ATLANTA: This is it. The moment I’ve been waiting for.
I am standing in front of a petite Pakistani lady, only a little taller than I, yet with triple my spunk. And she is triple my age.
As I greet her, my mind races. She looks at me, and smiles a beatific smile. I relax. She does remember me. I smile back.
But then I notice the light of remembrance in her eyes is gone, faded like murky, roasted cumin. She smiles differently now, as if seeing me for the first time. In a regal tone of voice, she inquires politely, “And you are?”
My voice is mute. I try to emulate her poise, and answer simply, Reem. What I do not say: Reem, as in Reem Faruqi. I share your last name. I’m the daughter of your son Zaheer. But this I do not mention. She compensates by pretending to remember me. I humour her. And so our evening progresses.
She differs from the typical elderly Pakistani lady in so many ways. For one, she married for love. Her marriage was what we call a love marriage – as in unarranged. In the 1940s, this was unheard of.
Second, she was educated. Highly. After winning a scholarship, she received dozens of letters from potential suitors. She decided to write back to the quiet, polite gentleman with immaculate handwriting. Letters turned into love letters, and then they married. She arranged her marriage.
And yet Pyarijan, which means “loved one” in Urdu, was different. She is love in action. She defied tradition again by carving out a career for herself. But her husband didn’t want her to leave home, so she complied.
An educator, she put her creativity to work. At first, by having students come to her home and innocently calling her school, Happy Home. As her house quickly overflowed with students, she leapt at better opportunities and started her school in another building. And this was just the beginning of principaldom for this educator, Pyarijan. Does it make sense now why she chose the man with the immaculate penmanship?
Today, she has founded numerous schools, still with the same title, Happy Home Schools. I know dozens of teachers who look forward to dismissing their students and heading home right after. I’m one of them. She inspired me to become a teacher. At the end of her school day, she would often take a small catnap, and then return ready for her second half of the day, with even higher expectations than before.
As I sit with her, I realise that yes, her memory is fading, but the curls in her hair are anything but faded. Every night, Pyarijan will meticulously put curlers in her hair. Her high expectations for her curls are minuscule compared to those she has of her students. She has won dozens of awards, yet treats them matter-of-factly. It is her students who she lives for.
She even has high expectations of her flowers. Her garden lacks flowers at the moment, she explains apologetically. Not even a second later, she calls out for her gardener and tells him he’d better have some flowers up within two weeks, otherwise he’s leaving. She says all this with a twinkle in her eye. Magically, a week later, one of her trees has sprouted fragrant, pink flowers. She makes sure to point them out – flowers that match her pale pink and green shalwar kameez – while simultaneously complimenting the gardener and walking me to my car.
Yes, to this day, this 90 something woman, when saying good bye, will walk you to your car, and wave as you depart. Regardless of who you are, she will do this every single time.
Before embarking on my journey to Pakistan, I feel sorry for myself. I mope as I brush my teeth for five minutes, extra-long as I do when I’m feeling gloomy. I fear she will not remember me. I agonize during my pregnancy and worry she may not live long enough to see my baby. When she does live long enough, I worry she will not remember her, not remember her own great granddaughter.
But I am blessed: I meet Pyarijan with her great granddaughter. Yes, my fears are confirmed in that she doesn’t and will not remember me, but she loves my infant’s delicate features, falls in love with the simple things only babies do. Each day that she sees her, it is as if she is meeting a new baby, and to see her joy upon meeting my infant for ‘the first time’ makes me appreciate the sacrifice, putting my 13-hour flight into fresh perspective. She is effortlessly happy and unknowingly encourages me to be the same. I brush my teeth for two minutes that night.
Back in America, my toddler reaches out for her favourite book, Are You My Mommy? As I read the story, I can’t help feeling sorrow. The duckling asks different animals whether they’re her mommy, before finally reuniting with her mother at the end. I wish that I could read a story called, Are You My Granddaughter? to Pyarijan and have us reunite happily, with her remembering me.
I write letters to her. In Urdu. The language only she took the time to teach me. As I painstakingly write, and rewrite, I make errors that remind me of those my second graders would make. But I write my letters anyway. She sends them back like a true teacher, with corrections and suggestions. When I sign my letter, Reem, I make sure to write,
Reem Faruqi (your granddaughter).