Remembering Our Family Matriarch, My Grandmother

I had scheduled a trip to Morocco over the holidays a few months ago, and planned to go see my grandmother when I returned after the new year, but destiny had other plans for us.

When my brother called me Tuesday to tell me she had passed, I felt oddly calm, relieved that she was no longer in pain, struggling to breathe and do daily tasks. Throughout her 92+ years, the last few have been the toughest on her, and I take solace in knowing she is now free of pain.

I hope my grandmother was by my side in spirit in Morocco, as she was with me in person on my first international guided tour in Italy 26 years ago.

My ammamma (Telugu for mother’s mother), Swarajyam (Kurra) Amaraneni, was born February 28, 1930, according to her passport, but she once told me her birthday could be in early January, and she was not sure of the year either.

My grandparents, aunt and uncle, mom, brother and I on the steps at my grandparents house in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, 1979 or 1980?

Her biography would make a great read. She was born a British citizen in India, saw her country gain independence as a teenager, was married at 19, had 5 kids, and moved to the U.S. as a 46-year old grandmother in 1977. She welcomed 8 more grandchildren after she moved to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and doted on each and every one of us, as we did her. She not only raised her children and her sister’s children, but also my brother until he was almost a teenager, and we moved to Georgia.

I was reading a book about India’s fight for independence when I learned Swaraj means self-rule or independence in Hindi and Sanskrit. Knowing how involved my grandparents were in politics, I was curious about her name. So I asked her why she was named Swarajyam (స్వరాజ్యం). She told me that she was named Padma, but her father chose Swarajyam as her new name when she was a little girl because he was such a strong advocate for India’s independence. Her name represents not only India’s independence, but also her strong, independent, feisty spirit.

Ammamma wore pants when she was a young girl, unheard of during that time, and especially in India. She married for love, also rare then. After our thatha (Telugu for grandfather) passed away in 1990, she started her second life, hiking in the Himalayas, going on a safari in Kenya, acted in a movie (She Was in Love Once), and chaperoned me on a trip to Italy in 1996. A stroke in 2001 didn’t slow her down much, as she did cruises to Alaska and South America.

When I was little, we spent practically every weekend with my grandparents. Then, when we moved from New Orleans to Ocean Springs where they lived, we spent many evenings during the week with them, too. My fondest memories at that age are that my grandmother slept on the floor because of a bad back, and I would sleep on the floor next to her. Mostly because I loved being with her, but probably also because I was scared of the bogeyman. I slept on the floor next to her well into my teenage years until she started sleeping in a bed again.

Another memory that I have that has lasted longer than our sleeping arrangements is Grandma’s kisses on the cheek. I had a photo of her kissing me while I was sitting on the counter in her Ocean Springs kitchen, and I couldn’t find it before I came to Slidell for her service. When I do find it, it will be framed, right next to the photo on top. While I hated leaving my grandmother after our visits, I always looked forward to that kiss on the cheek before I left, and I will keep that last one in my memory forever.

The last decade has been hard on my grandmother’s health, and it was tough to see her go from an active lifestyle, going to the senior center in Slidell, to using a cane, then a walker the past few years. She saw four of her grandchildren get married, and welcomed three great-grandchildren, and quite a few furry great-grandbabies. She took great joy in visits from her family, both those bound by blood and those she chose, even as late as the weekend before she passed.

A friend said to me after she learned of her passing that she admired my grandmother’s strong, vibrant personality, and I said, “I hope I inherited that from her.” I also hope to continue my grandmother’s passion for travel, and I hope she joins me in spirit on my future adventures. I rode a camel in The Sahara, and on the ride home, we had one camel that was without a rider, and I think that was Grandma’s camel. She had a wonderful view of the sunset.

Swarajyam (Kurra) Amaraneni
February 28, 1930 (ish) – December 27, 2022

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