Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Aunty, we’ll miss you


A mother-in-law that was a close friend.

THE first time I met Madam Rassamah K.S. Maniam was at her home in 1979. Our second encounter was a few years later, during Christmas. She had prepared a fantastic spread and we had the chance to relish her delicious cooking.

She was my sister’s mother-in-law. I had no inkling then that she would become my mother-in-law in 1988.

Soon after our marriage, my husband was posted to the Middle East and we lived there for over 10 years. When Aunty, my mum-in-law, came to stay with us, she was surprised that I was not as talkative as my sister and she could not communicate with her two lovely granddaughters. They were not conversant in Tamil and she could not speak English.

She was forlorn for awhile, but in next to no time, she realised that I am an excellent listener. We complemented each other; she related all her stories and I listened with interest.

Aunty shared many secrets with me as she loved talking about her past. She had excellent health. I called her “sweet 16” in Tamil and she would beam happily. When she was not chatting, she would keep herself busy reading the Tamil Nesan; woe betide us if we bought another Tamil newspaper by mistake.

Still, she felt something was amiss, as she could not converse with my daughters. On her third visit, I told her to use Malay with the girls as they had picked up the language in school. Aunty immediately launched into pidgin Malay and found she had two captive listeners.

“Lu dengar, Apuchi cakap ah ...” she’d begin her stories, with sign language thrown in for good measure. Thus began the strange saga of a Tamil-speaking grandma and her English-speaking granddaughters.

Whenever Aunty came to stay, you could be sure of two things. One would be loud chatter because of her hearing impairment, and my front porch, back yard and bins would be spotless. She loved gardening. She was fearless and could exterminate cockroaches with her bare hands. She would come running whenever I screamed when I saw them and then admonish me for being scared of such a tiny insect, and laugh heartily.

Aunty was lucky in that she could eat anything and remain slim. She loved everything I prepared for her and would ask, “Enna samayal?” (What is cooking?) the moment I headed towards the kitchen. Sometimes, I would surprise her with spaghetti bolognaise, lamb chops, steak ... whatever took my fancy and she would gamely try everything. In later years, I had to mince the cooked meats and vegetables as she had difficulty chewing and digesting.

In the last couple of years, her health deteriorated rapidly. Last year, when she had to give up many of the food she enjoyed due to her illness, she told me that she missed the Nyonya food that I once catered specially for her. It saddened me to hear that.

There were two things that Aunty used to say which I remember well. One was, “Kan parta, kai saiyum”, directly translated as “whatever the eyes sees, the hands will do”, meaning that if you see something needs to be done, don’t wait for others to tell you to do it. This is something she used to tell my daughters often.

The other is something she laughingly shares with my daughters: “Sapitte sapitte toongguwom” or “eat, eat and sleep”, meaning she had nothing do in my home except to eat and sleep.

Aunty taught my daughters some basic Tamil, both written and spoken, and used to heap praises on them when they managed to write simple Tamil words. She always said with pride, “Your daughters are just like me, very active and helpful.”

As her stays with us started in her sunset years, she always felt that she had done nothing for me. However, what she did not realise was that the most important thing she had given me was the gift of her wonderful son as my husband.

Even towards the end, Aunty put up a brave front and smiled whenever she saw us. She had undergone hip surgery, cataract removal, a breast cancer operation and radiation treatments within the last few years. But she had to be hospitalised again, for the fourth time, after another fall. Even then, she was alert and interacted well. She was lucid and told me to take care of my health and my family.

That was the last time I saw her alive. She was too weak to proceed with surgery and at 2pm on Sept 27 this year, she passed on.

My mum-in-law – the prayer warrior, intercessor, storyteller and protector – was not at all the stereotypical mother-in-law but remained a close friend to both my sister and I. She loved us a lot and the feeling was mutual. We can all learn from her. She will remain forever in our memories.

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