Family

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365 nights ago

Filed in Family

It’s a year since mother left us on 23 April 2013.

mother-1st_ann-1-apr2014

There are two things that stand out from that night of nights.

The phone call

I’d set Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as the ringtone for the nursing home, so that anytime my phone rang with that piece of music, I’d know it was from them about mother. Most times, the calls were to let me know I needed to bring some item or other for her the next time I was going there. But on the early morning of 23 April 2013 when I was awakened by that familiar tune, I knew at once it was the call I’d been waiting for.

“Your mother’s gasping, you better come now.” One of the staff said when I answered the call.

I sat in bed, feeling very anxious but telling myself I needed to calm down because I needed to call my sister and to drive over as soon as possible if we wanted to see mother one last time.

In the end, we did not get to see mother one last time. Later, when I thought about this, I realised that mother passed away surrounded by the people closest to her: not her children but the carers who’d looked after her during her final year.

The moment mother passed away

We were driving past the school that was along the way to the nursing home. I was thinking about mother and realised I was thinking of her in the past tense. I would later find out that that moment was very close to when the Lord had taken her home and the Holy Spirit had prompted me that mother was now a part of my past and no longer in my present or future.

One year on

So it’s a year since mother left, and nine years and eight days since father left on 15 April 2005.

mother-1st_ann-2-apr2014Their last photo together

I used to wonder how I would deal with not having both of them around. I told a good friend I might have to move away because my parents were so much a part of where I was staying and the places we frequented together. And I did move away after father’s passing, but only from the house I’d shared with them. It so happened that the lady renting my apartment said she would be moving out to her own place so I was able to move in to mine in early 2006.

It was hard the first few months after mother left; I would commemorate the 23rd of each month, remembering exactly how many months since. Saturday afternoons were the hardest cuz that was when my sister and I would visit her. Gradually I adjusted, not even commemorating the 23rd of the last couple of months leading up to this day, the first anniversary of her passing. But some Saturday afternoons, I would find myself suddenly thinking where I was a year or so ago, visiting mother, sitting next to her, sometimes holding her hand, and always feeling some response from her as she grasped mine in return.

mother-1st_ann-3a-apr2014One of the last times we held hands

Precious gift from mother 43 years ago

Filed in Family

A bilingual dictionary that I took with me to England 16 years after she gave it to me. I consulted it for my weekly letters home during my three years there.

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Spine and cover of dictionary

On the third page after the front cover is what makes this dictionary SO precious.

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A sample of mother’s handwriting

I need to find out what those four characters say. I can speak Mandarin but my written comprehension is way below average.

Family History

Filed in Family, Memories

It’s five years since father left us on 15 April 2005 – at 7:05 a.m., to be exact. I was 15 minutes late posting a tweet about it this morning.

He would be 80 if he were still here.

Five days ago, his 2nd sister-in-law passed away at the age of 87. During the funeral, I learned from my cousin Ronnie that his father, my dad’s 3rd brother, had been 58 when he passed away in 1979.

The day after 2nd aunt passed away, I found myself thinking it’s just 4th uncle and Sai Goo (dad’s youngest sister) left of their generation. Then I remembered 2nd uncle is still here. Mother, too. 4th aunt as well. And Sai Goo Jeong (Sai Goo‘s husband). Also 3rd aunt. Oops x 5. I’m losing my mind.

On the 2nd evening of 2nd aunt’s wake, sitting at the same table with some cousins, I brought out my Palm TX and showed off the old family photos in it. I’ve done this before, but this time, the old photos brought up the old family movies shot on Super8. My sister and I asked about them and learned they’re with 4th uncle’s family. Now there’s a possible family project to convert the Super8 reels to DVD.

I have a keen interest in preserving our family’s history. Although I was only 3 when my grandfather passed away in 1961, I’d heard enough stories about him to know he was a special man. One, in particular, was told by a man who knew grandfather and had been the recipient of his generosity.

I learned from Sai Goo that grandfather had been 75 when he passed away in 1961. This meant he was born in 1886. The story I remember being told about him as a successful businessman who decided to come to Malaya (as Malaysia was known then) to open a Chinese medical hall was recently revised after a chat with my Sai Goo. Grandfather had actually come to Singapore to work in a Chinese medical hall and later came north to Kuala Lumpur to work in the KL branch of that medical hall. Years later, around the time my father was born, grandfather came out on his own to open a shop that sold a variety of goods but eventually only Chinese herbs (the business he knew best).

I also always thought Grandfather’s older children were born in China, but I was wrong. When grandfather came to Singapore, he left grandmother behind in the family village, and only sent for her later. All their children were born in Malaya, although there is a gap of a dozen years between the eldest, my 2nd uncle, born in 1919, and the youngest, my Sai Goo, born in 1931.

In his time, the family’s Chinese herb business grew and a second shop was opened. My grandfather became quite a prominent figure around town. Although no streets were named after him, at the time of his death, he was sent off with a grand funeral procession that took up all the trishaws in town (to carry the funeral tapestries given by business associates) and went from the shop in Chow Kit, through the major roads, all the way to the Kwong Tong Cemetery near Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka.

He was sent off in a grand hearse, and just before the final journey started, the entire family gathered in front of the hearse for a last photograph with him.

There are holes in my knowledge of the family history. In particular, I need to find out more about my Dai Goo (father’s eldest sister) who passed away when I was studying overseas, and also Dai Goo Jeong, her husband. As a kid, I used to visit their family, and also Sai Goo’s family a lot; I visited both together as they were living near each other in Sentul, which was then known as “Cowboy Town”.

