC RN: Sophie Kesteven)

Whatever things Mum accumulated at home, she was always giving her time and care and love. There wasn't anything she wouldn't do for charity, her patients, her friends — and most importantly, her family.

So, what's left, after everything's been sorted, and packed or given away?

The poet Philip Larkin once wrote that what we leave of us is love.

And, for everything else — even her brilliant saris and their incredible stories — that's the one thing Mum will leave in abundance.

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