My memories of Mum had not always been positive. I remember those days when she had no time for us as she hurried through the household chores to go out for her daily mahjong games. It was indeed like some kind of evil addiction that gripped her and she was totally immersed in it without thoughts for food or drinks, let alone anything that took her away from it.
I remember saying harsh words to her- “I will bury your dead body with the set of mahjong tiles.” I really resented her when I thought of her addiction and that was when I fully agreed with my paternal grandmother how unworthy she was as a mother and a wife.
Yet, there were times when I felt sorry for the hard life and difficult childhood that Mum had. She had over time, shared with me how she was given up for adoption even as a very young child. The woman, who adopted her, did so, not out of sympathy but more for practical reasons.
She was a maid, fanning the mistress when she had her meals, and slapped with silver chopsticks on her hand when she so much dared to reach out for some choice morsels of meat.
She recounted how she had to get up early in the morning to wait for the night soil man to come and collect the waste bins.
She remembered the time too when she hid in the smelly and irksome toilet to have forty winks.
Mum’s adopted mother was somebody’s mistress, the man who had sworn eternal love for her at the sea goddess’s temple before he married his betrothed.
The mistress had neither the money nor the rightful position of a wedded wife and what little money that she got after his death was soon squandered on lavish meals on her numerous godsons and goddaughters who fawned on her.
With the fast depletion of the little money that she inherited, the godchildren showed their true colour and soon disappeared altogether when they realized that the old lady had nothing more for them to exploit.
The widow soon found that she had to go out to earn her own keep and for that, it would be inconvenient for her to bring a young child along. Mum was soon passed on to some relatives to take care of.
Mum was never given any form of education and as she was passed along from one family to another, she was treated just like a maidservant wherever she went.
She recalled the time when she returned from an errand late as she stopped at an iced-drink stall. She was sat upon by an overweight aunt and lashed by both the stout woman and her bullying son.
One day, she was on her way to submit some illegal bets and was arrested by the police. She was then placed in an institution for wayward girls and young prostitutes.
Here, she finally tasted some personal space and given more humane treatment. She picked up some skills and after a year or so, was given the option to marry one of the poor men who came to the institution for wives or to enter the job market.
She did some manual jobs and saved some money before she got wind of her adopted mother who was then placed in an asylum for the mentally unstable. She visited the old lady in the asylum and bought her favourite snacks as often as she could till her death.
Mum shared too the time of the Japanese Occupation. She was working in a restaurant when she was picked out one day when some Japanese soldiers patronized the place. Unhappy with my Mum’s slack attention, he slapped her and placed his sword at Mum’s neck. Mum thought that that would mean the end of her mortal life. She closed her eyes tightly, not wanting to know her fate. The drunkard soldier withdrew his sword and Mum’s life was spared.
Some years later, Mum met the man who took her breath away. Soon, Mum became his woman and for the first time in her life, she found bliss and happiness. Dreamily, she often recounted the time when she had no cares of the world but to nestle in his loving arms, visiting the Great World and New World City to watch movies, the main source of entertainment at that time.
Mum spoke of that romantic man often, recalling those happy days when he spoke kindly and softly in affection and would blow kisses when he left her for work every morning.
Mum adopted two children at that time. Both children- a boy and a girl were also from families that could not afford to have them as they already had many mouths to feed.
Mum spoke of the two other children who were Mr. K’s children with his legally married wife. The first wife and her two children accepted Mum and her adopted children.
As the Chinese saying goes, good times do not last. The wonderful man who loved Mum so deeply died of a heart attack when the couple was both young and loving. No wonder, Mum could not get over him even after so many years and often reminisced of the time they were together.
Mum now had to rely on her resourcefulness to keep herself and her two children alive.
She went back to working as a hostess in a restaurant.
Being a young widow, she attracted some suitors to herself. However,being rational, Mum was careful not to fall in love so easily.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Mum met the rogue who later became my father. The handsome rogue was charming and persuasive as all rogues are. His ardent pursuit soon won my mother over. She succumbed to his pursuit to her regrets later on.
Dad was then married but Mum had won his heart with her beauty. Before long, she surrendered completely and the result was my birth.
I was the beautiful baby, born with pink and fair complexion and the glue that cemented their otherwise tempestuous relationship.
As all sons were in that era, Dad was used to a life of comfort and spoilt by his mother. Yet, for our sake, he had gone out to earn a living as a bus driver.
Dad had dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. Together with his brother and his brother’s family, they set up a shop on an island off Johor. They set up a shoe shop adjoining a hair dressing salon run by my aunt and assisted by Mum. Dad and uncle worked as camera men too at a photo studio just behind the shoe shop. The businesses failed miserably and everybody had to return to Singapore not only without making a fortune but debts to clear. Mum had to sell all the jewellery that she had accumulated and given to her by her romantic ex-husband. Mum was resentful of Dad and thereafter,began the unending friction between the two. I was then under two and came home to Singapore none the worse except for the marks left by mosquito bites.
Life in Singapore continued to be a struggle for both my parents and Mum had suggested that she helped financially by going out to work. Being a male chauvinist, Dad would not agree to have my mum worked in a complex environment, often surrounded by men with ulterior and dishonourable motives. This is my father’s perverted view of his kind.
Dad often returned home with a meagre salary and whatever he had, Mum had to share it with my grandmother.
The only thing that linked mum and dad was their love for me. Once, Mum actually left us but when she returned to visit, she was perturbed when I complained that Aunt had threatened to throw out all my clothes. Reluctant to leave her precious daughter to be ill-treated, Mum finally decided to return to us.
Seven years later, Mum had another child, my sister, who consolidated our parents’ relationship.
Dad’s charming ways had resulted in some undesirable attention from other women especially when he worked as a taxi driver.
Dad and Mum often quarreled over these unwelcome female attention and encounters, as well as money matters.
They continued to squabble the rest of their lives together and I remember having often to act as the mediator between them. Sometimes, I just wished that they had not continued living together.
In their old age, Mum had to take care of Dad because of his chronic arthritis which resulted in his immobility. For our sakes, Mum continued to take care of him until one day, unable to stand it any longer, she sent him to an old folks’ home. Within a month, dad passed away.
Years later, Mum became senile and the decline of her mental capacity was heartbreaking to say the least.