I was awoken out of bed at 7 in the morning. I have a phone where I had to pay a $2 daily fee to use it. (It's quite worth it if I only have to use it for long distance phone calls home.) That phone rang, and I blearily picked it up, for it to be cut off in the end. I was pissed off at first because I thought that either it was a wrong number, or a crank call and therefore I was $2 poorer. But if it was my family, it had to be a very special reason for them to call without emailing me about it beforehand. And I was about to find out what that reason was.
My grandmother passed away a few days ago. My biggest fear about going to University of Mexico to study was that it would be the end for my grandmother and it was realised in the most horrible way. The worst thing was that I had just posted on my wall, wondering why the Friday after Thanksgiving was called Black Friday. Well it would be the day that my grandmother died.
I’ve had a boring life. A nice boring life, but it was due to the sacrifices made by a lot of people who came before me. My grandmother didn’t lead a boring life. In fact it was probably a little too exciting. I know very little about her childhood other than that she was Cantonese. She didn’t go to school, but she said that she learnt how to read by hanging out with other people in the village who knew how to. She doesn’t know how to write, but she can force herself to write her own name.
She lived through the war, of course. She was a teenager, and she told of horrible stories where everybody had to hide in ditches. There was a rumour going all around that the Japanese bombers had sonar detectors, so everybody had to muffle their babies and make sure that they didn’t cry, otherwise they would get caught by the Japanese. She told stories of this marvelous brother of hers who had a seeing eye. One day, at a checkpoint, the Japanese told him to get onto a bus. He had a strange feeling about that bus, and he avoided it. He would later learn that he escaped getting executed at Changi.
When she was a teenager she became pregnant out of wedlock, so she had to marry my grandfather. My grandfather was a customs officer, and he already had 2 wives, so she had to be the third wife. She had 7 children, and raised 5 of them. The last 2 had to be given away. We made some contact with them 10 years ago, and there was a brief reunion. Apparently my father and those “missing” sisters had some contact with each other when they were kids. I’ve seen one of my “missing” aunts once.
Life was really hard. My grandfather used to be wealthier, but he had fallen on hard times. Basically when LKY eradicated corruption, there was a huge drop in household income. My grandmother’s branch of the family were the niggers. Everybody from the other branches tried to pick on my father’s family, and there were a lot of fights with the stepsiblings. My father and his siblings went to school. It was one of the best schools at that time, but a notch down from the former glories now. At the same time, they had to help run a farm, do the housework, everything. I heard some rumours that it was not only the farm that was important, but also it was a front for some money laundering. I’m not sure about the details.
A lot of the stories that came out of that period were fairly Dickensian. Now this is not the extent of poverty you find when you visit the shantytowns of a major third world city, but it was bad enough. There was the waking up at 5 in the morning to deliver the eggs. There was the cleaning of the chicken coops. (There were a few fights with the stepsiblings that were won because my father’s family had access to a pile of chicken shit that they could throw at the enemy and gross them out.) There was the occasional nightsoil duty. There was a time when the household money was kept in a till, and my aunts managed to find out where the money was. They managed to squirrel out some money, without letting my grandmother find out.
My grandmother was a very spirited person, but her record as a mother was a little spotty. My father’s family were fairly resentful that she didn’t fight harder for their rights, but I suppose when you rank last among the wives, there’s not really that much that you can do. She was very strict on my parents, and never hesitated to deliver corporal punishment on my father for not finishing top of the class, or occasionally getting lower marks than a certain stepbrother. Theirs was the first generation who learnt English. My grandmother and a few of my aunts later on learnt Mandarin. They all went to English schools. At home they spoke dialect. I’ve never considered Mandarin my mother tongue because it never was.
