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How a daycare worker became one woman's other mother

This story originally aired on December 8, 2018.    

Her name is Gulshan Yunis. But I call her Ammi — Urdu for "mother."

When I was growing up, both my parents worked full-time, so they needed someone to take care of me during the day. Like a lot of parents, they looked hard for the right person. In the end — and this is a family joke now — I chose Gulshan.

Gulshan ran a daycare in her home in Mountlake Terrace. The day my parents met with her I was crying and crying, and Gulshan just said “give her to me.” As soon as she took me in her arms, I was silent. My parents say that’s how I picked her.

Gulshan took care of me almost every weekday starting from when I was a baby until I was about 4 years old. Like most people who ran in-home daycares, she made chicken nuggets, built blanket forts and played endless hours of kid shows. Occasionally, when she got sick of kid entertainment, she’d put on a Pakistani soap opera.

I remember her house being constantly filled with friends and family. And then, over the years, her house slowly became less and less busy. The daycare kids grew up. Her own three kids grew up. And 10 years ago, her husband, Papa Yunis, passed away. After so many years with a full house, suddenly Gulshan was alone. And she needed something to do.

That’s when Gulshan found the mall. A safe, warm place where she could walk in peace. Like the gym, but with no membership fees.

That’s where we hang out these days.

The first time I went with Gulshan to the mall was a little awkward. She would introduce me to people she knew by saying, “Oh this is my daughter, Marisa… She is not married.” But things got a little more comfortable after that.

Now when I go with her, we have our routine. We walk into the mall through the same door, walk in the same direction, and make the same number of loops. Five loops starting and finishing at J.C. Penney.

Gulshan never buys anything, but she does stop to say hello to all the people who work at the kiosks and give them pieces of hard candy from her purse. Like Derek from the calendar stand, or Zanit who sells splat balls. And then there are the cellphone guys. Everybody else gets hard candy, but these guys get a box of handmade sweets. The guys are from Pakistan and India, and they have a special bond with Gulshan. I call Gulshan Ammi, or mother. They call her Auntie Gulshan.

Every time we hang out, we end our time together by driving to her house and drinking chai in her living room. The house still smells the same. A few things have changed here and there, and its emptier now, but it’s still the same house I grew up in.

When I was a kid, it was normal for us to see Gulshan surrounded by people in this house. It was just the way things were. Now when I see Gulshan holding her chai and talking to me, it’s kind of like being friends with your parents. I’m not seeing her as mom, or some authority figure, I see her as Gulshan. This social person who can go to the mall and make friends with total strangers. It explains how all those people ended up at her house in the first place.

I think Gulshan really enjoys being the kind of person who can be friends with a guy reading a book at a calendar stand, or some kids trying to get their green cards working at a cellphone kiosk. She’s just that person everybody wants as a friend, or an ammi, or an auntie. And I know that she really enjoys knowing that her daycare kids love her enough to keep coming back.

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