Mom shuffled into the room with the filter coffee and sat in front of me.
I took the tumbler, inhaled the fresh smell emanating from it and smiled at the gastronomic pleasure it momentarily provided. There was something about the way mom mixed the decoction and milk, and made the brew acquire an identity that no other thing in the world could match. The froth lingered on the edges of the tumbler, eagerly, as if it had a story to spill. Each tumbler of coffee that mom made was an epicurean saga.
‘Is it OK? Is the sugar enough?’ she asked dourly.
It was a customary question that demanded a single response, ‘perfect’. In that one word lay her gratification. But her face was glum today and I knew. She was as loath as I was to broach the subject again. As much as I would like to stress it was ‘perfect’, in her view it wasn’t. It simply wasn’t perfect, this single life of mine.
She thought I was lonely. I tried to tell her I wasn’t. I was merely alone, and it meant being my own master, walking down the trail I chose. I was my own soul mate. I could sleep beneath the stars and fly with the wind. But she wouldn’t understand that.
She thought I needed a partner in my life and I must look for one. I tried to explain that you don’t look for partners, like looking for a house on rent. They walked into your life when the time was right. ‘Serendipity’, I said loftily, and she dismissed it as my fantasy.
She was concerned that I wasn’t settled yet. Flitting about in the name of work wasn’t her idea of a stable and satiating life. I was only thirty four and had a long way to go, and she didn’t believe in the joys of going solo. She was adamant the way only mothers can be with daughters.
‘Ma, what is it?’ I drawled, sipping the coffee and thanking heavens for the small blessings in life. I hadn’t had the pleasure of having mom’s filter coffee in three weeks. Visiting her frequently was getting difficult with my travel schedules and tight deadlines. I wrapped my hand around the tumbler to imbibe the warmth that was so unique to mom’s coffee.
Mom looked out of the window and sighed theatrically. All her concerns were distilled into that single heave. It wasn’t difficult to read her mind nor to understand her. I felt the same about her. The concerns we had about each other’s single life were mutual.
‘Okay, tell me, what does settling down mean to you, ma?’ I asked, breaking into her forlorn stare outside the window.
‘Why, have you found someone?’ she leaped from her seat and grabbed my hand.
I laughed at her sudden zeal and curiosity. It was as if I had seized a piece of her dream and planted into my heart.
‘Oh, Ma. Don’t get excited. I just want to know what you mean by ‘settling down’, I said, punching quotation marks in the air for accent.
‘Having someone to love. Someone to grow old with in your life.’
‘I have you for that, haven’t I? Then why worry?’ I quipped cheekily.
‘Who is there after me?’ Her voice fell as she asked it.
‘Ma…’ I clicked my tongue in disapproval. Her absence in my life was a thought I could never entertain.
I leaned over to the coffee tumbler on the table and put it away in disgust. I could never explain why the scent of brewed coffee turned rancid with time, and turned into an offensive stink. Like par-boiled love-affairs.
‘If having someone to grow old with is so important, why didn’t you find someone for yourself ma, after papa left?’
She shrugged. It could have meant a thousand things. As she looked away, I wondered if there was mist gathering in her eyes. She apparently didn’t want to answer my question.
‘OK, what if I want you to settle down now? Have someone to spend your old age with?’ I asked cautiously, knowing full well how sharply she might react.
‘What? Is anything wrong with you?’ she glowered at me.
I opened my bag and pulled out a light green envelope with a postal stamp sitting askew in one corner. The ‘to’ and ‘from’ addresses were neatly written in cursive style, reflecting a rare elegance. I was amused that people still used the old means to express feelings over long distances. Inside, there was a brown, crushed flower, accompanied by a note. The pigment from the flower had bled and stained the paper, imparting an ethereal quality to the envelope.
‘I am in the hills now and while here, I am remembering you. How much you love the pines and the peaks and the woods! I thought of sending you this rhododendron flower as a keepsake. By the time it reaches you, it will have withered. Yet, I hope you will like it and keep it like all other things.’
The look of consternation in mom’s face made me smile with sympathy and love. Mom had never mentioned the word ‘sacrifice’ to me in all these years. But I knew the import of the word in that instant and felt it was crushing my spirit with its immensity.
I was surprised that mom made no attempt to retrieve the envelope from me nor tried to respond to it frantically. There were no defenses to give. She didn’t even feel it necessary to question my trespassing into her life and unearthing its long held secrets. It seemed as if she was gracefully accepting what I had learned by sheer coincidence.
As the moment of unexpected disclosure passed and sobered, she stood up, picked my coffee tumbler and looking staid, said, ‘It’s not about me. It’s about you. When are you settling down? I want to know.’
Her voice was stern and it demanded an answer. And this time, I didn’t intend to evade it. I knew what I had to say.
‘As soon as you settle down, ma. I promise.’