By Kitri Sundaram ’21. Art by Sophia Otero ’21.
A Brief Introduction
My parents met at work. Indubitable, but boring. My parents met building blocks in daycare at the 1965 World’s Fair, and were reunited thirty years later at work. Highly questionable, but much more exciting. Although it can’t be confirmed that my parents were in the daycare at the exact same time, or that they actually interacted, my grandparents figured out that they brought their one-year-olds to the World’s Fair in New York the same year, and that the aforementioned one-year-olds were left under the supervision of the same child care center.
As charming a story could be told about how my parents’ eyes met from across the changing table, and they fell in love over spoonfuls of baby formula, this story is not really about my parents, but rather their parents. Specifically, their mothers. My paternal grandmother, Sarada Padma Sundaram, was born in Thiruvananthapuram, India, and has spent much of her adult life in the United States’ sprawling midwestern suburbs. My maternal grandmother, Patricia Ann Dallas Ferrari, is a German-Irish Catholic from the Bronx. She did not immigrate across oceans, but rather the Harlem River, to where much of her adult life was spent, East Midtown, Manhattan.
Despite their clear differences, my grandmothers’ lives overlapped that day at the fair. The small supply of stories about my grandmothers that I had acquired over thanksgivings and family weddings led me to believe that their World’s Fair attendance was not the only overlap in their trajectories. My grandmothers both fought for their educations. They both achieved successful careers while navigating their new places in the American middle class, as well as what it meant to be a working woman, wife, and mother in the 1970s. I recently spoke with each of my grandmothers to acquire more stories, an experience that furthered my understanding of who they are, and enhanced my appreciation for the doors that they opened for me.
Some Background ____________________________________________________________
Padma (like many South Indians, she goes by her second name) has three sons, the eldest being my father, Kannan. I call her by the Malayalam term for grandma, Ammu. Some of my cousins call her by the Tamil word for paternal grandma, Paati. Her late husband and my grandfather, Shanmugha Sundaram, affectionately called her tomato, a reference to an Indian child actress, and appropriate considering her small size. But before she was Kannan’s mother, Shanmugha’s tomato, or anyone’s Paati or Ammu, Padma was called “Pappa,” the second of eight children, though two of her siblings died in childhood. She was born in Thiruvananthapuram (also known as Trivandrum, as it was renamed by the British) on October 30, 1940, to her mother Alamelu Sarada and her father, Kolappa Ananthan Pillai, known as Sarada and Ananthan, respectively. She spent much of her childhood living with her maternal grandparents, because her father was often relocated for work, accompanied only by her mother and the younger children.
Patricia is the mother of five, the eldest being my mother, Lisa. I call her Oma, a tribute to her German roots. My grandfather, Robert Ferrari, – Bob to most, Poppy to his grandchildren – among some friends, often calls her Pat, though she hates nicknames. Before she was Oma to ten, Mom to five, or Pat to Bob, she was Patricia Ann Dallas. She was born on January 3, 1942, in the Bronx, New York, the second of Anna Dierson Dallas’ and Arthur Dallas’ four children. Her father, an Irish-Scot police officer, died when she was four, only two months after the birth of her youngest sibling, Claire. He died on the operating table, while being treated for the gangrene caused by an appendix operation that turned out to be unnecessary. To further the story’s tragedy, the surgeon who performed the fateful appendix operation was Arthur’s brother, Ruskin. After Arthur’s death, Anna’s sister Madeline moved in. An unmarried nurse, Aunt Madeline helped the family cope and make ends meet without a man in the house, an unfortunate hindrance in the 1940s.
A Few Childhood Mishaps
Ammu’s grandfather, whom she called Chalai Appa, was a government accountant. She told me that since he refused bribes, he made a modest, lower-middle-class income. His values of virtue and honestly existed alongside his need for anger management. When the children misbehaved, he spanked them with sticks ripped from the backyard hibiscus tree. Though her good behaviour helped her evade most of Chalai Appa’s spankings, Ammu recounted one, proclaiming that, “there’s a first time for everything!”