As with most family histories, there are also dark spots that nobody really talk about. During 2nd aunt’s funeral, Ronnie had referred to 2nd uncle as Dai Bak (eldest uncle). We actually have a Dai Bak, who was adopted into the family as a boy but, because he was adopted, was not close to the family and instead committed an unfilial act that caused grandfather to put an advertisement in the Chinese newspapers to disown him. According to Ronnie, at grandfather’s funeral, Dai Bak’s eldest son had attended but the rest of the family refused to let him put on the mourning clothes. That was how serious the rest of the family viewed the unfilial act. But many years later, when Dai Bak passed away in Singapore, 2nd uncle and his eldest daughter, 3rd aunt (Ronnie’s mother), my dad, my sister and my brother attended his funeral. And when his wife passed away, my brother attended her funeral on behalf of everyone else. Sometimes, despite family quarrels and even the most unfilial act, family is still family, especially with the passage of time.

Related Posts:
Grandpa Chin
Grandfather’s Generous Spirit
The family’s Singapore connection

Grandma’s 4-poster bed

Filed in Family, Memories

On the third day of this Chinese New Year (16 February), Jen my sister went visiting. This was a rare occurrence because previous years, she and family would be away (a lot of people go away during festive holidays), but this year, they couldn’t find anywhere interesting so they went back to my brother-in-law’s hometown for a couple of days.

It was such a rare occurrence that when we arrived at our 3rd aunt’s house (the first relative we visited), the old lady exclaimed “Which wind blew you here – north, south, east or west?”

Yes, “we” visited because I went along, partly as navigator and partly for company (I’d already visited on the first day with my brother). This really shows how long since Jen last visited our various uncles and aunts – she’s mostly forgotten the way, and this was not helped by the fact that the roads have changed and also the familiar scenery along them.

We visited three houses that day – 3rd aunt’s, 2nd uncle’s, and Sai Goo‘s (she is father’s youngest sister; sai means “little” or “youngest”, while goo is the word for aunt on father’s side).

Jen managed to meet up with two cousins of her age that day. This was a treat because the rest of the year, everyone would be too busy to keep in touch, except over the phone. Meeting up with cousin Kat, Sai Goo‘s eldest daughter, was probably the highlight as she and her family live in Brunei so the chances of meeting up at other times were really rare. This was why we waited for her after Jen spoke with her on the phone while at her mother’s house.

As kids, the older cousins used to hang out with one another a lot. Maybe because they hadn’t met for so long, but cousin Kat started asking my sister “do you remember?” questions when they sat down to chat after she eventually returned from lunch (as it turned out, with another cousin and her family).

“Do you remember grandfather’s big black car?” she asked my sister. “The driver would fetch me in the evenings to the main shop and we would all go to play at the roundabout.”

My sister said yes, but after comparing descriptions, it turned out she was remembering the wrong car.

“Do you remember cousin Jimmy used to stage talentime shows on Grandma’s 4-poster bed? He was our ringleader!”

My ears perked up. Grandma’s 4-poster bed? Talentime shows? My mind pictured all these little kids running on top of its mattress and pretending to sing.

Grandma’s 4-poster bed had a special place in my childhood. It was the bed that I shared with my nanny when I was under her care.

The bed was big. How big? I remember nights when I couldn’t sleep and I would get up, tie the corners of my little blanket into a “bag” (the way I’d seen it done in Chinese sword-fighting movies) and walk on the bed, pretending I was travelling, going from one village to another (the way the heroes in those Chinese sword-fighting movies used to do).

The bed was high, too. How high? Nanny used to store boxes of stuff beneath it, and I had my little secret place there, hiding my little notebooks (paper) in a box way inside the underside of the bed. It was especially cooling for naps on hot afternoons.

I remember being told Grandma had given the bed to Nanny when Nanny came to work for us. For a long time, I thought they were friends. It was only recently that I realised it couldn’t have been. Grandma had died when father was just 8 years old, and Nanny had come to work for us soon after Jen was born, when father was around 22. Grandma and Nanny couldn’t have been friends. A piece of family history has now been rewritten – well, not rewritten, but set in its proper time frame.

My guess is that Grandma’s 4-poster bed remained after she passed away. None of father’s siblings took it because its size made it difficult to dismantle and move (it was also heavy, made of brass.) Some of them were living away from the shop. The more modern ones preferred, well, more modern furniture. So, when Nanny came to work for us, and our family was living under the same roof as the bed, she was given the bed to share with the baby (my sister), and later with my brother, and then with me.

When we moved out of the shop in the early 90s, it was to a house with rooms that would not fit the bed. I asked around and a friend from my schooldays asked if she could have it. She had seen the bed before when she used to visit and always thought it would be a neat bed to own. She didn’t mind the trouble of dismantling the bed and moving it. She later told me her niece and nephews really enjoyed sleeping on the bed – they had never seen or slept in such a big bed before!

It’s years since I’ve asked about the bed, and I hope it’s still providing rest for someone somewhere. Not sure about talentime shows, tho.

Mother’s Smile

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Usually, whenever I visit mother, she would either be in bed, or in her easy chair right beside the sliding door. I would walk right up to her, put my face close to her and say hello. Sometimes, if I spoke slowly and clearly, she would respond. I would touch her hand, caress her face, and feel happy that she does not pull her hand away. That, to me, is a sign that she recognises me.

It was a little different during my first Saturday visit of the new year with her. I’d arrived a little late. She had already had tea and was sitting in a wheelchair in the living room, with my sister on the sofa next to her. The sliding door was wide open, and I stood there for a short while, looking at her. My sister was looking at her, too, for some reaction.

Mother was looking in my direction. She looked like she saw me. She looked like she recognised me because, as she sat looking at me, she kept looking at me, and a big smile came on her face.

Wow, what a wonderful new year present from mother! Even my sister was happily surprised.