“My dear Beatrice …” Mum read aloud from the letter in her hand.
Postman has just delivered the mail …
Sister and I dared not meet each other’s eye. Bit our lips to keep from giggling.
“I don’t think you will recall me. I was a friend of your cousins, Daisy and Rosie, and have met you in their company on a few occasions in our young days.”
Mum’s voice rose to a squeak. “I write to you now regarding my son …”
Sister and I held our breath. Our lips trembled with mirth.
“He is a good boy. Very sober and steady (no vices whatsoever). He graduated as a doctor …..”
Sister swallowed hard. Her shoulders shook. I covered my mouth with my hand.
“We have heard about the goodness of your daughters. People all say they are good and smart, clever girls …”
No vices whatsoever/ the goodness of your daughters … good grief … who even writes like that?
Mum eyes continued to scan the handwritten lines. “I would be so happy to hear from you regarding this matter if your elder girl is still unattached. My friend, Mrs. Mills, tells me she is 22 years of age. In fact, your sister, Ruby …”
I’m the ‘elder girl’, Mrs. Mills is Aunty Ruby’s sister-in-law …
“You may remember the times we shared as children.” Mum began to look puzzled.
Her jaw finally dropped when she came to the end of the letter. “PS: We prefer a spacious house in Colombo with garden and attached baths.”
Dowry details! Eek …
We could almost read Mum’s thoughts –
“I don’t remember this lady,” Mum mumbled almost to herself, and ran to the phone to dial Aunty Ruby’s number.
“Hello, how are you dear? I just received a strange letter … sounds a little eccentric … who are these people?”
Sister and I held our sides and roared. We laughed ourselves into stitches.
It all began some months before, when a close school friend of Mum’s asked if she would contact the family of Aunty Pearl’s neighbour (who had an eligible son) regarding a formal proposal of marriage for their youngest daughter.
Girl in question was pretty, a recent university graduate, now on the Marriage Market. Parents were anxious to have her fixed up and settled.
True story, honest (down to the phraseology)! Absolutely no embellishment …
Older sister of said Young Lady got entangled with Completely Unacceptable Young Man and eloped when well-to-do Daddy refused to give his consent. Daddy disowned her. A year later, when First Grandchild was born, Starving Couple were ushered back into the family fold.
Get the picture?God forbid that history should repeat itself, right? Okay, so stage is set …
Mum obliged and our home served as venue for introduction between Sweet Young Thing and Very Acceptable Beau.
Cousin Ranji was staying over that weekend. She, Sister and I eavesdropped from behind the drawing room drapes.
No TV in Sri Lanka then. This was far better, delicious entertainment, served up on a platter …
Young Pair sat at one end of the room to get acquainted. Mothers made small talk close by.
Recipes and stuff …
Two dads at farthest corner.
Mum and Dad sat in on the powwow – being it was their home and all. Awkward …
Things suddenly grew ugly. Raised daddy-voices.
Dirty dowry matters …
Young Man’s father haggled for more.
Sweet Young Thing’s father finally agreed to throw in a lorry along with the house and land.
Or something like that …
Cousin Ranji, Sis and I are horrified.
We’ve travelled back into antiquity …
Deadlock. Evening concludes in chilly huff.
But no one counted on Young Pair falling madly in love.
Completely unexpected turn of events …
Now unacceptable, Young Man contacted and romanced Sweet Young Thing on the sly.
Mum politely declined when asked to intervene.
Sweet Young Thing phones to weep on Mum’s shoulder …
Romeo and Juliet elope to overseas destination. Daddy disowns Little Girl, then throws arms wide open when she returns from honeymoon with baby on the way.
Yay! Forgive and forget …
Found out later that Rejected Romeo and one of the cousins were co-workers at the time of Nebulous Nuptial Goings On. They were quite good friends and I’d met him at one of her birthday parties.