Ammu’s grandparents’ backyard included a six-foot-tall haystack, which served as food for the three cows they kept for milk. The children would climb the haystack, slide down its edges, and scramble to clean up the scattered hay before Chalai Appa got home. Chalai Appa once came home in the midst of the mischief, and began chasing the children with the infamous hibiscus stick as they fled to a friend’s house next door. Ammu’s small legs couldn’t carry her away in time, and Chalai Appa caught ahold of her. Though not through her traditional method of good behavior, Ammu escaped spanking once again. She peed herself in terror. Chalai Appa let her go, and from then on, her siblings would tease her, and shout, “Pappa, please pee!” whenever their grandfather entered one of his rages.
While some of Ammu’s stress resulted from the man in her household, Oma’s came from the lack of one. One of the various small sources of her family’s income after Arthur’s death was his police pension. Unfortunately, the patriarchy ensured that there was a system in place that required the wives of late officers to go to the precinct weekly and complete “bed-making duties,” in order to receive their regular pension payments. Anna eventually lost her free afternoons to a clerical job at the New York Public Library, leading Oma to inherit the responsibility around age eleven. By then, the family had moved to a housing project in another part of the Bronx, and their old neighborhood, though never well-to-do, had become especially rough.
Once a week after school, Oma took the bus to their old neighborhood, which housed the precinct, and spent her afternoon washing the sheets, making the cots, and cleaning the dormitories of officers who had taken night shifts. A timid eleven-year-old girl, she had to walk past the prisoners in holding cells, make small talk with intimidating older men, and travel through an unsafe neighborhood, only to arrive home nearly five hours after leaving school.
Oma’s days as an underage housekeeper came to an end when her paternal grandfather, a cop at the same precinct, complained about the inappropriateness of a young child in that environment. Rather than concerns for his granddaughter’s wellbeing, Oma’s mother suspected that his complaint was motivated by malintentions towards the family, whose relationship with Arthur’s father had been tumultuous ever since he had refused to acknowledge Ruskin’s role in Arthur’s death. Oma admitted to me that, though guilt-ridden by this feeling, she was overwhelmed with relief that the precinct would no longer allow her to complete the bed-making duties. Her mother continued spending her afternoons working at the library, and Oma never knew what happened to her father’s pension.
In Ammu’s school system, students graduated high school around age sixteen, at which point they could apply for colleges where they’d work towards a Bachelor’s Degree, or for programs that would eventually lead them to professional schools. Essentially, aspiring doctors applied for medical school at age sixteen. Ammu’s parents supported her pursuit of a Bachelor’s Degree, if she felt so inclined, but expected her to then accept an arranged marriage and start a family. My grandmother, no longer the petrified pant-wetter, had other ideas.
She was in the car with her father, having obliged his request that she accompany him on a drive whose destination he had not specified. As they approached the medical college, Ammu, a secretly-aspiring doctor, felt her heart speed up. Her father, who stood by while her mother sought out potential husbands, could not possibly be about to suggest she apply to medical school. Yet the car stopped outside the school, and her heartbeat’s acceleration continued.
“Go inside, Pappa,” her father instructed her. Ammu smiled and nodded, entranced by her sudden change of fate.
“Ask for an application,” he continued. “For my friend’s son.”
Ammu smiled and nodded again. Not disappointed, just understanding. Her father brought her along to do a favor for a family friend, a much more predictable scenario than the one she had naively dreamt up. Yet as she entered the building, aware of her distance from her father in the waiting car, Ammu’s dream to practice medicine, and her aversion to an early marriage, became poignant. She approached the man behind the front desk. Like most of the town, he was a friend of her father’s. The exchange to follow would change my grandmother’s life, sensational as that sounds. She asked for two applications. The man replied that her father had not mentioned wanting two, only the one for his friend’s son. She shrugged, feigning clueless indifference, and assured him that her father had asked her to get two. The man obliged, and my grandmother stuffed one of the applications in her shirt before returning to the car.
