As the years roll on, your future seems to shrink, while your past grows longer. And if your mobility is impaired and your physical activity becomes necessarily limited, you fall back on your inner resources and enjoy lying on an easy chair while your mind recalls people and events that have made an impact on [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Counting her blessings

Drawing from a 100-year store of memories Stepha Guruswamy speaks to Anne Abayasekera about life, love and faith

As the years roll on, your future seems to shrink, while your past grows longer.

And if your mobility is impaired and your physical activity becomes necessarily limited, you fall back on your inner resources and enjoy lying on an easy chair while your mind recalls people and events that have made an impact on you over the years, contemplates the present and draws comfort from your store of scented memories. That’s how it is with Stephanie Guruswamy (nee de Alwis), who celebrated her 100th birthday on March 28 this year. I saw her a week or so before the great day. She looked serene and content and as I listened to the story of her life, that line from Robert Browning’s poem, “Grow old along with me”, came unbidden into my mind.

From the family album: Stepha in her younger days

Seated with us were her daughter Faith, former Vice Principal of Methodist College, Faith’s husband, Sunil Wickremasuriya, who is a senior academic at the Moratuwa University, her American daughter-in-law, Lynna, and grand-daughter Alesha. While Stepha (as she has always been called), understood the questions I put to her, her replies to them emerged slowly. Often, Faith had to lean over her and repeat what I asked and her response, uttered very softly, then came without delay.

Stepha had been the petted youngest in a family of six – there was her elder sister, followed by four brothers and then Stepha who was so much younger than her big sister, Annette, that she was flower-girl at her wedding to Arthur Ranasinghe, civil servant and later a diplomat who was knighted for his services. The brothers were Earle, Neil, Dunstan and Stanley.

Stepha’s memory needed no jogging when asked about her school. She had fully enjoyed her schooldays at Newstead Girls’ College, Negombo. She repeated the school motto, “Look Beyond”, and said she was in Ward House, was a keen Girl Guide and had been Head Girl of the school. Faith told me that more recently, when Stepha was asked whether she had a motto of her own, she had replied: “You become what you gaze upon” and had gone on to explain that we need to fix our gaze on the Highest because we become what we gaze upon.

On leaving school, Stepha had been involved with the Colombo YWCA located in Union Place, Colombo 2. I knew that her romance with A.P. Guruswamy caused a big upheaval in the de Alwis family and I asked how the two had met. It appeared that Mr. Guruswamy had come to the house to give her brother Stanley tuition in Classics, and seen Stepha around and the two had fallen in love. Lady Ranasinghe was outraged and the brothers were with her. No way would their sister be permitted to marry a Tamil! The Guruswamys, who hailed from Batticaloa, were of Indian origin.

Stepha with daughter-in-law Lynna

Eventually, Stepha felt compelled to take refuge in the YWCA where she had the sympathy of the Vice President, Miss Estelle Amaron. Stepha’s marriage to Arthur Guruswamy may be described as a “drama in real life.” She was so scared about what steps her brothers might take to prevent the marriage that she crouched down in the rear seat of Miss Amaron’s car and was driven to the manse of the Kollupitiya Methodist Church where she was kindly received by the minister, Rev. E. Rowton Lee and Mrs. Lee. She put on her bridal finery in the safety of the manse. It was on Miss Amaron’s arm that Stepha walked up the aisle on that unforgettable day, January 21, 1943, when she defied her family and changed her name from de Alwis to Guruswamy.

All the signs seemed to indicate that they would have lived happily ever after for a lifetime. Three children – Priya, Arthur and Faith – arrived in due course. The boycott by Stepha’s family could not dim the joy the young family experienced.

Arthur pursed higher studies and obtained his Ph.D. He held the prestigious post of Deputy Commissioner of the National Savings Movement (which later evolved into the NSB). Suddenly, tragedy struck. Arthur was drowned in the sea in 1957, not far from their home in Dehiwela. I couldn’t possibly probe into such a devastating event. They had just 14 years of happiness together. Priya, the eldest child, was 13 and Faith only 4.