Only in Sri Lanka …
Found an old scrapbook of letters and cards written by Sister, cousins and me when we were children. Carefully dated and captioned by Mum.
Sis and I wrote little notes and longer letters all the time.
Hilarious notes from Sister …
Mostly to Mum.
So when it came time to play a prank on a long-suffering mother, inspired by recent events, one would automatically resort to letter-writing.
“My dear Beatrice …”
Poor Mum. We teased her unmercifully and she was always such a good sport about it. Don’t think Sister or I ever ‘fessed up or divulged the source of the written proposal of marriage that once came my way.
And now I’ve two daughters of my own.
Full circle. What goes around surely comes around!
The memories flooded in when eyes wandered over the yellowed sheet of notepaper taped to the fraying page of Mum’s scrapbook.
With sister’s heavily disguised handwriting on it. She must have figured it out …
Thankful for Mum’s sentimentality that induced her save all this stuff.
Pure gold …
Like these home-made cards from her nieces –
A definite artistic bent in the family …
— and the self portrait I drew.
A fairly good likeness of my gawky pre-teen self …
Sister needs to work on her spelling in this one –
On the first family trip to England, Mum had us pose in front of Buckingham Palace while she attempted to take a picture of Dad, Sister and me against the backdrop of the Changing of the Guards.
The guards had changed and gone their wayby the time the picture focused to satisfaction. Sister and I teased her about it for years to come.
Smile please …
Everyone was using pocket cameras.Sis and I were embarrassed by the ghastly contraption Mum still wielded with pride!
We flew on to Singapore where Dad bought us girls a Kodak Instamatic with disposable flash bulbs.
Colour pictures … yay, finally!
Shudder to think of the environmental impact from all the used flash bulbs we gleefully dumped in the trash can.
Mum discovered the joys of photography around age 12 when she got a gift of a Brownie camera.
She still had it when Sis and I were kids …
Mum’s crisp black-and-white photos display an instinct for capturing the ‘moment’ and an unerring eye for placing and composition.
When sister and I were little, Mum acquired the Yashica, also sort of box-camera-ish.
Sleeker, less ‘primitive’, more sophisticated …
It took ages to focus with Mum staring into the open Yashica ‘box’ in her hands, at an upside down image.
She’d murmur, “Smile, smile” through fixed grin and puckered brow, our features remaining in frozen limbo until we heard the click and a cheerful ‘thank you’!
Felt like forever!
Mum often said she wanted to get an ‘unawares’ shot.
Sister and I heard … underwears!
We hadn’t the foggiest notion what she meant.
She caught us unawares all right. The delightful album-memories bear testimony to the fact.
Mum’s was the era of stay-at-home mothers. Those who were in the professions were nevertheless the proud masters of the housewifely arts. They cooked, sewed, hung for hours on the telephone with other women, shared recipes, discussed the current price of important commodities like sugar, rice and eggs, wrote lengthy, polite letters and never forgot birthdays and anniversaries.
At family concerts we kids ‘did’ Mum and aunties talking on the phone …
When Sister and I got married, we each received a special gift from Mum. An album of photographs – mostly black and white photos and some washed out Kodak and Polariod colour pictures – each one tailored to document our lives from birth to early adulthood.
All meticulously labelled …
With Mum’s unexpected passing two years ago, I lost my best friend and discovered a treasure trove of old pictures while cleaning out cupboards and putting things in order for Dad.
Eyes popped out of my head as a pictorial record of family history unfolded …
Entered a new realm. Memories of bygone days surfaced from boxes, dusty files and disintegrating albums.
Mum’s voice recounting fragments of family legends echoing in the recesses of my mind …
The past came alive in a way that didn’t seem possible. Moments in time frozen on faded bits of glossy paper, pictures worth thousands of words.
“There was a crash. The knife came down, barely missed my eye. Blood everywhere…”
I can almost hear Mum’s voice. Wish I’d paid more attention to details.
