Since the sixties, when immigrants from the Indian subcontinent started streaming in, they have learned to carve out their own paths for each of life’s stages. These unsung pioneers of modern America are often not given credit for their adventurous spirit. With no elders to guide them, and lacking extended family or community support, these professionals have built their own social networks. Accidental peer groups—fellow students or other young professionals thrown together by economic circumstances—were their sounding boards.
Many of these trailblazers are now in their senior years. Launched into the era of grand-parenting, they are once again re-creating traditions to suit their unique situation, devising individual flavors that could put Baskin Robbins to shame.
My journey on this path started in the mid-sixties, as the first Indian woman graduate student on a midwestern campus, surrounded by a melee of male students, who were soon joined by their arranged marriage partners. A lone career woman pursuing academic goals was an anomaly in this middle-class milieu.
A nursing mother, I had to return to my teaching job when Aashish was a week old. I learned from non-Indian peers who had been through a similar experience; it was a time when I had no Indian women to compare notes with, and certainly an untraditional start of a maternal journey.
The day my son was born took place in this context. The contractions had begun in the literature class I was teaching, so a friend rushed me home as soon as I let the students go. As a first time mother with a friend who had no experience with babies, neither of us could estimate how long the labor could last. Fortunately, the baby arrived that night. Seven days later, I was back on campus.
This unorthodoxy repeated again and again in my life. Several decades later, as a renegade Aji- granny, I took off on a lifestyle sabbatical, moving to California with two suitcases—one more than the airlines used to allow when I first landed in New York. It took about seven years before I was pulled back home to Michigan by the urgency to connect with my grandkids. Now, this basket holds a baker’s dozen, my partner’s seven and my six. A mixed brood, ranging from five to sixteen years, they are the joy of our senior lives.
I traveled back from California eleven times that first year, a trip I undertook the following years so many times that I have lost count. The distance began to take a toll. I was realizing, slowly but definitively, that if I could not be available when needed, getting to know my grandchildren individually was going to be impossible. I could not forget the moment when the force of being a grandparent first hit me. I answered the bell that Dhanteras evening—the first day of Diwali—and saw Monika with Victor Janac in her arms, as if Goddess Lakshmi had come to the door, with the gift of a new life right to my doorstep.
A Marathi poem flowed from my pen that night. A writer in three languages, words come easily, but until then it had been only prose. My grandson had awoken the poet in me, how could I not be thankful?
Years later, a few hours’ notice brought me across the continent to Abha’s hospital bed at midnight. Rahkesh had decided to arrive five weeks early. The relief on her face as she looked down at me lying on the floor said it all. I tried my best to be present at important events, sometimes surprising the kids, at other times meticulously planning. When I came to welcome Raina, who developed a post-birth complication, I concluded that there was nothing more important than being with my children. Fortunately, everything turned out well and I returned to sunny California and put my resolve to return on the back burner, one final time.
Like many life decisions, whether to come back or not was a difficult one. I was gaining momentum in my career, my writing persona was exploring new ventures but there was something missing. The little things that bring joy and moments of wonder could not be relished from far away. My mother used to say children are like “flowing water.” Grandkids must flow even faster, I thought. How could I continue to miss the running of these amazing springs?
It was not an easy process for a woman who had prided herself on being independent and liberated. After all, I had come to this country at the age of twenty two, untethered and free and at sixty had once again ventured to seek new boundaries and explore new frontiers.
I dwelled on this dilemma for two years, taking gradual steps, assuring my grown-up kids and their partners that I was returning. Setting limits and fulfilling expectations can be a tough task, whether they’re our own or those of our children. As one time, my forty something daughter reminded me, “Ayee you have forgotten how to live in a family.” I asked myself, had I grown too independent?
Now, it was inter-dependency I craved with my children and their offspring. Finally, I came home to Michigan. The last seven years since my homecoming have been filled with so many moments of joy, occasionally a worry or two, but the delights of watching these thirteen grandkids outweigh everything else. I was never not a part of most of their lives, but now I am able to experience ordinary little things that seemed so far away.
There are so many stories we would like to tell. This exploratory series on grandparenting will illustrate how South Asian roots have evolved in the American scene, how we have overcome the challenges of immigration to create flavors suitable for our unique palates.