Last Sunday, my mother made an Instagram post of three things. The first was a box of twelve assorted Laduree macarons from my sister, who knew her sweet tooth. The second was a polka dot ring-bound notebook from my brother, who knew she needed something to copy her new recipes into. And the last was my drawing of an owl, because I knew they were her favourite animals.
She saved most of the macarons for her children – I exhorted her to finish them, but she insisted on eating four and saving eight for the three of us. She has yet to begin using the notebook, because she persists in writing them down on A4 sheets of paper, glasses perched on the tip of her nose as she pens down directions for berry tortes and gula melaka cakes in her neat, sharp handwriting. As for my drawing, she has tucked it away, to join the ranks of owl-shaped paper-cuts and pottery and plushies she has stashed in her room
In these three items, we had tried to capture and appeal to what we knew of our mother – the feisty little woman who loved colour and sweet treats and cute things. But there are sides to her that no material gifts would be able to capture, and which I have only begun to understand even now.
My mother was born the youngest of five children almost six decades ago, into a middle-class family living in a bungalow in Geylang. Her father – my grandfather – passed on when she was just thirteen, leaving my grandmother, who worked as a clerk in a hospital, to run the family. She rarely spoke about her father, and I never learnt what he did, or knew what he looked like. Perhaps it was the waves of time smoothing out the scars his absence must have left in the family, but it had never seemed to cast a shadow over her recollection of her childhood. She told me of days spent playing masak-masak (play-cooking) by boiling small green berries from under the tree at her neighbour’s in a tin can with water, childhood teasing for her oddly-shaped front teeth (her second brother called her ‘Fei Nga’, which literally means ‘flying teeth’), writing letters to a British pen pal, and of Chinese New Years spent setting off firecrackers with her siblings and darting out of reach of the tiny explosions.
Around the time she was growing up, she said, Geylang was just starting to gain the seedy reputation it has today. In one particularly notable incident, a drunk tourist staggered into a residence thinking it was a brothel, leading all the residents in the area to tape signs in big bold letters to the fronts of their bamboo screens that read, ‘THIS IS A RESIDENCE.’ Even if my mother had never grown up in exactly the same kind of risque setting one now associates with Geylang, I can’t help but feel that some of her girlish sauciness and quirkiness must have rubbed off on her from her childhood surrounds.
Or perhaps it could have come from a simple disregard for conventional forms of ambition. She never really took to school, especially when it involved squeezing into a tightly-packed public bus with a set square larger than a schoolbag tucked under one arm. She stopped school in her first year of junior college (“I found their Maths very confusing”), and gained a job as a secretary in an airline meals processing centre with a secondary school certificate. While negotiating idiosyncratic bosses (one of whom used to order in whole cartons of raw oysters at a time and pop them into his mouth one after the other with lemon juice and mustard), she was courted and began courting. After meeting my father as a tennis doubles partner, they would sneak out after dark, and she would come home to the glowering figure of my grandmother outlined in the doorway.
He was in his final year of business studies at the National University of Singapore; a slender, quiet man with a small face framed with large round glasses that gave him a slightly mousy demeanour. When I look at their old pictures today, I found it remarkable how they were together – she in her tight pencil dresses and elegantly bobbed curls, he with his nondescript dark jackets and wispy moustache. Their marriage occurred just around the same time they got tickets for a honeymoon cruise to Bermuda. They would spend the next half-decade jet-setting: Paris, Rome, London, New York, Hawaii. The rest, as they say, is history.
This was not the woman I knew in my childhood.
When I was younger, I saw my mother more as a histrionic, dominating matriarch than the free spirit she had been in her youth. When I showed an early interest in books, she would tell me not to read too many of them or my eyes would fall out of their sockets. I’d brace herself for her high-pitched admonitions whenever I didn’t put on my clothes properly, refused to go for tuition, or didn’t want to see any of the relatives during our own Chinese New Year visitations. Whenever I cried, she’d threaten to hit me to get me to stop, and scold me for being ‘weak’. In secondary school, she didn’t support my decision to join the debate team. Her responses to my winning entries to poetry and creative writing competitions seemed muted. I couldn’t help but feel upset, even betrayed, at times.
Unlike my mother, I had high hopes academically. Not going to college was out of the question for me. Her religiosity and superstitious tendencies would irk me, as would her nagging at me to adopt more feminine pursuits and mannerisms. She would frown on my desires to travel to less-developed countries and to befriend, even date, individuals from vastly different backgrounds. Many a time I had wondered if I was so different from her that she couldn’t really love me.
It was easy, back then, to look at her actions and think she was being unfair by not allowing me to have my way. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself appreciating her more even if I may still not understand all her opinions. My interests were – and still are – vastly different from hers, but I’ve found it’s the simpler things that can make someone easier to love. The mouth-watering dishes she whips up on a daily basis, the head and back massages after a hard day at work or school, and the long nights she spends silhouetted in our doorway waiting for us to come home to make sure we’re safe.
Mother’s Day is just the beginning of a process of getting to really know and love her unconditionally. And with that drawing, I hope I’ve reached out to her in a way that spans our differences – and that one day, I’ll come to embrace the part of me that comes from her.