First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
My grandpa always did exactly what he wanted. It’s really admirable. I wished I could do that more – say no instead of yes, travel across the world on a whim, party with hippies in San Francisco (in the 1960s), visit Russia (in 1981), start a free school, join a commune, grow an incredible garden, smoke pot as a senior citizen.
But there was a cost to some of that freedom – an intergenerational trauma that has stretched its dark fingers by varying degrees into the hearts of my father, his siblings and their children.
It starts when my grandfather’s wife became a single parent – left alone in a small village in India to raise three children in the 1960s. I imagine the pain my grandmother must have felt when she realized that he wasn’t, in fact, setting up a new life for them overseas, he was setting up a new life for him. He wasn’t coming back. He lost his turban (and cut his hair) somewhere in France, and subsequently lost the desire to be in his marriage. I can’t imagine the fierce determination it took for my grandmother to stay with her children rather than chase him to Canada, as her relatives suggested. “I am never leaving my kids,” she told them.
I have to give credit where it’s due. He sent some money back, and more importantly, eventually helped his children emigrate to Canada, but only after they experienced life without a father in their formative years.
My father was a year old when his dad left, and 16 the next time they met in Canada. He expected to see a sleek, well-dressed man who worked in the air force. Instead, grandpa showed up in a tattered shirt and ripped corduroys. In the air force he was a flight engineer – he would help pilots stay up in the sky, fulfilling their missions. In Canada, he was rooted to the ground – when my father arrived he was filling pot holes on roads. My grandfather went on to be a social worker and English teacher.
This narrative shaped my childhood, and made my father, his brother and his sister into the most reliable parents you could imagine.
Growing up, our family acknowledged Grandpa when he chose to visit us – a friendly, handsome interloper who never quite looked his age. He was charming, too. A real life Dorian Gray – constantly in pursuit of beauty, never fully accepting the process of aging and all that it brought with it. He was also intelligent, witty and sarcastic. His comments could cut like a knife and he’d flash a smile, gold tooth twinkling or give a hearty laugh afterward and all would be well… mostly.
Grandpa missed the birth of his daughter’s first child. He didn’t show up right away when his son was in a life-threatening accident that affected his mobility forever. He missed almost every one of his grandchildrens’ birthdays – on our side of the family. He didn’t miss the celebrations of his non-Indian, new family. When we were young, he didn’t take any of us on trips to our ancestral homeland, although he did take all of his non-Indian, adoptive grandchildren to see India, and to visit the homes of our blood relatives. Eventually, after swallowing my pride, I finagled this trip with him.
But Grandpa was also the first to teach me about feminism, about how no one “owns” a woman’s body or her sexual history, except her. He discussed politics and literature with me as a teenager. He adored my now-husband. He proudly attended my graduation from grad school, stopping everyone on the street to declare that his granddaughter had earned a Master’s degree while pointing at me excitedly. Before he died, despite being very sick, he danced at my wedding, cane be damned. I’ll treasure that. It’s complicated. I carry his name and I carry his genes. I carry part of his heart.
My Grandpa, however, is not the reason I have a straight, solid spine and a good moral compass. Or why I am such a good partner to my husband. Or why nothing will stop me from doing the absolute best I can for my family. That grit, determination and conscientiousness comes from Ma, the woman he left behind. She’s the one in the background of every photo, solemnly looking at the camera. Unlike grandpa, who was all too happy to bask in the spotlight, she receded into the background, often not wanting her photo taken. While he was the happy, loud flag on the ship’s bow, she was the rudder. All of the cares he was able to shed, she bore. She never did grant him a divorce, even though he asked a few times.
When I was a child, Ma lived with us, her son’s family. She would let me sleep next to her, wrapped up in a soft cocoon of blankets, heads covered. I grew up to the sounds of her praying every morning at 6 a.m., softly murmuring her paath (Sikh prayers). She’d make us parathas, or flatbread, in all kinds of shapes, upon request. She’d babysit us from morning until night, giving us baths one by one, braiding our hair, lining us all up on the couch and feeding us. She’d sign our parental permission forms, with two swirly Gs as she wrote her name, Gurdev Gill. She was private, logical, loving and an independent thinker. She was a counselor to so many, and a mother to so many more. She was everyone’s Ma.
She got a raw deal for a village girl from Punjab who just wanted a family and a stable life, but she handled it like a warrior. Her kids never missed a field trip, always had school uniforms, food and, more importantly, always felt loved and supported. And then, her eight grandchildren felt that love, too. My grandmother was a giant in a 5-foot-2 frame.
My grandfather passed away in November, 2018. One month later, Ma passed away.
I miss her so much. I know she’d want me to be strong. I’m trying. I want to be just like her.
Kiren Gill lives in Toronto.