I’m Buddhist, and grew up that way, but with the lovely influence of other people’s religions pervading my life. A Roman Catholic Convent and a Christian Missionary School, many notations on a prayer book of novenas said at the All Saint’s Church in Borella as well as numerous coconuts split and baskets proffered at Hindu Temples, as well as the invocations to Lord Ganesh when things went missing in life. That is all in addition to the Buddhist temples we visited each Poya day, and the lamps lit at my grandmother’s home each evening, all things that appear and disappear in the books and stories I’ve written as an adult. But my belief in Christmas was something else altogether.
Christmas, was a time to wish the entire galaxy consisting of friends and family nothing less than a “Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year.” Always these words, always the same way. Nobody joined in the mayhem with as much enthusiasm as my mother, who took me to Missaka Poth Saappuwa (Missaka Book Store), to look through the baskets of cards to buy individually selected cards for each person on my list. My list was longer than the entire family’s combined. Meaning, the people my mother made sure the entire family wished, since my brothers did not buy or send cards, and were routinely bemused to find cards sent to each other signed by themselves when they neither recalled the purchase nor wrote the loving words inside!
Yeah, my list was long. It went from Angeline to Zainab and nobody could be left out. Not Marcel or Majella, Kamani/Kama (the cousins we always mentioned together) or Kumu, not Romola or Romaine, not Aruni or Anusha. Not anybody. I loved finding these cards and sending them and receiving cards in return. My mother, who hardly had much discretionary income, somehow always indulged this madness in me – as she indulged much else that was frivolous in me (love of shoes and clothes, parties, writing, all the things that still lighten the harsher aspects of my personality).
I miss her all year long, every day, many times a day. I wish her back here with me, but I also take comfort in how vividly she endures in my life because I know this is how we all endure in the lives of the people we take care of. I think of all the caring she did for me even as I do that same caring in different ways in this faraway country. I think of her voice when I hear a middle daughter squealing with delight when she hears ‘Whispering Hope,’ a song she associates with her mother, but which I associate with mine. Somewhere in the singing of remembered songs I am both listening to my mother and singing for my daughter, an unimaginably beautiful melding of generations passed on and those yet to come.
And at Christmas, I hear all the familiar songs as though she were here. In the first years of her passing I heard this particular hymn with deep sadness. It hit me hard that the words of this hymn consoled a very real pain, and that her yearning for rescue was heartfelt, a rescue that would also be a taking of leave from me, her daughter, and my non-card-sending brothers, and that all those sentiments somehow reflected poorly on the three of us, but most especially me.
You can’t take any of it back, of course, and it is something I sometimes accept. Mostly, it seems, at Christmas when something of the optimism and happiness that swept over her during this season seems to come unfiltered back to me. On those occasions I hear this version my mother loved so much, and a sweet peace descends on earth momentarily for me too.