What I learned from my mother
They got married and immigrated to England, and then to Edmonton and the cold of the Canadian North. They chose Edmonton because my dad's sister lived in Montreal, and my dad wasn't familiar enough with Canadian geography not to realize the two places were not that close together. They bought an orange VW and my mom bought a hot pink trench coat.They had done residencies in India, and in England, but the Canadian medical board made them do a third residency in Canada, just in case they weren't trained well enough. So they did, at the Royal Alec hospital. My mom had me six weeks before her board exams. She passed.
We moved even farther north, to Flin Flon, Manitoba -- the only North American city named after a character in a science fiction novel (Flintibatty Flonitan, who was commemorated at the town limits by a thirty foot statue of Elmer Fudd.) Then, when I was six, we moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, because my mom finally got fed up with the cold.
Lethbridge was not exactly balmy, but it was closer to the US border than the Arctic Circle, and it had the chinooks -- warm winds that blew through and could raise the temperature from -20 C to +20 C in the matter of hours -- so that was something. The trees grew at an angle, and as kids it wasn't unusual to be blown over by the gusts, but we thought it was hilarious. Of course, the winds are often blamed for the higher than expected suicide and mental illness rates in the region. But that's not the story here.
The move to Lethbridge was a hard one for my parents; I don't remember what I thought about it at the time. Moving to Flin Flon was easier: it was a coal-mining town in the far north, and so everyone was just so grateful to have doctors there that they didn't mind if the doctors were East Indian. In Lethbridge, my parents arrived at the hospital on their first day to find pinned on the bulletin board in the doctor's lounge a drawing by one of the internists showing Mom and Dad as African medicine men, with bones through noses and all the expected accouterments.
I remember going to Sears with Mom so she could return a jacket that didn't fit my dad; I might have been six. The salesman in the men's section was younger than her, and very tall compared to Mom's 5'2". He grabbed the jacket and grumbled under his breath, and I remember being scared at how he was acting. My mother asked if he was trying to say something to her, and he said "You people always come in here returning things. Why do you even bother shopping." My mom turned red -- furious, ashamed. I remember that look. She said, tears in her voice, "Give me back the pants. I won't return them, then. Give them to me." The salesman realized he'd crossed the line: "No, ma'am -- you want to return them I'll take them back." "No," my mom said, her voice rising, "I don't want any favors." She reached for the jacket and her credit card; he held them both up high over his head, and I watched my mom stretch her arms and jump to reach for them. I was wailing, seeing my mom's humiliation.
He finally gave them back. My mom was crying. She walked us right over to the customer service office and complained. The store manager took us back to the men's department and fired the salesman in front of us.
A few weeks after I started grade one at the public school that still bussed all children home for lunch and back to school every single day -- so strong was the expectation that mothers would be home, waiting to feed their kids at noon -- I was brought in to see the school psychologist. "Dear, what does your mother do?" "My mommy is a doctor." "No, dear, your mommy is a nurse." "No, my mommy is a doctor." "No, dear, your mommy is a nurse." This went on for quite some time.
My mother was brought in to discuss with the school psychologist my propensity to lie. "What is she lying about?" Mom asked.
I did not envy the school psychologist at that moment.
My mother switched me to a Catholic public school, because they allowed students to bring their lunch and stay at school for the whole school day. We were latch-key kids. If I ever let my own daughter come home alone and stay in the house by herself now, my mother would kill me. But times were different, and in this town there really wasn't much choice. There were no afterschool programs, there were hardly any babysitters. Mothers didn't work, for the most part.
Mom would start in the O.R. at 7.30 am and come home at the end of the day and cook dinner. Cooking was not something she loved to do back then; it was a chore that had to get done as quickly as possible so that she could get the thousands of other things that she had to do done. But she was a very good cook, even despite that impatience. She taught me to make chicken curry, rice, and a vegetable in 30 minutes flat. Here's how.
Mom's Chicken Curry, Rice, and a Vegetable in 30 Minutes or So for a Family of Four
1. Put 1.5 c rice in a saucepan. Rinse with cold water; swish the rice around with your hands till the water is cloudy, drain, and rinse again. Drain, add 3 c fresh water, a good pinch of salt, and put on the stove on high heat. (Note: I now use a rice cooker for this step. That way I can set it and ignore till done; down side is that you do need to set it up earlier than 30 minutes in advance.)
2. While rice is coming to a boil, chop 1 large onion, smash 2 garlic cloves, and cut off 2 coins of ginger. If you'd like, chop a green chili.
4. The rice will have come to a boil by now. Take a fork, stir the pot to make sure nothing's stuck to the bottom, turn the heat to low and cover tightly.
5. To the onions etc., add the chicken (either 4 skinless chicken thighs and drumsticks, or one small chicken cut into 10 pieces and skin removed). Sauté until the chicken has lost its raw color. At this point, add 1 level TB coriander powder, 2 tsp cumin powder, 1/2 tsp turmeric powder, and 1 TB sweet paprika. Sauté for a couple of minutes.
7. Shred half a head of cabbage (coarsely, with your knife). Cut 1" of ginger into matchsticks, and chop one green chili. In another pot, heat 2 TB canola oil along with 1 tsp black mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start to sputter and pop, throw in the ginger, green chili, and about 10 curry leaves. A minute later, add the cabbage, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp sugar; sauté for a minute or so. Add 1/4 c water, turn heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally.
9. Check the chicken. There should be some sauce in the pan now that the chicken has released its juices; if you need more, add a bit of water. Adjust the salt.
When everything's cooked, plop the pots on the table (make sure you put them on the "wooden things," which was what Mom always called trivets), and dig in.