Around the time when my father was a teenager, disaster struck. My grandmother had set up an insurance scheme for the village, but apparently her sister absconded with the money. So for a while, not only were they the niggers in their own family, they were also the niggers in the village. This was a dark side of my family’s history that wasn’t told for a very long time. There were other hare brained schemes, such as the time when my grandmother sent my aunt to go work at a “hairdresser”. In the red light district. My father had to go rescue her, and needless to say, neither of them were very amused. The debt collectors were pounding at their door. There was a time when I was inundated with ECAs in school, and I had to study, write a play and direct it at the same time. I complained to my father, and he retorted that there was a time when he had to balance studying, taking care of household matters, keeping the debt collectors at bay, running the farm and giving tuition part time. That ended the conversation very quickly.
Anyway, he made the decision that my grandmother had to abscond. My grandmother worked as an amah, bringing up a kid in a wealthy family. It was not the last time she was handling children.
As we all know, tough times don’t last. From the 70s onwards, a lot of my siblings did well for themselves. Except for an uncle – he’s doing very well now but that didn’t happen until the 21st century. All 5 of them have a bond that is forged in fire, and while their relationship has seen better times, it’s still very strong.
Life got better for many Singaporeans in the 70s. My father married my mother. My aunt also married and she took in the other siblings, and they lived in the 3 room flat that they are still living in today. My grandmother ended her stint as an amah, and then needed somewhere to stay. At that point accounts diverge. My grandmother said that my mother invited her into the house so that she could help take care of the kids (that’s us). My mother said that my grandmother pleaded to have a roof over her head, and she took my grandmother in. My father refused to comment on the controversy.
They hit it off on a bad note, and they never reconciled. It was a feud that lasted for the entirety of my life, and ended last week. My mother was convinced that she married a good man (she’s right) but she was terribly insecure at not being as smart as his family. She – well since she’s criticized my lack of maturity hundreds of times, I’m sure I can return the favour. She didn’t have a mature attitude about this at all. She never spoke to my grandmother, unless it was for business. My grandmother took over the running of the household and did a lot of the chores. She was determined to make the best of her second shot at motherhood, and make amends for what she didn’t do right the first time around. My mother? She tried what she could, but she was just too insecure about this and she made a lot of mistakes. As you probably already understand from reading the earlier part of this story, anybody who goes against my father’s siblings, and my grandmother usually ends up getting beaten.
I have sometimes wondered if my grandmother was a good mother. It’s a very difficult question to answer. She had a herculean task, as did my father and his siblings. It’s easy to say she could have done better, but she did a lot for them. They were better raised than my step-uncles, who turned out to be mediocrities in life. But they rightfully resented her for being too strict, and for giving them a hard life. She did get them into huge amounts of trouble, but my sister thought that she tried her best to teach them the right values, and in the end they were all as intelligent and capable as she had been.
So there were the 3 people who were the 3 pillars of my life and my sister’s life when we were kids. My father, who worked hard to provide us with a solid middle class upbringing with all the trappings – the swimming lessons, the country club and the piano lessons. They are not wasted by the way – I am a very talented musician. There was my grandmother, who cooked all the meals. Funnily enough, she learnt cooking from my aunt, who didn’t mind sharing the cooking tips with her. And my mother, who had to play the unenviable part of the drill sergeant, and making sure that we did well in school.
My grandmother had a special bond with my sister. I suppose it’s not something I can really understand because I’m not a very social person. I’m not unemotional but I’m not social. My sister and my grandmother loved each other. My mother didn’t like that, and I suppose when you have kids, you know who belongs to which parent. I was my mother’s son, and my sister was more like my grandmother. I could stand being fairly distant from people, just like my parents. My sister was more like my grandmother, who was capable of winning a lot of friends and being well liked by everybody. My mother tried to drive a wedge between my sister and my grandmother.
My mother was a difficult person to live with. We had to put up with her violent tempers and her cold wars. (cold war: she stops talking to you for a week.) She wasn’t as bright as the rest of us. Mostly we thought that her problems were down to immaturity rather than malice, but over time, the distinction no longer matters. She was diligent and conscientious, and was tough about pushing us to do our best. But at the same time she said the meanest things.
