Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Remembering Elizabeth Mary Nicholas, 27 Jan 1921 - 30 Jan 2011

Another person whose life marked a milestone in the life of our family passed this week to the world of light. VJ Elizabeth Mary, later Mary Nicholas, my maternal grandma was 90 years old on January 27th this year. On January 30th she breathed her last, having fought to keep her life for 2 days on a ventilator. She suffered a heart attack as her body functions gave way one by one, and in a moment she was gone. I traveled to India to send her on her way home.

Her passing left a gap and this was evident by the sense of disbelief on her loved ones’ faces. She was 90, but no one really thought grandma would go at this time. In every way healthy and vibrant, an accomplished woman for her times, a person full of life and ambition to her last day, she is remembered by every one for her sheer involvement in all things contrary to what others of her age were involved in. So many travels in her golden years, many overseas. She visited me once and was thinking of another trip to the US as she neared her 90th birthday. Her tour of the Holy Land was the highlight of her traveling life. Her insistence on having a leaf from a tree at the Mount of Olives led to a fellow traveler obliging her for one- the leaf, plucked illegally, still resides among the pages of her Bible.

I can’t get used to not seeing her around ‘Old House’ which is what we called her home. Turn a corner and you see a bar of Pears soap, used only by her. Indeed it may have been used just 2 days before her death, marked as it is by the solidified lather on its surface. Move around and you see volumes of correspondence, photos, memorial cards of friends who have passed, old bills, postcards from the 1940s through the 2000s. Grandma was perhaps not a hoarder in the American sense but she saved mostly reminders in paper form and some in the cloth form. I have a baptismal dress from 1947 which belonged to my mom. She gave it to Alma the last time we visited a year and a half ago. When I go to her grave, now adorned with flowers, I fondly recall the feast days, particularly the ‘All Souls Day’ on which we (as kids) would go with her to the family grave (in which her parents and husband were buried) to light candles and place flowers on it. Just a few months ago my aunt remembered those days and mentioned how she looked forward to the occasion.

I see a note of encouragement written by a friend to her son, my uncle when he first started his teaching job as a college lecturer. He is now retired. I see pictures of me, my siblings and my cousins, which when I see them I realize I’d forgotten they ever looked like that. I see pictures of my mom as a baby- which I’d never seen before. I see pictures of her younger brother, who died in 1996. He is standing proud and tall in this pre-World War II Royal Indian Air Force uniform. The later story is that he was given a medal for his bravery in the India-China-Burma theater of the war. I see pictures of her youngest brother when he was a boy. He is still alive, and I saw him at her funeral.

Although she was fascinated by my experience of coming to Christian faith and constantly sought after the born-again experience (which I believe she did have, though not in the Damascus Road sort of way I experienced it), and was constantly reading the Bible in the 3 years before her death, grandma was not used to the idea of death. She did not prepare for it in a financial sense until the month of her death. It seems like she had a sense of what was coming in the last month of her life. Strangely she wrote vast sums of money as a gift for my dad and my elder brother, after initially offering (and being refused) to write my Dad a blank cheque. She wanted them both to buy the best shirts available in the city. My dad bought some decent shirts which cost a lot less than she gave him, and with her permission, bought a large supply of food for the ‘House of Providence’, a Catholic charity which cared for old people who were generally poor. A few weeks prior, she was watching a Latin mass being offered and told my Dad that she wished to have the same priest officiate at her funeral. Dad went through many hoops to get information on the priest and on the singing group and spoke to them at the time about potentially having them officiate at a wedding in the future. It turned out that they officiated at her memorial service (n the 7th day of her death) according to her wishes. It was the most beautiful liturgy (as far as I could figure it out) I’ve heard and truly beautiful singing in Latin. Out of the blue, she had insisted that her body be displayed in the living room of her house for visitation. This too was done.

It had been wish ever since she’d heard of the Titanic in her teens or twenties that the hymn ‘Nearer my God’ should be sung at her funeral. Sure enough, it was sung several times, once by a beloved nun who came to her funeral, later at a memorial service by the Latin choir and several times played over a PA system for the group of well-wishers who had gathered at our door before the funeral.

When I think of her my thoughts drift to the many trips we’ve taken with her of which the pictures remind us constantly and strongly, of the childhoods fun we’ve had with her, of her singing us lullabies to sleep (one, titled ‘Evening is Falling to Sleep in the West’ is a rare song from the 1920s she had learnt in school, which after a lot of research I received information on the composer and the complete lyrics from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2002), of her tales of her ancestors (one of whom was reputed to have heroically fought a leopard by his bare hands and killed the animal) and her voice keeps repeatedly ringing in my ear, often calling my name or telling me to preserve the memories by taking some of the old pictures or keepsakes with me.

It seems amazing now, I had a wonderful experience in India during this visit, bonding with many relatives I had long ceased to connect with. Grandma’s passing brought us all close together. It was painful to leave. A trip to India always leads me to question myself as to what I’m doing in this modern Tower of Babel, 2 oceans and 12000 miles away, feasting in plenty when others needed my presence and my support in so many ways. But this time it brought me so much clarity as to how close relationships are in India. I miss that terribly. No, I’m not homesick at all. My family took root in the US, and after 11 years we have many good reasons to call it home. But we are at once at home and at once in exile in the US, so lonely, so focused inward, and yet so familiar. Will my kids ever know the laughter and warmth that marked the gathering of our family members when we were kids? I hope they can get a glimpse of it in their short visits to India.

She never got to see our second child, David, although she was overcome with joy when she heard the news of his birth. She loved the name. Someday I will write about all of these for my kids to read and know. Someday when the realization hits me that she is gone. Gone home, no doubt, but gone from us nonetheless. Until then. Goodbye, Ammachi.

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