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When I was growing up, my mother would sit my sister and me down on the last Sunday of every month and force us, scowling, to write letters to family in India. Despite being an orphaned only child, my mum came from a large, tightly-knit, Anglo-Indian family back in Hyderabad and loved the cousins she was raised with like siblings. At the time, we were the only ones who had left India to go abroad. We had no family here but dozens and dozens of relatives there, and she missed them all deeply. She wanted to make sure that we remained connected to them despite the distance separating us.

It was the 1970s and my mother was recently divorced, raising two little girls on her own and finding her way in a new country. We lived in a basement bachelor apartment, had a party line, and couldn’t afford long-distance calls. Letter-writing was the cheapest and only way for us to maintain contact. My mum would write much more often than once a month, frequently sending thin, blue, trifold aerograms which required less postage. But every month, she’d send long updates to several key families and, in each envelope, she’d include recent photos of the three of us, plus letters from my sister and me.

I have to admit the last thing I wanted to do was to sit down for an hour after dinner and write letters to people I barely knew. Sunday night TV viewing was good. There was no getting out of it though. My mother insisted, and when she put her foot down, we knew not to argue.

She was quite particular about letter-writing etiquette. Each one had to begin with “Dearest Aunt or Uncle,” even if they weren’t really our aunts or uncles, and end with “Yours affectionately.” She made us start by jotting down three different points we wanted to cover to make the letters interesting, fresh and “newsy.” Then she had us write drafts of the paragraphs before committing the final text to stationery. There was no arguing about any of this either.

It took about a month for our letters to get to India and another month for replies to come back. My mother checked the mailbox in our apartment lobby religiously, anxious for news from home. Whenever a letter arrived, she’d read and reread it – first quietly to herself, eyes welling up – then aloud to us, insisting that we give her our undivided attention. We’d look at the pictures our relatives sent and she’d tell us about each person in detail – their histories, adventures, love affairs, illnesses, triumphs and tragedies. Through photos, we were able to see them get older just as they saw us grow up. Through their words, we could hear that they were funny, frank, caring and lively. To be honest, it was fascinating to get to know a whole clan of people that, well, looked and sounded just like us. Pretty soon, my sister and I were as excited as my mum when their letters arrived.

Often, the three of us would spread blankets on our living room floor and watch late-night TV together, even on school nights. My friends were envious that I had no strict bedtime and could watch the Tonight Show whenever I wanted, but for me, the best part came after Johnny Carson said goodnight. We’d lie in the dark listening to my mother tell vivid stories about her childhood, conjuring up settings and a cast of characters that came alive. She wove tales that were as rich and intricate as a hand-woven Indian tapestry, transporting us to a faraway land. We were lulled to sleep, steeped in history, rooted to our past, solidly grounded – and happy.

A motherless Mother’s Day is never easy

When my mother died, my sister and I took her ashes back to India. We hadn’t been back for over 25 years, having visited only once when I was 10. At the airport, we were met by family who had been waiting for hours, garlands in hand, hearts full. After the funeral, we spent a month visiting relatives, going from home to home where we were welcomed with open arms and treated to wonderful parties and feasts in our honour. Without exception, the family hosting would take out photo albums full of photographs of us – birthdays, graduations, Christmases – as well as the letters they’d received over the years. They’d saved it all and wanted to show us that they’d kept a record of our lives. That they’d never forgotten us. That we were out of sight but never out of mind.

Through it all, my sister and I never once felt we were among strangers. We felt we knew each and every person intimately, all because my mother had made it a priority to ensure we knew our family, however far away. She used what was at her disposal at the time – postage stamps and letters and her memories – to maintain that vital thread between Canada and India.

Recently, one of my cousins sent me a copy of letters she’d received from my mother years back. Now grown up and living in Australia, she wanted me to know how much those letters had meant to her. Seeing my mother’s elegant script and remembering the events described in her messages brought back a rush of emotion. There was real thought and feeling in what she wrote – gentle advice to study well, to be good, to keep family ties alive, to never forget those roots. I could hear my mother’s voice as I read her words and felt her longing for family connection. There was the familiar formality in her salutation and closing, the three-paragraph format, which made me smile. But more than anything, there was love.

Although we were often on shaky ground as we carved our paths as new immigrants, my mother gave us a foundation that make us feel rock solid – we always knew who we were, where we came from and where we were going. She kept us connected to a family that was thousands of miles away, but near to our hearts through a lifetime of letter-writing. And she taught me the power of storytelling. It’s a legacy to be proud of and a gift I’m grateful for every day.

Shirley Phillips lives in Toronto.

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