Sunday, August 19, 2018

Enduring lessons in love, life and happiness...

On the occasion of the 99th birth anniversary of Mrs Sessy Paulis of Sirimal Uyana Ratmalana

When I met my adorable mother in law Mrs Sessy Paulis, she was about 70 and I was 19 so actually more than a mother-in-law, she seemed like a grandma to me too which was wonderful since I didn't have one of my own close-by. She was a very graceful and elegant figure, usually in light blue sarees with a string of pearls which she wore when visiting. What stood out at the first impression was one of a very loving, compassionate, and genuinely caring lady of class and standing, who also knew to bond with any strata of people. Since I was a very young daughter-in-law I’m very happy to say that I learned a lot of things from her, and I'm very sure that her lessons of kindness and tolerance live on through me as much as they do through her own children and grandchildren. I was comparatively impressionable and vulnerable at that age, so I do believe she adopted me at once as another happy addition to her large family of 8 children, 6 in laws and what would become about three dozen grandchildren. My earliest memories are of me sitting in her front lawn as she had captured me after a bath and her gently trying to  get some order out of my hair, which those days was much like the curly haired character in Brave. She would patiently oil it and scrunch it, which made it remotely manageable, to my surprise.
There were so  many valuable lessons she taught us including;
  • Mettha to all, and so much love for her familyNow I look back on the wonderful relationship we had, and though we went through lot of changes and challenges in life, I cannot remember her having spoken one harsh word, or hurt my feelings ever, and how many people, even from loving families, can one say this about? Aunty was a true Buddhist gentlewoman in every meaning of the word. Aunty would love to meet all her relations, who themselves were very loving and genuine people from down south (Dondra people from Pinkanda) and if we ever went travelling down south or to Kandy or to Anuradhapura we had to meet a blur of dear humble people who loved her and spoke of her as a kind of legend. My own family was a western-educated, nuclear family with all manner of grudges against its various relations, but she always advised me that family is precious and her favourite motto ever was “forgive and forget”. Aunty always without fail remembered the good people did, and made sure to forget any wrongs she may have noticed. From her I learned to always seek the good in any human, and to give people chances.
  • Karuna and true humility she told me not to call our workers “servants” but to call them helpers. There is a lot of meaning in this. She has always spoken with kindness and respect to anyone, including those working in our homes, be it a gardner, plumber or attendant. This is a trend modern people do follow, but you will agree it was not common in her generation.
  • Muditha Aunty was genuinely happy at the good fortune of other people, and would brag on their behalf. This was the same if it was family, relatives, friends or neighbours. You always heard the nice updates! And all of this before the words “positive thinking” became buzz words!
  • Genuine upeksha in all she did. Aunty exemplified non attachment, balance and tolerance in all her relationships and dealings. I learned from her not to judge people simply because they were going against social expectations. Not to judge based on class or rank or financial status, but to be tolerant of peoples failings and search for the good in them. And as to material things, she clung to nothing ever, with another motto being “ we will all be letting go of this and going one day” (api mey siyalla ataralla yanawa ne kawadahari). I knew her always as a simple smiling lady happy with a few pastel colored sarees, one pearl necklace, one beige handbag, a pair of spectacles, and a couple of pairs of usually beige slippers. She hung on to no possessions whatsoever. She also stoically and cheerfully bore any pain, hardships and even significant calamities, such as the complete loss of the family fortune with the Kantalai Dam disaster of 1986, which sounded like merely a passing phase from how calmly she described it. 
  • A love of babies. Aunty had quite a few of them herself,(eight!) without any hangups at all,and only had happy and fun filled stories about each experience, and then she also had a huge boat load of grandchildren (I think about 27 at the last count) and loved each and every one of them that she could get her hands on (and the diaspora ones too!). None of our new-fangled family planning there, each little human was treated as a blessing and an amazing new wonder to be mollycoddled and pampered until she reluctantly had to let go of them to their parents. Of course it may not be practical in this day and age, but she lived in a time when this was possible and she basked in the sheer delight of each addition to her brood, and then grand-brood and after some years, the great-grand-brood too!  Aunty was a truly happy and lucky matriarch indeed!
