Daya Wijewardena was many things to many people. These included, but were not limited to, being: a wife to her husband, Alfred; a surrogate mother to her nephew, Dayananda; a grandmother/great-aunt to Dayananda’s children; a teacher to countless students at Anula Vidyalaya; a trusted confidante to my mother; and a beloved aunt to my brother and me. In her later years, she greatly supported the work of her husband, spending many countless hours, being a sort of unpaid personal assistant charged with doing, things, like taking down dictation for his planned workshops. Her one complaint was about her own handwriting, which she didn’t consider to be very good since she had been forced in school to write right-handed, despite being a natural left-hander. It’s been a decade since her passing, but the void left by her absence has not diminished.
Alfred Wijewardena – or D.A. Wijewardena, as he was professionally known – was a multi-hyphenate Renaissance man, who lived by the motto ‘plan your work and work your plan’. A qualified Attorney-at-Law, with a Degree in Laws and a B.Sc. in Logic, he was also a Justice of the Peace, but in his early days he’d done a variety of jobs, including being the Game Ranger at Yala National Park and a teacher at Ananda College. He subsequently focused on administrative matters, becoming the first Secretary of the then newly-formed State Services Disciplinary Board (which had replaced the Public Service Commission, where he was an Assistant Secretary). He ultimately set up his own institution known as The Centre for Studies in Disciplinary Management. An avowed workaholic, he worked well past retirement, only stopping in the last two or three years of his life. When he had some free time, he enjoyed playing tennis at the SSC, where he was a Vice President for many years. He left us three years ago, but there’s rarely a day that goes by when we don’t think of or talk about him.
My brother and I called Alfred’s wife ‘Daya Aunty’, although in reality those two words tended to morph into one, creating a brand new descriptor specific to her: ‘Dayaunty’. She loved us abundantly, with that love even extending to our childhood puppy, Shiny, who similarly adored Dayaunty, particularly as she often brought Shiny a succulent bone to chew on when she came to visit. Dayaunty was kind, caring, nurturing and she loved to laugh, albeit very softly… She didn’t ever have a cross word for us.
We never referred to Dayaunty’s husband as ‘Alfred Uncle’, despite our multi-generational age gap. To us he was ‘Alfie’, because he was our pal: someone who was always on our level, someone we could relate to. For years he drove a Volkswagen Beetle, which we referred to as the ‘Alfie Car’. He was such a character that he constantly had us in stitches, giggling until our sides hurt, thanks to the yarns that he spun. Picture the perfect babysitter (or, from our perspective, a best buddy) and that was Alfie. He set the bar very high when it came to fun uncles.
Our childhood was enriched beyond measure for having Dayaunty and Alfie in it. When Alfie (often distracted by other thoughts but still wanting to be a part of the ongoing conversation) would say something grammatically correct but factually unfeasible — like his infamous “You spoke to him when he was dead?” line of inquiry — Dayaunty would titter almost silently, which naturally made us crack up even more.
Dayaunty had a sense of adventure and would have happily travelled the world if only Alfie wasn’t tethered to work. (“Inquiries, baba, inquiries” is how he explained his professional life to us.) So, a solitary trip to India on pilgrimage notwithstanding, Dayaunty had to make do with escapades in-country. These included one memorable visit to Yala during which her quiet chuckling threatened to actually form sound when someone, on seeing a herd of elephants, queried incredulously: “Why does that elephant have five legs?!” Dayaunty was much quicker on the uptake than the rest of us, but when the penny finally dropped, it was a wonder that all the wildlife in our immediate vicinity didn’t run for the hills, such was the laughter emanating from our vehicle!
On the singular occasion that our parents were unable to have us join them when they went abroad for a conference, they entrusted us into the care of Alfie and Dayaunty — and we had a ball. Even though we loved and were used to spending time together, and they treated us like their own children, both Dayaunty and Alfie must have felt the weight of responsibility that came with such a serious undertaking; however, we never saw any hints of anxiety from either.
When Dayaunty unexpectedly had a stroke 10 years ago, I thought she would soon recover. So, when Alfie called me to convey the news of her passing with the words “the firecracker has gone”, it took a long time for the reality of the situation to sink in. Dayaunty’s departure was a seismic event and it felt as though she took a part of our childhood with her when she went.
Then, in 2018, after bemoaning his loss of productivity and his perceived lack of usefulness to society as a result of stopping work, Alfie decided to follow suit. Never again would we hear him recite ‘Inky, Pinky, Polly’ incorrectly, just to make us laughingly (and somewhat exasperatedly) exclaim: “Oh, Alfie, you don’t know anything!” Gone were the tales of his exploits on the tennis court (“I have bad knees now because my doubles partner used to make me run for all the drop shots!”) and his adventures in emailing (“I was worried about writing to you too much because I thought I’d fill up the computer!”). If part of our childhood went with Dayaunty, the rest accompanied Alfie.
How does anyone recover from — or at least mitigate — such grief, devastation and loss? One step is to remember the good times and focus on all the positive things that Daya and Alfred Wijewardena brought to so many people — in their immediate and extended families, amongst their friends, in their lives and in their careers.
As we mark, on successive days, what would have been Alfie’s 100th birthday (7th December) and 10 years since Dayaunty’s passing (8th December), we pause to reflect on two extraordinary lives that touched so many others in a multitude of ways. We will always love Alfie and Dayaunty, and we’ll be forever grateful for the roles that they played in our lives, particularly our childhood. We hope their sansaric journey is short. May they both attain Nibbana!
Dr. Mihirinie Wijayawardene