Portrait of an uncommon Lady
Clarice Ruth Devendra (nee Felsianes)
Why have I not written about my Mother, who was so exceptional, while I have written about my father? So, at 75, it is time for me to put matters “write”.
In the 1920s, “mixed marriages” were quite unexceptional among 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.
It was the purity of their religious beliefs that brought my parents together. The temperance movement, which opposed arrack licence auctions, forced the government to let the people decide whether or not they wanted an arrack tavern in their neighbourhood. In Dehiwela, there was one particularly ardent propagandist –my mother, who was driven by her puritan Christianity. A daughter of Lloyd Oswald Felsianes, she was left motherless as a baby and acquired an archetypal stepmother. These two factors accounted for her uncommon strength of belief and character. After finishing school, she qualified and worked as an art teacher, when Fate intervened.
Among her fellow campaigners in the temperance movement was a Sinhala Buddhist teacher attired in the new “national dress”. In the heat of the campaign battle, love bloomed. A friend of Father’s 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 children, our favourite holiday home was Grandpa’s, where we were thoroughly spoilt by our much older cousins, particularly at Christmas time.
A long and amicable partnership, based on mutual 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 own copies were tattered (there was a faded sprig of forget-me-nots stuck 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 would respect all religions. We avidly read her old Bible storybooks. 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 the language at home.
She became a part of the Sinhala-Buddhist family she created. She wore frocks in the early days, but later adopted the saree, which she wore 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 jewellery, which she admired, she never wore.
A motherless childhood helped her to empathise with children without a parent. She had a soft spot for the underdog, whether child or adult, middle-class or shanty-dweller. She was armed and ever ready with her own remedies, and women would seek her out for advice, which she gave freely. Her advice ranged from home remedies (she recommended “green oil” or sarvavisadiya for tonsillitis) to marriage counselling and tips on birth-control – sometimes ruffling feathers.
How many battered wives came home for “tea and sympathy” with Mother. Father always backed her, because they both believed marriages were meant to work, and they always worked towards reconciliation.
Mother ruled the household with a firm hand, leaving Father to pursue his writing undisturbed. When we reached a certain age, we all had to perform household chores. Boys could not bully the girls. Her discipline was even-handed. Children had to bear responsibility at a very early age.
Mother blossomed during the war years, in our village home in Ratnapura. She became a 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. During flood time, our home became a refugee camp. She, and we, loved the village.
She was always ready for awkward questions. She knew we read all the books in the house. Stacked unobtrusively on the shelves were two books offering “sex knowledge”, one book for the boys and other for the girls. Of course, we found the books and we read them. The animal life around us provided the demonstrations, and no questions were asked.
Although Mother was deeply hurt in her 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 the money had been so hard-earned. But Father had no choice. He sacrificed his most valuable books and his beloved camera.
Sometimes, everything that had conspired against her since her childhood, became too much to bear. One such day, my younger sister and I were fighting and my sister ran to her, shouting “Amma”. 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 seen her cry. We tip-toed away, thinking that, in some way, we were to blame.
We came back to Colombo and life was easier. For many years, she gave a home to the children of friends. Our home was open to all comers. We renewed links with the happy-go-lucky “Burgher side” of the family.
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.
When we grew up and left home, the nest was not empty for long. Mother took over the care of two children of a nephew with a terminally ill wife.
Their mother did not recover and so they remained with us till they grew big enough to go to school. For 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. 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. Some months later, 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 we moved back to Mother’s childhood haunts, where she lived with us for 15 years.
With two growing children of mischievous age often annoying her, life was not 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 most needed. My wife filled the gap as well as she could, and Mother tended to lean more on her.
She renewed her links with her church. Sundays meant much to her, and Christmas was the highlight of the year. We had a glorious festive lunch on Christmas day. In the evening, Mother played Santa, seated by the tree and handing out presents to her grandchildren in strict order of seniority.
Life is not always Christmas. Osteoporosis set in and she had to be hospitalised 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. All she wanted was to leave this world early. Five days later, she had her wish.
Anticipating the inevitable, she had scribbled names of her favourite pastors and hymns of her choice. But we had no burial plot. Aunty Clarice 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.