My mother (Mai) passed away Sunday night. It is a great loss. She was 93. She was strong up to Saturday night when I visited her – conversing as I fed her tea and water. I did spend time with my mother right after my flight from Guyana on Saturday and she was joyful in seeing me, calling my name. The grief is overwhelming as I choke with emotion. The sudden passing was quite shocking.
I was very close to my mother visiting her frequently over the last decade as she lived alone and naturally she is continuously in my thoughts as I reminisce to myself the time I spent with her.
Every mother loves their children. The loss is irreparable. With my father’s passing in the mid-1990s, I join many others who have lost both parents.
It takes courage to bear the pain of the loss of a loved one especially a mother who was the first to see you at birth and I was there with her in my heart as she took her last breath. I was at the home as the EM worked on her and I was there as the ambulance took her away from her home but could not be with her in the final moments in the hospital because of Covid restrictions.
My mother was a very amazing woman, very unique among girls of her generation as she received a primary school education that was not permitted for most others at that time. It took a special person to do what this woman did. She was born after the end of indenture in 1928 in Bound Yard, Plantation Port Mourant. Her parents were also born in the same village some 25 years earlier. She also spent time with her maternal grandparents in Bound Yard. (Animal Yard, Bound yard, Freed Yard, N-Yard, and Portuguese Quarter were all next to each other in Port Mourant where the indentureds lived during and after their contract). My mom’s nanna and nanni, Amarnath and Bhuri Singh, of Rajput (Kshatriyas) stock came from Bharatpur, Rajasthan India, neighboring to Mathura (birth place of Lord Krishna); and her aja (Sau-ji) came from (Chapra, Bihar) and aji (Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh) of Banya caste (money lenders or business people). They were bounded to Bound Yard, Port Mourant. My father’s grand parents are from Uttar Pradesh and are of Brahmin and Ahir or Garreri stock (followers of Lord Krishna).
Her name was Gladys – so given because her parents and grand-parents who were ‘very glad’ for her birth being the first surviving child of Ketwaru and Rampiyari of Free Yard; earlier pregnancies ended in mortality. It was after several efforts at pregnancies that my mother was born and survived after great environmental and medical difficulties. My mother’s father (my nanna) Ketwaru died shortly after my mother’s marriage following an accident while working on the estate for which he got no compensation; for his death, the White ‘Manger’ offered my nanni as compensated a job to weed grass under the hot sun in the cane fields. My mother had eight other siblings (Dhoris, Johnny, deceased, Dorothy, Aska, Irene, Esther, Shanta, and Gama, deceased).
My mother told me she was one of four Indian girls who were granted entrance in English School (Anglican) in Free Yard during the 1930s; the neighboring schools were ‘Roman’ for the Portuguese and “Scots’ for the Scottish. Anglican was orginally set up for the British Anglo Saxons. There was fear of religious conversion, a common requirement for an education and social mobility, but Gladys remained loyal to her Hindu faith till the end. She would have been in school sometime during the 1930s thru the early 1940s when she was pulled out for preparation for marriage, as was the tradition in Indian lifestyle. She excelled in school and was offered ‘a scholarship’ to study nursing in England. Three of her friends took up the offer. But her aji, who was boss of the Sau clan, won’t allow it. Her teachers, who were Africans, pleaded with the family to send the “girl’ to England because she was very bright, but to no avail. Glady’s aji took her out of school fearing she would “couton” (befriend0 boys and ‘taint’ the name of a respectable money lender and merchant family. Females were not allowed outside of the home at the time, and she must have been among a few Indian girls who actually were allowed an education by their families. My mother cried and her father and aja wanted to send her to England but the Aji would have none of it and she was the boss.
Gladys’s paternal grandparents owned a store selling cloth and she helped with retailing. She decided to self-taught in sewing. She said she would visit an African seamstress in Free Yard and observed what the woman did. She collected discarded pieces of cloth from the African woman sewing shop and did hand sewing with needles. She asked her parents to buy her a sewing machine and she self-taught to sew, becoming the leading seamstress in Port Mourant and beyond, getting abundant jobs to sew fancy dresses. She also became a teacher of sewing imparting skills on hundreds of young ladies. Her sewing shop also became a place for wedding match making. Families would routinely come to her shop to look for a bride for their son during the 1940s thru 1960s. My mother would be called upon to assess the would be bride’s character and sewing skills and or make recommendations for marriages. She ‘looked’ for husbands for some of the beauties she trained. She also taught males to sew, including my father who became a taylor in addition to being a rice and cane farmer. All of her students were forever grateful to Aunty Gladys.