Today my housemate in the Uni of Mexico was in tears, and sobbing his heart out. I understood that when you study in a foreign country for the first time, there will come a day, in your first term, when you sob your heart out. There are many things that cause this, like realizing that when you leave your homeland for a few years, a big part of what could have been your life is gone forever. That also happened to me. But in my case, my mother had written a mean email that said that she disowned me. I knew that she didn’t mean it, but I was very upset. I was sharing a room with a black guy and he was totally embarrassed that day, kept looking away – black guys don’t condone this sort of behavior. I wrote a long email to her telling her that we both missed a lot of opportunities to have a good mother child relationship. She was apparently quite touched by it but for me it was the end of something. I realized that it was the end of that kind of relationship where I was the child and she was the mother, I could no longer consider her to be a parent, only a relative who stayed in the same house as me. Those of you out there who are going to be parents: don’t ever do this. When you say you disown your kid, he will disown you right back.
My grandmother was not always an angel (although she was more capable of that than my mother). She told white lies in order to get things done her way. She was a politician, but in a mostly (not always) benign way. She had her bossy and arrogant side, but she was soft-hearted. Except to my mother. Her behavior towards my mother bordered on the passive aggressive. Ostensibly she was in a weaker position, but she knew which buttons to push to stoke my mother’s insecurity. It was – I’m not proud to say, a technique of conflict management that I picked up from her.
It was worse when my sister and I grew up. Since my grandmother was the more likeable one, inevitably we liked talking to her the most. This is true more for my sis than myself. The jealousy and rage this provoked in my mother was probably hurtful to all of us. Irony of ironies, it fell to my mother to be the disciplinarian, even though she herself was the least disciplined of the three adults. And you know what grandparents are like, they spoil the kids even though the parents are trying to knock some sense into them.
But credit to my grandmother, she was an excellent housekeeper. She ran the household as though her life depended on it, and in a way it did: my mother never really acknowledged her right to live in the house, but my sister and I were the reasons why my grandmother couldn’t leave. We wouldn’t allow it, my father wouldn’t allow it, so she never managed to get what she wanted. For me one reason is that my grandmother was a genuinely bright presence to have around. In fact she was the most happy go lucky of the 5 of us, and we just had to have her in the family.
We had 2 televisions in the home from the time when I’m 7 until now. My grandmother would watch one, and my parents would watch the other. I’ve always considered the 2 televisions to be the symbol of the way my family operated.
We couldn’t show any affection to the grandmother in front of the mother. My father told us it was unnecessarily provocative. We were all Asians, so there was no such thing as being able to talk about these things outside of the family, especially when so many other things were going swimmingly. We entertained no visitors. That feud had the effect of cutting away contact with the rest of the world. I didn’t understand much as a kid. Probably couldn’t explain the dull aching sensation I had most of the time. We grew up in the shadow of this feud. It was a bad way to live. In a way, as a child I rejected all 3 adults as role models, and went about my own freaky way. Only later did I think about what it was like as an adult.
My sis and I tended to side with the grandmother. This happened in subtle ways. In many ways this was my mother’s fault, because she was the one who was always losing her temper. My sister always felt that my mother was mainly the one to blame, although eventually she realised that my grandmother was also to blame for the family situation. My father lost all his hair before he was 50 years.
So far I’ve only talked about the sad parts of my childhood. Let’s have a more balanced picture. All 3 of them worked hard for us 2 kids. We never lacked for anything materially. Both of us were brilliant at school and people won’t admit this very much but being brilliant at school does make you a happy person. My sister and I had a very good relationship. Everybody – my mother aside – got along with each other.
I suppose if you wanted to think about things, this is the contrast with my mother. She rationed her affection for us. There was this deep fear that she would spoil us, or maybe she didn't really care that much. Every time she did something nice for us, there was this fear that it was in vain, or that it was a wasted "investment" of effort.
My grandmother just gave without thinking. It was more instinctive. Maybe it was calculative, because she knew that she just had to win over my sister and me no matter what. If I am a spoilt person, my grandmother is a prime suspect. Well you know - it's no fun if 2 people in your house are always squabbling and it's no fun if you are what those 2 people are squabbling over.
