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Portrait of an uncommon lady

by Somasiri Devendra

(June 07, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Why have I not written about my mother when she was so exceptional? When I have about my father? So, at 75, its time for me to put it "write".
In the 1920s "mixed marriages" were quite unexceptional amongst the emerging intellectual elite. My eldest paternal uncle, from rural Kalegana, Galle, boldly followed his heart. My father followed, marrying a Presbyterian Burgher girl. Kalegana seethed, but Seeya, and Achchi, accepted the inevitable.

The very purity of their religious beliefs brought my parents together. The "Temperance" movement opposing of Arrack license Auctions, forced the government to let the people decide whether they wanted an arrack tavern in their area. In Dehiwela, one ardent propagandist was my mother, driven by her puritan Christianity. A daughter of Lloyd Oswald Felsianes, she had been left motherless as a baby and acquired an archetypal step-mother. These two factors accounted for her uncommon strength of belief and character. Finishing school, she qualified and worked as an Art teacher, when Fate intervened

Among her fellow campaigners she met a Sinhala Buddhist teacher dressed in the new "National dress". In the "heat of the battle", love bloomed. A friend of Father, trusted by Lloyd Felsianes, persuaded him to consent, and the marriage took place at the Registrar’s office.

The Felsianes’ – who, like most Burgers, could not distinguish between Buddhists and Sinhalese – must have been bewildered, but took us into their hearts. As kids our favourite holiday home was Grandpa’s, thoroughly spoilt by our much older cousins, particularly at Christmas time.

A long and amicable partnership, based on respect, principles, and compromise followed. Father never wanted Mother to change her religion. He bought her a new Bible and a Book of Psalms when her old ones were tattered (there was a faded sprig of "forget-me-nots" between the old pages – a memento of their Nuwara Eliya honeymoon). Her faith never wavered, but she went to Church only at Christmas or when her step-brother, the Padre, would preach. Near the end of his life, Father told us, "….you must remember to give Mother a proper Christian burial."

Mother worked hard to build a close, united family. There was to be a common ethical and value system. The children would be Buddhists, but respect all religions. We avidly read her old Bible story books. Her fusion of the best of Buddhism and Christianity moulded us. She spoke Sinhala – not fluently – but in those days, all their friends conversed in English. So English was language at home: something that helped us a great deal.

She became a part In the Sinhala-Buddhist family she created. She had worn frocks in the early days but when the Sari came along she adopted and wore it for the rest of her life. She even tied her hair in a "bun" at the nape of her neck. She was always assumed to be a good Sinhalese! But jewellry, which she admired, she never wore.

A motherless childhood made her empathize with children without a parent. She had a soft-spot for the underdog: whether child or adult, middle-class or shanty-dweller. Ever-ready and armed, she was, with her own remedies and women would seek her out for advice, which she gave freely – from the efficacy of "green oil" (sarvavisadiya) for tonsillitis to marriage counselling and birth-control – sometimes ruffling feathers! Whether it was a climber who fell from a tree or someone who was assaulted, she was the first to be called, the first to be on the "crime scene", the first to demand that by-standers help her. But how many battered wives came home for "tea and sympathy" with her! Father always backed her because they both believed that marriages were meant to work, and they always worked towards reconciliation.

Ruling the household with a firm hand – leaving father to pursue his writing undisturbed – we had to follow the same rules. When we reached a certain age we all had to perform household chores. Boys could not bully the girls: a sister threatening to shout the dreaded word, "Amma….!" was enough (as they knew!). Her discipline was even-handed but we knew that the cane was the offender – not Mother! Children had to bear responsibility at a very early age. The elder two bore the brunt: shopping, queuing up at the Co-op stores, and the elder brother (not yet twelve) walking his sister to Eye Hospital to be tested.

In our Ratnapura village home during the war years, Mother blossomed: becoming the Font of Wisdom to the women from whom she learnt recipes, medicines, "beeralu", folk ways and folk wisdom. At last she learnt the nature of real Sinhalese village folk. We, the younger two, revelled in the freedom she gave us to roam trough the village and the trust she had in us. During flood time, our home became a refugee camp. She, and we, loved the village.

She was ready for awkward questions. She knew we read all the books in the house. Stacked unobtrusively among them were two on, "Sex knowledge", for boys and for girls. Of course we found and read them. Animal life around us demonstrated. And there were no questions!

Though Mother had been deeply hurt in early married life by the hostility of some distant in-laws, she never spoke of it. But when Father had to dig deep into their savings for a family obligation, she disapproved: because it had been so hard-earned. But Father had no choice, and he sacrificed his own most valuable books and his beloved camera. Sometimes, everything that had conspired against her since childhood became too much to bear. One such day, my younger sister and I were fighting and my sister ran to her shouting "Amma…..", with me hard on my heels to defend myself when, suddenly, it became too much for her. Putting her head on her arms on the dining table where she was sitting, she burst into tears. We were shocked beyond belief, for we had never, never seen her cry. We tip-toed away scared thinking that, in some way, we were to blame.

We came back to Colombo, and life was easier. She gave a home to their friends’ children for many years. Our home, revolving around her, was always open to all comers. We renewed links the happy-go-lucky "Burgher side" of the family and when the Padre Uncle married a lady, also a "Clarice" who now became the new "Clarice Felsianes".

When Father took up his Buddhist work again, she supported him. An inaugural conference of the "World Fellowship of Buddhists" was held in Ceylon; Father and she were in the thick of it. When it was held in Thailand, she was at his side.

We grew up and left home, but the nest was not empty for long. Mother took over the two tiny kids of a nephew with a terminally ill wife. They were our toys and all our friends’ mascots. Their mother, poor girl, did not recover and so they remained with us till they each grew big enough to go to school. On Christmas, if their father could not come, our Buddhist house sported a Christmas tree with streamers, bulbs and presents under it.

Old age was catching up with them. Father had heart disease. Fortunately, I was posted to Colombo. Pooling our resources, we all moved into a comfortable house. It was to be a time of trouble: Mother now lost her brother and we had the first funeral in our house. Within months, Mother woke me one night, shaken, saying, "Father is snoring in a funny way and I can’t wake him up". He died the next day.

Mother coped with her loss in her own way. Life had made her strong. I found a house in Dehiwela, and so we moved back to Mother’s childhood haunts, where she lived with us for fifteen years. With the two growing children of mischievous age often annoying her, life was not all roses all the way for her – or for me, torn between children and Mother. This is where I failed her. Yes, I looked after her, but I failed to give her the emotional support she needed most. My wife filled the gap as well as she could, and Mother tended to lean more on her.

She had renewed her links with her Church. Sundays meant much to her and Christmas the highlight of the year. The grandchildren awaited it in high glee. – it was their festival as much as hers. It was a glorious gathering, with a festive lunch for all on Christmas day itself. In the evening, Mother playing Santa seated by the tree, handing out the presents to her grandchildren in strict order of seniority is a memory that remains with us.

But Life is not always Christmas, and it is fleeting. Osteoporosis set in and she had to be hospitalized and was eventually bedridden. We brought her home, for her last birthday. She was almost in a coma, but knew why we had gathered there, but all she wanted was to leave this world early. Five days later, she had her wish.

Anticipating the inevitable, she had written scribbled names of her favourite Pastors and the hymns of her choice. But we had no burial plot and it was Aunty Clarice who came to the rescue. "Let her be buried with her brother," she said. So the Christian burial that Father had wanted for her was duly given.

Thank you, Mother, for making us what we are. And forgive me for when I failed you.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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