Across the atlantic, Oma also grappled with what her role as a daughter meant for her educational prospects. She and her younger sisters, Rita and Claire, helped their mother and Aunt Madeline with the housework. As a boy, her older brother Artie evaded responsibility for dishes and laundry, though the mechanical and physical maintenance was left to him. Anna valued her children’s educations, but her priorities reflected her old-fashioned, German upbringing. She had dropped out of high school at age fourteen, so she could get a job and help put her brother through law school, and her father had forbidden her from marrying until after her brother completed his degree. Anna was taught not to question why her brother’s life came before her own, why she had to sacrifice her education for his. Thus, when the nuns who ran Oma’s parochial school told Anna to push young Patricia academically, that they could see she had potential, Anna expressed concern that if her daughter devoted too much time to schoolwork, she might neglect her house chores. The nuns replied, “forget about the dust,” and continued to rally for Oma’s education to be prioritized.
Although her housework still came first, Oma was always the most studious of the Dallas siblings, and everyone expected her to be the only one who would go to college. Her plan was to go to a local community college and live at home, but an aunt who had inherited some money from her late husband told Oma she would pay for her to attend a private college. Looking back, Oma realized she should have been more ambitious, should have looked into schools like Barnard and Wellesley. Instead she went to her high school’s guidance counselor, who informed her that the nuns who ran the school also ran an all-women’s college in Connecticut called St. Joseph’s. Oma attended St. Joseph’s, where she majored in Home Economics, and she and her classmates were encouraged to pursue “feminine” careers, such as teaching or nursing. She found the school to underestimate its women, and found the coursework rather simple. She claims that her daughters got a better education in high school than she did in college. Though she omits the fact that they may not have had the opportunity to attend their prestigious high school if not for her work in college.
Like the nuns behind St. Joseph’s, Ammu’s family did not consider that a young woman might have dreams of professional school or a male-dominated career field. As her parents continued their search for a suitable husband, assuming their innocent Pappa would marry upon return from a brief stint in a Bachelor’s program, Ammu completed her medical school application in secret. In predictably classist Indian fashion, it had to be signed by a state officer. Ammu’s father happened to be a state officer, but she did not intend to expose her theft (there were only a limited number of applications, so she did potentially take one from another student, though that is only one of many reasons for her secrecy) unless absolutely necessary. She confided in an aunt, who, despite initial horrification at the possibility of Ammu’s parents discovering their scheming, brought her to a friend who was also a state officer. The officer asked why Ammu’s father could not sign the application, and the women instinctively fabricated a story about his being out of town on business. He signed the application, unknowingly placing my grandmother one step closer to a dream that had once seemed unattainable.
Onward & Upward
Ammu was notified shortly after her stealthy submission that she had qualified for an interview. Two-hundred of the four-thousand students interviewed would gain admission. If Ammu wanted to go in for the interview, she had to tell her parents what she had done. She told me that she framed her proposal as she truly saw it. Her parents did not need to worry about the possibility of her going to med school, because with those odds, she would never be accepted. Thus, they should let her go to the interview for the experience. It could be interesting. Informative. Yet her willingness to tell her disapproving parents what she had done, rather than forget the whole ordeal, suggests that she knew, perhaps subconsciously, that it was not entirely a lost cause. She was smart. She had qualified for an interview, and that alone was no small feat. After a conversation as nerve-racking as the interview itself, her parents reluctantly agreed to let her go. Her mother, set on her plan for Ammu to get a Bachelor’s Degree in zoology and then settle down with a handpicked husband, was especially displeased.
Ammu dreamt of scrubs and stethoscopes, Oma of briefcases and legal pads. She was frightfully shy her senior year of college, and when one of the few alumnae who had gone on to law school returned to St. Joseph’s for a visit, she somewhat creepily followed her everywhere, trying to work up the courage to ask the young woman how she did it. The alumna’s visit came and went, and Oma never approached her.
She met Bob Ferrari, a Bronx-born Italian whom I call Poppy, her senior year of college. He was eight years older and a practicing lawyer. He too grew up poor, but he went to community college and worked for an insurance company to eventually put himself through the NYU School of Law. He fancied himself much more sophisticated than men Oma’s age, relaying to me proudly that he wore top hats and drank scotch when they met. The couple married upon Oma’s graduation, and my mother entered the picture a year later.