There is this natural tendency for grandmothers to spoil their kids. There was a time when I was in primary school. I had lost my goggles when I left them behind in the swimming pool toilet. I was quite unhappy when I got home because I knew that my mother would give me hell for that. So my grandmother just brought me out to Tang's (the same department store was there 25 years ago, the one that now has that sewage problem). We bought a pair of goggles with the same design so that she would never know. I mean one way to look at it was that my grandmother was playing to good guy to my mother's bad guy. But another way to look at it, my grandmother was capable for forgiveness, and my mother wasn't.
Another incident was something I won't easily forget. I was in secondary school then. The road outside my housing estate had not been raised yet, and it was very prone to flooding. I was walking home from school after a particularly heavy rain, and I saw my grandmother walking around in the floodwaters. I learnt that she had lost a slipper in that flood. I suppose it is quite heroic when a sixty year old woman thinks she has to protect you like that.
My sister went to the states. I was never as close to the grandmother as she was. They shared a special relationship that I didn’t envy too much. Maybe I’m a person who’s very sensitive to whether people are trying to manipulate my emotions, and I keep an arm’s length from everyone. My mother tried to keep them apart. Letters were confiscated. Phones were installed with caller ID. It was just about impossible for my grandmother to contact her. When I returned home, it fell to me to notify when my parents were taking a vacation so that she could “safely” call back.
I came back home, and I found that the squabbles between my mother and my grandmother intensified. At that point I was thoroughly fed up, and it was a big reason why my first 2 years of working life were totally miserable for me. I felt that my father had erred in not beating any sense into her, even though this is partially justified in his being in a very difficult position. I decided to take the hard line on my mother. Unfortunately I now know that it was the wrong thing to do, although it did have the intended effect of forcing my mother to see the error of her ways.
My sister never came home. There were various reasons why she stayed in the USA, becoming a doctor and all that, and all the unhappiness was a big part of it. She repeated it like a mantra: there's no love in the family. But I think she overstates the case a little. I felt that after 10 years of adulthood, some of the scars should have healed a little. My sister was training to be a doctor, which was a fairly harsh lifestyle even for people who have a family to support them. She was under a lot of duress. Later on I found out: when she was forced to cut ties with my grandmother, a lot of feelings that she had for the family and for Singapore were lost. My grandmother was what kept her spiritually tethered to Singapore.
Later on, my mother became more bearable to live with. Probably we were all adults and we could stay out of each other’s way. At the same time, my grandmother had all sorts of ailments: going blind, osteoporosis making it difficult or impossible to walk, stomach no longer working. I wish that my parents would take better care of her, but they didn’t. OK, that sounds harsh but there were plenty of circumstances which prevented my grandmother from receiving the best possible health care. I took up some of the slack of taking care of her, but it wasn’t that much. My mother did try to do her token bit. In truth, both of them always had very little contact anyway.
Her health problems were symptomatic of her life. She was going blind, but she hardly talked to anybody about it. She still tried to be as active as she could. She was still partially running the household until one day, she fell down. Then we started grilling her about what the hell was going on, and she admitted that she had been keeping her health problems from the family. There was also this deep insecurity about her, as my sister pointed out to me. She had been a refugee for most of her life, whether as somebody’s third wife, or a debtor, or somebody who had to be put up in her son’s house. Her children had a love hate relationship with her. But ironically, when everybody was more willing to forgive her and make amends for her, she became a matriarch instead.
So she hid her health problems. Now she did pass down some very good genes to my father and his siblings. They were as intelligent and determined as she was, and they were good people. But on the downside, she had a congenital defect in her eyes that made her go blind. She had osteoporosis so severe that her first three children (including my father ) have it. And I’m worried that I will get it one day.
And after that fall, I should have been more careful with her. We employed a maid and kept her at home. We couldn’t allow her to go to a nursing home – out of the question. She was such a lively person at 70+ that it was very cruel, everything was taken away from her. She couldn’t walk unaided, she was blind. We made some mistakes taking care of her. If we had forced her to exercise every day, and if we had wheeled her around to all her friends, we could have extended her life by a few more years. But when all the symptoms of old age start piling up, it is an increasing struggle to keep yourself alive, and furthermore a struggle which gives you diminishing returns.
