Story by Emma Mahon Decker | Photos by Key Higdon
In one hand Aluth Gedara Seelawathie clutches her wooden walking stick, in the other is the steady arm of one of my journalist colleagues. She wears a simple green dress and is unsteady on her bare feet. He wears flip-flops and skinny jeans.
There is a pause in the odd pair’s slow shuffle down the rural Sri Lankan dirt road as Aluth turns to shoo away a group of young village boys following us. “You go, I’m going with them,” she says with a chuckle and a smile, “I’m going with these children to America.”
Aluth is either 90 or 95 years old, depending on what you trust more: a yellowing identification card kept in a suitcase or the entire population of Unaweruwa, who will proudly tell you that at 95 she is the oldest woman in the village.
Born sometime in the 1920s, Aluth’s life began in a Sri Lanka nearing the end of its 133-year colonization by the British, who at the time called the island Ceylon. World War I was over. F. Scott Fitzgerald had just published The Great Gatsby, Lenin dies. Prohibition begins in the United States and pilots successfully complete the first aerial circumnavigation of the world in 175 days.
In the middle of the jungles and rice paddies of the central province of Ceylon, young Aluth learns to weave fans and baskets out of bamboo. At the age of 12, she meets and marries a boy from a neighboring village; they have 10 children.
I ask how Aluth met her husband.
We are sitting on the front porch of the home Aluth shares with a daughter and son. Aluth sits on a bench between my two colleagues, I sit on a plastic chair across from her. Behind me a semicircle of villagers have come to watch the interview—an indistinguishable gaggle of what seems to be Aluth’s children, grandchildren, neighbors, and others come to join the spectacle and take turns shouting my questions in Sinhala to Aluth, who is nearly deaf.
The peanut gallery behind me erupts into laughter and our translator leans over to me.
“She says: ‘it was a love affair.’”
Aluth breathes heavily and mumbles to herself as conversation continues, occasionally she breaks into song. A daughter answers many of the questions for her. The extent to which Aluth is present in this world or on the brink of another is unclear. She chuckles to herself, turns and grins up at the American journalist beside her. She has not released her grip on his hands.
Her own are shiny and smooth—not with inactivity but with time; the lines etched on her skin like tributaries worn down by their own waters. So many baskets made, so many meals prepared, so many hands held.
Aluth’s youngest daughter says her mother has always had a knack for people. In her more mobile years she traveled all over the island talking to everyone she met. After one successful suggestion of a pair who would be compatible for marriage, word of her intuition traveled fast through the Sri Lankan grapevine to land her the role of village matchmaker. Aluth claims responsibility for 24 successful unions.
She has many visitors, from near and far, who come back to check in on the charming matchmaker of Unaweruwa.
But there are no more places to go, says Aluth, she has visited them all.
She tells us she thinks death is close, maybe only a few years. She can now see heaven in her dreams, and it is filled with color.
At the end of our time with Aluth, an old man shuffles into view and pulls up a chair. He is her only brother, we are told, and comes to see her every day. Aluth looks up at him with wide eyes. I begin to ask him questions about his older sister: how would he describe her, what was their childhood like, have they always been close. He says they have been best friends for life, and puts a hand up to his face. I can’t tell if he’s crying or not—if there was a fly to be brushed away or if those were tears.
Aluth’s husband died 10 years ago. I’m told she and her brother now spend their days sitting on the front porch together, trading stories and poems. Sometimes, the brother says, he can no longer understand what she is saying, but he listens anyway.
Mostly, they sit side by side in silence, and watch the world spin just a bit further.