Poppy went out on his own as a lawyer, starting a successful private practice. The couple moved to an apartment complex in Manhattan, and Lisa’s birth was followed by Christina’s, then Robert’s, then Rachel’s. They talked about Oma’s intention to eventually get her law degree, both acutely aware of the dream brewing beneath the surface. She would go back to school when the kids were a little older, they would say. Oma’s mother, at a loss as to why the new wife and mother wanted anything to do with law school, assured her that she and Bob would be too swamped by their children’s college tuitions to pay for law school.
Already feeling defiant in light of her mother’s skepticism, Oma decided to go to law school earlier than anticipated, on somewhat of a whim. She described the moment to me, recalling a vivid memory of baby Rachel crawling on the kitchen floor as she prepared dinner. Poppy had returned home from work with information on Oma’s recently deceased paternal grandfather’s inheritance, from which she and her siblings had been cut. Oma did some quick calculations, and figured out how much money the falling out had cost her based on the taxes paid on the inheritance.
Amazed by her quick mind and legal aptitude, Poppy insisted Oma pursue law school. She tossed the spaghetti into the pot while Poppy made his case, and by the time she was dumping the cooked pasta into the strainer, it had been decided that she would start in September. They couldn’t afford a babysitter and Poppy worked all day, so she would have to go to night school. She was accepted to Fordham, and prepared herself for the four years of long bus rides and late study sessions that would commence that September. She had not prepared, however, for the arrival of Michael.
Back several years, and across the world, Ammu’s interview at the medical college had gotten off to an unpromising start. She had chosen a simple skirt and blouse. Upon catching sight of the other female applicants donning elaborate saris, she realized she was underdressed. Her insecurities were furthered by an applicant she knew, who teased that the small-statured, baby-faced Pappa looked like a twelve-year-old, not a doctor.
She entered her interview to find that two of the four interviewers knew her father.
“Isn’t he looking for boys for you?” One of them inquired, confused why the bride-to-be would bother with med school.
“Yes, sir,” Ammu replied. “But I’m not even eighteen, and I would have to give my permission to sign papers for a wedding.” The interviewers were startled by her defiance. She continued, proclaiming, “I don’t even think I am getting married…”
The men laughed. They were amused, maybe even impressed. Yet the interview went on without any inquiry into her academic or career goals. Nonetheless, Ammu’s independence, clear determination, and maybe a little bit of her spunk, led to her acceptance to the Medical College of Thiruvananthapuram four weeks later.
The Final Stretch
At this point in my grandmothers’ narratives, everything seemed to have almost fallen into place (though the word “fallen” offers no acknowledgment to the work they put in to arrive at this “place”). Ammu was accepted to medical school and no longer carried the burden of keeping her secret aspiration from her parents. Oma was ready to start law school, grateful that Poppy’s support would ease some of the logistical challenges of balancing school with her busy home life. Yet as Oma waited in line to register for classes at Fordham Law, she was met with a wave of nausea. This particular brand of queasiness was distinct and familiar, but she signed her name swiftly, telling herself that once she was enrolled she could not be pregnant.
No one in Ammu’s house was excited by the news of her acceptance. She begged and bartered with her parents, and her father offered to let her go under the condition that once they found her a suitable husband, she would marry. With the same audacity that had gotten her this far, Ammu negotiated the agreement to be that she would marry the chosen man only if he would let her continue her education and practice medicine. Her father, very reluctantly and much to her mother’s dismay, finally accepted.
My grandmothers continued to find their perseverance tested beyond their initial efforts to pursue higher education. Oma was in fact pregnant with her fifth child when she began law school. She took care of the children and completed housework during the day, and went to class at night, to return home around 10 PM with homework and housework left to complete. Her first-year finals were in May of 1972. She took her property exam on May 20th, and her torts exam a week later. Oh, and in between the two, on May 22nd, she gave birth to my Uncle Michael.
Oma had to obtain a letter permitting her to bring a pillow to the property exam, so as to ease the discomfort of spending four hours in a rickety wooden desk chair while nine months pregnant. She used her time in the hospital after Michael’s arrival to study for the torts exam. She told me the nurses thought she had postpartum depression, because she insisted on being left alone in her room with the door closed. They had seen many new mothers confine themselves to solitude due to postpartum depression, but she was the first whose angst resulted from an upcoming law exam. She managed to fit in enough studying at the hospital to pass, and she became a second-year law student and mother of five in the same week.
