October 21, 2013
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason and strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength, labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. - Psalms XC 12.
This Biblical psalm seems to ignore another passage from the Old Testament wherein Methuselah, a patriarch, is cited as having lived for 969 years. (Genesis 8-27).
The ageing process is fast, especially for women, and is marked by degeneration as noted by Pierre Jean de Beranger, French poet (1780-1857):
Old age doth in sharp pains abound;
We are belabored by the gout,
Our blindness is a dark profound,
Our deafness each one laughs about.
Then reason’s light with falling ray
Doth but a trembling flicker cast.
Honor to age, ye children pay!
Alas! my fifty years are past!
For Helen Rego (Aemiliana Souza), it is past 100 years and, to be precise, on October 11, 2013, nearly a hundred of her relatives, neighbours and well-wishers gathered in her house at Barebail to celebrate her 106th birthday, with the cutting of cake and sharing refreshments – with prayers led by the Assistant Parish Priest of Derebail, Fr. Edwin Monis to which parish Helen belongs.. If I am not enlightened otherwise by anyone, she could be the oldest in Mangalore diocese. Having covered two centurions for the media before – Cecilia, then the oldest resident at the Bajjodi old age home, and Mr. Rao of Attavar (both now late), I was keen on meeting Helen when someone mentioned her age. Visiting her on the morrow of her birthday, I was rewarded by a one-way conversation, since she is hard of hearing and I am poor at shouting. But, perhaps, we should start with a bit of background.
Helen could be belonging to one of the two Rego families. Dr. Michael Lobo, in his Distinguished Mangalorean Catholics, goes back to Pedro Rego (C 1740-) and notes that he “is the earliest known member of the Rego (Nayak) Derebail family. According to some historical account of the Seringapatam captivity, the Derebail Rego family was allowed to remain in Mangalore, perhaps because some of its agricultural produce was required by Tippu’s soldiers . During the captivity both the churches at Rosario and Milagres (then only two in Mangalore) were destroyed, but in 1792 when Tippu was beset with various other problems, Pedro Rego took the opportunity to build a chapel at Derebail and it was allowed to stand. The chapel is no longer in existence and the site where it was built is uncertain.”
Dr Micheal Lobo also cites Antony Victor Rego (b1938-), member of the Rego family settled in Barebail, off Yeyyadi on the City-Airport Road, printing technologist and founder of Brilliant Printers, Bangalore. Though Helen’s family is Barebail-located, it is not material for Helen’s story to determine to which of the two Rego clans she belongs.
The old are often used as worthless, useless, dependent and burdensome. They are accused of coming in the way of younger people, may be their own children and grandchildren. But, in the case of Helen’s daughters-in-law, all the three of them now widowed, they have bonded together to look after their bed-ridden mother-in-law, with two of them, locally located, taking hands-on responsibility for care-giving. Entire financial responsibility is taken by Mrs. Mabel Rego, based in Bangalore. While the main responsibility is shouldered by Evelyn, whose husband (Late Sylvester Rego) was the latest of the six sons (Bernard (79), James (77), Henry (74), Sylvester (72), Denis (67), Richard (62)) of Helen to die last year, her sister-in-law, Benny, located in an adjacent compound offered to look after Helen when Evelyn went to the Gulf to be with her only daughter during her confinement. The visit was initially to be for three months; but got extended to eight months. This reflects the sense of commitment of the family to look after their centurion+ matriarch.
Born on October 11, 1907, Helen had not much of an education and struggled for life bringing up seven children with income from selling jasmines grown on the one-acre family plot at Barebail. Since the early death of her husband, Late Eugine Rego (1970), she girdled herself to bring up her children, get them settled and eventually partitioned the family property so that the sons could pursue their lives as nuclear families.
Incidentally, Helens husband was a job-hopper. As his daughter, Monica Alvares, explains, he was working in shops in the Hampankatta area. Finally, he worked with Quality Textiles of Late Leo Pereira.
Coming back to Helen, as bad luck would have it, about sixteen years ago she had a nasty fall which dislocated her hip bone. Considering her advances age, and taking a dim view of her potential longevity and ignoring Helen’s survival instincts, the doctor ruled out correctional surgery and confined to her to bed, except for short breaks on a wheel chair which is an improvised combination of a wheeled low platform, like the one we would have to move our gas cylinder around, and her favorite armed chair mounted on it.. She has undergone cataract surgery. But, otherwise she has good health, appetite, eats by herself with preference for non-vegetarian food, takes no medicine, has no diabetes or blood pressure. Helen has a sharp and alert mind and takes in situations and reacts firmly. At her last birthday, seeing that the priest had left some refreshments uneaten, she gave a mouthful to him on food wastage. When I met her, she was quick to comment on my receding bald pate and grey hair. She quickly had me brief her on my only one wife and two children – never mind if she could not take it in.
Among her seven children, six boys (Richard, Dennis, Sylvester, Henry, James, Bernard, Monica), the only survivor is Helen’s eldest daughter, Monica Alice. Born on May 4th, 1932, she was married to Joachim Santhan Alvares (Shet) (1915 - 1993) from the Bondel Alvares family settled at Kelarai. He worked in Bombay for the Railways; but his fame is as a front-ranking Konkani writer and as editor of Mithr and Jhelo.. After he retired to Mangalore he ran a printing press named Swatantra, after the then political party. Monica, now 81, lives with her eldest son, Patric Alvares, in Derebail area. He heped me with inputs for this article, including some photos.
Family photo can be inserted.
One remarkable thing about Helen is her fiercely hugging the old house. Two of her daughters- in-law have built spacious modern houses in their adjoining plots and Evelyn would have welcomed Helen to the new house. But, Helen insists on continuing to live in the old house, owned by her Bangalore-based daughter-in-law, Mabel Rego, where her small bedroom gives her westward view through a small window. So, the care-givers have decided that old age home is not an option (“She would have died long ago if we had put her in an ashram”, declares Evelyn. She also says that Helen keeps better cleanliness and personal hygiene than herself).
Since Evelyn has to be in her new house and tend to the jasmine garden, a working routine is evolved. She visits Helen at 7 AM with breakfast, washes and freshens Helen and locks the house and returns again at noon with lunch which, once served and kept on a chair next to the bed, Helen manages herself. The next visit is at 4PM with tea and then with dinner at 8PM, after which Evelyn locks the house for the night and the routine is followed every day. Benny, (W/o Late Denis Rego) also visits in the morning and evening to maintain the cleanliness of the house and also her mother-in-law. Helen has no complaints about this. This reflects the independent stance of Helen and the family’s practical response to the situation.
That takes us to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, US poet (1807- 1882):
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars invisible by day.
May Helen continue to see the stars through her window open to the western sky!
Specialties of Helen Rego:
Helen was honored for being the eldest in Mangalore Diocese during the celebration of 125 years.
She was remembering entire family history till she was 102 years old.
She was excellent in cooking and she used to prepare varieties of pickles for entire family till she was bedridden.
She wants her daughter, daughter in law, all grandchildren and great grandchildren to give her a visit regularly. Otherwise she scolds at them.
Every month she looks forward for Holy Communion which the Parish Priest brings home. She spends her time in Rosary and prayers.
She likes children a lot, even though if it’s a picture of a child on a book or any.
Her dream is to live till her great grandchildren get married.