The wisdom of Mrs. Singh,
For many years, my gal pals have told me quite directly I needed to better understand women. One went so far as to strongly suggest I have a daughter to really “get it.” Not the type to back away from a challenge, nor good advice, I say thank you Mariko. Charlotte has taught me plenty.
I remember once asking my father about this question. It was only in later life, in my 30s, 40s, and even 50s where my relationship with him permitted me to broach these kinds of subjects, without the usual judgments I would have received at a younger age. I needed those years to build emotional muscle I think. Perhaps, physical muscle as well. By then, I could take my old man; indeed, while his fearsomeness had not waned with time, my own had increased.
In any case, I remember asking about understanding women and he answered, “You’re not supposed to” with finality. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to hear this from him. My father, the man surrounded by books his whole life, who read one per week or so most of his adult life, and who could easily construct an impromptu lecture on the building of cultures and civilizations since the dawn of recorded history with little encouragement, came up blank when we discussed gender.
To be fair, it’s possible he liked the magic of not knowing, for there is some of that mystery in our sexual counterparts. But as a man with five daughters, that day my expectations were greater than he could meet. It was the only time I can recall being let down by his answer. Instead of his usual erudition, seeded with life-lessons he’d share at length: nothing.
I was on my own when it comes to sex differences. Of course, I have used the question of differences between men and women to shoehorn in greater understanding of others in into this thick skull of mine. For to look is to find, and It’s undoubtedly helped me evolve in other ways.
So, it was recently I found myself speaking with Mrs. Singh. She wore a beautiful green and gold sari, telling me she was too lazy to get dressed in anything else that morning. I remember thinking I do the same thing sometimes and put on track pants and a t-shirt. Comparatively, she looked wonderful; I would look like I was dressed in track pants and a t-shirt.
It was at her furniture store, an ample space filled with living room and bedroom sets built in an ornate style befitting someone who wore a brocaded sari. She interrupted our conversation only once when she went out back to ensure her delivery man had unloaded inventory correctly and counted the pieces that came in. Her desk set up against one wall midway into the cavernous space, littered with invoices and other evidence of commerce: It was her mission control and she ran it all easily on her own.
I was there to sell her commercial energy, something I do during the day. Unlike the newspaper business from which I came and has been radically reduced by the forces of creative destruction in the internet age, energy will last. 80% of the world uses electricity so demand will only rise.
Alas, I discovered she was already on a contract. It’s in these cases I get to act more as an advisor than as a provider, and the burden of compensation is removed from our interaction. Assessing her bill and doing the calculations, I could see she was overpaying. Determining this makes me her ally, her advocate.
Here, I took the liberty to call the 1 800 number of her supplier on my phone, getting us through to the right agent. Mrs. Singh went through the required identification process and rather than me prompting her in the background, stated my name and her desire I speak on her behalf.
Cancelling her existing contract would have cost her almost a grand. She could have justified it by the savings gained at the low price I’d give her for her remaining term. But then, her supplier’s customer service agent sensed she had a pro on her side and offered to drop her price right down to near what I could do. I was being used to grind the competition into chasing her business.
Given the length she had left on contract (23 months) my advice was as long as they gave her the same price for her household contract (for which I calculated they were overcharging her by even more) she should take their deal and I’d see her in a couple of years. My visit had dropped her rate by a third and I’d get nothing from it. She insisted I sign up her natural gas business, which I did, but it was a tiny contract in comparison.
I’d spent two visits and over three hours on this appointment with little to show for it. But then again, this is where I’m reminded I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it for the conversations.
My life can be seen in part as a series of quests to update and replace my father’s teachings and to go futher than he ever could.
To my polite prompting, Mrs. Singh explained the basic tenets of Sikhism, especially the part about we are all equals according to the guru’s teachings. At the Gurdwara, she explained, we all sit on the floor, no matter who it is visiting. Doesn’t matter if it’s a head of state or the poorest of the poor, they are welcome to sit as equals together.
And the langar, the food prepared by a cadre of volunteers, it available to all visitors, regardless of caste, colour, religion, ethnicity, rich or poor. Surprisingly, it’s a tradition adopted from the Muslim Sufis back when Sikhism started with Guru Nanak in the 1500s I later learned.
She explained the difference between baptized and non-baptized Sikhs, and told me of her upbringing in Amritsar, India. It was here I asked her about the differences between North American parenting and the parenting she’d used successfully with her daughters and sons, all educated professionals. I was rewarded with anecdotes.
Once. she wanted to attend the movie theater with her friends back home. These kinds of events were difficult for a Sikh girl, for the members of her community would talk and confront the family if she was seen. India is a dangerous place for a young girl, even if accompanied by others. “There’s a lot of rapes” she said. Her mother hesitated, but finally told her to go, but not tell anyone.
