all in the family

Restraint Is My Family’s Love Language

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos courtesy the author.

All in the Family is a series on kith and kin during a year like no other.

My mother got on a transatlantic flight within 12 hours of the lung X-rays that landed my child in the hospital. This was early in 2020, before we knew about the pandemic, and when she arrived at our home in Mumbai in the middle of the night, the first thing she said was that the apartment was a mess. I walked into the bathroom, shut the door, and cried hot, heavy tears of relief and gratitude. Then I came out and snapped at her for caring about the state of the apartment and told her that her scarf looked shabby. Reader, I love her so much. Just don’t tell her I said that.

In my family, we show our love by never mentioning that we love each other, even in a whisper. We see each other as such intrinsic parts of ourselves, so tightly woven together, that we’re careful not to praise each other too much, lest it seem vain. My mother, whom I secretly credit with making me a writer, keeps a huge stack of my novels and gives them to everyone she knows, apologetically muttering things like, “Who knows? The critics seem to like it, maybe you will too,” or, “See if you have time to read it, the sales were decent.” She almost never praises my writing to my face. Instead, in our family, love involves showing up at each others’ homes and being mean to one another.

The last time I saw my paternal grandmother alive, I flew to Calcutta to surprise her for her 90th birthday. She looked at me and said to her visiting neighbor, “Look at that awful yellow shirt she’s wearing; she must not remember it’s my birthday.” Now, I think so affectionately of those words.

This year, my beloved maternal grandmother is very ill and I am on the other side of the world in America and I still cannot say I love you. She has lived most of her widowed life alone in New Delhi, stubborn and fiercely independent and strong. She was married at 17, had four daughters in a world that only valued sons, raised them to be as stubborn and independent as her. And then, when my brother and I, her first two grandchildren, were born, she and my grandfather moved in next door to help raise us so my mother could continue her career, because they understood the world would do everything it could to slow her down.

My mother’s mother was relatively young when I was born, not even 50, and had the energy to chase after us and cook for us. She and my grandfather would pack me and my brother into their eggshell-colored Fiat and take us and a stack of homemade puran poli out to picnics in Lodhi Gardens. I slept as many nights in their home as my own.

“Netra sent me a nice video,” my mother tells me. My mother, also in America, also stuck while the virus rages across India, watches her own mother on videos sent by cousins. “She looks happy here, don’t you think?” She offers to show me but I look away, too scared to look at the screen.

Just make sure she knows how much you love her, my well-meaning friends advise. They tell me to call her or send her a long email telling her that I know I am fortunate to have inherited her wanderlust, her zest for life, and her appreciation of a good drink at dusk. That seems like the obvious thing to do, but still, I do not.

I want to tell her how much I respect her quiet fight against the times she lived in. I want to tell her that I have her picture saved — the one of her as the only girl in her entire high school, standing in her ankle-length skirt and full-sleeved blouse to the right of the principal, separated from all the boys — and I show it to my daughters even though they’re too young to understand. I want to tell her that I remember when she was on her way home from her holiday in America nearly 25 years ago and my grandfather died of a sudden heart attack at Heathrow Airport while she stood next to him. I want to tell her that I loved him so much I didn’t know how to mourn and still carry that pain with me. Above all else, I want to tell her that I love her. But I don’t say any of that.

If flights were running and borders were open and traveling was safe, I would show my grandmother that I love her by arriving at her doorstep and never saying I love you. For now, my language of love in the pandemic is lying. Our usual exchanges depend on an impossible physical proximity, and so I search for new ways to say what I mean.  

“We should be back in India in another month or so, once the virus is under control,” I say to her. “And by then you’ll be better.”

“Much better,” she says with a new weakness in her voice that sends a shiver through my body. And that’s her saying, “I love you too.”

My husband’s family say the words with ease, in sickness and in health, ending each phone call with an “I love you,” “I love you too.” When they say it to me, I say, “Thank you.”

I get annoyed with my husband for making me part of a family that says those words, because now I wonder if I ought to. When he says the word, I shake my head and say, “I know, I know,” but I start to question my own way of expressing love by not expressly expressing it. Fortunately he knows me well enough by now to know that my irritation is my love for him. So maybe my grandmother is able to translate my lies to mean I love her? After all, my husband has known me for less than a decade and my grandmother has known me for over three.

Or maybe she’ll read this. Maybe, in bed on the other side of the world, she’ll read this and know. Or maybe she’ll keep holding on until the vaccine and I’ll get to her bedside and she’ll ask me why my dress is so short. I’ll ignore her, and we’ll both know we love each other.

Diksha Basu is the author of The Windfall and Destination Wedding.

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