Last summer, when Amma was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer, my elder daughter wrote this tribute:
First there were butterfly crackers and squares of cheese at the kitchen table. Amma spoke Tamil and I didn’t understand, but I knew she got out the crackers and that she cut the squares of cheddar for me. I liked adults who did this. I was four, and I liked Amma.
Next there were nightgowns at Christmas – beautiful and lacy – fresh off Amma’s sewing machine. “Thank you,” I said when my parents nudged me, and I hugged her, feeling her stiff, silky sari under my little hands. It was so unlike what my mother and aunts wore, but it felt right on her, because she was Amma.
Later, there were dresses and stockings, sewn and knitted, even as I started to notice Amma’s bony brown hands and wondered, Should they still be sewing?
Lastly there were stories. “She married for love,” my mother told me. “She married for love, even though she had an arranged marriage like everyone in those days in Sri Lanka. And that husband she married for love left her when the children were young, leaving Amma to raise them on her own. So Amma arranged a marriage for her only daughter, Ann, but Ann came to college in the United States and fell in love too.”
“What next?” I asked my mother, wondering how Ann had wound up married to my mother’s brother.
“Amma came to the United States and Ann introduced her to Noel, who took her to the movies and showed her around as no one else had. Over time, Amma came to like Noel, and Ann and Noel got married, and you know the rest. Amma’s lived with Ann and Noel for 15 years now.”
There was another story, too. “She hid guns in her house,” my mother told me. “In Sri Lanka, the Tamil were the minority. They were fighting the majority, the Sinhalese. Amma and Ann are Tamil. They were displaced from Sri Lanka because of the fighting, but, while they were there, Amma helped the Tamil.”
The Amma I knew spoke broken English and sniffed people as a way of saying hello. She talked to my Aunt Ann in Tamil, shuffled around in a sari, carried hot sauce to spice up our bland Minnesota food, and cooked amazing Sri Lankan curry. She sewed and knitted and took care of her grandchildren – my cousins. When I was nine, Amma taught me to write my name phonetically in Tamil.
Amma’s dying now, and I’m sorry I didn’t ask her more about her life. I attended her citizenship ceremony, but I don’t know what it was like for her, coming to the United States and experiencing a different culture. She’s watched her grandchildren grow into Americans who speak only some Tamil and rarely wear their traditional Sri Lankan clothes. Yet she reminds all of us of the Sri Lankan culture through her traditional cooking, her clothes, and her presence in our lives.
Amma means “mother” in Tamil. She has only two children, yet she’s Amma to us all. Mother, grandmother, aunt, immigrant, cook, tailor, teacher of Tamil – and quiet love murmured in her second language. Amma. *
We buried Amma this week, in a plot next to our ancestors from Norway and many parts of the U.S. We dropped roses into the grave after the funeral where my nephew played “Scarborough Fair” on the piano as his tears saturated the keys.
Amma lived with my brother and sister-in-law for almost sixteen years, from the time my niece was a newborn. Since last summer she knew she was dying, and she she wanted to die like her mother and grandmother before her—surrounded by family, without fancy treatment.
She stayed at home until the final days, when she moved into the care of angel hospice attendants. In her last hours, Amma accepted death with courage and confidence, shepherded into the great beyond by her daughter, her son, their spouses, and her grandchildren.
The funeral and the burial were elegant, faith-filled, loving tributes to Amma, a dear mother to all who knew her. As we learn to live without her, may Amma also be a mentor to all of us moving toward the day where there will be no more dying, no more crying, only light, only love.
* This reflection by Linnea Peterson received the Editor’s Choice Award at Teen Ink and was published in their monthly print magazine. See the article on the Teen Inkwebsite.