She went and had fun, returning home on time. When her mother asked her how it went, she fibbed and told her she did not go. By doing this, essentially, she got a “go to the movies” free card she could use another time. She laughed as she told me she used this trick three times, seeing movies each time all on the one permission.
I was reminded of how simple things we take for granted in Canadian culture are not held in the same regard by those coming from other places where conditions are different. As I listened to her, I take her implied counsel seriously.
My missus has told me she won’t allow sleepovers for our children. Her experiences growing up has made her realize the risks of a child being hurt of damaged in such unknown circumstances is too great, so she’s got this one rule. I’m fine with it too, for it appeals to my protective side.
Turns out, Mrs. Singh says the same thing. “No sleepovers” she stated unwaveringly as her first rule of parenting. She encouraged her daughters and sons to visit their friends but no matter the time of night, she is there to pick them up and take them home. As teens, the boys stayed out latest 1 am, the girls, 11 pm. Why the difference, I asked? Girls are more precious.
And when her daughter was 20 and in college, she begged her mother for leniency. Lovingly, Mrs. Singh agreed with her daughter’s newfound need for freedom. The new curfew is midnight.
Once upon a time in Amritsar, Mrs. Singh wanted to attend her friend’s wedding. “I got married at age 21,” she said, “and my friend was 20. I had to go and see her get married.” Not yet married herself at the time, it would be an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. So, she pleaded with her mother, telling her how important it was that she go, after all it was her best friend, and this was her big day. Mother, in her wisdom, finally relented and said she’d agree, if her father gave his blessing.
Mrs. Singh begged her father for the opportunity to go. She told him how much it meant to her and how disappointed both she and her friend would be to miss it. She used all her charm, cashing in a lifetime of smiles to get her father’s approval. “You can go as long as your mother goes with you,” was his answer.
Not quite willing to let his daughter go, clear in that a daughter’s friend’s wedding was no signal that his role was now obsolete, he got the best of both sides in his decision. His emissary and co-parent would chaperone, and his sweet daughter’s request would not be denied. The Mrs. Singh before me wasn’t put off at all by this prospect as she recounted her parent’s decision. To the contrary, she was thrilled.
At the wedding, her mother took her aside and told her she was not there to spy on her, to prevent her from having a good time. Nor was she there to judge her behavior, or to possibly reprimand her. She’d raised a good daughter and trusted she’d act accordingly.
And she did have a fun time, telling me of how she played games the whole day and shared in her friend’s joy. In her explanation, I could see the satisfaction and excitement return to her face in the retelling of this unforgettable day. And the way she explained her mother’s role was an inspiration.
Then Mrs. Singh told me something so profoundly good. I struggled to remember it verbatim, so I could rush home and share it with missus. For we have a daughter… and daughters are precious.
She said a daughter’s mother should be like her best friend. She should be able to come to her mother with anything she encounters, any feelings she has, any doubts or fears, and that the mother must be a safe place for her.
If a boy looks at her a certain way, or smiles at her, or says something to her, it’s to her mother she must come for advice and reassurance. When her body changes, it’s her mother who will help her accept and incorporate these changes into her identity.
She must convey to her daughter, “your secrets are safe with me.” The implications were clear: the mother must be the bridge between adolescence and her daughter’s budding sexuality and the expectations of full womanhood.
How many women do I know who have had no such relationship with their mothers? And how tragic it is when this happens? What pain does a daughter carry with her into the future, often for life, when she feels misunderstood by the very person from whose flesh and blood she is made? What a burden this rejection, and how despairing for all concerned.
Someone once said a child can get along without a father but will die without a mother. At a very basic level of nurturance this makes sense. At the higher levels of self-concept, even more critical. The Grant Study speaks to mother’s acceptance and importance longer term in a man’s life. Doubly important for girls, I think.
I have learned it’s the connection between adults and children which allows our young ones to feel valued. From that sense of feeling valued, a child or adolescent has the emotional foundation to learn discipline, to decide to delay gratification in service of a greater cause.
It’s as if absent emotional connection, all further learning is hampered. Like Maslow’s need hierarchy, we must first feel safely held in someone’s regard before we can move forward with higher order steps of learning. After all, children are motivated; they want desperately to be rescued from themselves.
I may not have made much visiting Mrs. Singh’s furniture store off Walkley Road in Ottawa, but I left with much more than something as trite as meeting a sales target.
Instead, I was paid in a different currency, in the great Canadian multicultural tradition. I gained a glimpse into another life which, in turn, enhanced my own. I’m reminded too that the world over, we are all people struggling with the same issues. It doesn’t much matter if we are talking about a daughter here, or over there.
I will do my best to be as good a man as your father was for you. I will ensure our home allows my daughter the kind of relationship you had with your mother.
Thank you, Mrs. Singh: precious indeed.
Christopher K. Wallace
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