the backstage epiphany

where reality is so subjective it's entirely optional

Category Archives: Family

Beating the post-retirement blues

My mother is oftentimes not the most typical kind of woman. She hates weddings and Chinese New Year, hates having her photo taken, refuses to wear makeup unless it’s for family photoshoots, and declares that only women (and here she pronounces the word with unadulterated contempt) drive barefoot and have no sense of direction.

I think it’s also her lack of femininity that led her to swear she was not born to work in the home and therefore she must go out to work (“I will not be one of those women who’s only good enough to be a housewife“). And because she goes out to work and revels in gassing people out, she is now worried about what will happen to her when she’s no longer fit for medicine (“I can’t be knocking people out if I can’t even see well enough to set their IV lines”).

So last week, we discussed the things she can do to take up her time when she is retired and desperate to prevent what she calls brain death. She finally narrowed it down to three possibilities:

I could take up gardening. “But I can’t crouch down all day so I’ll have to buy one of those little stools to sit on while I pull out every weed by hand. And I’ll wear a giant straw hat so I don’t turn out red as a lobster. I don’t know how much gardening I can do though; everything I ever grew died after a few days. It’s amazing you’re still alive.”

I’ll start knitting again. My mother has never been very good with needlework, and knows just enough to get by, such as the fixing of buttons, zippers and hems. So, after reminding her that she once spent an entire year knitting me a cardigan, I suggested she do crocheting instead, which she can do fairly well if she could just make her tension knots consistent. And after convincing her that it’s far too hot in this country to wear anything crocheted, I told her she could crochet doilies and placemats, provided the maid can keep them clean.

I can go dancing again. Inspired by my great-aunt, who took up all manner of dancing after she retired and to this day still attends classes at the Penang Senior Citizens Association. To be fair, my mother did do a lot of dancing when she was (much) younger, but now she’s become more particular about it, especially when it concerns a partner. “You want one who will be there regularly so that you know what each other does, and one who’s at least good at it, because if you’re stuck with one who has two left feet, you might as well be dancing by yourself.”

Nowhere in this discussion did she ever mention helping to care for any grandchildren she may have in the future, which is something I realize a lot of my friends’ mothers and mothers-in-law do. And when I brought it up, she gave me a blank stare and said, “Oh, ya. Ya… no. No. I’m not going to spend all day every day taking care of someone. I would never have time for myself. I might as well go back to work.”

For Aiden

My beautiful godson turns 3 today. He is probably the closest I will ever get to having my own children, and therefore is a testament to how unforgivably quickly time passes, and how we must remember each and every moment that makes that time worth living.

Happy Birthday Aiden! Auntie Sandra loves you!

My unconventional mother

And the top 10 things she taught me

1. It’s perfectly acceptable not to be married. It’s just one less wedding people have to attend.

2. Always be a lady (at least in public).

3. Always put others first (unless it’s in front of a speeding train/bus/plane or similar).

4. Learn as many languages as possible, but know what ‘revert’ and ‘usurp’ really mean. In English.

5. The difference between a cold and the ‘flu (if it’s just a runny nose, then it’s the cold. If there’s a fever and sore throat as well, then it’s the ‘flu).

6. It’s your first day at school, your first piano lesson, your first day at a summer etiquette school in a completely foreign country, and your first time going abroad for college. If you don’t know how to handle all this on your own, now is the time to learn.

7. Keeping the house perpetually stocked with sewing thread, Panadol, Sharpie pens and power adapters will save your life.

8. Attend every wedding, birthday, housewarming, wake and impromptu call with a gift in tow.

9. It’s easier to reverse into a parking spot than to enter headfirst.

10. Unless the deathbed beckons, there’s no reason not to go to school or work, especially not when Panadol, Augmentin and Clarinase exist.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Refurbishing the home and heart

Kitty: OK, Scotty, I know I’m not exactly a cake person, but aren’t you using excessive force with whatever that stuff is in the bowl?
Scotty: No. It’s like your mother said: when the world is shifting, you hold your ground. She chops, and I beat butter and sugar into submission.

Brothers & Sisters

My mother likes to send me text messages to tell me the most random things at all hours of the day. I’ll be sitting at my office desk trying to make sense of a poorly-written memo and a message will come in from her: My son* calls a bottle ‘bettol’! Same letters but jumbled up!

Or when I’m sitting in Afham’s living room watching TV: Daddy was cooking and spilt gravy on his foot. My son* couldn’t say ‘your foot’ so she kept crying “my foot you!”

