By Ranjan Abayasekara –
Anne Abayasekara – 90th Birthday reflection
She was due to reach four score years and ten on 3rd April 2015. We had planned to rejoice with her in a manner similar to our father’s 90th birthday celebrated in December 2004. It was not to be. She contracted flu at the end of 2014, followed by hospitalisation on January 2nd and demise on January 4th. Amma left us peacefully and quickly, a manner she’d always desired. At the beginning of a new year, before many were aware of her illness, the message spread that Anne Abayasekara had completed her time on earth. The funeral service on January 7th at Kollupitiya Methodist Church was followed by her cremation at Kanatte.
The first tribute to her in a newspaper appeared that same morning. Other appreciations soon followed. They were from a cross-section of people, in SriLanka and overseas – old friends and recent friends. Cards, messages and emails coming in each day, made it clear that her life had impacted numerous people in a deep & lasting manner.
These heartfelt expressions prompt us to pause, amidst our sense of loss, to reflect upon her life
What was it that connected her so deeply and indelibly to all these people?
Is there a limit to a single heart’s capacity to care?
When you call someone Friend, is it for all of your days?
Are words ‘Mother’ and ‘Family’ inwardly focussed, or do they encompass deeper meanings?
Parting – is it final when someone is gone?
Upon reading the varied messages one realises her multi-faceted nature.
Regular readers of newspaper columns and letters viewed her as a forthright writer articulating the thoughts of many who stood for a united country, and were appalled by the path the country was being taken by those in power and the propagation of various forms of extremism.
To others she was a homemaker who had shared interesting experiences in raising a large family.
She was also a leader in the Methodist Church, who lived out her faith through action.
Many appreciated her contribution to the community as a family counsellor, while to others she was simply a dear friend.
To the family circle she was the one who by constant contact kept the whole circle united by love. Through her actions, spoken and written words she enriched all our lives.
In looking at her personality, we realise that she applied her gifts of head and heart, at an individual level and also the wider level of community and nation. She knew that ‘Peace on earth’ is only possible if there is peace within oneself and in relationships one had with others.
Factors that contributed to achieving inner peace, and its fruits, are her upbringing, schooling, faith, reading habit and marriage.
Coming from a background where her parents had little ability to bestow material gifts, and being boarded at a tender age in a Colombo school far away from home, gave her well-grounded values.
As a devoted daughter she had her parents live in her home until the end of their days. She lacked a sister, but made up for this by close bonds with cousins, which lasted throughout their lives. The close tie with her brother played a key role in her life. His facing a job interview at Lake House, led to her being called there too at age 17. Thus began a career of over 70 years spent immersed in the joy of writing. She was always grateful to Lake House and its founder Mr D R Wijewardene.
Schooling at C.M.S. Ladies’ College in Colombo led to early blossoming of her personality. The multi-ethnic friendships cemented for life in school, coloured her vision for a harmonious & united country. Foreigners were never ‘aliens’ and she forged many enduring friendships with overseas folks. Amma also created new friendships throughout her life, discovering kindred spirits in a wide range of people, while carefully nurturing old friendships.
She never forgot the debt owed to Miss Gwen Opie from New Zealand – her school principal- for teaching Christian values by word and deed. Her deep faith, blended with these values, social conscience and wide reading set her for life on the side of the less fortunate, willing to take risks when necessary.
Once in the 1960s arriving too early outside the then Colombo Oval to pick up a son after the Royal-Thomian cricket match, she had slum kids clamouring around her car. She asked them all to pile in, and drove a few times around Wanathamulla Road, to give them probably their first car ride. While driving a back door opened and one kid fell out of the car! Fortunately there was no injury. She sheepishly told Thatha and us of the incident. We knew that ‘the least of these’ had found a place in her compassionate heart.
In her school days, together with close friends she had ‘rebelled’ at one time, refusing to sing the then National anthem ‘God Save the King’, and demanding that India be freed from the colonial yoke!
