Monday, May 15, 2017

Happy Mother's Day, Ma

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at how thoughts of my mama creep into my head so frequently. I'd be washing the rice before cooking it when I'd hear her telling me to pick up every last grain that have flowed out with the rinse water and landed in the sink. I'd pick up all the grains and put them back into the pot so I won't offend Bambarayon, the rice spirit—like my mother had often told me when I was a kid.

As I walk around in the backyard, I wonder what she'd think of my plants: the less-than-happy long beans, the distorted pumpkins and the thriving passion fruit vine that has produced only one fruit. I can almost hear her chuckling at my effort to grow my own vegetables.
Long ago... visiting Mama in the kampung

She had been a good gardener and was so restless whenever she stayed at any of her grown kids' houses that she'd dig their yards and started a flourishing garden. She was especially proud of the ginger she planted in Sipitang and her maize plants were the envy of my brother's neighbours in Labuan.

"I'll plant some corn for you," she said to me one day while she was waiting for someone to take her to another sibling's house.

"No, thank you," I told her. I had paid for grass to be planted when we first moved in and we had left the backyard bare: a space for the kids to play. But she insisted and she told me again about her huge corn garden at my brother's place. Then she took the hoe and began to work. I could only look on helplessly as she dug holes all over my beautiful lawn. Even the space under my clotheslines wasn't spared. I'm sure doing all the digging (and saving me the labour) must have given her great satisfaction. “You only need to drop the seeds into the holes,” she said as she wiped the sweat off her face.
Mama and her ginger plants 
I didn't have the heart to tell her that all her effort had been in vain. I didn't plant the corn. I let my precious grass grow back. And I haven’t forgiven myself for not accepting Mama’s gift.

Mama of the good old days would have made good company for the grandkid who talks nonstop and is always up to something. I can imagine them having fun behind my back... like Mama used to do with Sonny when he was a kid. You see, before her stroke she was a frequent visitor. She refused to stay longer than a couple of nights because she was concerned for her dogs which had no one to feed them when she wasn't home.

Sonny enjoyed her visits and would get upset when I was impatient with her. She'd sleep in Sonny's room and I'm sure she told him lots of stories. Sonny said sometimes she was already asleep before her story ended... exactly how it was when I was a kid myself.

There was a time she showed Sonny how to roll some sigup in a kirai and then smoke it. After a few puffs, Sonny said they heard me coming back from work. Oh no! The monster was home! She snatched the tobacco roll from Sonny, flushed it down the toilet, fanned the smoke away and popped a mint into his mouth. I didn't know any of this happened until several years later. I'm glad that Mama left some good memories for Sonny to treasure.

My childhood memories of her are a mixture of good and painful. As I grew up I tended to assume the adult role and felt protective towards her, telling her to do this or that and warning her not to do certain things. When it rained heavily and strong winds blew, I thought of her all alone in her kampung house and hoped she was safe and dry. When I had eaten so much that I could eat no more, I hoped she had enough to fill her tummy.

Growing up ‘poor’ taught me perseverance and forced me to pick up living skills.  Having Mama for my mother taught me so much more: independence, strength, diligence, courage etc, and that women are not inferior to men.

She was not one who kept her thoughts to herself and would speak her mind if she found it ‘necessary’. I’ll never forget the day I became a mother myself. She came to visit the new baby and me at the hospital.

“What is that?” she pointed at a rolled-up cloth nappy. (It was before the days of disposable nappies.) It was Dottie’s and stained with meconium, the greasy-looking, dark green, first stool of an infant. And Mr Hubby had refused to wash it. Mama wasn’t amused at all.

“Tell him to have no more babies!” she said.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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