I did ask Faith how they managed financially after her father’s death. There was his pension, she said, but it was inadequate. Stepha had taught in the Presbyterean Girls’ School in Dehiwela and had also done a teaching stint at Methodist College. But she wasn’t happy about the limited time it allowed her with her children. Just then, she happened to read the autobiography of the great Christian social worker of the 19th century, George Muller, who ran his orphanages for destitute children purely on faith, looking for God’s provision for the day-to-day needs of his institutions. Stepha felt inspired to trust in God for herself and her family’s needs. She prayed and she lived in faith and she wasn’t disappointed. Friends came to her aid in unexpected ways. Among them was a handful of Englishwomen in a prayer group in London to which Arthur had once introduced her. One of them in particular, Mary Giffen, had become a close friend who kept in touch with the Guruswamys and she was very concerned when Arthur died. She and her group had taken it upon themselves to help in whatever way they could.

“Mummy was very positive in her outlook,” said Faith. “Don’t ever have a poverty complex,” she told us. “She always reminded us that there were people much worse off than we were. I remember one Christmas, when we received a gift of a hamper, Mummy saw to it that we shared the contents with a poor family in the neighbourhood. She taught us always to count our blessings.

When Priya was 20, she wanted to go to London to train as a nurse. Although Stepha found it hard to let her go, she decided that Priya had to live her own life and gave her blessing. Mary Giffen was there to welcome Priya and help her to achieve her dream. “My sister has always been grateful to Mummy for letting her go and she writes or calls from America where she now lives, every week without fail.” Priya married an American, Dr. Robert Lovatt, who is also very fond of Stepha and both of them were flying in for the birthday celebration.

It was a pleasure to meet Stepha’s American daughter-in-law Lynna, wife of son Arthur, and their daughter Alesha who also writes to her grandmother every week. Both of them have come many times to visit, over the years.

Surprisingly, centenarian Stepha doesn’t yet have any great-grandchildren.

She has three grandchildren, of whom only Alesha is married. Nothing would keep away Faith’s two sons from coming to be with their beloved grandma as she reached her 100th milestone. Priyan, the elder, is a university lecturer in America and Dilrajan is completing his studies for a degree in Electronics.

They had grown up with Stepha who had minded them when they were young. Just as she had watched them grow up, they in their turn had seen the ageing process overtake their once vigorous Grandma. Both are fiercely protective of her, said Faith. Only Stepha’s son Arthur, a Microbiologist, couldn’t make it for the March 28 gathering, but he had spent time with Stepha last year.

Stepha had been active physically up to the age of 95. Her main involvements were with her church, (the Gospel Tabernacle in Manning Place, Wellawatte), the YWCA and the local branch of the international Christian movement known as Camps Furthest Out (CFO).Representatives of both the YWCA and CFO, long- time friends of Stepha, were to be at her celebration on the 28th. Her pastor, the Rev. Roger Koelmeyer, was to conduct a little Service of Thanksgiving. (I’m writing this before the event). Faith will speak on behalf of the family and Arthur’s wife, Lynna, will speak on behalf of the in-laws. Any others present who also wished to say a few words, would be welcome to do so.

I must mention that, happily, all her family, including Lady Ranasinghe who had so strongly opposed Stepha’s marriage, had become reconciled and re-united with her many years ago. Stepha is the only sibling left.

Faith’s husband Sunil’s affection for his mother-in-law was quite apparent. He turned towards me and said, “Although she is slow to speak, she is mentally very alert. She never misses the weekly Bible study meeting we hold here. I want to tell you of two remarkable statements she made quite recently during discussions that follow the Bible study. People were asked to share what disciplines they thought were important in the Christian life and various views were expressed, such as the discipline of prayer, of daily devotions and so on. After listening quietly, she suddenly came out with `The discipline of the tongue’! On another occasion, the question we were considering was, what is the mark of a Christian?

She unhesitatingly uttered one word: `Love!” And that, I think is an appropriate note on which to end this account of a true Christian life that has spanned ten decades and been an inspiration to many.

May the Good Lord continue to bless and keep you, Stepha.

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