My mother’s three school friends who went to study in England visited her on their return from their studies. On seeing them, refined from their schooling and training in England, my mother grieved she did not further her study, but she was very obedient to her grand-parents. It was perhaps her quest for education that she made sure her children received formal schooling. Nine of her twelve children also received tertiary education in America; one child died in infancy in Guyana. Several of her grand are doctors or employed in the medical profession. My mother wanted me to become a (medical) doctor and I disappointed her by becoming a social science doctor pre-occupied with struggling against the dictatorship rather than taking care of myself and my family. She was very proud of my achievements of perhaps being the only Guyanese to pursue four PhDs, with an extensive background in Educational Administration, natural sciences, and social sciences, and my role in Guyana’s freedom struggle.
My mother was very kind and generous. In addition to imparting sewing and garment cutting skills to youngsters, my mother helped so many others in birth, marriages, and deaths. She would pierce the ears of babies – without charging. There was a special skill to ‘bore’ the ears or noses of female youngsters and my mother was able to numb the ears to prevent pain; I watched her undertook that task with expertise like she was a trained nurse and as hundreds visited our home. She sewed clothes (gowns) for brides and grooms and for the deceased, often free or at very low charges especially for the poor. The rich did not patronize my mother that much, preferring instead urban fashion. She was very comfortable helping the poor. And she shared meals even under very difficult financial constraints. I remember some very poor families visiting our homes for cooked food, and my mother packing the saucepan for them. And off course, she would give out rice and dal to beggars who would come to gate almost daily. After our rice harvest, my mother doled out rice to neighbors and relatives. She also shared with neighbors and relatives the milk from our cows, vegetables and fruits from the kitchen garden, and the pumpkin, watermelon, other fruits, and chowrai bhaji or other produce my father brought from the backdam from the banks of our rice fields. I remember her preparing and sharing special delicacies for Phagwah and Diwali and her fasting for other Hindu festivals. My mother held a special place in her heart for me – she prepared the best foods for me including when the dictatorship banned basic foods. I had to get my dhal, alou, and roti. As a child, I only ate fresh water fish and she got hell to find me patwa, hourie, hassar, and sun fish to make me happy. And she took me to Bolywood movies with the old time Bollywood stars.
She was adored by her relatives and neighbors. They referred to her as “Didi” (elder sister) or as ‘Bhouji’ (sister in law). Neighbors and others called her Aunty Gladys.
My mother was very hard working. I remember her giving birth to my last two siblings and back at the sewing machine the next day or making roti or preparing meals for the family or washing clothes. Even after undergoing surgery and returning home, she was back on the manually machine sewing clothes to provide food for her dozen children. Life was very difficult for the family especially for me personally during the period of banned foods. But we were never short of food and clothing at home. My parents provided for our well-being raising us in comfort.
When I passed Common Entrance in 1972 to attend Berbice High School, my mother insisted I took up the placement. However, my father was opposed wanting me to attend Chandisingh High School. He was supported by my Aunty Bethlyn, my father’s first cousin. My mother lost the fight on where I would be schooled, pleading on me that I would regret not going to BHS. She committed to working harder sewing clothes and paying the transportation costs going back and forth between Port Mourant and new Amsterdam. As it were, I went to CHS, giving up the BHS placement even after accepting the offer and attending the orientation at the school just outside of New Amsterdam. My brother, Gama, accompanied me for the BHS orientation. I excelled at CHS, among the tp in the class. I was in Form 4 A and Form 5 A and also a Head Prefect during my time, finishing in 1977. My mother was proud of my achievements and then I left with the family for America where I gained admission in university in September 1977. It was divine intervention that I left Guyana. An order was out for my arrest for anti-government protests during the height of the oppressive dictatorship. I went on to earn countless academic degrees that made my mother even more proud although I never became a medical doctor. Liberation of Guyana diverted my attention away from medical studies after I completed a BS Bio-Chem. Those achievements are credited to my mother. My brotehrs and sisters are most grateful to my my mother, and off course our father, for the sacrifices they made to make us who we are today — success stories in America.
Our ten surviving siblings (Bassant, Sadhanand, Kamlawati, Chandrowti, Srimati, Baskanand, Taramati, Vishnunand, Vekanand, and Chrishnanand) and two dozen grandchildren and a dozen great grand along with her in laws (Sadhu, Wato, Bebo, Sandra, Penal, Parbatie, Jugnu, Anand, Desiree, Radica, Golo) will miss my mother. Vedyawati and Sanita passed on. She was our ‘mai’. Her memory lives on in all of us.
Dr. Vishnu Bisram