Thursday, July 12, 2012

Remembering grandparents

There are things I remember about my grandparents, mainly of my maternal and paternal grandmas, and my paternal grandpa. I can't remember much of my maternal grandpa as he passed away when I was just about to turn four in 1972, but I remember what he looked like and the house that he lived in. I remember the year because my mum said it was when she was pregnant with my younger brother who was born later in December.

In two days' time on 14 July, it will be my maternal grandma's fourth death anniversary. She left us in 2008 after three weeks in hospital and two surgeries. My paternal grandma died as the world was celebrating the turn of a new decade, between 31 December 1989 and 1 January 1990 while my paternal grandpa died in the early 90s. I don't know why I don't remember the year, but I know I had just started my first few years of working life.

I have good memories of all my grandparents. I lived with my paternal grandparents from the age of five or six in our hometown, when I started one year of kindergarten before going to primary school. My parents were in another state because of my dad's work posting in a plantation so when I had to start school, my grandparents took care of me until I was 11 when my younger brother had to start school. Then, he and my mum came back to our hometown to be with us. My older brother was studying in Singapore then.

For a whole year when I was 10 however, I went to live with my maternal grandma. It was because my other grandma had to go to Singapore to help my uncle look after his family as his wife was very ill.

My paternal grandma was very good in sewing. She sewed many nice dresses, school uniforms and pyjamas for me with her old, traditional sewing machine, the kind which you use both legs to pedal to get it going.  She also made quite a number of patchwork blankets, floor rugs, and little cloth bags for me to carry my tumbler and food container to school using cloth scraps she got from her friends and tailors. She was a Teochew who came from China as a young girl, but she could also speak Hakka, Mandarin, a smattering of colloquial Malay and some English words. She could read and write in Mandarin. Every weekend, I would ask her to translate the comic pages of her Sin Chew Jit Poh Mandarin newspaper to me and she would do so patiently. She also listened to Chinese dramas on the radio in the afternoons in the kitchen while going about her work.

What I remember about my maternal grandma was her gentleness and soft-spoken nature. She was a good cook and could whip up many authentic Hakka dishes for the entire family (children and their spouses, and grandchildren) during Sunday lunch. Her red rice wine pork, steamed stuffed squid, and yong tau foo were most memorable. She had nine children. She was a Hakka who was born and bred in Mauritius but later came to this country. She could also read and write in Mandarin and understood some Malay and English. I guess those days, you can't avoid not knowing Malay and English having to live in colonial Malaya. I remember she used to read the Nanyang Siang Pau Mandarin newspaper and also listened to the radio in the kitchen, but I remember her listening to the news, and not dramas like my paternal grandma. When I was older, already working and married here in KL, she was always glad to see us when we visited her and she would take my hand and kiss it.

Meanwhile, my paternal grandfather was a man of his time. He too, was a Hakka, and came from China as a young man. With his brother and cousin, they set up a pawn shop which I believe did pretty well considering those days. I remember a black and white portrait of him looking rather dapper in a suit and hat (was there a cane?). He went around in a rickshaw (according to my mum, probably that was before I was born), and later he paid someone with a car to send him home from work. He was quite strict with his grandchildren, me in particular since I was the only one who lived with him before my younger brother joined us. No talking at all while eating was what I remember most clearly. And if we misbehaved, a quick knock on our heads with his knuckles did the job in jolting us out of our mischief! But come Chinese New Year, he would buy lots and lots of firecrackers for us to play with every night. He was also a rather heavy smoker, having started smoking from his teens or early 20s, right up to his 70s, afterwhich he developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in his later years which was the cause of his death. He had smoker's cough and coughed up lots of phlegm all day. He also drank a lot of Chinese tea. My grandma made Chinese tea in a big teapot, about 2-litre in size at least, and the teapot was kept warm in a wooden box lined with thick padded fabric, on the kitchen counter. He was an avid gardener and our garden was filled with orchid plants everywhere.  I used to bring huge bouquets of assorted orchids for my teachers on Teachers' Day. Imagine how much a bunch of such flowers would cost these days.

According to my mum, my paternal grandfather was in the police force. I think he was an inspector and he used to be out of town quite a lot, leaving my grandmother to hold the fort at home with all her children. It is an amazing feat, to say the least, doing all the household chores and caring for so many kids. Compared to nowadays, how many women, even if they are housewives, would have that many kids, and be able to do everything without the help of at least one foreign maid? The memory of my paternal grandfather is rather foggy except for the image I have of the double story link house he lived in along a main road called Jalan Kubu. I remember him lying in a bed downstairs, in the area behind the living room. My older brother, who was about five or six then, and I would play on the wooden staircase and also explore the rooms upstairs. We would sit on the steps of the staircase and descend by shuffling down on our bum-bums step by step. One of the rooms upstairs had a peep-hole on the wooden floor and we would peep through it to spy on what was happening in the living room downstairs.

There's more I could say about my grandparents but for now, I guess that's all. I was prompted to write this post in the advent of my maternal grandmother's death anniversary, as her death marked the end of my life with grandparents.

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