That was when I started realizing the truth about death. Death is not something that takes place over 1 day, unless you’re talking about a person murdered in his prime of youth. The way that my surviving grandparents departed the world told me something: it is a long drawn out process that ends up with the termination of life. From that fall to her demise last week, that whole period was a slow death.
She was unable to cope with blindness. It is the worst thing to lose your sight when you’re old. When you’re young, you can learn coping mechanisms. When you are old, you’re too old to learn. The only real defence against the onset of aging is to have an active and healthy life, but she didn’t get that. Towards the end, I took over some of the work of her caretaking. But I’ll always suspect that what I did was too little and too late. By the time she died, the early symptoms of dementia were already there.
There is no doubt in my mind that she was a great person, in terms of what she did with her life. Raising 5 children under the most difficult of circumstances was a heroic feat. And then after that, she raised my sister and myself. Whatever doubts she had as a mother, she was a great grandmother. Everywhere she lived, she made a lot of friends (other than my mother). When I bump into neighbours in the lift, they always ask me about my grandmother. In spite of her difficult life, she managed to live it to the fullest. She was a great cook. She had a big heart.
On the negative side, she made plenty of horrible mistakes in her life. Like getting pregnant with my father, or setting up that insurance scheme. She had this tendency to bottle things up and not confront issues when she had to. And she played a small part in perpetuating her problems with my mother. But then again, nobody is perfect. They say that the smartest people are the craziest, and she was as smart and crazy as anybody.
But it will always be a source of regret that I was never able to be as close to her as I could have been. There’s the generation gap. There’s the fact that I have to communicate with her in Mandarin which is not my best language. I received a great gift from her but I always think about how it could have been even better. When my mother disapproved of our being close to my grandmother, I acquiesced, but my sister didn’t care and kept on talking to my grandmother like a best friend. She taught more things to my sister and in hindsight, my sister was better off for it.
I first mourned for her when in my early days in national service. Of course there was a selfish element to it, like I was pining for home comforts. But at the same time, I counted the years, and I worked out that my time with her was almost half gone by that time. (I was right). That was the first time I thought seriously about her dying. There were other times, like when I was in a kitchen in Snowy Hill, and I thought that it was such a shame that I never learnt cooking from my grandmother. The funny thing is that I went back home and I still didn’t learn cooking from her. And then she had her fall and after that it was too late. I didn’t seriously think about her dying after that, but I knew that her time was short. One of the things I’m most ashamed about was not looking after my other grandmother as well, so I thought that I should take care of this one. This one, I took better care of her but it could have been even better. There was a time last year when she had to be sent to the hospital a few times. I started realising that the end could be near. But after that she made a remarkable recovery, and I thought that she was going to live a long time, at least until I had come back from Mexico.
In the end, what killed her was most probably that she had a weak immune system. I thought that those things were responsible for her hospital visits.
So when I received the call, I will always remember the last time I spoke to her. I had called home, my father asked me if I wanted to speak to my grandmother. I said OK. I don't know if my grandmother was asked to wake up, or if she was holding the phone the wrong way. She was screaming "hello" a few times and she didn't get to hear what I had to say. It was a very farcical last conversation.
It's a terrible way to lose your grandmother. Both my grandfathers died before I was born. My other grandmother: I had just graduated from Snowy Hill, when she got a stroke. She was never able to speak again, and she became a vegetable for 3.5 years before she died. I was in America when her stroke took place. Which means I have not been at the deathbeds of any of my grandparents.
Now, for this grandmother, I was also in America when she died. What softens the blow is that she died quickly. I wouldn't say there was much suffering, but unfortunately given the state of her health you have to say that death was a release.
And this is not just a grandmother dying. A person in whose very big shadow I have always lived is gone. A chapter of my life is over.