My grandmother’s best friend passed on yesterday.
Leelammama personified the quintessential grandmother. The matriarchal, nurturing kind that you would cast in Malayali pickle commercials. She would have her white hair pulled back in a bun, dress in crisp white cotton sarees, wear gold bangles around her wrists and earrings that she never took off.
She’d preside over the house on her throne – a rocking chair that gave her a birdseye view of the house, the dog, the ongoings of the kitchen.
I have always remembered Leelammama this way. The joyful, sassy grandmother whose stories and analogies would have the whole household in splits of laughter. It was much later that I learned that her story was one of great hardship. But you could never have guessed.
To me, she was always unapologetic, outspoken, strong and exuberant. Orchestrating everything around her with nothing but her cordless phone – jobs for the jobless, rations for the poor, offerings for the temple, fresh fish for lunch.
Leelammama gave me my first 500 rupee note. Something I had otherwise only seen in my mother’s wallet, and thought was for adults only.
She passed me an orange envelope and said “This is for you. Keep it safe, and don’t tell your mother”.
It was the most valuable thing I had received yet. I put it safely in my purse – instantly feeling important, older, and very rich.
My favourite memories of Leelammama were the stories she’d tell about my mother’s childhood. Giving me an intimate, colourful glimpse into the life of someone I’d often forget was once a child – who went to school, struggled with math, played in puddles, and got in trouble.
She told me about how my grandmother and she would share sarees, that my mother, at 8, had planned to run away from home, and that my saintly grandfather used to enjoy the occasional cigarette.
We would sit around her, hanging onto every word, not knowing how precious these stories were. Oblivious that one day, no one would retell them.
The last time I met her, she asked me “Shall we look for boys for you?”.
“Please look for Nivi and Nitya first – you can worry about me after”. I threw her granddaughters under the bus. She laughed, held her cordless phone and said confidently “I can find good boys for all 3 of you – but nobody is interested”.
I didn’t realise as I got to the Kochi airport, that it would be the last time I would hear her stories, get her blessings or dodge her enthusiastic attempts to help me find love. If I had, maybe I would have asked for one more story, one more blessing, and told her what type of boy I liked.
Leelammama left suddenly – leaving behind a legacy of 65 years of friendship – that transcended 3 generations, allowing me to inherit uncles, aunts and cousins I never knew weren’t family.
Leelammama, I hope that wherever you are, you are reunited with everyone you lived here without. That you have a cordless phone that brings you our thoughts, prayers, and updates on the maid’s whereabouts.
And now that you have a better view of all the eligible boys out there, that you will send only the best ones our way.
I take comfort in knowing that I will always have the memory of your laugh – an infectious, joyful chuckle that echoed through the house. One that would stay with me long after I touched your feet, and said goodbye at the door.
One that would leave me with a sense of reassurance and optimism that would linger – in the elevator as I made my way down, that would sit with me in the backseat of the car, and insist on seeing me off at the airport.
And then, somehow be there to receive me – wherever I land.