Her tales often commenced with all six of us.
Pearl, Ruby, Peter, Dan, Beatrice, Elizabeth …
Mum: So all six of us climbed into Babby’s cot with the cake Alice baked. We found it on the kitchen table. Just as Petes lifted the bread knife and said, ‘Let’s have a piece’, the cot collapsed. The knife came down on my forehead. It narrowly missed my eye.”
Alice, the family retainer who helped cook and keep house, the hapless victim of boyish pranks.
Peter and Dan – Petes and Danma to us nieces and nephews – youthful villains.
Baby Elizabeth was Baba. Babby to the next generation.
Me: (doing mental calculation) But Mum, if Babby was say … five, and you … eight, the others would have ranged in age from eighteen and under. How could all six of you have squeezed into a baby’s bed – with a cake and knife?
Mum’s a storyteller, not a mathematician. It’s how she remembers …
Mum: On Sunday evenings we had family prayers. On our knees. They went on forever.
Her eyes are brimming with memories …
Mum: We quietly slipped away into the kitchen to have a feast.
Me: All six of you …
Mum: Poor Alice.No one listened to her protests. The patties were for the visitors. She made lovely patties. We ate everything we could find and crept back to the living room, knelt down and folded our hands.
Me: And No one noticed?
Mum: No. And E.T.S Aunty was so impressed by our piety, we all got toffees. She said we were good children!
E.T.S Granny (always known by her initials), Grandpa’s widowed sister, frequent visitor, devout, determined lady, given to eloquent, lengthy prayers.
Mum: One Sunday evening, Geo Uncle came to visit.
Me: At prayer time?
She’s chuckling …
Mum: Petes used a coat hanger to start Uncle’s car. We all climbed in.
Me: All six of you …
Mum: He drove to Geo Uncle and Malar Aunty’s house. We ate all the goodies Malar Aunty fed us and drove back home again.
Me: And their eyes were closed, they were still praying?
I’m laughing with her …
Mum: He never knew!
Me: And Malar Aunty?
Mum: I don’t think she ever told him.
Shadrach Samuel Esquire, aspiring businessman aged 32, won the hand of Miss. Mercy Newton of Chundikuli, Jaffna. As legend has it, the friends of the sixteen-year-old bride called out over the fence as she walked past the schoolyard of the local girls’ school, on her way to church to be married.
Shadrach and Mercy set up home in Colombo, sleepy metropolis of colonial Ceylon.
He founded the iconic engineering firm, Samuel Sons.
The union produced six children.
A seventh, Mum remembers as Bertie, succumbs to an untimely demise as an infant …
Grandma Mercy died in her sleep at age 33. Cause of death unknown.
Mum recalls asthma and a family history of heart disease …
Rajes Aunty, seventeen-year-old bride, moved in with new husband, Thurai Perinpanayagam (Grandma Mercy’s cousin) to help take care of a brood of children, some of them almost her age.
To this day, Rajes Aunty occupies a special place in all our hearts.
The siblings grew closer to one another.
All six of us …
Grandpa Shadrack never recovered from his loss. Well meaning aunties and clucking grannies suggested umpteen prospective brides to grace his hearth and mother the children.
Mum: He always said, “There was only one woman for me. God who took her away from me will take care of my children.”
Me: Do you remember her, Mum?
Mum: Of course! She was slim and pretty, darling, gentle, soft-spoken, a lady through and though. Always simply and tastefully attired. She was an artist, she painted beautifully. I remember whenever she baked a cake, she let me stir the batter and lick the spoon. I got a new dress every year, for my birthday. She cut it out herself and made me turn the wheel of the sewing machine for her. She used to call me Pambaram.
Mum: Because I was a tomboy. I could never sit still. It means spinning top in Tamil. She played the piano. On Sundays, all six of us would stand ‘round and sing hymns.
Me: It must have been awful after she died.