Oma’s law school graduation. Left to right: Her mother Anna, her brother Artie, her daughter Lisa, her sister Claire
Ammu attended the medical college, where she met my grandfather, Shanmugha. The once-timid Pappa again proved her insubordination, finding an excuse to reject every arranged marriage her parents proposed, while keeping my grandfather a secret. He finally convinced her to come clean, and his father came down to Thiruvananthapuram from Delhi to “court her family,” as she described it. Her father granted permission, and my Ammu and Tha Tha married and immigrated to the United States shortly after, recruited to help fill the country’s void of doctors.
The Path They Paved
I could continue writing about my grandmothers indefinitely, from their mishaps and obstacles to their triumphs. There are so many parts of their lives that this piece did not leave me room to share. Yet I am pausing – not stopping, because this is certainly not the last time I will designate myself their scribe – the narrative at my grandmothers’ experiences with higher education, because I am at a vaguely comparable place in my life. I am a college sophomore, constantly stressing over where I want my education to lead me.
While I found much of the semblance I expected between Ammu’s and Oma’s fights for their educations, my experiences have been entirely different. In addition to the obvious influence that the sixty years between us had on women everywhere, I attribute the opportunities that I have taken somewhat for granted to my grandparents’ hard work. My Ammu, once the subject of teasing for her small size and the notorious spanking incident, gathered all her courage to convince her parents to let her attend medical school. That act led her to my grandfather, the United States, and an incredible career, starting in pediatric care and eventually in physical rehabilitation. My Oma, once forced to do a precinct’s housekeeping to help her family get by, once too timid to approach an alumna visiting her college, spent four years in night school while raising five children. Her efforts led her to become a divorce attorney so adept that she was made a partner after three years at her firm, and head of the matrimonial department after seven. She was the first woman to hold a management position at her firm, and at the time one of only three women in New York City with Executive Committee positions at a major law firm.
Though this piece focuses on two of the most influential women in my life, the impact of each of my grandfather’s hard work cannot be overstated. Tha Tha was a brilliant trauma surgeon, as well as his hospital’s Chief of Surgery, and President of the Indian American Medical Association of Illinois. His absolute adoration of Ammu offered me an example of the type of love that is unfortunately few and far between. His death in 2014 was felt by the many people he touched, but for Ammu, it meant the loss of her other half. Along with Tha Tha, Poppy is one of the smartest men I have ever met. My mom has trouble buying him presents, because he loves biographies, but there are few good ones he hasn’t read. She often resorts to buying him chocolate. He is a total chocoholic, though he will eat anything. Eighty years later, he still thinks back to the deprivation of his childhood, and never leaves food on his plate. The legacy Poppy started at his firm lives on through my Uncle Michael, who is taking over Ferrari & Ferrari LLP. The ultimate expression of his devotion to Oma, his commitment to take on as much childcare and housework as he could for her four years at Fordham Law, lives on through the career his support helped her achieve.
While the focus of this piece is not Tha Tha or Poppy, it is even more so not me. However, reflection on my own experiences further illuminates the magnitude of my grandmothers’. I was raised under the assumption that I would go to college and could choose to extend my education beyond a Bachelor’s Degree. I went to one of New York City’s specialized public high schools, and honestly don’t know that I would have had the gumption to apply without my family’s encouragement, support, and resources. Oma grew up only a short bus or subway ride from my high school, Bronx Science, and didn’t know that testing into specialized public schools was even an option until she was much older.
There has always been food in my family’s home, and I have never been counted on to help provide it. I know that I can marry when I am ready, or not if I never am. My parents, and my grandparents, will support me regardless. My grandmothers were not raised with the same privilege, but they sought opportunity where they could, and their diligence and brains led them to a place where their children and grandchildren could pursue education more comfortably. And perhaps their paths crossed in a more physical sense at the 1965 World’s Fair, only one overlap of what turned out to be quite a few.