Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Remembering Miriam Devassy, 1909-2010

Alma's grandma, Miriam passed away a few hours ago in India. She was 100 years old and if she had lived until August, would have turned 101. She leaves behind a host of descendants from 7 kids (out of a total of 9 that she had, 2 died early). In December this her first great great grandchild would be born.

She remained healthy until the end. My parents visited her two weeks ago and she spoke to them well. The past week she had been feeling weak, had a stroke and refused to eat much food. Early this morning she died as her daughter in law (Alma's mom) watched her pass quietly. While all her children had lived with the knowledge that this could happen any time soon, and had prepared themselves, we are faced with the length of time that has passed since she came into this world. 101 years is long enough, but for her small village in Southern India it is several centuries. The village has changed into a busy town since then. Pictures of rural Kerala in those parts from 1909, the year of her birth, are startling. There were no electric lights, no vehicles, no paved roads. Noone spoke English, very few were educated, noone knew much about the outside world, India was part of the British empire, but this part of India had likely not seen any white faces.

She delivered her firstborn, Michael in 1932, at the age of 23. Michael passed away recently as well. His mom outlived him by a few months. Today in this town, real estate prices are higher than they are in Aurora, and being close to Cochin, which is the landing point for the submarine cable system which connects India to the internet, the area is close to an international airport, several huge campuses of IT companies like Wipro and IBM. Nearly noone in her town could read or write in 1909, today the town is 91 percent literate.

So with her passing it is as if a page has been turned. Her children, with many petty squabbles, now find themselves prepared for her passing but unprepared to 'mature' in a way, to act like the leaders of their generation. Miriam had a husband who was an alcoholic. She was very busy feeding the kids and managing the household. Being uneducated herself, she couldn't impart to her kids the skills they needed; but contrary to modern sociological observations that deem a home like theirs unsuitable for raising kids, all the kids worked their way up the local school and the majority became wealthy beyond all expectations. Alma's dad, a gold medallist lawyer, an aunt a respected pediatrician in Michigan, another a Homoeo doctor, another one who had a successful career in B2B sales, and as is common in Catholic families in Kerala, a priest who heads up a parish close to the town of his birth.

She organized the house in often ingenious ways. Alma let me know the other day that the family grew up in poverty. Their house was situated close to a government run school. She let the kids from the school empty their leftover lunch into a part of their backyard with which she fed their animals- cattle, fish (in a large pond) and poultry. Until their ancestral home (which still stands) was sold she kept working day in and day out, cleaning, scrubbing, cooking, sweeping, tending. Her husband, with his alcohol problem, could not have been a good influence on the kids- indeed all the male kids have this same problem. Indian society which rewards merit and is highly stratified, compels kids to study. This factor, in addition to Miriam's example of hardwork, may have likely spurred the kids to do better than degenerate. This stands as a contradiction to modern trends in cities, but from my own family's experience and others in Kerala, I can say that it was not uncommon. Nearly everyone was poor, and nearly everyone went to school and achieved some measure of success- even if it was only a high school education with perhaps some technical training for factory work.

Miriam had a rich life. She spent her final days with a daughter in law who may have been her least favorite, but also the most kind hearted. Miriam belonged to a generation that did not sound out expressions of gratitude or affection, and nor was this daughter in law interested in such exchanges, but she cared for Miriam with diligence and kept her in cleanliness and dignity. This was not easy at all- it involved a lot of difficult work as Miriam had lost control of her bowels some years before. I suspect that in their silent partnership, though, that there was comfort. She was the only one by her side when Miriam took her last breath.

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