  • A love of this planet. Aunty was one of the first environmentalists I knew even before that word became fashionable. She loved working in the garden for hours, and this is probably one of the secrets of her living to 97 in a hale and hearty physical state She would potter in plants, grow flowers of all hues, and carry huge kalugal around making various esthetic arrangements. All coconuts we ever ate over the last 3 decades were from trees she had planted and tended. She would stop and look at a green bean in earnest when we were cleaning them to cook, and appreciate the farmers of our country by commenting on how much effort it took to make even a few beans which we just go out and buy. She would not allow us to waste even a few grains of dhal or rice washed away, not because of the cost of it, but in appreciation of the labour that went into growing food, and also the many who went without. She always conserved water and made sure to recycle even old clothes to take the maximum use out of them. She made thrift and food management a virtue and also from around 7 or 8 years old since she heard a sermon of Ven Narada, avoided meat, fish, and eggs and most dairy products, (except for during a childhood illness when she was compelled by family members to eat fish to “get her strength back”). Unlike the egotistical vegans of today she never imposed her diet on anyone else, or lectured or boasted about it, except for a gentle bit of advice if she felt that someone would take it. It's only becoming clear to us, now, with all the modern hype about the health benefits of veganism, that this too must have been one of the secrets of such a long and healthy life. She was one of those dear old ladies who took a tiny bit of sugar onto their palm with tea, instead of stirring in heaps of sugar, and anyway she always preferred hakuru if there was any. She also stoutly defended her right to be allowed to cook with coconut oil and refused to have anything to do with palm oil and all the other synthetic stuff that commercials were trying to force on us in the 90s, because, in her opinion, “we used to eat baskets full of kavum and kokis at weddings those days and all of us ate coconut oil and nothing bad happened to anyone! “ (referring to village weddings) and, what do you know, she was right after all! She woke daily around five a.m and kept herself busy and active into her 90s, always finding at least some bit of light housework that she could do even if it was washing and sorting the tupperwear or drying pepper seeds in the sun, or helping make some of that awesome billin achcharu . So busy did she insists on being, in fact that she fell one day, and cracked a hip around 94, but as graceful as ever, fully healed and walked around fine for years after that too. At 73 one lovely memory was climbing Sigiriya with her in the lead, and my adventurous daughter dangling between us like a swinging baby monkey at the age of two...I like to think that my daughter has inherited from her, the love of adventure, travel and meeting people.
  • A love of life itself. There is no denying that there was family strife in her life in her latter years, as always there will be some external factors to break the peace in any home….but that never kept her angry or downcast. I can only remember a quiet happy humming as she pottered in the garden and greeted each new day with the same wonder and delight with which she danced on the beach, climbed mountains, or ran nimbly after toddling grandchildren. And yet, Aunty was never afraid to leave this life either, and prepared serenely to let go of life with the utmost grace too. A few months before she died she had a rather uncomfortable bout of gastritis and was briefly hospitalised (which actually had happened only about two or three times in all the 26 years i knew her), and the doctors ran every known test they could on her and came up with about 100 pages of reports, all absolutely clear, and with a completely clean bill of health. No diabetes, no cholesterol, perfect heart function.... With the gastritis incident we had all started visiting her because we instinctively felt worried that she was in pain and that she may depart this world soon, but even then she made the usual jokes, and was very cheerful. Some months later, shortly before her 98th birthday she died unexpectedly, quietly and peacefully in her sleep. The last words she said to us were a cheerful blessing as we visited and left.
We treasure that blessing always, and in my heart I fervently  hope that I  will meet her again, in another incarnation, that she will guide me in future too. The fragrance of her loving presence will always linger with us, as a brave, beautiful and inspiring person we were truly blessed to have known.

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