Saturday, September 21, 2013

Eulogy for Pa (1925-2009)

By Nicholas Stix
Delivered circa December 29, 2009

[As at the March 2006 funeral of my brother-in-law Meno, the first eulogy was given extemporaneously by MP Subas Panday, the brother of former Prime Minister Basday Panday. Subas spoke of Pa’s “independence” and “generosity.”

Over 100 mourners showed up, filling the parking lot in front of Pa’s house.]

He came into the world as Sonny Ramkissoon, and he left it as “Raka,” but I knew him as Pa.

My father-in-law was born on November 25, 1925, the eldest of seven children—four boys and three girls.

It was colonial times, indentured servitude had just ended in 1917, and many Indians were only then learning English.

As tough as life can be today, it was much tougher then. That was not an age of chrome wheels, and dreams of easy money.

In 1950, Pa married Ma. It was an arranged marriage, and it lasted over 55 years. That was the way back then, and as strange as it may seem to young people today, those marriages were built on stronger foundations than those of today.

Ma and Pa had nine children. First came Meno in 1954, then seven girls, then Baby Boy in 1976. Baby Boy was born sickly, and died at six months of age. Tauti died in 1998 at 28, and Meno died in 2006 at 51, just 55 days after Ma passed away.

First, Pa built a house in St. Andrews’ Street. Later, he built this house. The garden already had many trees bearing fruits and vegetables, but he planted still more. Although he and Ma never lived a luxurious lifestyle, their children ate a diet fit for a king, full of mangoes, Portugal [Mandarin oranges], saboca [avocadoes], fig [bananas], pigeon peas, chicken, pork and wild meat. Ma would harvest hundreds of pounds of pigeon peas, cassava, sweet potatoes and corn, and Pa would take them into town and sell them.

As a young man, Pa worked in the oil fields. Later, he was a mechanic at PTSC [bus service]. Ultimately, he had his own business for 30 years, delivering gravel to building sites.

The driving took a toll on his skinny frame, and sometimes he would suffer such pain that he would ram his head into the wall.

And of course, when he wasn’t driving, he was working in his garden, fixing his truck, or repairing the house.

Although Pa worked extremely hard, he was known for his intelligence. Not only could he put together a gear box, but he had the mind of an engineer, who understood the principles behind building vehicles, roads, and other structures. And he made a good deal of money off of smart investments.

But all was not work for Pa. A friend told me of how long ago, he helped Pa build a gear box. Six men worked for four hours during the night, and then they did a lime. [Limin’: Getting drunk together on rum.]

Another time, when Meno was young, he and a friend picked up a load of gravel, but Meno worked the brakes wrong, going through the water, and the truck capsized.

By the time the friend called Pa, it was some time later. Meno was too embarrassed to talk, so he had the friend say, “Don’t come without a wrecker” [tow truck]. Pa asked, “Is Meno drunk or sober?” The friend tried to cover for Meno, who had been sober when the accident occurred, but that was hours ago. Besides, he might have remembered to use the brakes correctly, after a lime.

Pa taught Meno how to drive and repair the truck, and he taught the friend who told me these stories. D’Madame [The Boss] loved to help Pa sometimes doing repair work on the truck.

Another favorite pastime of D’Madame was to go into the garden with Pa, and kill snakes, beating them with big clubs.

Although Pa was old-fashioned, he did not, as a rule, discipline the girls. That was Ma’s job.

But sometimes Pa would be puzzled by his daughters. When the younger girls would shower upstairs, they would run around and squeal. Downstairs, Pa would ask Ma, “Lady, what they doin’?”

The only time Pa gave licks was when he thought someone had done something foolish.

One time, [The Boss] was sweeping downstairs, and got a deep gash in her leg from some galvanize [galvanized zinc]. Ma asked her five times what happened, but in her stubbornness, [The Boss] wouldn’t answer. Pa asked her three times, and she didn’t answer. Finally, Pa gave her a hit on the back, and she answered.

With Meno’s help, Ma and Pa raised the most stubborn daughters in the world.

Pa was a teacher in all sorts of ways. When he visited us in New York, he would point out that he was walking around in an old, torn sweater, because no one would care to rob an old beggar.

He would instruct his daughters on how to talk politely to a powerful official, from whom they needed help.

