A Granddaughter’s Letter

Flowers surrounded the casket, and the casket was open. My grandmother Joginder Kaur looked like a doll-version of herself, a deep-pink chunni draped over still-black hair, her smile serene. We granddaughters spoke in turn, holding one another when tears caught in our throats. I read her a letter.


I’m having trouble, we’re all having trouble, finding the right words to offer you today. Words never seem enough when remembering someone you love, but words especially fall short to honor you. I think this is because your most authentic medium for expression was never words – that was Papa Ji’s [my grandfather’s] arena – yours was gestures.

It was the way you slowly came down the hall to greet us, even when your body ached, the patience and love with which you made tea for us, the stacks of pronthas you prepared for us, and the way you would turn to smile at us from the kitchen, shawl draped gently over your shoulders.

These gestures were constant, routine, and reliable, as steadfast as your loyalty to your family. You were not loud and public, not like Papa Ji who crafted and shared his words far and wide. He made himself known. You were quiet and private: you saved your gestures of love only for those who were near you, your inner-circle. And even then, although you were a constant part of my childhood and helped raise me, as you did all the grandchildren, and we all called you Mummy Ji or Wade Mummy, because you were mother to all of us, you lived with a sense of independence.

Yours was a disciplined daily routine, beginning and ending in God’s Name. None of your children ever saw you sleeping, not even once, because you always woke before dawn to bathe, recite Japji Sahib[morning prayers], read the newspaper cover to cover, and prepare tea before your family ever rose from bed. In the evening, you would watch your favorite Indian soaps, totally immersed, interjecting your own commentary, and then for as long as your knees were good, take your walk as the sun set, reciting evening prayers. You lived with this discipline since you were very young. Maybe this is how you bore your share of tragedies in life.

I think you were like the generation of women you came from: maintaining order in your home, often in harsh and brutal circumstances, finding ways to take care of your family — cook and clean, feed and clothe, counsel and comfort — keenly aware of the wider world yet without the means to participate publicly, insisting on education for all your children and grandchildren. Education was important to you.

You once showed me your hands and said, “Do you know how many rotis these hands have made?” I laughed, “Thousands! I think mine have made two!” You folded your hands over mine and grew serious, “Valarie, keep studying, keep writing.” You didn’t want me to make rotis; you wanted me to make words. You wanted me to be out there, in the world described by the newspapers you read each morning. You wanted all of your granddaughters to be smart and free and make their own way in that wider world.

And we did. Your grandchildren are now teachers, writers, musicians, and budding scholars of literature and law and religion who write papers and make films. We use words, not gestures. You never stopped worrying about all of us, and we all wished for you to worry less. But I think that the act of worrying was yet another gesture of love, another form of authentic expression that I can’t ever fully understand. In a way, it was your sacrifice that allowed me – your modern granddaughter – not to know you, Mummy Ji.

But I have known your love and will always remember it. I will remember your love in the greeting cards you would painstakingly select, sign, and send on every birthday, even when it took a whole day for you to travel to the store. I will remember sitting at your feet summer mornings as you patiently taught me how to sing Sa Re Ga Ma. I will remember your bursts of laughter whenever I tried to impress you with my Punjabi. I will remember how you kept every letter, scrap of paper, medicine bottle, card, and trinket, in case you needed it later. I will remember your blush every time I complimented your radiant skin or your suits, which always matched your shoes and earrings and shawl. I will remember the shabads you sang for us in the classical tradition, hitting the high notes none of us could hit, fingers moving fluidly up and down the harmonium, and the prashad you made for us on every Gurpurab. And I will remember how clearly and unmistakeably you could express your deep well of love – without words – even on your deathbed.

Mummy Ji, you never let us touch your face – only the youngest could get away with that – but the last time I saw you awake in the hospital, you reached up to touch mine, running your finger along my lips, cheeks, eyes, forehead. You smiled, even with the breathing tube, and mouthed “I love you.” You gestured that I must never cut my hair, that I must learn to tie my sari on my own, and when you looked at Sharat, your eyes grew soft. You took all your strength to put his hand in mine, and slowly pointed to our hearts. You asked us to take care of one another. And we promised. Mummy Ji, I had wanted you to marry us next winter – to sing the laava at our wedding with your beautiful voice – but in a way, you already did. In that single loving gesture, you blessed us.

Mummy Ji, you worried whether anyone would be with you when you died. In the end, you were surrounded by your entire family, for whom you cooked and cleaned, clothed and counseled – your children Masi Auntie, Mama Ji, and Mommy, Mami Auntie your daughter-in-law who was more an adopted daughter, all six grandchildren Neetu, Valarie, Sanjeev, Sonny, Ginny, Andrea, and Sharat your grandson-to-be, plus your loyal friend Kathy. We sang your favorite shabads, and following Dev Auntie’s lead on the phone, we recited “Waheguru, Waheguru,” God’s Name, until your breathing slowed and your heart stopped, as if we had collectively nudged you out onto open waters, ever so gently, fighting back our tears, until you drifted away from us. It was our final gesture to you, Mummy Ji. I hope and pray that you felt it. It was filled with all the warmth and affection and love that you gave to us in all your gestures over your whole lifetime. We love you and will always remember you.

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.

Read the obituary for Joginder Kaur Gill.