This has become related to a body of work I have been researching/ developing as I try to trace my family history from Canada to the Caribbean to South Asia.
During exam week in 2015, my mother’s passing stimulated a shift in the focus of my research/ artistic practice on my family origins. With newly acquired family documents and their maintenance (a responsibility my siblings do not seem to want), and the historical significance they seem to have, have stimulated interest in a range of directions to explore.
CECILIA RAMLOCHAN / 03.03.1940 – 12.13.2015
Thank you friends, family and colleagues of Cecilia Ramlochan for making it here today to celebrate her life. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Janine and I am her daughter… the youngest of her three children.
When I was little, my mom was an Avon lady… something she did part time. It started when she took time-off from teaching to raise me and my brothers. She’d sometimes take me with her… brochures in hand… cases of product testers. She wasn’t very aggressive at selling… it was more a social occasion for her, I think. I recall how comfortable she was doing this and in hindsight how it ties together aspects of her personality. Firstly, she liked colour— matching colour, playing with colour— co-ordinating lipstick, eyeshadow, clothing, drapes, furniture. Personally, I think her skill didn’t extend so well into interior design… but we agree to disagree on this point. Secondly, she liked to go out and meet new people; going into to their home was interesting to her— moreso than inviting people into her own home… which at that point was a chaotic place with 3 little kids.
But colour matching aside… this comfort level points to some of the contextual realities she grew up in. My mother and her older sister, my Auntie Mary, were raised by Canadian missionaries in Trinidad in the 1940s; mostly in communal housing situations with other kids, and then high school dormitories… altho eventually she was reunited with extended family in her late teens. By that point, she’d developed a comfort level with being put into different contexts, where she never truly had a space of her own.
She had an opportunity to go to high school, and then went on to teacher’s college. For someone who didn’t carve out much space for herself until much later in life, I feel like teaching became the space that was grounding for her… that became her home. It was something that she shared with my father, cause’ I think teaching had become that grounding space for him as well.
She met my father while teaching at Kanhai Road Presbyterian School, in Barrackpore. My parents married in 1964 and immigrated to Canada in 1967. The timing of this was notable. It coincided with the wave of decolonization movements sweeping across the former British-Caribbean colonies, that led to Trinidad gaining independence in 1962. I imagine my parents marriage, in the early years, as riding this wave of optimism and change— their ambitions and relationship being fuelled by that historical time.
My parents transition to Canada was relatively positive… as far as historical immigrant experiences go. Due to a shortage, Canada had opened its doors to teachers. Within this new influx, Trinidad became known for producing surprisingly high-calibre teachers, so-much-so, that Canadian administrators were sometimes sent to Trinidad to see what they were doing differently. For my mother, this was an on-going source of frustration. We grew up hearing her views (and sometimes my father’s as well) about the sub-par standards in Canadian teaching versus the Cambridge standards my mother was raised with. I remember, at her most extreme points of frustration, I usually had to do my homework twice. As an 8-year old, it totally sucked… But eventually I learned to envision standards she expected and soon I’d only have to produce my homework once. Throughout all of this, none of my marks in school ever changed… but that’s a different story. I learned to see the some of the differences she was seeing. In hindsight, this has translated into a skill— reinventing standards for myself, which continues to serve me well in my career to this day.
My mother’s ability to move through different contexts and communities became the basis of her teaching career in Canada for the next 40+ years. As a supply teacher, she worked across a long list of elementary schools, first under the York Region Board of Education in the early years, the North York Board of Education and later, the TDSB. Supply teaching satisfied, what seems to have become my mom’s need for contextual variety in her teaching career. And her teaching never seemed to suffer. She worked well past the traditional retirement age, simply because schools would specifically request her, instead of other teachers, even into her 70’s, before she retired a few years ago.
I don’t think I’m terribly unique… in that, as a daughter, I’ve always had this irrational fear of turning into my mother. But, I have to admit, I too have an ability to navigate different communities, contexts and cultures with a similar ease. I apply rigorous and unrealistic standards to myself, that others can’t see or expect. And, as a media artist, I am actually pretty good with co-ordinating colours.
There’s no doubt, these skills have served me well and will likely continue to in the future. But I do have to ask myself if this is because I live in an global era that, for the most part, recognizes and values these skills… in the particular way that I choose to use them. I wonder if her eccentricities were because these skills were out of step with what was usual for her time. If she were here today, and I asked her this, it’s highly unlikely that she’d even engage me in this conversation. Instead, I think she’d say something like this …