I desperately rummaged through my tote bag. The shopkeeper impatiently glared at me as if to say others are waiting, so could you please hurry up and finish your purchase? My eyes filled with tears when I realized that I would fall short by a few rupees to buy that beautiful multicolored saree.
Mom and I had been eyeing it for a week now as it graced a mannequin in the shop’s showcase. We admired it as we walked by every day, in awe of the blend of colors. The shades were everything we loved. This gorgeous saree had browns, rust, yellows, and oranges. The silk fabric draped so well that the pleats flowed like poetry. Together, we’d imagine how we’d look.
We shared our five-yard wonders. We would argue over the color of the blouse we’d pair with it. Mom insisted on wearing brown, while I wanted to cut the blouse part from the saree and tailor it into a deep-necked sleeveless blouse. Some sarees came with extra material just for that.
So on this particular too-sunny day in 1983, when my sessions finished an hour earlier at the school where we both worked, I decided I’d surprise her by strolling down to the shop and buying the saree. But alas, it was not to be. I fell short of just 20 rupees for the 300-rupee saree. I looked again and panicked because, in minutes, Mom would be reaching our meeting point next door.
Looking sheepishly at the shopkeeper, I mumbled an apology and slunk out into the hot Chennai sun. I was frustrated and a little angry that I had tears in my eyes. As I hurriedly schooled my expression to look calm, I saw Mom walking towards me, and I smiled spontaneously. She had this gait; she’d take short steps and walk really fast, earning her the moniker “Von Ryan Express” with my friends. My grandma was the same, and her nickname was “Silver Streak” — after the film.
As usual, Mom nudged me and asked how I had spent my free hour. I said something about just walking around. Then she reminded me about the shopping we had to do my aunt’s weekly shopping in the vegetable market. The school where Mom worked, where I was subbing for a teacher, was in an area that had the city vegetable market and also our favorite coffee store.
I was still dealing with the money shortfall to buy the saree in my head, and wishing I could just tell Mom about it. We did the rounds in the stinky vegetable market. We had to walk on the rotten layer of fruits, vegetables, and banana leaves that felt mulchy under our feet.
I still feel resentful about those days when we had to do the heavy lifting with the shopping and deliver it to my aunt, before heading home.
Our last stop was the coffee shop. As we lugged our bags there to buy the coffee powder, Mom asked me what was wrong. She could read me like a brightly lit signboard. So I blurted out my story about how I wanted to surprise her with the saree. She laughed, and after we collected our coffee packages, she dragged me back to the saree shop.
The funny thing was, we still had to rummage in our handbags to come up with the 300 rupees to buy the saree. Even if Mom had the money earlier, we were now broke because of the shopping we had just done. We were back to our natural financial state: being broke.
I braced myself feeling a little embarrassed to witness the process of my mom finding cash in her bag. It was a hilarious sight. But always fruitful!
She had this tendency to put money in various places, in her bag, inside the pages of her books, at home — and to this day, she surprises me pleasantly when I come across hidden cash.
And now, as the shopkeeper watched in exasperation, she first opened her tiny zippered purse and pulled out a folded note. Then her little notebook in which she jotted down stuff. She flipped through the pages to find more money. Then, the address book in her bag also coughed up some cash. Next, she happily went through every pocket in her large handbag to bring up change.
And finally, we had what we needed.
Together, we had managed to scrape the money together to buy the saree. Oh, how thrilling it was to take that precious saree home! And what a sense of mission accomplished! I still have it, although it is no longer wearable.
You might think, with both of us employed, we’d have enough cash. But back in the early 80s, our salaries were not much. The money was already earmarked for various things. This left very little spending money. We gave tuition to students to supplement our income.
The gift that keeps on giving
In our 47 years together, I have never once seen my mom without cash. She would always have some stashed away in an envelope under the clothes on her shelf. Or in the book she was reading. Or on the kitchen shelf, in a steel container. Then there was the altar where we lit our lamp. We were always sure to find some cash there in an emergency.
This reminds me of how, a few years ago, my husband and I were panicking because the ATMs nearby were out of cash. It was also a bank holiday, and we urgently needed the cash. As a last resort, I desperately looked in Mom’s shelf, now housing my son’s stuff, and found one of her handbags.
When I opened it, I was rewarded with a small bundle of cash wrapped in plastic. I recalled the day I had given it to her for safekeeping. She saved the day. She would call these “savings” “oxygen” for those emergencies.
Even now, when I look through her recipe book, I find money tucked away in the pages. As I write this, I am thinking–imagine going through her bookshelves! I am pretty sure I’ll be a little richer! And not just in monetary terms. I feel the love which is priceless. My eyes blur with tears as I visualize her cheerful face.
It is thirteen years since she has passed away. But Mom continues to ensure that I find cash when I need it. She’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Thank you so much for traveling down memory lane with me