Tue | Feb 20, 2018

Tony Deyal | Farewell to my mother

Published:Saturday | July 2, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Excerpts from a speech about Margaret Deyal (1930-2016).

I lost my father in 1987. And now in 2016, I have lost my mother. As Oscar Wilde, the Irish author and poet, would have said, "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; but to lose both looks like rank carelessness." My mother would have loved this joke.

She was always conscious of her hair - since I knew her, it was always mahogany-coloured and curly. At 86, she never had any grey hair. She insisted on our colouring it for the funeral. In this sense, she dyed twice in three days. She would have quarrelled but would have eventually loved this, too.

One gift my mother and all her siblings shared was the ability to laugh at everything. I inherited my sense of humour from them, and despite the poverty and uncertainty that we also shared for most of our lives, our family gatherings were great fun. As several people reminded me, she was a generous lady. Anyone who came to our house was always offered something to eat and drink.

We all looked forward to her 'dhal-puree', for which she was justly famous and even exported to my PAHO colleagues in other parts of the world. On most Sunday mornings, I ground the dhal, or split peas, on the understanding that the first cooked one was mine. Given its size, texture, taste and the amount of dhal she put in, what you got was a very happy filling indeed.

I never realised when I was growing up that my mother and I were almost contemporaries. She gave birth to me when she was 15 years old. It is only long after I realised that in those days, my mother was still a teenager learning to be an adult (and a good mother), when I was learning to be a child. She had to grow up too fast and too soon, like Ruth in the Bible, who, as the poet Keats said in his Ode to a Nightingale, "sick for home, stood in tears amid the alien corn".

When I was seven, playing Captain Kidd, a Midnight Robber in the annual Children's Carnival, she sewed the costume on her manual Singer machine. I won a comic book as a prize and we both read it. When things got rough - as they inevitably did - she earned a few cents from her ability to sew and this helped us survive. Yet, despite the hardships, she always had room in the house for family and food. And books.




The one constant in her life - as in mine - was reading. She was not educated - she left school in Forest Reserve, where she grew up, a place of deep forest with little clearings for oil wells, at the age of 10. Mom learnt to cook and sew from her mother. Her father, my 'PaPa', lost his left hand to a cutlass wielded by an angry husband who wanted back his bedroom - and his wife - but despite this, PaPa was a crackshot with a shotgun. My mother learnt from him, and many times it was she who shot the family animal protein supplements in the forest which enclosed them.

When we went to an abandoned runway at Carlsen Field, a former US airbase, for her driving lessons in our Hillman Minx car, she got some shooting practice at the swamp birds there. In terms of her shooting, she was good. Regarding her driving, the speed limit was the capacity of whichever car we had, including a Mazda RX2. Her love for speed was something that my father took issue with, but was outvoted without my ever having a vote in a three-member family. In this, as in many other things, she always had her own way, but I was the one who was described as 'own-way'.

My mother was also adept with a cutlass. One day we found a poisonous snake - a Mapipire Zanana, or Bushmaster - under the bed in the house. She whipped out the omnipresent sharpened cutlass from the kitchen and the snake lost his head because she kept hers. Yet, she was afraid of spiders and even the itsy-bitsy one sitting on the wall would cause her to panic. It is a contradiction that was one of the many which made her so completely different and unique.

She loved the old True Romance and True Confession magazines. She collected and shared them. Later on, she read all the crime, western, humorous and adventure stories that I devoured. But she also loved and consumed romances - Mills and Boon, Harlequin and the others - and it was clear to me that she was living vicariously in a world that she was forever denied, but for which she always and constantly longed.

She gave dolls to all my children and family, including me, because (I believe) she never had a childhood. She was extremely bright and if she had the opportunities that we have now, she would have been a lawyer. The lack of fields to conquer and dragons to slay, as well as the constant struggle to survive, meant that her enormous brain was wasted and occasionally ill-used. Like Terry Malloy in the classic movie On The Waterfront, she could have been not just a contender but also a champion.

One of my favourite poems is Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'. This stanza from that poem captures the essence of my mother's life and those of some of her sisters, like my Tantie Joan, with their enormous intellectual potential.

"Full many a gem of purest ray serene,/ In the dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;/ Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air." It is at this point she would have started to complain about the length of my speech or the "stupidness" I was talking, so I will stop here with the final verse of Gray's Elegy adapted for gender correctness: "No longer seek her merits to disclose,/ Or draw her frailties from their dread abode,/ (There they alike in trembling hope repose),/ The bosom of her father and her God."