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What My Grandmother Taught Me About Coping with the Challenges of Life and Thriving.

Written by: Nirupa Sonja Nandram

We can learn a lot from our elders and their experiences. They saw the end of the indentureship period and witnessed the formative years of this nation’s transformation from crown colony to independent state, then becoming a republic. They also lived through periods of political turmoil (the labor riots, World War II, the Black Power Revolution and the attempted coup), enjoyed periods of economic prosperity with the oil boom, and learned to cope with its eventual decline. In short, they’ve experienced a lot and the hardships they endured can teach us about coping with life’s challenges. Even today, we continue to gain knowledge and wisdom from their life lessons and experiences.

One such elder who has taught me the meaning of the phrase ‘keep calm and carry on’ is my grandmother, Parbati Shripat, who at the age of 94 continues to inspire me with her tenacity, resilience and wisdom. My grandmother isn’t someone famous. She is an ordinary lady who has lived quite an extraordinary life. The mother of 9 children, 22 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren, she has been dealt many blows but has also continued to thrive. My grandmother worked hard, lived frugally, maintained honest and cordial relations with everyone she knew and instilled in her children the value of these virtues.

Parbati Shripat was born on April 10, 1926 in the village of Ravine Sable, Longdenville, the third of 9 children born to Dookanie and Goberdhan. She attended school up until the introductory level but her formal education was curtailed so that she could help care for her younger siblings while her parents went off to work in the nearby coffee and cocoa plantations. She often describes country life as hard but also has fond memories of making hot chocolate with fresh cow’s milk, fetching water from the nearby springs and preparing ganja for her father to smoke after a hard day’s work.

At the age of 13 she was married to Shripat Bhagirathy, a teacher and a farmer. She moved to the village of Pierre Road in Charlieville, Chaguanas but adjusting to life and her new home was difficult. From the meals that were served to the way chores were done, the culture in her new home was vastly different from the one in which she grew up. Whilst her new husband was a quiet, mild-mannered man, the same could not be said for her in-laws. To evade any conflict with them, she accompanied my grandfather to his field where she kept him company while he worked.

As life with her in-laws became increasingly difficult, she befriended the old lady who lived close to the village standpipe. On her daily trips to fill up on water, she would confide in the old lady. It was there at that fateful standpipe that the lady told grandma that she was going to live with her daughter in Sangre Grande. She advised grandmother to pay the outstanding rent for the plot of land that the she was occupying. When the lady left, grandma moved into her hut, thereby claiming tenancy of the property. My grandfather was reluctant to leave his parents’ home but grandma argued the benefits of an independent household and he eventually conceded.

My grandmother recalls how she borrowed money from her mother for the rent. She also recollects how my grandfather loaded up their only possession on his shoulder: the frame of a spring bed, and walked up the street to their new dwelling. When they moved into the hut it was barely habitable but grandma was determined to convert the humble structure into her new home. From the banks of the nearby Cunupia river, white clay was dug and used to leepay the walls and floor since paint was unheard of at the time. Sanitation facilities were also lacking so she had an outhouse built.

It was there in that little mud hut that my grandparents began to thrive and their little family grew. Because her schooling was terminated at an early age, my grandfather resumed her tutelage and taught her basic mathematics. She recounts that he taught her ‘to check’ since he had plans of sending her to market to conduct sales for the produce from their fields. She would still recall how my grandfather taught her to count in fives and tens and how she would often have to assist the other ladies in the market to count their change, since they themselves lacked mathematical skills.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck when my grandfather was killed in an accident. With the main breadwinner now gone, my grandmother was now left with their young children to raise on her own, with the youngest being just a few months old. But my grandmother did not falter. She took up where my grandfather left off and began working the land with her eldest son, planting sugar cane, rice, pigeon peas, sweet potato, corn, black eye beans and various other crops. She even created employment in the village by hiring her fellow villagers to help sow and reap the crops. Grandma journeyed to the San Fernando and Tunapuna markets, where she wholesaled her produce. She upgraded her humble dirt dwelling into a wooden structure, and then eventually constructed a brick home. She invested in a tractor and two trailers, hiring one out to boost her income.

Grandma always recounts how hard she worked to maintain her household, provide for her children and send them to school. She remembers her visits to the bus station to pay for her children’s weekly fares so they could commute to school, how she sewed every article of clothing they ever wore, and how, after she sold her produce she would purchase fruits and vegetables for her children because she understood that they needed more than just rice and flour as nourishment.

Quite literally, my grandmother lived by the sweat of her brow. Even though the work was arduous and money was tight, she always thought of those who were in circumstances worse than hers. Grandma understood how difficult it was to raise children without a husband and allowed some ladies in the village (who were widowed themselves) to cultivate a portion of her land without asking for anything in return. When her commercial farming days were over, she scaled back into kitchen gardening and also transitioned into child-rearing, with me being her first ward.

Grandmother is quite frail now and needs assistance to move around, the lessons taught through a life fruitfully lived will resonate within those who have had the opportunity to know her. From very humble beginnings, she did much with what little she had and always made a point of investing in her children.

Till today, she continues to disperse pearls of wisdom, saying: “Your parents will provide food and a shelter for you but it is the Lord who will support you, always ask him for guidance.” Grandma has also taught me the principles of economics and the secret to her success by instructing: “Hang your hat where you can reach it” and “where to spend a penny, don’t spend a pound.” On matters of health and wellness, she always says, “Your health is your wealth” and “you cannot eat everything you like, you have to eat what is good for your body.” Grandma has taught me how to be a good judge of someone’s character: “What is in the root will be in the fruit.” She always tells us be mindful of how we treat others because “What you sow is what you will reap” and “if you plant cassava don’t expect to dig yam.” A humble lady who is always contented with what little she has, grandma always preaches to her children and grandchildren, “Live with love and peace.”

However, the greatest lesson learnt from her is her resilience and her ability to persevere even in the face of hopelessness. Resilience refers to the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy or significant sources of stress (such as family, relationship, health, workplace or financial stressors). The epitome of psychological resilience is being able to cope with the most egregious stressors in life and still thrive. Resilience only comes from having the chance to work through difficult problems, resulting in profound personal growth.

Grandma developed that level of tenacity and resilience to be able to do all the things that she did because her children depended on her for their survival. There was no time to slack-off and there was certainly no time to dwell on her misfortunes because she was too busy taking care of her children. Whilst change affects everyone differently, people generally learn to adapt well to life-changing and stressful situations over time because of their resilience.

When we experience disaster, trauma, or distressing psychological issues, we usually react with grief and a range of negative emotions. This is a natural reaction to having our hopes dashed or our goals thwarted. However, such experiences are not only an inevitable part of life, but are required for growth and development. These are the experiences that build resilience. With resilience, you can work through the effects of stress and negative emotions, learn to overcome them and begin to thrive. Unexpected, unfortunate things can happen to anyone at any time, but how we respond to these situations and how hard we work for what we want will determine how our characters are shaped and how successful we will become.

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