As the child of two working parents, I was fortunate to have my nani (grandmother) help raise me until I reached the age of fourteen. Although there are so many, these are five important lessons she taught me:
1. The Value of Resourcefulness
When my nani packed my lunch for school each day, she would always remind me to bring back the napkin and Ziploc bag that my sandwich was wrapped in. That same napkin and Ziploc bag (if clean) were used and reused for longer than I would imagine was possible. Both when money was tight and when it was not, this was her policy. She would reuse jars, containers, and boxes multiple times over for various different uses. She would organize the fridge so that foods that were likely to go bad sooner were placed in the front. She would take things that I was ready to discard, like jewelry that was missing its pair or worn-out clothes or old CD-roms, and make something beautiful out of it. She would eat an apple right to its very core and meat down to its bones, so as to leave no edible excess behind. She taught me that avoiding waste and caring for the environment is a part of our deen (path to complying with divine law). (Recommended read: Green Deen by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin).
2. The Benefit of Self-Learning
My nani told me that when she was young, her dream was to go to medical school, but her father could not afford it. Regardless of this reality, she made medicine an important part of her life. She became a self-learned novice in bedside medicine through experience and constantly perusing books, television, and occasionally the internet for natural remedies to cure common ailments, from dry skin to upset stomachs. Growing up, the idea of taking a Tylenol was so foreign to me, and I disliked taking anything other than one of my nani’s natural remedies. Although my nani was unable to obtain a formal medical education, this did not stop her from seeking knowledge on her own. I see that knowledge as a source of happiness for her, by the way her face lights up when she tells me about something new she learned or when her remedy makes me feel better. My nani helped me realize the joy that comes with taking the time to learn things that can be used practically to improve yourself and the people around you. She has had me write down several of her remedies with the hope that not only I, but many generations to come, will benefit from the knowledge she discovered.
3. The Importance of Perfecting your Deen
One day when I was older and my nani was visiting for some time, I was rushing to get ready for my job in the morning. Watching me run to the ironing table to make sure my business attire was straightened out and then to the bathroom to put on makeup, my nani, leaning on the stairwell, looked at me and said (in Urdu): Isn’t it interesting how we care so much about looking just right and being on time for our bosses, but when it comes to the ultimate boss (God), we become so lazy? How is it that when it comes to praying on time or striving to perfect our posture and Qur’anic pronunciation during prayer we are so willing to make excuses? I have had my issues with rigid ritual compliance when I see it being emphasized at the expense of larger concepts like treating others with respect and kindness. But my nani taught me the virtue in perfecting these small parts of our deen for the sake of showing, at the very least, the same respect to God that we do to our bosses, and for living our lives more consciously in remembrance of God.
4. The Power of Example
When I was younger, I felt like my nani was always praying or preparing to pray. She took her time when she prayed and when she made wudu (ablution), and it was always something she made out to be very important. When it was time for a prayer, she would look at the clock and exclaim, “It’s already zuhur time!” or just pop into my bedroom to see what I was doing and inform me that she was about to pray. In all of these instances, my nani did not stand over me and force me to pray. I struggled with the concept of prayer for awhile, but when I spiritually desired to pray on my own, I did it out of obligation not to my nani, or to my parents, or to any other human being, but to the One for Whom I owe that obligation. It was her example and enthusiasm about prayer – rather than her demand that I perform it – that persuaded me to give prayer a fair shot in my own life. The same went with giving thanks. She would express her thanks and appreciation for every little favor I did and before each meal and after a bad fall that resulted in an injury that could have been worse. She did not have to tell me to say “thank you” for me to learn that situations, good or bed, were best met with the attitude of gratefulness.
5. The Etiquette of Giving
Recently, when my nani was getting ready to leave after a short visit, I found her ironing a pile of her clothes she had just washed. With each article she picked up, I watched her intently examine all parts of the clothing before ironing it. When I asked her what she was doing, my nani responded that she was making sure there were no marks on her shalwar kameez (traditional Pakistani clothes) because she was getting them ready to donate to an organization that I was volunteering for at the time, Wafa House. I had not asked her for any donations, but she remembered me telling her about how the organization provides services to women, particularly South Asian women, some of whom were running away from violent situations in their homes. What struck me was not just that my nani took the initiative to give whatever she had, but the amount of care she put into making sure that what she was giving was clean and freshly pressed, so that those receiving it would not feel like what they were getting was secondhand. If an article of clothing did not look presentable enough, she would not give it. What her etiquette showed me was how, with a little effort, you could not only give, but give from your heart.