My earliest memory of my Ah Ma would be her sitting in her cane rocking chair outside her provision shop, Soon Gek Trading Co. My mom would be sitting next to her. Both ladies would be conversing very loudly in Teochew. My mother was very close to Ah Ma. Like my mother and I now, they talked on the phone almost everyday. As a child, I wondered what did they have to talk about. Now, I know. Mothers and daughters talk about everything and nothing.
Interestingly, after so many years, I can still remember the shop’s telephone number. 6748 3061 was the number my mother made me call everyday then. My duty was to pass my mother the phone when my grandmother was on the line. Sometimes, it would be my Uncle Desmond or my Uncle Eric who picked up the phone. If I forgot to greet them, they would ask me, “Why you never call me?” It was very important for us to greet our elders. If not, we would be lectured by our parents on the importance of being polite. (-_-)”’
My mom and my siblings love going to Ah Ma’s shop. To my mother, it could be because she could get a chance to enjoy her mother’s cooking and listen to the endless Teochew chatter. My mother love Ah Ma so much. Even until today, she can tell me so many things about Ah Ma like:
1. Ah Ma never had her driving license but still she drove around with my mother doing business, selling jade. There was this one incident when Ah Ma left my mother alone in the van while she went to hide from the police. It was something along these lines.
2. My mother thinks that Ah Ma’s cooking is the best. I love my Ah Ma but I think my mother’s cooking is the best though. No kidding. I love everything that my mom cooks. Everything is so yummy. Thinking about it makes me feel sad because we are miles away.
3. Whenever my mother gets angry with anyone, Ah Ma would just advise her, “Wu liang wu hor”. It probably means let bygones be bygones. She may be a businesswoman but her heart is for the people. My mother told me that she trusted in people easily and often went out of her way to help people. While her money may be cheated by people, what mattered was her heart who always believed in the goodness of people. Her world probably looked much more beautiful than many others.
To me, Ah Ma’s shop was a refuge for me. It was place where I did not have to do any school assignments, tuition homework or practise the piano. Please don’t even get me started on how bad I am/was at piano. at Ah Ma’s shop, I could go to the playgrounds(there were two playgrounds behind the shop) and play with my siblings or cousins. When I was there, all my problems felt so far away. I was one of those students who did not fare well in primary school. Late bloomers, as what my parents would describe me now. During my primary school days, I was a mediocre student. Math and Science were my weakest subjects. Being bespectacled, relatively dishonest(I constantly lied about finishing my homework when I did not) and in TAF Club definitely did not improve my likability. While I would imagine most people did not think much of me, I think my Ah Ma saw beyond all these. She always had a smile for me and constantly reminded me that, “Mui Mui Jin Ngia” which can be loosely translated as I(Mui Mui is what she called me) was very pretty. She even told me that I could take any snack that I wanted in her shop. Hahahha… as a kid, having all the snacks in the world from a provision shop is akin to a carte blanche. Looking back now, I could imagine how much her validation meant for me as a 10-12 year old child.
It meant the world.
E was asking me why I had at vivid recollection of my childhood. I am not sure why but I do have an elephant memory when it came to my past. This is especially so now that I am so faraway from my family. I have time to stop and reflect on my life. Sometimes while walking Ryan to school makes me recall how I used to walk Leon and Kimberly to their kindergartens.
Simple things like how my uncle’s place at Warrigin Park looked like, the smell of my grandparents’ room and my grandma’s cooking are etched in my head. Birthday celebrations of my grandparents were usually held in Uncle Amos’s old place at Warrigin Park. Ah Ma’s birthday was in May and Ah Gong’s birthday was in June. Weeks prior to the birthdays, my mother will be on the phone, calling the different catering companies(Neo Gardens, Mom’s Kitchen, etc) to get the best quotes and menus. My mother would get quite angry when my brothers or I disturbed her when she was on the phone. In the end, the buffet spread ordered would usually be the same old stuff like fried beehoon, chicken curry, lemon battered fish, cold bur bur cha cha and whatnots. There would always be a huge cake with the word 寿 on it. I always looked forward to such family gatherings. No books. Just family and lots of good food.
The last few years of my Ah Ma were not particularly good. Her health deteriorated significantly. Ah Ma was diagnosed with diabetes, had to undergo dialysis and had to amputate one of her legs. She looked very different from her past self. I cannot really remember much of her days in the hospital. Perhaps, subconsciously, I wanted to recall my Ah Ma at her best, being the strong matriarch of the family, sitting on her rocking chair, smiling at all her grandchildren.
My final memory of Ah Ma was at Mandai Crematorium. She was pushed into the crematorium, my mother screamed very loudly. She fainted and I think my father and one of my uncles held her. My heart broke. That was my first experience with death and it was unimaginably painful to see the living hurt so much.
Ah Ma was the loud one. Ah Gong was the yang to her yin. He was a man of few words. He liked reading his Chinese newspapers and listening to Teochew operas. My mother always told me that Ah Gong was a very loyal employee. He was with only one company for his entire life. When Ah Ma passed away, I think part of him died as well. As my grandmother accepted Christ during her last few moments, Ah Gong decided to believe in Christ and got baptised as he wanted to be with Ah Ma in the after world.
The years without Ah Ma passed quite quickly. We still had our gatherings but it felt quieter. By then, Aunt Linda has mastered the art of baking and decorating cakes and she was in charge of birthday cakes. Her birthday cakes are so so so delicious. Soft sponge cakes and filled with all the fresh cream and fruits. Thinking about it just makes me salivates. Hmm…
Gatherings felt always different without a matriarch. Overtime, everyone grew older and busier. The younger generation established new network of friends and got occupied with other stuff.
Most of my memories of my Ah Gong unfortunately revolved with him being quite sickly and being plugged onto many tubes. He was in hospital and my mother would always be massaging his arms or cleaning his face with a towel. As I was busy preparing for examinations, I could not visit him as much. When he also passed on, I recall my mother being devastated.
We had the wake for five days. For five whole days, the whole extended family was together everyday. While the grief was still raw, there was the support of everyone’s presence. After the funeral, my mother was in her room for days, moody and teary. She told me that she was an orphan. That was factual and there was nothing I could say except to just stay by her…
Whenever there are big events(my wedding, the birth of my children, the upcoming weddings of Bob and Shawn in December) happening in my life, I wonder how it would be like if my Ah Ma and Ah Gong were still around. Whenever I see Facebook photos of my friends celebrating the 90th birthdays of their grandparents, there is always a slight tinge of envy in me. How nice it would be if I could celebrate the birthdays of Ah Ma and Ah Gong. They will definitely love Ryan and Gillian to bits.
Today is one of those days when I miss them, their calming presence and kind words. To my Ah Gong and Ah Ma, hope you have been good. Heaven should be a fabulous place. Both of you are missed.