By Agnes Thambynayagam
My mother was my first teacher in my life, even though my father was my greatest teacher who taught me almost all subjects except for Science. My mother not only taught me how to do the household tasks but also taught me the family history that I never learnt at school.
My mother Mary Regina was born on June 23rd 1921 to Saverimuthu Mudaliyar Vanderkoen and Agnesamma of Rambaikulam, Vavuniya. She was a proud granddaughter of Saverimuthu Mudaliyar who served as the chief of Rambaikulam surrounding areas now known as Vavuniya district. When my mother was only thirteen years old, she lost her mother Agnesamma. As a result she grew up with her father Vanderkoen, her loving brother Durairajah and her younger sisters Ponrose and Sinnarose (Sr. Miriam). My mother received her early education from St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic School at Rambaikulam, Vavuniya. She learnt about Life, Religion, History, Arithmetic and the Tamil language at home from her father’s only sister whom she lovingly called Appu Mami.
My mother was my first teacher in my life, even though my father was my greatest teacher who taught me almost all subjects except for Science. My mother not only taught me how to do the household tasks but also taught me the family history that I never learnt at school. Mother told me about our ancestral Father Vanderkoen who came by ship with many others and settled in Mantai, Mannar district. She also told me how the elder Vanderkoen’s great-great-grandson travelled by bullock cart with his spiritual Catholic wife from Mantai to Vanni during British rule and established the village Rambaikulam and worked there as ‘Pariyari Vidanaiyar’, meaning the physician and the village headman in Tamil.
My mother gave me the prayer book that her father wrote to her with his name that carried his ancestral father’s title as Vander Koen to mean ‘King of Kings’ in Tamil. Vander is a plural word that means rulers or kings in Tamil language. Koen means King in Tamil. Looking at the prayer book in 2003 my supervisor, Dr. David Washbrook at the University of Oxford in England, pointed out that the name Vanderkoen was Dutch. The British Tamil and English Dictionary written by M. Winslow in 1862 pointed out the meaning for Tamil word Vanderkoen as Governor General. It was the Dutch Admiral Rijckloff Michael Van Goens, Sr, who conquered Mannar and Jaffna of Northern Sri Lanka from the Portuguese in 1658 and became the Governor of Ceylon and then Governor General to all Dutch colonies in the East in the seventeenth century. The capitulation was signed on June 23, 1658, which coincided with my mother’s day and month of her birthday. The Dutch name Vander Koen was added to the Tamil vocabulary to mean King of Kings or Governor General in the seventeenth century. The Dutch Governor General Van Goens’ descendants proudly carried Vanderkoen as their family name. This realization led me to learn and research about the colonization of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British in Sri Lanka. The history my mother taught laid the foundation for an education that took me on a great journey to Oxford University and to publish a book, ‘The Gentiles, A History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833’ in 2009 which sheds insight into the history about the people of Sri Lanka and our ancestry.
My Amma (mother) from Rambaikulam, Vavuniya married my Papa (father) from Mirusuvil (Northern Sri Lanka) on 16th June 1945. In their lifetime together in Sri Lanka, they lived in many places such as Nochchikulam, Mirusuvil, Chavakachcheri, Vidatal Thievu, Kilinochchi and Jaffna. Papa was a School Headmaster and my mother had been his dutiful wife. In the fifties, the Catholic Church of the Jaffna diocese transferred Papa to a new location every two years. Amma packed everything nicely and followed Papa with their young children without resentment. Only on one occasion that I remember Amma being unhappy when Papa told her that we had to move to Poonaihary from Killinochi, where we were living in 1958. Amma asked Papa, “can’t you ask for a transfer to Jaffna?” Papa said, “No, we just have to obey God’s will.” My brother gained admission to St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna and faced the prospect of living in the boarding school. Amma wanted me to study at the Holy Family Convent, Collegiate School in Jaffna. She believed that moving to Jaffna could solve many problems.
My mother’s response was to pray. I saw Amma sitting in front of the picture of Our Lady Mary (Jesus’ mother) with tears in her eyes praying. I never saw my mother arguing or fighting with my father. Amma was a very determined person who won her arguments through prayers. Two weeks later, Papa received a letter from Rev. Fr. Ponniah who was in charge of the Catholic Schools administration. The letter read:
“Dear Francis Master, Your extraordinary service to our Catholic Schools is badly needed at St. Roche R.C. School in Jaffna. Therefore, please ignore the earlier transfer letter. We want you to resume duty as the Head Master of St. Roche R.C. School from January 1959.” My brother, my sisters and I had been witness to our Amma’s powerful prayers at many times.
Amma enjoyed travelling and seeing places. We were so lucky that Papa had his holidays at the same time as our school holidays. Every year we visited a new place in Sri Lanka. Our parents taught us history and geography by taking us to historical, coastal and mountainous places. We sang in the train because our parents chose the time to travel when the compartments were empty. We ran in the woods and picked fruits and nuts because we went to Our Lady’s Church in Madhu during the non-festive season when the campus was almost empty. We jumped with skipping ropes, we danced and we raced during our trips. Our parents carefully watched us while we had fun times.
Papa died of sudden heart attack on January 31, 1983. My brother Jayarajah and his loving wife Franca brought Amma and our unmarried younger sisters to Rome in 1986. My sisters Rahini, Yohini and Sulogini took great care of Amma, taking her around the world, showing her new places and shrines while they lived and worked in Rome. After 1992 Amma visited my family in Texas and then in Connecticut. She came to live with us in Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1998. Amma came with us when my husband Michael and I moved to England in 2001. She was with me as a great companion, while I studied at Oxford and Michael worked in Cambridge. My sisters Vimala and Rajani took over the responsibility of caring for Amma, when I returned to the USA with my husband in 2007.
My sister Rahini organized a family reunion to celebrate our Mother’s ninetieth Birthday on June 23, 2011 in London at my sister Vimala’s house. Following that, my sister Rajani had a 90th birthday party for Amma at her house. Amma was prepared to leave her only son, six daughters and their families to join Papa in Heaven. She died in London on May 29th, 2012 after a brief illness. She was buried on the Feast day of her favorite saint, St. Anthony of Padua, on June 13, 2012 after a beautiful funeral service celebrated by Rev. Fr. Patrick, Rev. Fr. Emmanuel and Rev. Fr. Devarajan at St. Patrick’s church in Wembley, London.
Amma’s gift to her children is permanent. She is a major part of who I am and who I have become. My beautiful and loving Amma never left me. I enjoy seeing her in my dreams. When I walk at the water’s edge to watch the sun set, my mother will be with me. She will always be with me.
Courtesy: Sri Lanka Guardian