My Runaway Mother

Modern Family

My Runaway Mother

Illustration: Cleon Dsouza

When I was 16, my mum moved to Spain.

As a divorcee in her early 40s, my mother had it good. She had a stable, well-paying job with an advertising firm in India, a teenage daughter, a great network of support by way of friends and family. By all appearances, she should have been content. But she wasn’t. One fine day, she quit her job, joined a language school in southern Spain, moved there as a student, and then started working at an Indian restaurant in a tiny seaside town.

It was, to put it mildly, a fucking spin ball of a move.

When she left, the world around me erupted in the sound of an angry sizzle. Women of that age, moms of that age, just DON’T DO these things. How did she leave behind a teenage daughter? How can someone be so irresponsible? No one said anything to me directly, but the judgement and the questions were in the air. Why had she gone? How was I coping with the “abandonment”? I would obviously take to depression and drugs, and maybe one day climb the stripper’s pole. My future was decided; my mother’s death knell as a mother had been rung.

Personally, I didn’t see what the fuss was about. As a broody, bookish teenager, I didn’t throw much of a tantrum when she left. While the world was convinced that I was being abandoned, I was fairly phlegmatic about it all. I missed her, but the plan was to join her later, once I finished school. I really didn’t see what the outrage was all about.

My first visit to Spain, to my mother’s new home, took place a few months later. She lived in a tiny apartment in Seville, in which she cooked her own meals and cleaned up after herself. She walked everywhere – to the restaurant, the beach, the supermarket – and spoke fluent Spanish. This was a woman, who had commandeered a small army of help back home, and seldom left for anywhere without a car and driver.

It’s never easy to see our parents as people in their own right, as regular human beings in search of their own paths.

I sat for several evenings at the restaurant, where she was working, watching her chat with the locals in their own language. I would perch myself at the bar with a glass of wine, while she whizzed around, taking orders, popping into the kitchen to whip up a dish if needed. The mother I had known had always been a great cook and a hostess. But, here, in a new country, at a time in her life when she should have been settling into a nice, middle-aged rhythm of evening walks with neighbourhood aunties and dreaming of her daughter’s wedding, she was popping open bottles of wine like a pro and conjuring up fabulous margaritas. Who was this woman?

It’s never easy to see our parents as people in their own right, as regular human beings in search of their own paths. The kind who mess up, take impulsive decisions, lose their way, find it, and so on. Mothers, for us, are just mothers. They are nurturers, care-givers – the people who’ve given up their identity and personal crises and adopted ours. As I looked at my mother in that small restaurant, I saw her, for the first time, as a woman building a life to call her own, a life not predicated on her husband. It struck the 16-year-old me, who was herself in search of a path in life, that my mother, operating the most fearsome-looking coffee machine with the ease of a barista, was also in search of her own.

It’s been 16 years since mum moved to Spain. The fact that we are exceptionally close has covered us for the long-distance difficulties. In these 16 years of being her own woman, she has never stopped being a mum. I still message her every single night when I get home. If I’m going to be late, she needs to be told. When I get a pedicure, she’s the first one I send a picture to. When I’m sick, she messages me 15 times a day, probably while balancing a crate of wine bottles to open. When she comes over, I come home to the world’s best cuisine – mum’s cooking.

I eventually didn’t go and join her in Spain, but I’m still happy that she left. I understand now that for her to fly off was a difficult thing to do. It displayed rare courage. As an unmarried woman at 32, I use some of that inherited courage to answer questions about my possible future without a husband or a child. I may not have either, but I know now that it doesn’t matter. I have so many other responsibilities, so many roles to play, but the primary one still has to be as the seeker of my own path.

My mother has found hers. She’s yet to find herself a companion or have a fabulous romance at a crazy age. She hasn’t until now, but there’s always hope. And, if she doesn’t, she’ll just continue being amazing. All by herself.