Growing

In seeing the deepest part of myself in my mother, I have realized that growing is a never-ending and ever-changing part of life.

 

One night in late August, the summer before my junior year of college, my mother and I were making dinner together, as we often do, and talking about the early days of my parents’ relationship.

I’ve always been nostalgic and sentimental, so when she asked me, “Have I ever shown you the photographs from our engagement party?” I perked up like a daisy.

“When you wore the blue sari?” I asked, envisioning the beautiful silk I’d seen in photographs before.

“No, the white lehenga!” she said with a glimmer in her eye. She knows how much I adore lehengas, with their bejeweled blouses and flowing skirts—perfect for twirling. “Oh, my goodness, have I never shown you my pictures in the white lehenga?”

Scu Fall2022 Portrait01
Nikhita Panjnani ’24 as a child with her mother, Savitri Panjnani ’94. Illustration by Kyle Hilton.

The old photo albums came down from the shelf and, sitting at our kitchen table under the warm light of the vintage Tiffany lamp I refuse to let my mother get rid of, the two of us fell into the lovely rabbit hole of nostalgia. I found myself repeatedly exclaiming, “Oh, I look so much like you in this one!”

She was decked in beautiful dresses, high-waisted jeans, and button-down shirts, her hair either flowing down her back in long chocolate brown tresses or pinned up in simple but elegant updos, matching my own style so clearly, it might as well have been me had I existed in the 90s.

A few days later, after a particularly emotional late-night conversation about life, love, and the choices we make in life and in love, my mother said to me, “When I look at those old photographs of my younger self, I think about how many dreams I had, how much excitement, how much hope. And I just want to give her…”

“…the biggest hug,” I finished for her. I was in awe. I knew exactly how she felt because I have continuously found myself feeling the same way, engulfed by a desire to reassure and comfort past versions of myself. I’ve always known my mother and I have much in common, but until now, I hadn’t fully understood that even the most idealized grown-up in my life was also still trying to find her way in such a similar way as I was. In sharing this moment with my mother, I saw that no matter how much older we get or how many life experiences we gain, there are certain feelings that simply grow along with us. I glimpsed the myth of growing up; That, perhaps, we never really do.

Something that has always resonated with me is the idea of “growth” in parallel with “growing up.” We are continuously encouraged to challenge ourselves, reach for things outside of our comfort zones, and embrace change in order to grow. And so, we find ourselves not necessarily growing “up” but rather growing outward and inward, internally. When I was little, there seemed to be this nondescript era of life, a foggy “someday,” when suddenly becoming an adult just happened. Maybe when I can drive a car, or vote, or drink, I thought. Well, I’ve driven a car. I’ve voted. And even though I still can’t legally drink in the United States, something tells me it won’t happen then either. But in seeing the deepest part of myself so clearly in my mother, the fog has cleared into the realization that growing is a never-ending and ever-changing part of life.

My mother lived in the Bay Area for many years, and even though my father whisked her off to Oklahoma for an irresistible position at a titanium dioxide company after they were married, she always vowed to return to her beloved California someday. When my older sister decided to attend Santa Clara University, Mom’s alma mater, the timing seemed perfect. Best of all, California had become a dream for all of us by that point.

But we are a family of four individuals—four equals—all of whom had varying emotions and opinions regarding this decision, and who all had a say in how and when things happened. My parents have always been this way. They are honest with me and my sister, and they ensured that we, even as young children, were treated as cherished confidants and colleagues. We were encouraged to speak our minds, dream fearlessly, and be passionately curious. Of course, this often brought about intense discussions where opinions differed (my parents fondly refer to my sister and I as “the lawyers”), but we always came from a place of simply wanting to understand them and their reasoning.

When I was little, there seemed to be this nondescript era of life, a foggy “someday,” when suddenly becoming an adult just happened.

“You can’t have dessert until you finish your dinner!” my mother would often chide me as a 4-year-old.

“But I’m full, and I have room in my dessert tummy!” I would argue.

“You can have all the dessert in the world, as long as you first eat enough food with protein and other nutrients,” she would explain.

“I will eat four more bites,” I negotiated, prompting a smile from her, and often a suggestion to double the quantity. I always had the closure of understanding her requests, and she always took pleasure in enduring my antics. As time has gone on, it is this openness and curiosity that has allowed me to understand not only my parents’ values on a more visceral level, but to understand them, not just as my parents but as fellow human beings who, just like me, are still growing.

When I also decided to go to Santa Clara University, it logistically and emotionally was the right decision for me to continue living with my family. Because when your parents have raised you with your wings already spread wide (and you’ve already been doing your own laundry since you were 8), you learn that freedom doesn’t mean flying away.

I recently had the honor of reading the first draft of my mother’s memoir, in which she explores her relationship with her own mother—my grandmother—who passed away from cancer when my mother was 18. Even though I never got to meet my grandmother, my mother always says how much she sees of her in my “old soul” nature and inherent protectiveness. Mom writes, “I found the essence of my mom in me, and with greater awareness, I have been able to pick and choose the parts of her that I wish to bestow upon my daughters… I strive to nurture them by honoring their feelings, guarding their dreams, and instilling in them the value of kindness through action, not words.” I am proud and grateful to feel the essence of my mother, my best friend, in me, and most of all, it gives me the hope that I can also gift it to my future children—a strength and love that will grow with every generation.

In thinking so much on the topic of “growing up,” I have had somewhat of an epiphany. Though I wanted to hug past versions of myself, I have found comfort in knowing that my current self, in every stage of growth, is always with me. And so is my mother. And so, too, is the hope for our future selves. I am full of dreams for my future self—the adventures she will go on, the mistakes and memories she will make. And while there are so many different avenues I am excited to pursue, I feel a lightness in knowing that there isn’t a fog waiting to be cleared, a threshold waiting to be crossed. I am growing. I always have been. I always will be.

Nikhita Panjnani ’24 is pursuing a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in creative writing. She lives in San Jose with her older sister, Sonia ’22, father, Kamlesh, and mother, Savitri Panjnani ’94.

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