Susan Behrends Valenzuela
It was a blisteringly hot summer day in June of 2019. The jasmine flowers populating the terrace wilted from the heat. Beads of sweat rolled down our tanned faces. Pari Naidu, my mother, balanced on her tiptoes to throw a soaking wet pillowcase over the highest rung of the drying rack. She was a rather small and slim woman, standing at just an inch shorter than me at 5’4”. She was 40 years old at the time. I was a senior at Oakridge International School, just a 15-minute car ride away each morning. People often remarked that we looked like sisters. Many joked that she looked like my younger sister. We’d always have a good laugh about that.
I was helping her wring the water out of the freshly washed laundry. It would all be placed on the drying rack of our three-story terrace overlooking the rows of identical villas we had lived amongst for the past eight years. As I continued to hand her my failed attempts at wringing out all the water, she glanced at me to say, “Life is full of limitations for us.” She paused to wipe the sweat from her damp and sticky hair before saying, “There’s certain things you can’t do as a girl, and journalism is one of them.”
I sighed. I was in the midst of applying to colleges and this seemed to be a conversation we’d keep having. Over and over again. It was almost painful at this point. The large metallic “Cyber Meadows” sign glinted in the harsh rays of the sun. It was the name of our villa complex. A perfect set of 70 identical three-story houses that never saw a change in its occupants or activity. I hoped and dreamed every night for that acceptance letter from a top journalism school that would whisk me away from my small-minded neighbourhood. From my suffocating high school that had no writing or arts program. From my dictator-like father who refused to acknowledge my writing dreams. And from my fearful mother who discouraged me by constantly reminding me of her reality.
She had dreams of becoming a doctor when she was my age. A pediatrician, to be exact. But her father forced her into an accounting degree before abruptly pulling her out of university to marry my father. I carefully passed on her sopping wet T-shirt. She muttered under her breath and violently shook it out, spraying droplets of water all over us and the jasmine flowers below. After that she would cook dinner, help my 13-year-old brother with his homework, wash the dishes, prepare breakfast for the next morning, and then finally go to bed. Rinse and repeat. She didn’t like talking about her past, so she kept moving forward without much thought.
I knew my dreams excited her. Especially since she could see how passionate I was about them. But they also scared her. She knew all too well what it was like to have your hopes dashed and dreams shut on you forever. So she pleaded with me to be realistic. To understand that for some people, washing and drying laundry every three days was the most exciting thing they could do.
There were rare nights where she would dream again. When the evenings had ended a little earlier and my father and brother left her alone to watch a movie in the living room. Those were the nights she’d tell me in a hushed voice about her plans to eventually go to grad school and get a degree in psychology. With that she’d pursue a career as a motivational speaker and encourage everyone to follow their dreams. Because if she could do it in her mid 40s, then anyone could.
But right now was not one of those quiet nights where she could dream. Right now we were in the sweltering sun with a million things on her mind. One of them being the need to remind me that those dreams were nothing more than wilting jasmine flowers begging for my mother to water them.
“Prepare yourself to be disappointed,” she said, “but if you do manage to get out of here, then make sure you visit from time to time.” With that, she finished hanging up the last of the laundry and left me to myself on the terrace. I didn’t go after her. I gingerly watered the jasmine instead, hoping that one day she’d be inspired to do it herself.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 12, 2021 e-print edition. Email Vaishnavi Naidu at [email protected]