Never one to sway with political winds she stayed steadfast to her conscience. In 1983 while there was a profound silence in the media, she wrote forthright articles, which were published in The Sun. In the dark days of Black July, Amma & Thatha protected neighbours from the rampage outside, and were able to give despairing relatives who telephoned from overseas the ability to speak to loved ones kept safe under their roof.
In February 1994, she joined a Methodist Church group to travel to Jaffna taking train to Vavuniya, and on tractor-trailer, bicycle pillion and bus rest of the way. Her words from the heart, to people she met there had an effect on them; their silent suffering had an effect on her. She remembered the look in their eyes whenever she spoke or wrote on the topic. In more recent years, when ‘the vans’ were doing their best to stifle opinion, she stood her ground. She never flinched from speaking up against injustice, and supported others who also spoke up for National reconciliation & good governance.
Even while a busy mother she was a Red Cross blood donor. When all of us were students, the household comprised between 12 to14 people, at times cousins also found lodging at home. If she thought an occasion warranted it, she was first to say sorry – even leaving a note of apology on a bed. She encouraged all of us to make our own choices in life, assured we all knew our roots. As the family grew through marriage, Amma formed strong bonds with in-laws and progeny. Children of her friends, friends of her children found her to be a confidant and unique friend. Active on email until days before her death, she was in touch globally. Her memory seemed phenomenal –it stemmed from genuine interest in each one.
Music and song were a core part of her life. She used the piano to create a certain atmosphere within the home. Tunes from ‘Everybody’s Favourites’ music book would waft through the house like a blessing, oft times accompanied by her singing. Her creative writing was not limited to prose. It was best seen in the annual song she composed for Thatha’s birthday, set to a popular tune and practised by us in secret. His birthday celebrated around Christmas, complete with Variety Family Concert and Nativity Play, was a focal event among friends and relatives. Many still recall magical memories of those times. She later composed songs to be sung at some family weddings.
Her way of coping with aging and medical issues was an example. She didn’t complain of undergoing surgical procedures and produced articles that were informative and had a humorous touch.
The flame of love for her motherland burned stronger after she walked around our ruined cities for the first time, hand in hand with Thatha in the early years of marriage. The fire had been lit when as a 23 year old journalist she attended the Independence Day inauguration on 4th February 1948. Those of her generation had visions of a united and happy nation dashed, and hopes for unity replaced by language & religious hatred. Democratic institutions were distorted; self-glorification, violence & corruption had become the norm. She joined groups such as the Friday Forum and kept on writing, arguing for alternatives…for better days ahead.
What caused Amma’s life to be so Abundant? It is a combination of the aspects mentioned earlier. The principal contributing factor is that she had married the one person in the world who was just right for her.
Amma & Thatha complemented each other perfectly although appearing to be opposites – he cerebral and given to speak only after due consideration; she lively, with opinions to air and more than ten years younger! Each contributed to the other’s success in ‘the art of living.’ Their perfect partnership enabled her talents and character to bloom. Thatha’s death in August 2005 was the hardest blow she ever received, and his absence was, for her, an ever aching void. They both had long lives, not least because of exceptional care given by their physician. For the extra years he added to their time on earth, they were, and we are always grateful.
Amma had e-mail friends overseas whom she never met. One has written to us, asking that selected writings be published as a book, for future generations to read and to benefit the land she loved so dearly.
Looking back we now realise that although she was our mother, she was ‘Mother’ personified to many others by caring relationships. We were her family, but she showed how one also creates ‘Family’ by concerned and enduring kinships.
She has now passed beyond the horizon of our earthly vision, but left us a legacy. Not jewellery or estates, but words of love and an example of a life lived in all its fullness. She left hand written notebooks filled with words, quotes and extracts she valued. In 2011, she thought it apt to leave a message to all the family in case of sudden departure. Her words of farewell, “When I am gone”, give us comfort and their spirit will endure.
We were fortunate to be raised on the bedrock of the love our parents had for each other and for each one of us. These will continue to be our inspiration, and beacon, for generations to come.