12 October 2013

Remembering everyday mothers this Mothers’ Day

Pic by Sandra Mack
Today is Mothers’ Day.  Today is everyday mothers’ mothers’ day, mothers’ day of everyday grandmothers and everyday great grandmothers.  Today I remember two mothers, two grandmothers and one great grandmother and the mother, grandmother and great grandmother all rolled into one, 

Joyce Gunatilleka, 82 -years-old, mother of five, grandmother of 11 and great grandmother of 4. 
She passed the SSC and got through the teaching exam.  This would have been in the 1950s. She had been posted to a school in a remote part of the island.  She had to refuse for she was married and pregnant at the time.  And so, she ended up as what would be called ‘unskilled worker’, a necessary add-on but, someone who added much to the company she joined in January 1968 and left 27 years later, Ceylon Biscuits Ltd., better known as ‘Munchee’. 

According to this grand old lady, ‘Mee-archchie’ to her great grandchildren who mischievously called her ‘Meeya’ (mouse), a notice had been posted asking employees to come up with a name for the company.  Since it was a local company producing an authentically local product, she had suggested ‘Lanka Biscuits’.  The owners went with ‘Ceylon’ but who can tell if that name was not inspired by Joyce’s suggestion? 

She was part of the company from its difficult birthing, through its tense infancy and rocky childhood. She was there in the adolescent years and saw it maturing into splendid adulthood. She was not sole wet-nurse and neither does she claim she was, but Joyce Gunatileka did a lot of mothering, both at home and at work. 

‘Back then there were no cooling mechanisms, so we would go home sometimes with blisters on all ten fingers.  We still came to work the next day.’

She did the had-to-do things, even in the most difficult times when JVP dominated unions ordered the employees not to come to work or march around the company premises carrying placards and shouting slogans.

Twenty-seven years is time enough to have lived and created a history.  Eighty-two is not ‘too old’ to recount it all with surprising clarity.  History is version and is usually written by or writing in ways that privilege the powerful, but there’s a narrative that was indelibly inscribed in Joyce’s mind and this she has put down into words.  It is of the first and last draft kind, neatly written down in an exercise book. 

She read, with no sign of fatigue, for more than an hour, stopping only to respond to questions or to elaborate when felt necessary.  She read with unwavering voice, a smile on her lips, and without glasses.  That history, along with other narratives of ‘Munchee’ will make interesting reading no doubt, but what stood out was her maternity in all things.

She was a friend, a good friend. When co-workers involved with the trade union had to ‘take time off’ to negotiate with the management, Joyce happily agreed to take on their work.  She had it tough, tougher than most of her co-workers.  There were days she went without food, I found out.  During those fun-filled, exciting, taxing and nevertheless hard early years, Joyce had just one sari.  That tells another story, another history.

She is a great grandmother of the everyday kind.  So she is grandmother and mother too.  Like my mother, who passed away exactly four years ago, gone but still an everyday mother to me, an everyday grandmother to her grandchildren.  There were things she readily went without. That’s because she was an everyday mother who thought only about giving everything she could to her children.   

Joyce Gunatilleka must have been a skilled worker.  She was and is full of life, endowed with both clarity of eyesight and clarity of vision.  She has a memory, she knows how to describe.  ‘Mata puthek hamba una (I found a son)’, she said after the interview ended.  And I remembered my mother.
She was full of life. She was an excellent teacher.  She could writer and could teach how to write. She is now unburdened of memory, those fragrant and those eminently forgettable. 

There are days set aside to celebrate peace, love, labor and maternity.  The 13th day of October is a good day as any to remember our everyday mothers, those who still breathe and those who made us breathe.  This mothers’ day, it feels good to think of Joyce Gunatilleka.  My mother would understand.  

[Malinda Seneviratne can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com]


Hiranya Malwatta said...

One of the most beautiful photographs I have ever seen. Happy mother's day to you !

sajic said...

Lovely. What a beautiful lady.

Anonymous said...

Who is this lady flanked by you? Is it your grandmother?

Anonymous said...

who is this lady flanked by you? Is she your grandmother or Joyce?

Malinda Words said...


Anonymous said...

this may be wired
if you leterize mother
it's like - mo + her
"mo" - like your best friend
plus her - your mother
so it's like
your best friend is
your mother.
happy moms day