Checkmate

a short story written on 11-5-2014 for a writers club.

 

11-5-2014

“Checkmate” written by Divya Durgadas

“What is that awful smell?” Grandma said, crinkling up her nose “I bet it is the mongoose again peeing on the attic!” she sighed! Grandpa’s earpiece had slid down yet again and he was oblivious to Grandma’s concerns. He sat across the table from me eyeing the soup cauldron. He hated pumpkin soup; he made a god awful face!

 

I laughed and stuck my tongue out, let my head fall on my left shoulder and I cocked each eyeball in the opposite direction. A trick I had learnt from the man sitting across me. “Stop goofing around and finish your dinner!” said Grandma looking in our direction.

 

I licked my bowl clean and reached for more. Go on, grandpa gestured, getting up from the table. Grandma was running up the crooked wooden stairs to the attic with the old wick lamp and a broom.

 

I gestured him to wear his earpiece. He was now sitting on the kitchen counter reading the newspaper. It was a while since he tried this trick! He loved to make Grandma mad by rubbing his bum in Elvis Presley’s moves on the clean scrubbed kitchen counter. I stifled a giggle imagining Grandma’s response when she would catch him. He winked, as if reading my mind.

 

Suddenly we heard a crash, and before I knew all the brass utensils tucked away in the attic were rolling down the stairs. I ran up working my way through the utensil maze calling “Grandma! Grandma!” in panic. There she was on the attic floor lying stiff and passed out. I was crying by now; I shook her vigorously. She moved ever so lightly and finally opened her eyes. I helped her sit up. She was exhausted “It is the stupid cat” she finally said “She has been storing them, the rats in that corner” she pointed to a space cluttered with things from an entire generation ago, which now reeked of something retching.

“I will help you clear it up tomorrow when the sun comes” I told her, helping her to her feet. “I will get grandpa to help. It must be his earpiece again. He may not have heard us!” I ran down, before grandma replied.

 

The kitten was licking of the remains of my bowl of soup. “Shoo.. Bad kitty” I chided. Grandpa was missing. His hat was gone too. Ah! his usual night time walk, I remembered. Grandma had made her way downstairs by now “Go on. Go to sleep.” she said gesturing me to take a wicker lamp “Don’t stay up reading tonight!” she called out after me.

 

I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay there listening to the clangs of grandma putting away the brass vessels. I heard the bell from the town’s center. I even heard the distant whistle of the midnight goods train that passed our town. I had hated my boarding school when Grandpa first dropped me that wretched summer. But now I missed my bed there and my friends. It had been two days since I was home and I felt amiss. Grandma was cantankerous than usual and grandpa was well himself but not quite. It seemed they were avoiding each other.

 

I tossed and turned and finally decided to light the wicker lamp and read my new stack of Enid Blyton books. I felt cold and caught something looming in the corner. I lit the lamp shaking with fear and nearly screamed. It was grandpa setting up the chess table. “You gave me a fright! You have to tell me! Why have you been so mysterious lately? Did you fight with grandma?” “Bullocks!” he mumbled and pointed to the chessboard. “Heh! Sure! I can’t catch sleep anyway” I beamed. Grandpa usually told me stories of the kingdoms while we played chess, of ghouls, goblins and flying elephants. I looked forward to that more than the game itself.

 

The next morning when grandma woke me up I was sprawled on the chess board with a pawn stuck up my nose. We have to go someplace she said and had laid out my new clothes and socks on the bed. “Where is grandpa? He was up playing chess with me. Yesterday’s stories had the dwarfs too” I said. She stared at me for a moment “He left a while back” she muttered. It felt like the longest journey of my life, on that bumpy old fiat herald. We listened to Sound of music soundtrack on the radio. It was all the rage now. I sang along for “My favorite things”. Grandma just smiled, I wished she had sung along too like before.

 

And finally we reached. I was back at the doorstep of the ominous hospital wing, where I had watched mama and papa sleeping a sleep from which they would never wake.

 

I started trembling inside as I caught pieces of the conversation.

“Oh! Mrs…., there you are! we have been trying to reach you for two days”

“it’s the storm. We are out of power and phone lines are down”

“Why… why have to taken him off the support systems?”

“the coma..”

“I am sorry. I believe it has been 48 hours ago.”

“His body …”

I didn’t understand any of it. No one had told me he was here.

He was right there, I said. He even made a face at the soup! And what seemed like for many many hours, my Grandma hugged me and sobbed.

 

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Mom, let it go!

Many years ago in the sweltering chennai heat, I read this book called “Daddy” by Danielle Steele. Although the book offers a neutral treatment of how the life of either parent pans out, how the mother’s life took turns really baffled me at first; later it intrigued me and probably now after so many years when I am a mother myself, I completely empathize with her; infact to me she is hero of the book! It takes a lot more courage for a mother to peel oneself away from familial duties than to dive into it. And the earlier we realise that the better!

Few months back, I had decided to get back on the workout wagon with a vengeance. After many failed attempts at PIIT28 and other Do-it-yourself-at-home workouts, I had come to the conclusion that I had to leave the house and stop being a parent, if I needed that one hour to myself. And in the end I had taken an approach very much like how Sarah had in “Daddy”. I had decided that my family was going to work together to figure how they would do it without me. I chose to be an early riser, leave the house and complete my workout before they woke up. Whether the kids woke up before or after i got home; I wouldnt be the one handling their morning ablutions. I had made that unwritten pact. And had completely washed myself off that responsibility and decided i was going to let my family figure out their morning routine without me.