Mum: We had Daddy. We loved him. He was strict, of course, but such a kind, generous man. He helped everyone. Babby and I secretly called him Dixie Daddy from a song on the radio hit parade. We giggled every time we said it.
Me: Did you miss having a mother, Mum?
Mum: Of course, darling.On the day she died,I asked God why he took my mummy away. I was six. Babby was only three. I made up my mind to eat all my vegetables and grow strong, so I would be fit and well and never die and leave my children all alone. But we had each other, it was a happy home.
As cousins, we have childhood memories of our mothers and aunts talking for ages on the phone. Cousin Dileeni and I often recreated these conversations – to loud applause and gales of laughter – at family-gathering kid-concerts,
“How are you, dear?” ” Did Alice come today?” “Can you believe the price of sugar these days?”
They couldn’t do without each other.
Time marched on.
Pearl and Ruby married their doctors.
Peter and Dan sailed off to the United Kingdom to pursue engineering degrees.
Mum kept house for Grandpa and played doting aunty to a growing circle of adoring nieces and nephews.
They called her Bety …
Tragedy struck again. Grandpa Shadrach died unexpectedly, after routine surgery. He was only 63. Mum was 19 years old, Babby just 16.
Shadrach and Mercy united in death, buried side by side ….
Mum and Babby clung to each other –
Peter took over the headship of the firm.
Elizabeth attended medical school.
Mum ran the family home for Uncle Peter, wrote wonderfully imaginative short stories that were published in the newspapers, taught Sunday School and created exquisite cakes for nieces and nephews, an abundance of relatives and friends.
The artistic, thespian, writing/storytelling genes run strong in this family line …
Grandpa was a man of faith, a praying man.
His example rubbed off. Mum was a staunch believer in the power of prayer.
I remember Sunday evenings with Mum at the old piano of her girlhood (now situated in her own home), singing the same beloved hymns she sang as a child.
I remember us as little girls – Sister and I – kneeling by our beds as Mum taught us to pray. I remember Mum reading from a book of devotionals, holding hands with Dad, Sister and Me (in our tiny school uniforms) and sending us off for the day with a prayer.
Sister and I often made fun, called her Saint Beatrice.
Mum learned from Grandpa Shadrach.
They prayed, things happened …
I learned from Mum.
Much older now, I’m an ardent believer in the mountain-moving power of prayer.
Faith we follow …
Just dialed long distance to talk to Babby – godmother, second mum — in Bethesda, Maryland.
The pain of missing Mum is less when she and I talk …
Babby is the only one left. She feels it badly.
Asked about the size of the cot. Says she slept in it till she was around eight years old.
All six of us?
It must have been a humongous piece of baby furniture!
Called Rajes Aunty some months back, posed questions about the family tree. She snail-mailed handwritten details from New York –
Excited, more curious than ever!
Saw a picture of an ancestor on Facebook recently.
The Perinpanayagam connection, circa 1834 …
Fascinated. Impelled to dig deeper into the family tree.
Mum’s second cousin, Thavo (Geo Uncle’s nephew), e-mailed more puzzle pieces from New Zealand –
Cousin Thavo remembers the Noddy cake Mum made: ” For my sixth birthday in 1959. It had Noddy’s car and house and even had 2 milk bottles outside the house” …
Discovered that Grandpa Shadrach and Grandma Mercy were distant relatives.
An exhilarating peep into the past.
It was misty this morning in Toronto.
Much brighter/warmer in the land of our birth.
Alas for ugly politics, economics: the clans are scattered worldwide.
Appetite whetted. Must know more.
These roots go deep.
Stay tuned.More stories to come as more dots are joined.
PS: If you happen to be a branch/ twig/clipping of the Samuel/ Newton/ Perinpanayagam family trees and have old pictures/information, I’d love to hear from you.
And I’d be delighted to share what I’ve gathered, with you.
All pictures in this post are clicks on Ipad and phone.