Illustration by Sara Guindon
No electric mixer was as strong as my mom’s hands. Slipping her gold rings off with a clatter into a ceramic dish, she’d massage a mixture of flour, water and salt. Kneading the roti dough on the counter, she’d separate it into small orbs and flatten them into near-perfect triangles without a rolling pin. Then, with her short fingers and talon-like red nails, she’d pinch at the rotis and flip them directly onto the stove’s element.
“How do you do that?” I asked her, wincing at the heat hitting my eight-year-old face. “Doesn’t it hurt?”
She laughed and tossed the smallest of the batch, a palm-sized paratha, onto a plate for me. The tips of her fingers were callused and numb after decades of touching direct heat. “Oh, you get used to it.”
I have a photo of my mom close to my age, 24, posing for a portrait a few months before she left India nearly four decades ago. When I was younger, I hated this snapshot. Everyone would marvel at how much we looked alike: thick mess of dark hair, round nose, strong chin. I have my dad’s cheekbones, his smile, like a straight line drawn across his face, but I got everything else from my mom-whether I wanted it or not.
I grew up surrounded by girls named Ashley and Jessica, with hair the colour of straw, beak-like noses and delicate abdomens. I wanted to look breakable and flimsy, rather than broad-shouldered and coffee-coloured like my mother. You likely know this, but it took me a while to figure it out: it’s difficult to change literally everything about the way you look.
The older I get, though, the more I see her all over my body. And the more I like myself. The skin on my shoulders feels like hers: as a child at the swimming pool, I’d climb onto my mother like a baby koala and rest my cheek on her cool, soft flesh. Our frown is the same, too-crumpled disgust settling right between our eyebrows. But most striking is how my hands are aging into hers. I’ve stolen countless of her rings, and I’ve started growing my nails out, long and circular, often painted red, glowing against my olive skin, just like hers have always been. The nerve endings in the tips of my fingers are dead from stove burns and from sticking my fingers directly into my attempts at rogan josh and aloo gobi.
My mom’s hair is a shock of grey now, and she has a small sunspot on her cheek (the same place I’m getting one, too-thanks, Mom). But in my head, she’s stuck in her 20s, in that photo. And the older I get, the more it’s an unexpected comfort to know that wherever I am, I see her somewhere with me, her hands wrapping over mine, making them our own.