Marilyn… I got your notice at a very synchronistic moment… and so I decided to splat on the page and send it off to you. It did cross my mind that my mother might not like the idea of her world being splatted on the page and sent off for someone to read… but then again I thought… to bear witness is to validate in some way and I think my mother has in so many ways not been validated… and so… dot, dot, dot… I will validate away.
My mom was born Ramona Jean Rea, July 16th, 1933, in Listowel, Ontario. At least that is what her birth certificate says. Her birth certificate, however, was issued on April 15th, 1933, three months prior to her birth date.
People who knew and loved my mother in later life remember her as a compassionate, no-nonsense kind of woman who cooked marvelous dinners. Only I, as her only child, was privileged to know that beneath this gentle exterior, she was an adventure-loving pioneer with a tiger inside her.
This is my mother Zarina Kanji’s story. She was born in 1940 in Nairobi, Kenya to Nurbanu and Suleman Kassam. She is second generation Kenyan. Her paternal grandfather settled in Africa having arrived from India. She has five brothers and four sisters. Three brothers and 1 sister have passed on. She is the 7th child.
One of my earliest memories of my mother is how she would put in my contact lens (named “Mike”) every morning when I was three years old. How I would endlessly tell her, “I think I lost Mike,” whereupon she would search my eye and say, “look up, look down” until my eye would begin to water and she would say, “Don’t worry, it’s okay, Mike’s just taking abath”. I would continuously lose Mike; my mother would continuously search. And inevitably she would find Mike.
Wilamina Becker, my mommy, was born on August 27, 1926 on a tobacco farm outside Momart, Saskatchewan. Her mother, Francesca (my namesake) had an incident with a married Scotsman in a barn when she was 16. Lots of mystery around the Scotsman. Anyway, to try to escape the shame surrounding this incident, Francesca’s parents moved the family to a farm in Surrey, BC.
When she was a young girl, my mother, Phyllis Kathleen Vine dreamed of becoming a dancer. In rare moments my normally reserved mother would extend her arms and pose in the most graceful of ways. Whenever she did this, I couldn't help but smile, picturing her as a young girl in the exact same pose. Being one of a large family, this never happened for her.
My mother’s life divides neatly into chapters, but it’s far from an open book. I never know which details of her stories are richly embroidered and which are more or less told as they happened. An actress by nature and profession, she is a born storyteller. Any oral history inevitably reshapes truth as fiction, so when she said to me, “you don’t know anything about my life,” I assume she meant I understand only what she intends me to.
When I was a teenager, alone with my boyfriend in the drawing room, we would suddenly hear Mother singing the Christian hymn “Rock of Ages” in her glorious contralto voice—a warning that we had to behave ourselves before she entered the room.