‘My family’s love helped me survive ’ | Sunday Observer

‘My family’s love helped me survive ’

Cordelia Jackson hundred years later
Cordelia Jackson hundred years later

February 13, 2019. A very special day for a very special lady. Cordelia Jackson had turned one hundred years that morning.

Invited by her family to interview her, we found her seated on a wheelchair in her daughter’s apartment down Beach Road Mt Lavinia, a bright smile of welcome on her face. She is undaunted by the presence of the Press, alert, and eager to share the high points of her long life which began on February 13, 1919.

Her response to the many questions we fire at her, are prompt. Occasionally, she looks to her family to clarify a detail but most of the time she relies on her remarkable memory.

How did it feel turning a 100 years and becoming a member of the small band of centenarians in our country? What were the highlights of her eventful life? Could she share some of her moments of joy and sadness? The fact that she could recall even the most minor details of her life from her growing up years to the present, proved to us that her memory had withstood the test of time and become sharper over the years.

As each memory unfolded, we caught a glimpse of a colourful character.

Her father, a train engine driver, and lover of sports, was a strict disciplinarian but kind, gentle and caring. Her mother a housewife and a woman of many parts who could sew, cook, loved gardening (“I still see the beautiful dhalias she grew in our garden and the vegetable garden she nurtüred,”) she tells us. Arnolis the rickshaw man who took them to school. Phyllis, her best friend in school, her English teacher who encouraged her to read. The Sinhala teacher who carried a big cane and whacked her students on the open palm when they couldn’t spell.

Whether it was her first experience of formal schooling at the Primary of Sacred Heart Convent, Galle, at the age of seven, or the ‘naughty deeds’ of her schoolmates and her elder sister during her growing up days, for Cordelia they are as vivid as though they happened yesterday.

Being a day scholar, she recalls doing some naughty things herself. But justifies her acts to the fact that she was simply trying to please her friends.

“I could never say no to anyone who asked me a favour. So when a boarder asked me to bring her some veralu or lovi, a mango or a guava I would leave for school before the teacher arrived and place the fruits inside her desk and closed the desk. No one was caught as the teacher didn’t bother to look inside our desks”.

One incident was so traumatic it left her in tears and recollecting it a hundred years later still brings tears to her eyes. “One day, after school, my best and only friend Phyllis asked me to bring an exercise book and accompany her to the school gate which led to the road. Across the road was a boys’ school. She asked me to wave the book as though fanning myself, which would be a signal to the boys peering into our school from their dorms. I refused as my brothers were attending that school. She got angry and told me I wasn’t her friend anymore. Her words broke my heart. I went home crying. When I told my mother what had happened she said I had done the right thing. Then she talked to Phyllis’s mother and together they discussed it with the principal who agreed that I had done the right thing. Finally, it was the two mothers who patched up things for us and made us friends again. Phyllis remained my friend till her death”.

Of her whirlwind romance and marriage in the face of opposition from both her Burgher Anglican family and her Sinhala Buddhist husband’s parents at the age of seventeen, she says, “George my husband was my brother’s best friend. We met in Galle where George worked as a Public Health Inspector. I was only 15 when he told me he loved me. He was ten years older than I.

He used to leave notes in a matchbox every day near my bedroom window which I hid from my parents. We decided we had to get to know each other before we made any decision about marrying. So we began taking long walks on the Ramparts in Galle. It was all very proper. After we were married, George was transferred to Colombo. All my children were born in Colombo”. He was 88 years old when he died in 1997.”

To this day, the Ramparts hold a special place in her heart and daughter Barbara says they always have to detour to the Ramparts when they visit Galle so that Cordelia could recapture her romantic memories with her life partner.

Midwife

All her children ( seven of them ) were born at home and delivered by a midwife who came to the house. “Godakanda the midwife who wore a long skirt with a white blouse used to travel by buggy cart and each baby was delivered by her as I lay on a four poster bed with curtains hung on the sides. As I was young, 17 when I had my first child, they were all easy deliveries. All except one, a boy, survived ,” Cordelia said.

Juggling

Juggling housework, with babysitting and a number of other domestic chores is nothing new to Cordelia . “I had no help. But Arnolis our rickshaw puller and his wife helped me occasionally. Every week Arnolis would lean against my door and tell me he had no money to feed his family. So because I couldn’t refuse anyone who asked me for help I would give him whatever I could spare from our own limited rations. He also sent his wife to help me to earn a little extra income.”

A talented cook, milk toffee, Christmas cake, breudher, butter cake, homemade ginger beer and stew were among her many specialties. She also confesses a passion for fashion.

“I would follow the latest fashions. My husband gifted me a Singer hand sewing machine and I stitched all my daughters’ party clothes and mine as well on this machine. Imported fabrics were banned then, or were available only on coupons. A yard then cost Rs2/20 and I had to go to the Co-op to buy the material. But after I trimmed the dresses with lace and embroidery, frills and bows they looked really dressy even fit to be worn at a wedding. The girls wore Clarks shoes and later graduated to high heels. Me? I love very high heels”.

Dramatic change

While her husband was alive Cordelia wore her hair very long “because he liked it that way.” After his death when she left for Australia to visit her children, she cut her hair there, “ because it was the fashion at the time”. The change in hair style was accompanied by another change in dress. “I started wearing slacks, shorts, pants and mini dresses which were the height of fashion in the sixties.”

“When she returned we couldn’t recognise her with her short hair, oversized sunglasses and baggy pant suit carrying a large box of Christmas cake which she had made”, daughter Barbara recalls.

Of all the memories that inspired her and kept her going these hundred years, “It was the love shown me by my family that I cherish most. I thank God for my health (she has hardly any physical ailments associated with age) my children and my grandchildren.”, says this mother of six, grandmother of seven and great grandmother of four.

She shows us a letter from the Queen’s Secretary carrying a congratulatory message to her and says, “ I’m so proud the Queen remembered to wish me”. 

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