Parvati is a gentle mother goddess. But as Kali, she also wields enormous power. The daughter of Himavan, the king of the Himalayas, consort of Lord Shiva, and mother of Ganesha, the Elephant-Headed Lord, Parvati is the embodiment of all the energy in the universe. Her seat is on a lion or a tiger. In the words of a hymn to this goddess, she is “the auspiciousness of all that is auspicious.”
Lakshmi, the consort of Sri Maha Vishnu is often depicted as a very beautiful woman, seated on a full-bloomed lotus, holding lotus buds in two of her hands, a pot of gold in the third. She is flanked by elephants, reflecting her royal status. Lakshmi, as the Goddess of Prosperity, is brilliant in red silk, gold and precious stones. She also offers peace and a sense of balance.
Mother’s Day is a good day to remember these Hindu deities. They lent their names to the two cows who were milked daily to feed me in the first six months of my life in my grandparents’ home by the sea in Thiruvananthapuram—or Trivandrum, Kerala. I wrote those foreign place names for decades in application letters and immigration forms but it was more than five decades before I first returned to the place where I was born.
I clearly have no memory of my first months as a newborn, but I did gain an unmistakable sense of the place, and an understanding of the rhythms of my first home from the stories my mother told me growing up.
She spoke of how all the brass vessels were polished every morning and filled with water from the well by the side of the house. The grounds were swept and cleared of the leaves that had fallen during the night, leaving the house framed by coconut palms, plantains, and mango trees, facing the waters of the Arabian Sea. My older sister remembers flowering oleander plants in front of the house. One of my older brothers remembers two boats, resting by the side of the house. Perhaps their use of my grandfather’s boats is why the fishermen brought the catch of the day to my grandmother before they took it to market: she got first dibs. My eldest brother remembers feeling important about sometimes being given the task of ringing the bell in the family chapel for the recitation of the Angelus in the evening. He remembers his small hands earnestly grasping the thick rope to perform that task. Perhaps that duty inspired his taste for pretending to be a priest saying Mass on the verandah, conscripting his younger brother as altar server. No, no role for my sister in the priesthood, even in play!
My mother would speak of walking the white sandy beach in the hot sun, to and from school, carrying her books and slate in the crook of her elbow all the way.
“My arms would ache,” she said. She came home tired and famished. In mango season, the walk home was fueled by anticipation of the whole, ripe fruit waiting for her, bounty from the trees around the house. She recalled indignantly how her mother would on occasion offer her less than a whole mango. “I would throw a tantrum,” she said. Cupping her hands together as if she were holding that mango once again, she explained: “I wanted a whole one, all to myself, so I could make a hole at one end and suck the fruit and all its juices out. It was a whole mango or nothing!” she recalled, laughing at the memory of her own behavior. Not the kind of behavior she would countenance from her own children.
I am grateful beyond words that she gave us a lot more than whole ripe mangoes. She gave us a sense of who we were, where we belonged, and what was expected of us, no matter how many oceans we crossed.
Bayard Rustin said “We need in every bay and community a group of angelic troublemakers.”
My mother –and father–would have told him that we need them in every family too. Troublemakers with ears to hear, and eyes to see who was in need of a little more tending. Troublemakers who would rise to every occasion and respond to every crisis as if each called to them personally. She believed in grace. And in God’s infinite mercy, dispensing the blessings she received the way she distributed her cakes and curries.
My mother pondered a lot of things in her heart. But she also spoke her thoughts quite plainly and pointedly, suffering neither fools nor those reckless enough to think they might pull one over on her. I wish I had her gift for cutting through to the heart of the matter in the moment, summoning the words needed to frame a subject just so. I remember all those times when she was quick to unmask small-mindedness or duplicity, exposing it for all to see. But she was even quicker to recognize unspoken need and to respond. She gave us lessons in how to love fiercely. How to hold and cherish, how to endure, and how to let go. She knew children to be the species one always caught, and one always released. With joy, and hope, and a prayer for just one drop of God’s mercy.