It was very much like what indra nooyi had said in her interview about “seamless parenting”. If you don’t let your extended family (in this case the family) do things their way to help you, you will continue to guilt trip yourself and never cope. Because let me restate that little well known secret. Men have been doing it forever!

Before you jump on me to quote all the great fathers, single dads and partners out there who do their part well; I am not talking about fathers not doing their part — I am talking about the fact that men are okay to not be their child’s primary parent. They are okay if they can’t make it in time on one out of hundred times to pick up the child and ask their partner to do it. They are okay if they can’t make it home in time after the pick up and the kids have to eat pizza and fries on a Wednesday night. They are okay to leave a sick child for half day at day care after giving him a dose of tylenol.

This and hundreds of instances like these, you wouldn’t see a dad brooding and telling his friends in a whatsapp group “I feel soo bad… dropped a sick child to day care! breaks my heart” blah blah. Whereas for every one of those instances, I bet almost every mother out there would have felt guilty at some point or the other in her life.

That guilt combined with the effervescent feeling that we are the primary parent of the child is a combination of doom. And it makes most mothers get caught in this web so intertwined we have created for ourselves, that we find it hard to break out. Yes! I already hear many of you thinking — men can’t breastfeed nor carry a child in their womb. But that’s it. Everything else they are physically and mentally capable of doing for the child. EVERYTHING. I will give you a moment for that to sink in.

Because changing a diaper is as new to the mother as to the dad. So don’t let anyone guilt trip you into thinking “I am a mom. I should be born knowing this.” or “I am the mom. I should be the one cooking fresh meals for my family.”.. Its never ending.

Our partnership lines are getting blurry. With two working parents being the new norm and steps towards gender equality and pay gaps, what better place to bring it into practice than at home? And most of us are “lucky” and “blessed” ( I feel rather unfortunate to be using those words. But we only know too well how the world is turning into ), to have partners who are supportive and make great responsible parents. But mothers, if you truly want them to take on a huge piece of your mental load, you have to let it go.

Because this is where, I tell you another well-known little-acknowledged secret “Children adapt like a song. Parents take longer”. The more changes and decisions we make as mothers, founded by this expectation of being the primary parent; decisions that phase out our personal dreams and goals little by little; it gets harder and harder to break out. And the most important change that is actually happening during this time is that you are also closing the doors for your partner who may be very much willing to take on more load, also falling into a cushiony complacency. Which if you try to rectify years later will be a battle I shudder to imagine.

I understand if you are dealing with a different scenario where the partner is not willing to even begin to take on the load; then whatever I just said makes no sense. I am purely talking about the scenario where mothers often find themselves at the shorter end of the stick, where they constantly feel they are taking on more mental load, they are trying to communicate it, they are trying to wing it all and partners who are capable to doing more, are not doing enough or dont do it by their own volition. If you find yourself in this never ending cycle. Step back and analyze, if you are doing enough to let it go.

So you have an important customer meeting on wednesdays and you want the dad to pick up the kids and handle everything for them on wednesday nights. Probably the first two times they may eat pizza and all go to bed without brushing their teeth. May be even the first 10 times. and may be by the 30th wednesday, they no longer find it odd that mom wont be around and they fall into a routine. Some wednesdays they may even make Dosas for dinner ready for you. And by the 50th wednesday, they are eating good meals, doing their homework, bath, brush their teeth, read books and are fast asleep before you get home and the dishwasher is also loaded!

I can hear many of you think “Ya right!” .Well I did too. But it will happen. Only if you dont allow your guilt to take over during the time you build that trust on your family to handle it without you. You have been “handling” it for them for so long. It will take them time! But you have to let them do it their own way, to ease yourself.

The same scenario above, lets say you spend most of wednesday worrying about how the kids will handle the evenings; Some wednesday mornings you stress out and end up cooking a dinner and freezing it. You get upset when they ordered takeout instead of what you cooked. You worry that the last parent teacher meeting they complained of behavioral issues and start to guilt trip yourself that it is probably because you are not around. You fight with your partner on that way the bath and brush routine is carried out. And finally after the 20th wednesday you decide to tell your manager (completely out of your own guilt of not doing primary parenting) that you can no longer do the wednesday meetings. It becomes a bad career move. You miss out on a promotion. But you tell yourself its a sacrifice you made for motherhood.

To me it looks like the hypothetical scenario above could have been made so much better by simply letting it go. I have been there. I have done similar things. So by now you know why I am writing this article! 🙂

So that brings me to what I said at the beginning of this post (thanks! if you stayed with me so far); that pulling oneself away from family duties and chores is harder than taking it on for many mothers. It took me over five years and two kids and after to get a full sense of it. And realize that I can’t expect my partner to switch, learn and unlearn when he is not used to doing for over 5 years ( not used to doing, only because I decided to not let it go), within a week. And unless i do things to help myself, my family is not going to magically understand my feelings and immediately help me through.

We have enough and more battles as women. Let us as a first step remember to let our near and dear ones work along with us and not for us. Only by doing that, we can shed the baggage we add on ourselves as mothers. All the expectations and judgement we pile on our shoulders and continue to make decisions which get incrementally hard to break away from. Let us help our partners help us. They are absolutely willing to and we know it. Lets begin by letting go!