Mum died of cancer at 46 leaving behind dad and 5 kids ages 10, 14, 15, 17 & 18. I was the one who was 10. I had been told that I was an unplanned child, that mum wanted to give me away but dad said No. Eldest sis was mum's favourite. What a terrible thing to tell a child even if was true. It was only a few years ago when I became a mum myself and took out old photos to see if my daughter resembled me that I saw the look on my mum's face as she carried me (a toddler then) in her arms. She had a beautiful smile and her face was full of pride as she looked at me. (the same expression I find on my face when I look at my babies.) Mum must have loved me too.
I do not remember my mother very much. Only flashes here and there. Mostly of time spent helping mum around the house. Mum loved to cook and bake. We always had fresh nonya kuih and cakes for tea. Dad would complain about the mess mum made in the kitchen but he enjoyed the tea anyway. My memories of mum centred around helping mum cook. Mum taught me how to wash and cook rice. I was very proud of my abilities and happy to learn. I remember:
- peeling small onions till there were tears in my eyes and giving them to mum one by one as she pounded onions and chilies to make sambal, the smell of toasted belachan in the air
- helping mum wring out the water from towels, mum holding on to one end and me the other (back then there were no washing machines and mum had to sit on the floor to scrub the clothes). I enjoyed it because it gave me a chance to play with water
- watching mum wrap dumplings as she formed the "bak chang" for mid autumn festival
- eagerly putting on little red drops of colouring for eyes on the rabbit, fish and other shaped "kuih bangkit" after mum popped them out of the mold for Chinese New Year
- helping mum roll the multi coloured "kuih ee" (glutinous rice balls) as mum explained to me the significance of the "tang chek" festival
- threading the needle for mum's sewing machine. Mum thought me to wet the ends of the thread so it would be easier. Mum loved to sew. We had beautiful homemade embroided dresses to wear when we were kids.
- helping mum fold away clothes she had just ironed. We did not have an ironing board back then and mum would sit on the floor to iron on layers of cloth with dad's old sarong as the top layer.
I remember watching mum push away the numerous pills she had to take for her pain, her face filled with fear and disgust as she said "No more, they taste awful, no more, please." Mum was at home in her final days because she wanted to be. Luckily, there was a kind and gentle doctor who lived only two doors away who would come and change mum's drips etc. The day before she went away she was much better and could chat with the older relatives.
After she was gone, there was a flurry of activities as relatives arrived from far away. We were given a plastic bag of old black clothes of various sizes which everyone had to wear and pin what looked like white badges to me on our arms/sleeves. I remember feeling confused and must have smiled in my confusion because all of a sudden I felt the pitying looks of the relatives who said "Does she know what is happening?" "Of course I knew what was happening. Only I didn't know how to express it." Perhaps they wanted me to cry. No one bothered to explain anything to me or to talk to me. They were all too busy preparing the rituals.
We walked in a circle around the coffin and someone picked me up to look at mum for the last time. I saw mum's white face with tiny insects already flying around her open mouth. Perhaps someone should have thought of sparing me this last memory of mum.
The funeral was a long procession to somewhere very far away (to me). It was mum's wish to be cremated. The cremation back then was a bit crude, mum was placed on piles of logs and I watched mum go as they lit the fire. Perhaps I should have been spared that too. Mum had confided in eldest sis that she did not want us (her children) to walk through tall "lalang" and overgrown grass to visit her grave. So she chose to be cremated. Her ashes are kept in a beautiful urn in a temple in Penang, now a famous tourist attraction. Whenever we pay our respects to mum it is in a nice, clean environment as she wanted. Mum said to bring orchids when we visit as those are her favourite flowers. Mum was smart and she loved us and thought about us even when dying. Now a mum myself, I know how difficult it must have been for mum to leave us behind.
After mum left, I became dad's favourite. I suppose it was by default. The others had grown up and dad was lonely now that mum was gone so I was the only one he could still dote on. This in itself created some sibling rivalry occassionally. Its not that much fun to be a favourite under these circumstances.
These childhood memories have thought me to:
- let my children help in my chores. These are what memories are made of.
- never talk down to kids. They understand more than we realize. Always try to explain things to them
- give your children your time, its irreplaceable
- never favour one child over another, this creates unhealthy sibbling rivalry