In Hindi, there are at least ten words for “aunt” or “uncle.” Your mother’s sister, mother’s brother, father’s sister, father’s brother, mother’s sister-in-law, mother’s brother-in-law, and on and on: they all have different names. The most affectionate term of all is masi, reserved for your mother’s sister. For my sister and me, our mom’s family was the strongest force in our childhood. Our mom has four sisters, so I have four masis; it was a profoundly and proudly matriarchal upbringing. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would one day spend thirteen years building a company named for a species of matriarchal chimpanzee.
Mom’s parents, Prakash and Dhian, were born in Rawalpindi, a city in Punjab State. In 1947, the British split Punjab in two, creating a Pakistani side and an Indian side: Muslims over here, Hindus over there. My grandparents, a Hindu and a Sikh, had to leave in the middle of the night with their two daughters. The region was thrown into chaos, with an estimated fifteen million people displaced, and at least one million killed.
Usha Ahuja, my mother, was born in this context, in a refugee town called Kurukshetra, during her family’s multiyear journey from Rawalpindi to New Delhi, where they eventually settled. My mom’s mom, our Badi Mummy (Prakash), was a child bride, not educated beyond the sixth grade. She lost two children in infancy before she turned eighteen. Then she had seven kids: five girls and two boys.
My mom and her sisters adored their father, and they feared him, too. The level of his expectations for their success was daunting. He was an enterprising building contractor, a chain smoker, and an alcoholic. He instilled in his daughters a progressive message, ahead of its time in 1950s and ’60s India: “You don’t want to be dependent on a man like me.” His vision for his children was for them to get educated and make it to the United States. By the time he fell ill with emphysema, my mom had graduated college and been shipped first to Canada and then to the United States, to live with my Ashi Masi, by then an obstetrician-gynecologist. My aunt would go on to deliver both my sister and me.
My mom’s mandate was to get trained as an X-ray tech and send money home, living with her sister so that she could pass on 100 percent of her income. With her father ill, they desperately needed the money, and my mom—a most dutiful human—answered the call to the sublimation of her own possibilities. Any dreams she had of becoming a doctor, like two of her older sisters, were subsumed by that short-term need in the late 1960s. She never complained about it. She never complains. Money was so tight that when my grandfather died, in January 1969, my mom couldn’t afford to go home to New Delhi for his cremation. It haunts her still. She has never gotten closure.
Mom’s sisters built the clichéd Indian American immigrant family, filled with doctors and married to them, too. Ashi Masi’s husband is a radiation oncologist; Shano Masi, an internal medicine physician, married a surgeon; and Dolly Masi, my mom’s younger sister, is a physical therapist. My dad’s side of the family is smaller, but also filled with medical professionals.
As I was growing up, doctors were everywhere. My older sister, Monica, and I felt invincible—there was always medical help ready for any issue we faced.
Except, of course, for the one that came.
For Monica and me, Mom was a hands-on cultivator of empathy, a self-awareness developer, and, like her own father, a setter of high hopes and expectations. She was a rare mixture of caring—tough, compassionate, and candid. She was the same at work: in her twenty years of leading a team of a dozen women in a hospital ultrasound department, no one ever quit.
“You have to love the person behind the person that works for you,” she’d say.
In my childhood home we had paintings from Mackinac Island, in northern Michigan: gulls, pine trees, windy skies, rocks, and bluffs. There is a gray-blue hue where the horizon meets the lake. My dad’s eyes are that color. At six feet two inches, Charles Dunn, my father, seemed to me a gentle giant. “I love you” rolled off his tongue easily; unique, perhaps, for midwestern dads of his vintage. As a parent, he was a watchful protector, a role model for how to treat your wife, the answerer of all questions, and an ascetic who abstained from all forms of hedonistic consumption, save for ice cream. He was a walking encyclopedia. On a trip to Madrid, in 2003, I was three years out of college. Dad and I headed into the Museo Nacional del Prado. I asked if he wanted to get the tour-by-audio headset. “I’ll provide the audio,” he quipped. And then he did.
Dad’s family is multigenerational Irish, Danish, English, Norwegian, and Swedish American. One of three children, he was raised as an evangelical Christian, a Swedish Baptist. His father was adopted, so tracing the lineage becomes hazy: picture some Danish immigrants on a farm in Wisconsin, a Swedish bartender and his Irish bride, and you start to get the idea. His family moved nine times in twelve years before landing on Chicago’s West Side.
Before the mood swings and all the moving, my paternal grandmother, Alva Georgina North (Nana), was a World War II hero. Nana was born in Chicago. She was a surgical army trauma nurse who arrived on the beaches of Normandy on day ten, treating frontline soldiers’ wounds on the march to Berlin and Victory in Europe, or V-E Day. She was present for the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Back in the States, she had treated an airman named Charles Willard Dunn II, my grandfather (Dada), who would win the Distinguished Flying Cross as a pathfinding navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress, leading bombing raids over Europe. They exchanged nine hundred love letters on the European front, which Dad discovered in a trunk in the basement after his parents were gone. He spent ten years writing the story of their wartime romance, titling it The Nurse and the Navigator.
Dada dropped out of Harvard, but after the war eventually made it to medical school and became a psychiatrist. Nana became, informally, one of his patients, and he started medicating her. In an unpublished appendix to Dad’s memoir, he writes of his grandfather: “Dad’s decision to become a psychiatrist was made with the expectation that his resulting expertise would mitigate the effects of Mom’s disorder. But it also gave him dark powers that could be wielded against her.”
The treatment plan included barbiturates, tranquilizers, at least two institutionalizations, and frequent moves to avoid the “embarrassment” of Nana’s difficulties. One of Nana’s commitments was a few weeks long, another a few months. When my grandmother returned home, in true Scandinavian spirit, it was swept under the rug. My dad writes of his siblings and himself: “During the good times, Jane, Bob and I—taking our cue from Dad [my dad’s father]—always pretended that everything was okay. Indeed, during the good phase, Dad himself always proceeded as if there was no reason to be concerned that the bad times were going to recur, although they always did.” In a theoretical world, my grandmother’s psychiatric issues and my grandfather’s career as a psychiatrist might have prepared us for what was to come. Instead, the family tradition did the opposite: it prepared us to bury it all.
From my vantage point, they seemed like normal grandparents, sending us money on our birthdays and taking us on trips to Marshall Field’s, where Nana, doused in perfume, would buy us Frango mint chocolates. According to Dad, by the time Monica and I met them, they had transcended the turmoil, though they bore little resemblance to the war heroes he later encountered in those letters.
Even a decade after my own issues emerged, it never occurred to me to wonder if, or how, mental illness runs in a family, let alone how shame and stigma compound generationally. A house filled with ghosts.