Essence: the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character; a set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.
Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom. Garlic, chilli, ginger. Coriander and Cumin. The essence of a good curry.
My mother did not teach me how to cook. But it is from her cooking, the fragrances filling the kitchen, the steaming bowls placed in the centre of the dining room table, that I learnt how to put a delicious dish of food together. The aromas were the first indication of the ingredients – is that cinnamon I smell, a hint of cardamom? Definitely fresh dhania, and perhaps some curry leaf? The first mouthful, savoured on the tongue, tastebuds and smell combining to give the full flavour, confirms the essence of a good curry. Not so much the meat or tomatoes, potatoes or vegetables.
My mother did not teach me many things that I always wished she had. How to apply make-up, for example. Not for me any experimenting with gaudy blue-green eyeshadow, bright-red lipstick, peachy blush, or kohl eyeliner. And, definitely no mascara. I learnt that a fresh clean face, nothing much else, was enough. The image I hold in my mind’s eye, as I prepare for a special occasion, is the natural beauty she always displayed. Understated, never showy. Enhanced? Certainly. I discovered the little pots and tubes of colour and camouflage while messing around in the drawers of her dressing table. Her lips were always a natural raisin-raspberry hue, her cheeks a perfect peach, her eyes outlined in dark pencil. Subtle, just what was necessary to bring out her essence.
I learnt from her careful casual grooming - her neatly cut thick shining hair, her eyebrows a perfect arc, the slight shine on her lips; her simple elegance, the choice of just the right scarf, belt, necklace; all of this wrapped in a tissue-light but definite fragrance that always surrounded her. The essence of beauty.
She epitomised poise and dignity in how she held and presented herself. I longed to have this too, to counter my knock-knees and pigeon-toes. But she did not teach me how to wear and walk on high heels. Not for me the pointy toes that may result one day in hard callouses on toes or the balls of my feet, and oh dread, bunions protruding from the bony joints on the sides of my big toes. I learnt to wear comfortable shoes, with rounded toes; just enough height that my ankles wouldn’t twist, and my gait could be sure.
I learnt that ‘sexy’ was a description, a look, not to be desired. That it was even somewhat vulgar to draw attention to oneself in that way. Why would one, for god’s sake, wear dresses that made it difficult to sit down, expose body parts that could lead to catching cold?
She exuded warmth and love. But I never heard her say that she loved us. I saw her hug our babies, shower them with kisses. Make them special oats, with a blob of butter for creaminess, a stick of cinnamon for flavour. I witnessed love in the kindness offered to those who came into her life: her neighbours, the nurse, the hairdresser, the dentist, the helper at home. And especially her sons-in-law, whom she adored more than her daughters (or so it seemed to us). For all of them she would cook the best meals and buy gifts that were just right for them, when she went to a market or travelled: a jar of jam, a tie, a scarf, a set of coasters. It made me wonder if perhaps she loved them more?
From her I learnt what creativity looked like, in the way she arranged a vase of flowers, added a fern, a piece of shrub, a twig with an interesting twist, to give the arrangement something that made it special. I learnt about aesthetics, about colours that combined well together; about sleek and simple design; and that understatement carried with it an essence far more intriguing that what was obvious, showy, or in- your-face.
I picture her now, sitting on her favourite couch, fingering whatever fabric makes its way onto her lap. Wool, its soft, woven strands, gets rewound into balls, over and over again. The soft cotton of the bedsheets gets softly caressed to release its silkiness, then folded into pleats, as if fashioning a wide-skirted frock for a dance she wants to attend. The linen of the napkin gets folded and smoothed into perfect shape. The textures are varied. Touched by her fingertips they turn into the textures of her life.
I learn from her about nuance and depth. About tapping deeply into one’s senses: taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight to find what is really worth knowing in the world.
I learn from my mother the essence of what it is to love, to bring to life that which is hidden inside, to get to what is fundamental, without which it loses its identity.
I learnt from my mother what and why we are.
 This is a compiled definition put together from online dictionaries