Personal to Clare: With love from a niece
Much has been written about her, and will continue to be written about her professionalism, writing skills and the indelible mark she made on the world of Sri Lankan journalism, but few outside her immediate family knew who she really was. For despite being a public personality, Aunty Clare was a private person, and guarded her privacy jealously.
This virtual obsession with privacy was a reason why she strongly discouraged visits to her hospital bedside – except for a small handful of those close to her -- which was rather misunderstood by some. I was one of the privileged few, and each time she entered hospital she would ask Viraj if he had informed me. No matter how bad she had been feeling that day, she would gather up her strength to greet me with a strong ‘Renuks’ (her ‘pet’ name for me) and reach for my hand. Even on my last visit to her, when she was barely conscious, she woke out of her stupor to utter my name in as strong a voice as she could muster, before lapsing into semi-consciousness.
She was strong, forthright and decisive. Nothing and nobody could budge her from her opinion on any matter, once it had been formed, and woe betide the hapless soul who dared argue with her! Her ‘Personal from Clare’ editorials and the content of the Lanka Woman, which appealed to women and men of all ages, won her a loving and devoted band of readers, an achievement that few editors can boast of. Many were the letters and ‘phone calls that the ‘Dear Editor’ received, and many were the accolades. Her forthright and fearless editorials deriding corruption in the Government inspired respect among her readers, but had her family consumed with concern for her safety. Aunty Clare was ‘straight’ – in every sense of the word, and made no bones about it. I remember reading with some considerable amusement her exchanges with a group of gays on the subject of sexual deviations, on which she had strong opinions that went against the grain of modern permissiveness.
I was one of the very first models for Lanka Woman. I was at university at the time, and she titled my modelling debut ‘Sweet Girl Graduate’. Nobody could have been prouder of the ‘fan mail’ I received, and she insisted on publishing some of the letters!
Although I started my career as a journalist at Lake House, this was a line I didn’t pursue, preferring to veer off into the more lucrative area of public relations. Aunty Clare never argued with my choice of profession, but she did, at times, indicate that she would like me to contribute to Lanka Woman, an invitation that I, unfortunately, did not take up, pleading the excuse of a lack of time to write. Finally, she bearded the lion in her den and asked me if I would review ‘Evita’. Her praise of the write-up was lavish. She told me that it should be displayed as an example of a well written review. Aunty Clare rarely praised anyone, so praise from her was praise indeed, and I revelled in it.
Just weeks before she entered hospital, she ‘phoned home and, rather unusually, happened to reach me. She and I had a long long chat, speaking of matters close to the heart. She then told me that I had a command of the language and a way with words that few in my generation possessed, and advised me not to neglect this talent. This was the first time I realized that she had such a high opinion of my writing skills. We probably had more in common than we realised.
She inspired awe and respect wherever she went, particularly within the precincts of Wijeya. Whereas Uncle Nanda, who was the perennial nice guy, everybody’s buddy and helper, was always called hamu mahattaya, Aunty Clare would, more often than not, be referred to in hushed tones as ‘Madame’, and the service staff dared not thwart ‘Madame’ in any way and earn a sharp reprimand. Their strong presence at her funeral was a tribute to the ‘Madame’ they loved and respected.
Aunty Clare was never an overly demonstrative person, but The Family came first for her and she would down tools to fly to our side at the slightest hint of trouble, to take up cudgels on our behalf.
She was one of my greatest comforters and supports during the dark days of my life when I made the decision to walk away from a failed marriage, a decision that shocked and alarmed the family, which didn’t know quite how to cope with such an unprecedented situation. Her own life was not without trouble and tribulation. She weathered the storms by refusing to dwell on unpleasantness and unhappiness, blocking them completely from her mind.
She will always be a part of my happy and carefree childhood and girlhood, of long lazy Sundays at my grandmother’s home in Athuruguriya, where we children ‘skinned our hearts and skinned our knees’, exploring the wilderness, fishing for ‘guppies’ in the crystal clear streams, lighting fireworks, and sitting around at sing songs during gatherings of our close-knit family.
Our trips to the wilds of Yala, Wilpattu and Wasgamuwa are some of my most memorable. Ours is a family of nature lovers and Aunty Clare was at its forefront. The only times I saw her enthusiasm for wild life wane was when she encountered the outdoors indoor, at Wildlife Society bungalows infested with tree frogs and other creepy crawlies that sprang or dropped from behind picture frames and furniture, or gazed balefully from under toilet seats, poised to take a leap at the unwary.
In recent years, Mum and I would visit her at home on a holiday, and they would swap yarns until the wee hours. Those evenings were very interesting for us ‘young ‘uns’ as they gave us hitherto unknown and invaluable insights into life and the family. Aunty Clare enjoyed those evenings, and used to plead with us to stay just a little bit longer.
Aunty Clare’s one vanity, if such it may be called, was her hair. She would insist on regular visits to her hairdresser, and emerge perfectly coiffured, with nary a hair out of place. Her perfect dress sense and flair for colour made her an elegant figure at gatherings.
Hers was not a faith that was very visible. She rarely crossed the portals of a Church in recent times, but her faith in the Lord was deep, and she would draw on Him for succour and strength in times of need. When visiting her at hospital I asked her if she would like a cross for comfort. The blessed cross was a source of solace to her, and she would clutch it in her hand when in the throes of pain. The cross continued to comfort her and followed her to her rest.
She made her peace with her Maker. Goodbye and God bless you, Aunty Clare. May He grant you all the joys of His kingdom.
“Oh, for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still.” – R.L. Stevenson.