There's a story involving my mother and a pink snowsuit that surfaces every time I'm on the precipice of dropping serious dough on an ostentatious piece of clothing. It goes like this: One day when I was seven, Mom and I were trawling Sears when I stumbled upon the perfect pink snowsuit. I don't remember what was so amazing about it except that its bright magenta was identical to the shade in the 64-colour box of Crayola crayons. I had to have it.
At the time, our family was preparing to move from a rental apartment to a small, newly built townhouse in a fast-developing part of our Toronto suburb. Money was probably tight. It was still early fall and Mom wasn't about to buy new snow pants until the sales began, or the cold hit—whatever came first. At the time I literally believed that if your parents promised something, you would receive, so I backed down. But by the time the next Sears Days sales rolled around, the perfect pink snowsuit was sold out. It was my first lesson in patience and it hadn't paid off, so really it was my first time learning you can't always get what you want.
Do I sound like a brat? I was. When you're a kid, the universe begins and ends with your line of sight. At the mall or in the grocery store, after studiously inspecting a toy display or wandering ahead down the cookie aisle, I would often grab the nearest available adult hand thinking it was my mom or dad. When I think about my childhood, I remember Mom's hands picking wispy bones from the fish in my plate of curry; I remember running circles around my dad's legs while he waited in line at the bank. As I grew older and taller, my universe expanded. I started becoming conscious of whispered conversations behind closed doors or over the phone—signs that my parents had lives beyond taking care of me and my brother. My family is small and hierarchical and morally conservative, so I hadn't ever thought to ask about who my parents were before they had us, nor who they were without us.
The driver's seat is where my mom goes deep. Sitting side by side, not facing each other but looking straight ahead, it feels safer to broach certain subjects—things neither of us wanted to bring up around my dad, who has always been the more conservative and "opinionated" parent. When I argued with my father about typical teen shit like parties and drinking, mom often cautiously sided with me. Our car rides were her opportunity to ask whether I'd smoked pot (I was honest: Duh), inquire after a particular boy, and express anxieties about how my younger brother was doing in school.
These car conversations continued through my teens and beyond. Five years ago, I was visiting my parents for the weekend. Mom had just picked me up from the train station on the way home from her office job. As the car idled at a red light, my mother, never taking her eyes off the busy intersection, said, "You know, I never wanted to have kids. I wanted to go to university after high school to become a doctor, but your granddad expected me to get married instead."
Brat reflexes at the ready, I turned to her thoroughly scandalized, though I was barely even miffed. (I am the perfect child. Who wouldn't be thrilled to raise me?). "Um, what the fuck? Thanks, Mom," I responded, rolling my eyes.
The second half of her confession didn't really faze me. My family is from India, and both my parents were raised amongst vast, insular networks of extended relatives in England. While my mother's father ensured his five daughters received high school educations, in other matters he was much more traditional. After graduation, the only choice my mom was allowed to make about her future was which man, from a list of pre-approved suitors, she would choose to wed. Opting not to marry at all was inconceivable.
"When I mentioned going to university and maybe pursuing medicine, I got a 'no' from your granddad," she told me, "because after finishing a medical degree you'd be considered too old to get married. It was the '70s, and plenty of girls in the white community could do what they wanted. But we were living in a community where, by a certain time, girls got married. Not a lot of girls pursued higher education."
I'm slightly embarrassed to say that it wasn't until this moment that I fully saw my mother as not just a parent, but an individual with her own life, ideas and ambitions, some of which didn't include me. This put a lot of the mom stuff she had done for us over the years in a new light: She was an expert baker, Halloween-costume-maker, story-reader, and stern-but-relaxed disciplinarian. It's not that she hadn't performed those tasks lovingly, but they stopped once my brother and I reached adolescence. Now I realized they were obligations. Obligations involving crafts and baked goods, but still, being a parent is like this terrible side gig that never ends. It was preventing her from doing the things she had once dreamed of. The love she poured into these tasks seemed suddenly much more profound.
That car conversation seemed to come at a turning point. Not long after, Mom quit her job and enrolled in a two-year nursing program at a local community college. "I wanted to see if I could do it," she now says. "I was bored with my job. Learning is a big part of my life. And nursing was something I always wanted to do."
Everyone in the house—I had moved out by then, but there was still my dad, his mother and my little brother—had to make adjustments, most of all Mom herself. "As a mother, being away from your family gives you the feeling that something isn't right," she said. But Dad, who had found his own mid-life passion in running, was supportive: "He said, 'If you want to go you can go, and if you have to give up your job, I'm okay with it.'" I remember being told not to mention anything when her parents, still living in England, called on birthdays and special occasions. Her father could still make his disapproval felt across the ocean.
The labor in our family had always been divided along gender lines, but now my dad had to learn to use the washing machine. My brother had to do the dishes and scrub the tub. I'd already started proofing my brother's university papers and I began doing the same with Mom's written assignments, getting a glimpse into a new part of this person I thought I knew so well. It felt strange and revelatory to learn her progressive views on the Canadian healthcare system or the sociopolitical issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and mental health. She was a good student, and would proudly report on high marks. School opened up her social world, too. She wasn't the oldest person in her class, but she liked her program because "all the old people didn't stick together. I made different kinds of friends, from different cultures and countries."
Just before graduation, my mom got a nursing internship at a busy hospital outside of Kingston, Jamaica. We stayed in touch over Skype—I teased her about her deep tan and how excited she'd get about the oversized, bush-grown fruits from the market. She was chattier and more expressive during these calls than I'd ever seen her. She seemed incredibly happy. When she returned home, bearing gifts of rum and pepper sauce, this new cheerfulness remained. She talked and texted with friends more than ever, and was a bit more relaxed about the household chores. One time she casually referenced daggering in conversation and my brother and I were mortified.
Mom graduated in 2012. She hasn't found nursing work and is frustrated, but happy to have pursued her dream. I asked what she got out of the experience and she told me it made her world bigger. "I'm more aware of how people behave toward each other," she said. "You would think that young people are more tolerant about the gay community or other stigmas, but it's not always true."
Her education changed the way I see things, too. I feel even less pressure to conform, knowing I have an ideological ally in my mother. I'm more strong-willed about the tougher parts of being a writer, because I saw how difficult it was for her to learn how to learn all over again. And, most important, I'm looking up and seeing a world beyond my own point of view. Mom didn't accept the limits imposed on her because of her gender, culture or generation. She took back her life.
Anupa Mistry is a writer living in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @_anupa. A version of this piece appeared initially in Rookie Magazine.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]