By Sitara Hewitt
Like many people I am very close with my mom. I was 3 when my she decided to go back to school, and get her PhD, after being a stay at home mom for 15 years. From age 3 to age 14 my mom would take me out of school for 6-12 months at a time, to travel to the northern areas of Pakistan where she researched and wrote about the lives of women in the rural villages of the mountains.
She chose to study by living there, with the villagers, for months at a time. I still look at my sweet little mom, who needs me to set up her landline voice mail, and am amazed at her bravery in taking a small child to remote parts of the Himalayas, with no phones, electricity or even running water. Not only did she take me, but she made it work brilliantly. The villagers were hospitable to a woman with a little kid, especially a woman as smart and genuine as my mom.
We started out by renting roof space on a mud hut for our tent, and eventually would live in a room in a family’s home and eat our meals with them. She recently reminded me of how in the beginning she just brought a little kerosene stove with her and on a particularly windy, lonely night, deep in the mountains, the stove wouldn’t stay lit and she couldn’t make my dinner, and she thought to herself ‘what have I done?’
We settled in fast though, thanks to the generosity of the villagers and my mother’s way of making friends. They brought us mulberries and walnuts from their trees, and my mom would buy an egg from their chickens for me. She would treat their various boils and fevers with whatever medicine she had brought. I can remember her saying ‘I’m not a doctor!’ But still she would treat a steady stream of people coming to our roof any way that she could. My mom’s just like that.
She cares about people, no matter how poor or unimportant others might think they are. She’s a true human rights activist, she doesn’t just talk: she really does whatever she can.
We became like relatives to one family in the village – and went back every 3 years. My mother had this uncanny ability to read a culture – so different from our own – and see how to both be herself and put the villagers at ease by respecting their ways. It proved an invaluable trait when you go and live, unannounced, in a rural, indigenous, Islamic society. I would find it annoying as a teenager when she would say things like ‘don’t look those men directly in the eye’ or ‘make sure you wear your underwear in the communal women’s bath house’. But she was always right.
Usually easy going, I can remember her getting extremely annoyed at me when she came into our room and I was applying her (only) mascara to three or four of my friends. We were 13, and like girls around the world obsessed with makeup. We were also, however, grubby as only people who don’t have running water at home, and who sit in fields all day and sleep on the ground can be. Now that I wear mascara, I understand her horror as I passed it around.
The result of her unique warmth and strength in the Himalayan villages was that she became everyone’s ‘auntie’ or ‘grandmother’ or ‘big sister.’ Here in Canada she makes friends of all ages and walks of life too.
My friends have always loved her. In high school if one of my friends ran away from home they would end up finding solace at my house. I rode the bus with this boy in grade 5, who was tough and cool and couldn’t be bothered with me – but he always ended up in my kitchen before the bus came, with my mom sending him to school with a granola bar or cookie, because she knew his parents were never home and he was often hungry.
Born in Pakistan in the late 30s, my mother experienced racism in the UK, US and Canada over the last 50 years or so, but she has this way of disarming even the most small-minded people with her fresh, genuine personality. She chuckles happily when she tells a story of teaching job she had in the 70s in Canada, for a class of remedial students.
One large boy said ‘what do you think you are, a big chocolate bar?’ And my mother says, “So I went over to check on his work and stood on his large foot and pressed down. He looked up at me and smiled, amused and sheepish.” She tells of how she would see him, years later as a man on the street and he never forgot her and would always give her a kind “Hello Mrs. Hewitt”. She doesn’t buy into anyone’s small mindedness, and usually wins everyone over quietly.
So yeah. She’s pretty cool. I don’t know a stronger, or sweeter woman. Now in her 70s she has just started her first exercise, yoga and Spanish classes!
I love that she never stops learning and growing and despite our 40 year age difference she is one of my best friends. Neither of us are those perfectly put-together-type women, we have a great laugh when she spills her entire coffee at Starbucks – again – or I lock myself out of the house for the 20th time.
The most important thing my mom taught me? Beyond the cultural lessons, was how to love my son. My mother seemed to know that the most important thing you can give a child is your unconditional love, your attention and your respect. This is how I try to raise my little one, and though I make a lot of mistakes I know he flourishes because of this pure love my mom taught me to give him. I’m grateful for her and that my son is able to enjoy her nurturing now too.
Thanks mom, you mean more than you’ll ever know.
***In 2011 Sitara’s mother published a book about her time living with the villagers in Baltistan, in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The book is called “The Other Side of Silence” by Farida-Azhar Hewitt.
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