Allies are Temporary
I grew up with my maternal grandmother. My earliest memories are of her: Lying on a mattress next to her bed; watching her sleep; being sulkily patted to sleep by her when I wanted to be tickle-stroked by my grandfather (my grandparents’ home had a males-only bedroom and a females-only bedroom); learning to work in the kitchen (my first encounter with raw meat); learning to weed in the back garden of our church (she was the church gardener); watching her work at her sewing machine (later, at age 5, I would learn to use that huge iron machine); watching her at her embroidery (at age 4, I would pick up sewing from her, starting embroidery at age 5).
I lived with Ah Mah from the time I was a month old till the year I turned six (my mother wasn’t prepared to look after me, and she didn’t want to stop working). In those five-odd years we made a lifetime of memories, and Ah Mah taught me skills that I’m using and honing to this day. She made skirts and dresses that my cousin H and I fought over; she taught me to love the outdoors and trained me in toughening my feet so I was comfortable walking barefoot on all sorts of terrain; she taught me to appreciate the bounty of fruiting plants; she taught me how to make my own stuffed toys; she taught me hospitality.
In her care, I grew up a vivacious, curious child: I have memories of fearlessly striking conversations with all sorts of strangers, anywhere (hawkers, bus drivers, bus conductors, neighbours, car workshop mechanics, store owners, fellow passengers on public transport), of bugging the church staff (we spent a lot of time in church; my uncle was the pastor) to teach me to read and later, to provide me with reading material; my kindergarten teachers reported daily that I was borderline rambunctious when bored (which happened all the time because I was ahead of everyone else in my class) and “asked too many questions”; I was never happier than when my grandmother was entertaining, because then I had a kitchenful of captive adults of whom I could ask more questions about anything and everything I could think of.
Then I had to move back to live with my parents. They’d not taken me back when my brother was born, but when my sister followed a year later, my mother decided to stop working, they decided to hire a domestic helper, and I was retrieved from Ah Mah’s home.
On hindsight, I wonder why nobody seemed to care about the drastic toll this took on my emotional well-being and developing personality. Almost immediately the report cards from school showed a difference: I was “reticent”, “shy”, “retiring”; I “showed pride in written work” but “needed to gain more self-confidence”; I cried if called on to read something or answer a question in class; I developed stage fright so bad that I visibly shook and stuttered; I was a loner, a bookworm, the teacher’s pet who had few friends. Eventually I made friends with the neighbours and developed friendships with the other nerds in school, but I continued to be socially awkward and self-deprecating well into my twenties. I wonder why nobody who knew me in my earliest years asked themselves why that bright and precocious child turned so suddenly into a hermit crab.
Visits to and from Ah Mah were some of the brightest spots in my older childhood, teens and young adulthood. I could count on her to understand, to support me, and to advise me with kindness. But this didn’t last. Probably because I had begun the process of extricating myself from my mother’s insidious influence, by spending more time away from home (mainly in school, especially the library, and also serving in church), earning my own money (I gave private tuition, since she routinely forgot to dole out my allowance and blew her top if I asked for it, saying all I knew was to ask for money), developing poise and confidence (taking up responsibilities and leadership roles in school, church and para-church organistions), and looking to start my own separate life (I started dating, with a view to marriage), my visits grew less frequent, and my mother had the opportunity to start working her case. I didn’t notice anything was amiss because I was busy. And then I got married, took up a crazy new job, and got even busier.
Somewhere in 2010, during one of my visits to Ah Mah’s place, I realised that my mother had turned my childhood confidant into a flying monkey. My grandmother sat across from me at her familiar old dining table and what came out of her mouth was a litany of accusations and admonishments that echoed my mother.
I didn’t listen to my mother, therefore I was disobedient and ungrateful and rebellious. I didn’t care about her feelings, only my own. I was a selfish and spoilt child who needed to grow up; why hadn’t I grown up in all my so-called important roles in so many places? Had it all been a pretence to show my mother that I didn’t need her? I had to stop trying to show my mother that I didn’t need her. I would always need my mother. I should respect her more. I should talk to her more. I should spend more time with her. I should be kinder to her. I should be more understanding of all the things that she had had to suffer. My avoiding frequent contact with her was a sign that I wasn’t filial, and that meant that I wasn’t being a good Christian. Did I want my testimony to suffer?
For about an hour, I sat there and took it. Stunned. And then self-preservation kicked in and rage began to flicker at the edges of my terror and horror.
Why didn’t you notice that the child you raised had begun to change in the first place, Ah Mah? Why didn’t you wonder about her obvious delight in visiting you (or anyone for that matter), her complete lack of homesickness (so common to young children), and her reluctance to “go home” with her parents? Why didn’t you care when the child you managed to teach discipline without the use of pain and fear was suddenly being subjected to frequent caning for infringements that she hadn’t grown up knowing about? (Different house rules, obviously.) Why didn’t you draw on our early bond and call me out for my dwindling visits when I first started getting too busy? Why didn’t you trust me enough (since you raised me) to ask for my side of the story instead of simply believing everything my mother accused me of? Was it simply because she was your daughter, and I was only a granddaughter?
I got up and took my leave. Our relationship was never the same again. That night, and for several nights after that ruinous afternoon, I grieved my Ah Mah as though she had died. And in truth, something had broken inside of me and it did feel a little as though the grandmother from my childhood had passed away. The grandmother I now had was clearly not the same person. Not to me, at least.
It wasn’t that I stopped visiting, or stopped talking to her. But a wall had gone up and I couldn’t pull it down. When she died, I felt the loss, but I couldn’t cry. I’d already mourned her. On the last night of her funeral vigil, I went alone to the foot of her casket and danced for her, a long slow series of choreographies that I’d always wanted to show her, but which I hadn’t been able to bring myself to while she was alive. I’d taken up Hawaiian hula some time after our break, and it had been a source of healing. Dance had been a solace for me, and I’d feared, after that watershed incident, being vulnerable in front of her again. But she was dead now, and if all we understand of the afterlife is true, she no longer saw with the flawed eyes of the earthbound, and I could let the wall crumble at last.