Tribute to my parents | Daily News

Tribute to my parents

Recollecting fond memories
Mukta Wijesinha (nee Wickremesinghe)   and  Sam Wijesinha
Mukta Wijesinha (nee Wickremesinghe) and Sam Wijesinha

I have in the last couple of weeks looked at the public life of my father and my mother, but I should also note that their sense of service pervaded their private lives as well. When my father married my mother, he was told very firmly by his friend Tissa, the brother just above her in age, through whom indeed he had met her, that he was expected to look after their mother.

She had been widowed just three years earlier, soon after her eldest son had married, and the two younger ones were in the midst of their studies, and due both of them to go abroad. So my father moved into Lakmahal, and he and my mother cared for my grandmother for the next 46 years. It was not an easy job, and I sometimes suspect that that was one reason my mother recalled as perhaps the happiest period of her life, the time we spent in Canada, when my father was pursuing a Master’s degree at McGill. She had to do all the domestic chores for which there had been much help at Lakmahal, but she relished the sense of freedom.

And perhaps, though she was always kind, that developed a sense of empathy and the staff at home adored her. Ekman, who had joined the staff just before we went to Canada, in 1958, and then stayed on for sixty years, often described her kindness, and how she would save him from my grandmother’s wrath over small peccadilloes.

She had been able to take off for my grandmother was nursing Tissa, who had an accident which proved fatal, after much suffering. She spent time with him in England where he went for medical attention, just as at the beginning of the decade she had stayed in London with Lakshman, her youngest son, when he was a curate in the East End.

Tissa died in 1961, but Lakshman would every year have his mother stay with him for a few weeks, which was a relief to my mother. When he died in 1983, after having served tirelessly as Bishop of Kurunagala for 21 years, I recall

Sam Wijesinha and his family.

her telling me that only he had understood, by which I think she meant the heavy responsibility she bore at home. And in line with this, with both those younger boys dead, for over a decade, my grandmother was wholly dependent on my mother, who could hardly take a break from this long sustained and difficult duty. That may have been one reason for her oldest brother Esmond, who had his own family to look after, having told his great friend Ralph Buultjens that she was by far the best of them. And he too died, in 1985, which led my father to wonder, as my mother struggled on with a heart that was deteriorating, whether my grandmother would outlive all her children.

She didn’t, dying at the age of 93 after she had been a widow for 49 years. And my mother, who had then to look after my brother’s children, who had been sent to Lakmahal shortly after she died, followed early in 1997, just after they finally left, the culmination of a life of selfless service.

But my father had his part too to play in this task for, as her brothers had told him, he had to act as the man of the house, for 66 years as it turned out, while accepting for two thirds of that period the supremacy of his mother-in-law. Little improvements, such as installing fans, had to await her approval, fortunately soon given when the Bishop made it clear he thought this a good idea.

And because of my grandmother, or rather my mother’s sense of duty, my father had to decline several ambassadorial appointments. Some of them he was not keen on, and for instance felt happy that he was able to recommend Neville Kanakaratne instead for the post of High Commissioner in Delhi. But I know he would have liked London, and I tried to persuade him to accept, and said my mother could move up and down and I would look after my grandmother for the rest. But he said that that was not possible, for my mother would not leave, and I think indeed that by then my grandmother grew querulous if my mother was away from Lakmahal overnight.

My father’s own sense of duty, not just to his family but to all those he interacted with, was also intense. With regard to his family, it meant that he offered a home to several nieces when they needed one, beginning with his oldest sister’s daughter when she was upset because her mother would not allow her to go to medical college. That was before I was born, but her younger sister also stayed with us later, and was much loved in my childhood.

But the greatest commitment was to the children of the brother who was just a few years older than him, who died in his early fifties. His wife was much younger than him, and when she mentioned that a cousin who had long ago wanted to marry her had renewed the offer, he told her to go ahead, and he would look after the children.

They were younger than us, and we were all of us at university by then, or passed out in the case of my brother, and though they were boarded, they were at Lakmahal in the holidays and whenever they needed a place to stay. And as they themselves have noted, my mother accepted them as though they were her own children, and my grandmother too welcomed them warmly. In turn, they remained devoted to my parents, and their anguish when first my mother and then, seventeen years later, my father died exceeded our own.

The girl Theja was part and parcel of our household later on too, for after my father had ensured she trained as a nurse in Oxford, she came back to us, and stayed at Lakmahal till she got married. And she was working at the Joseph Fraser hospital in 1983, when Lakshman was there after his heart attack, and when after a couple of weeks he passed away.


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