------ On the occasion of her 99th birth anniversary ------
When I met my adorable mother-in-law, Mrs Sessy Paulis, she was about 70 and I was 19, so actually more than anything else she was a grandma to me. This was great because till I met her I didn’t have the company of a grandmother. She was graceful and elegant. She usually wore light blue sarees and also a string of pearls. What stood out in her during my first impression of her was that she was genuinely caring. As a very young daughter-in-law I learned many things from her. I’m very sure that her lessons on kindness and tolerance will be etched in my mind.
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 added up to about three dozen grandchildren. My earliest memories are of me sitting in her front lawn after a bath and she gently trying to put my hair in order.
She taught us many valuable lessons which included:
● Mettha - She had much love for her family. Now I look back at the wonderful relationship we had and though we experienced much changes and challenges in life, I cannot remember her having spoken one harsh word. Aunty was a true Buddhist in every sense of the word. Aunty would love to meet all her relations, who themselves were very loving and genuine. My own family was western-educated and a nuclear family. She always advised me that family is precious and her favourite motto ever was “forgive and forget”.
● Karuna - She practised humility and 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 shown respect to everyone.
● Muditha - Aunty was genuinely happy when others prospered. This was the same regardless whether those who were doing well were family, relatives, friends or neighbours.
● Upeksha - Aunty exemplified non-attachment, balance and tolerance in all her relationships and dealings. I learned from her not to judge people when they went against social expectations. She told me not to make judgements based on class, rank or financial status. With regard to material things, she clung to nothing.
● Love - Aunty had a love for babies and had quite a few of them herself. Great-grand-brood too! Aunty was a truly happy matriarch indeed!
● Love for the planet - Aunty was one of the first environmentalists I knew even before this word became fashionable. She loved working in the garden for hours, and this is probably one of the secrets of her long life. She lived to be 97. All the coconuts we ever ate during the past 3 decades were from trees she had planted. She would not allow us to waste even a few grains of parrippu or rice, not because of the costs, but in appreciation of the labour that went into growing food. 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. She made this a habit when she was around 7 or 8 years old. This change in her was witnessed after she had listened to a sermon by Ven. Narada Thera. She avoided meat, fish, eggs and most dairy products. Unlike the proud and egotistical vegans of today she never imposed her diet on anyone else, or lectured or boasted about it, except for giving some gentle advice if she felt that someone would take it.
She lived to be 97. All the coconuts we ever ate during the past 3 decades were from trees she had planted. She would not allow us to waste even a few grains of parrippu or rice
She was one of those dear old ladies who took a tiny bit of sugar onto the palm when having tea. She also stoutly defended her right to be allowed to cook with coconut oil and refused to have anything to do with palm oil. She used to say, “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!”.
She woke up daily around five a.m and kept herself busy. She continued this practice till she was in her 90s. She fell one day and had a crack on her hip. She was around 94 then. She fully recovered from this injury and walked around fine for years afterwards.
Many years ago, when she was 73, there are lovely memories of her climbing Sigiriya. She took the lead and took my adventurous daughter by her hand. I like to think that my daughter has inherited from her, the love of adventure, travel and meeting people.
● Love of life - There is no denying that there was family strife in her life in her latter years; as there will always be external factors attempting to break the peace at any home. But that never made her angry or downcast. I can only remember a quiet happy humming individual as she worked 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 everything with the utmost grace. A few months before she died she had a rather uncomfortable bout of gastritis and was briefly hospitalised. (She was hospitalised only about twice or thrice in all the 26 years I knew her). The doctors conducted every known test on her and came up with about 100-page reports; all absolutely clear and with a completely clean bill regarding health. She didn’t have diabetes and cholesterol and her heart performed perfectly.
Now I look back at the wonderful relationship we had and though we experienced much changes and challenges in life, I cannot remember her having spoken one harsh word
Following the bout of gastritis we all started visiting her because we instinctively felt worried that she was in pain and that she may depart this world soon. However, even then, she cracked 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 spoke to us were full of cheerful blessings.
We treasure these blessing always and in my heart I fervently hope that I will meet her again, in another incarnation and that she would guide me in the future too. The fragrance of her loving presence will always linger in our minds. She was a brave and beautiful person and we were blessed to have her.