So when a message came in one night, some weeks ago, saying that she and my father had spent the entire afternoon at a furniture exhibition and come away with orders for new bathroom doors for our house, a new shower door for her bathroom, a new grill for the front door and a diamond-coated knife-sharpener, I was surprised, because (a) they have just built their new ‘retirement home’ and if bathroom doors were needed anywhere it would be in that house, and (b) we’ve spent 23 years and 5 months in the same house without having had to change a single door, bathroom or otherwise.

“Why do we need new bathroom doors?” I asked.

“Because the wood at the bottom of the doors are all splintering away, and let’s face it, they’re a hideous color, and these new ones we ordered are all nice and white,” she replied. The hideous color in question was peach — or what used to be peach many years ago.

“But aren’t you going to be moving to the new house at some point? You’ll have no use for new bathroom doors here then,” I argued.

“First of all, I’m hoping we won’t be moving anytime soon, because I dread the packing and clearing out this house. And second of all, until or unless we actually move to that house, we’ll have to live with our horrible bathroom doors, so we thought we’d just get new ones. Anyway, you or Justin will inherit this house one day; you can’t be having dilapidated bathroom doors!”

She paused for a moment, and then said, “Daddy saw the ad in the paper for this exhibition, so we just thought of going. Now that we’re older and y’all are grown up, we can’t really sit around and rot. We have to find ways to keep ourselves occupied, so we go to things like furniture exhibitions. It was fun, and you know how he likes to look all these things. You’ll be like that when you get old too. It’s the cycle of life.” Another pause. “Your father calls it ‘bonding’.”

My mom has always been very accepting of the fact that I moved back here, not as the 19-year-old who was going away for school on her own for the first time, but as a 23-year-old who had her own life to rebuild and live. My dad, on the other hand, ever the emotional drama king, has had a harder time realizing that he can’t just pick up where he left off with me when I was 19, so it means all the more to me that he’s managed to come to terms with the fact that I’ve spent every weekend over the last ten-odd months away from home. Now, when my mom sends me messages saying they spent a Saturday driving to Klang to inspect their new house and stopped for beef noodles in Kota Kemuning on the way home, I think of it as her way of telling me, “We’re OK here.”

So now we have new bathroom doors.

* This is what my parents now teasingly call our Cambodian maid, who still cannot grasp the concept of possessive pronouns, after she started referring to everybody as ‘my son’.

In Life and in Death, a Secret kept

Oh Yew Cheong, 1928 — 2010

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

– Mary Elizabeth Frye –

This past weekend I was back in Penang for my great-uncle’s funeral. As the older brother of my grandfather, widowed and childless, his world revolved around his four siblings, their children and grandchildren, and his wife’s family. And even though I had been hauled against my will to Penang on a weekday so that I would arrive in time for the wake, I later found, for the first time in my life, that I was glad to have been there for it.

Death is a very strange thing. People  spend the wake and funeral talking about the deceased’s life, dredging up any detail of their lives that they can remember, no matter how insignificant they may have seemed, inadvertently revealing secrets that had been kept for years, and sharing as much as they can to keep the person’s memory alive. And amidst mourning the loss of someone they had known and loved and celebrating the life they had led, the question eventually creeps out: How well did we really know this person?

I knew him as my grandfather’s older brother, who had lost his wife at a young age and never remarried. I knew that he treated my mother and the other children of his siblings like his own, and that my brother and I were the closest he had to having grandchildren. I knew that he walked from his house to the town every morning to buy breakfast for his ailing brother-in-law, whom he lived with, and their maid.

But I never knew him. I never knew that he had adopted a daughter, who now lives in the U.K. with her husband. I never knew that the room in his brother-in-law’s house that he lived in had been the center of  his world, with all his worldly possessions, including a very old photo of his wife, in it. I never knew that he had been an accountant, and that he read J.D. Salinger and Lord Tennyson. I never knew that he kept a door in his closet locked at all times, and I never knew that nobody, not even his own family, knew why or where he kept the key. All I knew was that he was a good man, who, even in his last days, made sure that his two younger sisters — the last of his siblings — and brother-in-law were all cared for.

So as I watched and listened in those last hours before he was laid to rest, I saw the pain this loss brought to my great-aunts and my mother, and I wondered if they were mourning not only his passing, but also his life, for all the things that they had known and not known about him. I wondered, but I doubt I’ll ever know.

Be in peace.

Enter the Terrible Twos

Happy Birthday Aiden! Auntie Sandra loves you and will see you very soon!

By a thread

I would be going against all my principles by posting a picture of myself looking as disastrously hideous as such, but as this is literally all we have left of our Singapore trip, and as my uncle is extremely excited that my cousins and I are all in a picture together for the first time in more than ten years, I’ll make an exception.

A little face time

Aiden at 19 months, who is apparently learning a range of facial expressions that would make his godmother proud.

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