Every story has a beginning and an ending. I am not sure about the details of your earlier years so I can only start from the middle. It is funny how I learnt more about your life after you have left us. From the conversations with your relatives and old neighbours who came to attend your wake, I learnt that you used to stay at 35 Queen Street in the 1960s and 1970s. In those days, your family, including my father, squeezed with 7 other families in that apartment. The rooms were separated by partitions and 50+ people shared one bathroom. The landlady would get quite angry if someone took a longer time at the shower and she would bang the bathroom door and chided that person for taking his/ her own sweet time. Singaporeans who grew up in better times (like me) could never quite imagine how life was like in those days. The 1960s and 1970s were rather turbulent times for Singapore; Queen Street was rife with prostitution, opium dens and gang fights. Somehow you managed to keep the family safe away from all these vices. You also lived through the race riots (the riots that we only read about in our history textbooks). During those times, everyone was very frightened and all of you just stayed in the apartment. Thankfully, the landlady also owned a provision shop at 35 Queen Street and so none of you had to worry about not having enough food during the curfews. Speaking of the provision shop, back in those days, there was one television in the provision shop and the children who lived in 35 Queen Street would stack up the rice sacks and sit on top of them to watch television. Those were their fond childhood memories.
And what did you do?
You used to do laundry for a living and helped Ah Gong with the fruits stall. He sold different kinds of fruits at the start but after some time, he mostly sold durians. Ah Gong’s siblings also sold fruits along the same street. Try to picture the scene: many fruits stalls lined the street and they were manned by people from the same family. We had replaced the familial hustle with clinical, predictable franchises.
A fire changed everything.
One year, a fire occurred on Queen Street and narrowly missed the petrol kiosk. Everyone knew that had the fire reached the petrol kiosk, the fire might become uncontrollable and that the fire might have taken away your lives. No one wanted to take any chances so days after the fire, everyone started moving out of 35 Queen Street.
You and your family moved out of 35 Queen Street to a 1-room rental flat at Whampoa in 1973. A few years later, you moved to Pek Kio which became your residence for the rest of your life. The landlady moved to the same block as well and the two of you continued to be neighbours and friends for over 50 years. During your 5-day wake, your landlady came everyday. I cannot forget the look of sorrow and disbelief as she moved laboriously towards your coffin. She lost her best friend whom she shared so much of her life with. I know you were a great friend who was always so giving and generous towards your friends. I know your passing took someone important away from her. I know she would miss you so much.
I miss you too.
You had 6 children and I am the daughter of your youngest son. In total, you had 5 grandchildren and a great-grandson. If this is not bliss, I don’t know what is. You doted on me a lot. I remember how you used to call me everyday to ask if I have eaten. When I was younger, I used to find the calls annoying but now, where do I go if I want to hear your voice again? I also remember how you used to buy a lot of food when you came up to our place to visit us. I often wonder how you managed to carry so many plastic bags full of both raw and cooked food. I also remember how you used to put food on my plate before taking food for yourself when we ate dinners together. You see, food is so integral in my relationship with you.
Food was also an integral part of your wake too. We had the usual snacks (peanuts and sweets) and the not so usual snacks (M & M and kisses). We also ordered buffet for 2 nights and there were more than enough food for the guests. Speaking of guests, there were people from all walks of life at your wake. There were your relatives (including the ones you haven’t seen in years), there were the people whose lives were touched by you and there were relatives and friends of your children and grandchildren. There were so many people such that at one point we almost didn’t have enough seats for everyone. It was so crowded and noisy especially at night and I know it was the kind of party you liked very much.
The aunties always said how thankful they were that you survived the heart bypass operation 18 years ago and how thankful they were that they had the chance to be filial to you after your close shave with death that year. They brought you to so many places both within and outside of Singapore. They said that you were a fighter and you had a strong willpower. When I see you again, I would like to know how it felt at that moment when you did not fight anymore and went onto the other world. Was it as peaceful a passage as we would like to think? Or did you put on a fight until your weary body couldn’t fight anymore?
Unlike your children, I had not have enough opportunities to be filial to you. I remember giving you some money at my father’s insistence when I received my first paycheck. I was hesitant to give you money because I wasn’t sure what other cousins did and I did not want to “spoil the market” for everyone. But that didn’t bother you at all. I remember you took the red packet close to your chest and started crying, exclaiming to your children that I gave you money. In the days to come when I beat myself up for not being filial enough, that was the one moment that I kept replaying in my head to remind myself that I did something for you. I made you happy.
That was not the only time that I made you happy. I made you happy whenever I won some small awards. I remember you were a proud and happy grandmother when I won academic awards in secondary school, when I got into your favourite junior college, when I graduated well from the university, when I published my first academic paper and when I completed my postgraduate studies. Life has a certain rhythm and I have grown so accustomed to it. From now on, who do I go to when I win the prizes?
You left us so suddenly on a Thursday night. I went out to buy goodies as a farewell gifts to the students and co-workers and when I got home, I heard the news. We rushed down to the hospital on a rainy night but it was too late. I have not thanked you enough in person for all that you have done for me. Here I will like to take the opportunity to thank you. Thank you for coming to the airport to pick me up and send me off even in the days when you were wheelchair-bound. Thank you for giving me so many things- so many that I could go months without buying things. Most importantly, thank you for loving me.
I will love you and miss you until we meet again. Please take care of yourself. I will take care of myself too. See you again, Ah Ma.