September 2022 | Jesus, the Door

The gift of a grandmother: Remembering Mary Chacko Abraham

The gift of a grandmother: Remembering Mary Chacko Abraham

Ms. Sneha Abraham

When my grandmother Mary Abraham née Chacko passed away it was Thanksgiving Weekend in the U.S. where I live. A weekend full of gratitude - we also celebrated my brother’s birthday the day before - was punctuated with loss. Looking ahead to Christmas, the season of giving, I am reminded how my Ammachi (as I called her) was a gift: to thousands of students and seekers in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, in Kerala, throughout India, and to me.

The eldest child of pioneering Christian ministers P. T. and Annamma Chacko, the family of eight lived trusting God for every provision. Never asking others for help, theirs were “faith homes,” on Regimental Bazaar, Mettuguda and Walker Town.

As a girl in the 1920s and 30s in pre-Independence India, Mary - if not on purpose then in practice - defied patriarchy and cultural dictates for gender or age. Young Mary was a preacher herself beginning at 11 years old, translating her father’s sermons on bustling city street corners and in remote rural villages throughout Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. She served as a translator for numerous other pastors and foreign missionaries as well.  Fearless, she was beaten because of her commitment to the message of Jesus. Today, hundreds of churches’ lineage can be traced to her and her family’s work.

Her early precociousness and diligence were glimpses of the years to come. She was an outs-tanding student; a breadwinner for her missionary home as a teacher and principal, working at St. John’s and Ameerpet schools; a recipient of the Indian President’s Award for Teachers; and an inspectress of 102 schools throughout Hyderabad and Secunderabad. She was also a deft Bible teacher to men and women alike and a prominent church leader alongside her husband Pastor T.S. Abraham in both Hyderabad/Secunderabad and Kerala. Known simply to both her children and India Bible College & Seminary students as “Mummy,” she mentored and instructed thousands of students and gave generously to many of them from her own resources.

Thousands honored her and came to her funeral or watched the services which were aired globally.

As a granddaughter looking back at Ammachi’s history, I see a woman of resolve.

She was determined in her work, surpassing prescribed expectations for what a woman of her time could accomplish. She was empowered in the highest sense of the word, thanks to not only her inner drive but also her broad-minded parents who accepted no limitations for their daughters. I don’t know if  “feminist” was a word she would have ever embraced. But to me she embodied it.

She was single-minded in her family life to raise four children who would seek spiritual things before career or wealth or status.

She was unwavering in prayer, for her own family, for her extended family of faith, and for people from every religious tradition, asking for God to surround them with His love. She was a friend to Christians, Muslims, Hindus and nonbelievers alike.

Ammachi was a whirl and bustle of activity until old age impeded ease of movement. She greeted the dawn with prayer and loud hymn singing that relatives have rightfully (but affectionately) called “worse than an alarm clock.” She couldn’t carry a tune but nevertheless she would sing with her entire off-key being: because all of life was meant to be worship, from the first act of the day until the last. But it was worship interwoven with work. She would ready her lessons. Ready her children. Ready the meals. Get ready for prayer meetings. Always ready.

Ammachi couldn’t tolerate even a moment of idleness, so even on our vacations grandchildren were instructed to memorize Scripture verses, write Christian articles and learn Malayalam. She was a strict disciplinarian but I somehow managed to slip away whenever language lessons were on the table. Others did not escape her seemingly all-seeing eye. I have seen grown men scurry away, tail between their legs, after a scolding from her for their laziness or ineptitude.

However, I didn’t entirely elude her careful watch.

Ammachi lived with us in the U.S. for a few months after my sister Ann was born, to assist with caring for us. I was five years old at the time. And I was a notoriously slow eater. My parents didn’t allow me to leave the table until my plate was cleared, which meant that often I would furtively throw food away in the trash can (layering the scraps carefully under other waste) or ball it up in napkins and flush it down the toilet when my mother wasn’t looking. One evening Ammachi gave me a wrapped slice of American cheese. I found it disgusting, so, true to stealthy form, I tossed it in the trash. Ammachi caught me in the act. Calmly she told me to take the cheese out of the bin and eat it, saying there were millions of starving children in India who would be grateful for that piece of cheese. She didn’t take well to my suggestion that then we should send the cheese to them. One look from her cut through my bravado. In the battle of wills, she won.

I soon learned that not only was Ammachi strong-minded, she was also quick. I had a very life-like rubber snake, which for a mischievous kindergartner is a prank begging to be played. While she was cooking and her back was turned, I carefully laid the brown and green toy reptile out on the white tiled kitchen countertop. I backed into the corner, waiting and watching. When Ammachi turned - without a flicker of fear or a moment’s hesitation - in one smooth motion she grabbed the butcher knife and chopped off the snake’s head. I watched dumbstruck.

 It was the day I fully realized Ammachi was not to be 

messed with. She was a woman of execution.

One of the sorrows of being the children of immigrants is the loss of growing up in the com-

pany of your grandparents. As a child, I dreamed of all of my relatives living in the same neighborhood, with my cousins beside me bursting into my grandmother’s kitchen for a snack, or all of us gathered around my grandfather’s feet for evening prayer. Heaven’s reward for an immigrant child is twofold: God’s presence and the presence of the loved ones you were separated from most of your time on earth. So you learn to cherish even the briefest moments spent together.

It was August 1996. My youngest aunt had just gotten married a few days earlier and we were all as a family gathered in our living room, chatting and enjoying one another’s company. I was washing Ammachi’s feet in a small plastic basin as she sat in the center chair. Transformed by the bend and blur of the warm water, her wrinkled 71-year-old feet and my smooth 17-year-old hands looked like they could belong to the same person. This woman is a part of me and I am a part of her, I remember thinking as I stroked her weathered skin. From the sheen in her eyes I knew we were connected, not only by blood but also in spirit.

Thank you, she said. She smiled, almost shyly. This woman I knew as so strong, was for a moment soft.

As her hearing faded, there weren’t many more conversations we could have in the coming years. On the phone, the totality of the exchange was a few questions, two assurances and a benediction: “How are you?” “When are you coming?” “We love you.” “We are praying for you.” “God bless you.” Each time we talked her voice was increasingly creaky with age.

We got the news that she had died early Saturday morning California time. As I processed what I’d heard and as I watched my father cry, my first emotion was gratitude, my first instinct to pray.

Thank you, God, for allowing us to come from her, I prayed, crying.

Since I’ve returned from India from the funeral I’ve slept with her Bible next to me in bed. I finger the pages. I come across markings in the margins or bookmarks with Scripture reference numbers written on them. There is a yellowed black and white picture of both of my great-grandfathers, her father and my grandfather’s father, standing together, smiling, tucked between the books of Titus and Philemon. There are some scraps of paper, one dated Dec. 14, 1991 and titled in her crooked writing, “Some Weeping Persons.” It is a 25-year-old lesson outline, written in English and Malayalam. I note underlined verses.

As I leafed through the Bible I came across one passage, underlined in bright pink pen:

“It is God that girdeth me with strength and maketh my way perfect.” Psalm 18:32

That is my Ammachi: girded with strength and a way - a legacy - made perfect.

Mary Abraham

September 2, 1925 - November 26, 2016  

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