Pa was very old school about speech. He tried to teach his children to speak the Queen’s English, but as much as they respected him, that just wasn’t going to happen. They would speak dialect, and he would ask them, “Where in the dictionary will you find that word?”

Once he retired, Pa found time to study history, geography, and politics. You know that if you want to learn about politics, you can forget everything the politicians, professors, and newspapers say. Pa taught me about TT politics.

We would watch a propaganda show on TV with Diane Seukeran promoting Lloyd Best. Pa would say, “That Lloyd Best is a PNM fanatic!”

The first time D’Madame and I brought our son […] to see Ma and Pa, he was only five months old. Pa would hold [our son] on his belly, while lying on the hammock downstairs. Although Pa would look like he was sleeping, he was awake the whole time, patiently holding [our son], and slowly rocking the hammock for hours at a time, while [our son] happily slept.

Although Pa spent little on himself, he showed great generosity towards his children and grandchildren. For example, D’Madame and I had so many problems with a mischievous bank clerk that we would never have been able to purchase our home, without Pa’s help.

Above all, this man loved his family. When five of the girls got sick with typhoid fever, he rushed them to hospital, and visited every day, until he took them home. Whenever Ma was in the hospital, Pa cooked. Now, Ma was famous for her cooking, and Pa knew nothing about the subject, but to hear D’Madame, he was the world’s greatest chef!

And how he loved his children. When his beautiful, brilliant Tauti died in 1998, a mere 28 years old, Pa sat in the gallery [porch] and wept.

This man never wept, but he wept for her.

In Pa and Ma’s generation, marriages was arranged. He continued the tradition with his oldest girls, but things were changing, and after [one older daughter] got his permission to marry [her husband], Pa got stuck between the past and the future, and didn’t seem to know what to do. Since he raised the girls never to talk to boys, the younger ones was in danger of dying old maids. And that’s how they ended up all over the Western world. Husband hunting!

And that’s how I ended up in Trinidad, reading this great man’s eulogy.

Wherever Pa had daughters living he would travel, to check in on them. When [the youngest] was in England, he went to England. When [another daughter and The Boss] were in New York, he traveled there.

He walked around New York and London, as if he had lived there his entire life. He’d go to the flea market at the Aqueduct Raceway in Queens, and bring home bargains. He’d be up and out early in the morning, saying, “I gotta knock about!”

He visited [The Boss and the other sister] three times in New York over the years, including a visit he made with his granddaughter […] on Long Island. If the child’s American grandparents weren’t going to permit her to travel to Trinidad, Pa was not going to let the child be cheated.

When Pa visited us for the last time in New York, it was in 2007, after Ma’s death. Although he was not feeling well, he still walked at a fast clip.

All he needed to make it through the day was a bottle of water, but one day he forgot it. One minute after he left, I saw the bottle and ran after him. Although we lived on a very long block, I had to run the whole block, in order to catch up with him, before he reached the bus stop.

The Aqueduct Flea Market had begun charging admission to shoppers, and Pa didn’t let anyone crook him, and so he found a new place to shop for bargains.

Until very close to the end, Pa would still go out and work in his garden, and do mechanical repairs, such as fixing the motor on Ma’s washing machine.

For years, Pa lived like a monk. No alcohol, no ham, no fried foods, no transfats. When he visited us, I would have to buy him special cheese and margarine. But once Pa decided that his time had come, and saw that there was no point trying to squeeze an extra day or two out of fate, he relaxed. He asked for some Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and he ate some pork, some fried chicken with French fries, and a little bit of ice cream and chocolate.

Pa may not have been a saint, but he was a righteous man, as good a man as you’ll ever find in this world, and the greatest father-in-law any man could ask for. He was rigid in his ways, and that vexed some people, and they vexed him. But those ways worked.

He once told me that his dream was to come back in a future life, and solve all of the world’s conflicts [especially Kashmir]. I suppose that would include shutting down the PNM.

In late October, with time running out, D’Madame flew back home to see Pa. But there was still the mystery of, [“Raka”]. The banks had a rule against a person having only one name, and so they renamed Pa, [“Raka Raka”].

I told D’Madame to ask Pa why he renamed himself, [“Raka.”]. He just laughed.

I guess that there are some mysteries that every man takes with him to the grave.

Goodbye Pa [kissing his ice-cold forehead],

Thanks for the memories,

Thanks for everything!

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