Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sweet Memories of My Dear Mama (revisited)

This is my earliest mammary... I mean memory, of my beloved mama...


I found this comforting image on Google (no, I never did photograph my mom in the nude, and I don't think my dad ever did either, though he spared no effort documenting the vital statistics of other femmes).

My mother had big, beautiful brown nipples. They used to fascinate me long after I was weaned off her breast. I believe she was in too great a hurry to go back to work (she taught in a Chinese school). Babies ought to be given as much time as they need to wean themselves - or else they tend to grow up orally fixated like me.

Come to think of it, I don't really know that much about my mother. She was the second of three beautiful daughters born to Dai Chui Lian and Siew Sum Chee. The eldest, Moong Yang, was born 18 October 1916; my mother, Moon Loy, was born 23 March 1918 in Sitiawan; and I have no idea when my aunt Moon Wai was born, but she's the only sister still alive. (The three sisters originally carried the middle name "Moong" but my mum hated the spelling and sensibly dropped the 'G' as soon as she could. Her younger sister quickly followed suit. M.Y. tried out the "Moon" for a while but finally reverted to the original spelling.)

My aunt Moong Yang (or M.Y., as my mum called her) was better known by her married name, Grace Lee. Of all the sisters, Grace was perhaps the most outgoing and sociable. She loved literature and recorded many stories from her childhood, which I helped edit for publication in 1994, in a collection called In Those Days. It was from my aunt Grace, the family storyteller, that I learnt everything I know about my mother's early days.

Apparently, my mom was regarded as a traditional beauty, a veritable porcelain princess with a melon-seed face, and received plenty of attention from young men in her adolescent years, which she haughtily ignored. Her elder sister responded quite differently to male admiration - she reveled in it.

My grandmother Siew died at age 38, trying to conceive a male offspring for her husband. My mother, only 15, took the bereavement very badly and went into acute depression. Her elder sister Moong Yang had successfully applied for a teaching post in Johore Baru and was scheduled to begin work in a matter of weeks. Seeing how distraught her younger sister was, she suggested that Moon Loy take her place instead. Perhaps a change of scene would help her recover from the shock of losing their beloved mama.

And so my mother relocated to Johore Baru and began her career as a teacher. It was there she met her future husband, Lee Hong Wah. I often wondered if my aunt Grace would have been a better match for my dad. They were extremely fond of each other and had a great deal in common. After they were both widowed, I tried to persuade Grace to move in with my dad, and she seemed receptive to the idea, but neither took the initiative, and so it never happened.

When I think about the adults that featured in my early childhood - many of them were my parents' lifelong friends - one thing they had in common was that they were all good-looking couples. They all loved ballroom dancing and took the trouble to learn how to foxtrot, tango and waltz properly. I suppose there must have been a fair amount of good-natured bottom-pinching on the side, but people seemed to have really enjoyed life in those halcyon post-war days.

My parents were on the guestlist of the ANZAC officers stationed in Batu Pahat and I recall they were in the habit of dressing up for gala dances at the Bandar Penggaram Recreation Club at least once a month. One Kiwi officer named Sam Gilhoolie had the hots for my mom. He often visited her in the afternoons and never forgot to bribe me with little gifts - including a teddybear that became the patriarch of my teddybear family and which I cherished till it became too grungy and mangy to keep.

I looked forward to Sam's afternoon tête-à-têtes with my mom, mainly because he always arrived in an army jeep with his Fijian driver, a friendly black dude named Lala, who allowed me to sit at the wheel and pretend I was driving his funky vehicle.

Mom called Sam "Bullethead" on account of his short-cropped hair - and I suppose he was the archetypal "bullet-headed Saxon mother's son" referred to in John Lennon's famous song, "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill."

Decades later my mom continued to receive Christmas cards from Sam Gilhoolie, who must have passed on by now. I have no idea if Sam's passion for my mother was ever requited - but it was certainly an enduring friendship.


The above isn't a picture of my mom - but this could have been how she appeared to others (especially men) before she gave birth to me at age 32. It's hard for children to view their own parents as individual humans - with their own secret fantasies and unfulfilled dreams. Now that my parents are both gone, I find it much easier to view them as others might have seen them - two sexy adults who enjoyed life to the hilt and suffered their share of sorrows and disappointments.

My dad at 75 and my mom at 73, posing with a prospective Syrian-German daughter-in-law named Yasmin Wakil. They approved but Yasmin's mom apparently didn't. She recalled her daughter in November 1991 and I haven't seen Yasmin since, though she occasionally sends me a sweet email.

If I ever harbored Oedipal feelings towards my mother, they were probably minimal and receded shortly after I reached puberty. My bedroom was connected to my parents' by a door they usually kept bolted. But one morning they forgot to bolt it and, for some reason, I opened the door and saw my dad making love to my mom. I don't think they noticed me but I had the good sense to quietly close the door and leave them to it.

The effect this had on me was liberating. From that moment I regarded sex as something people do simply because it's pleasurable - no right or wrong attached to the act, and no shame or guilt either. How can one possibly be ashamed of an act by which one was conceived?

I must have been 11 at the time and just beginning to appreciate my morning erections, though I don't recall having any wet dreams except, perhaps, once or twice. However, I became aware of my parents' sex lives because I often heard them quarreling about questions of fidelity. It was a small, provincial-minded town full of brainless gossipers and word of my dad's erotic derring-do occasionally would reach my mother's ears.

My mom tried to recruit my services as a spy. She would send me to my dad's office, a 10-minute walk from home, to check whether he was at his desk. Initially, feeling self-righteous as hell, I did her bidding.

However, I resigned from that task after I returned unexpectedly one afternoon and found the front door mysteriously locked. I had gone to the cinema to catch a matinee screening but discovered there had been a change of program, so I turned around and went home. Entering the house by the back door, I padded over to my parents' bedroom and found the door also locked. So I peeped through the keyhole and saw a guy in his underpants clutching his clothes and scurrying out through the bathroom, which opened out to the garden.

I was shocked and furious but managed to keep my cool. It was that dirty datuk, another of my mom's not-so-secret admirers, and now he was coming around from the back garden, smiling at me sheepishly and saying, "Hello! You're home early!" I gave him the dirtiest look I could muster and ignored him. My mother didn't bother to explain and I didn't bother to question her. After pondering what I had witnessed, I concluded that grown-ups were just a bunch of hypocrites. If my dad could scatter his wild oats freely, why couldn't my mom have a bit of fun on the side too?

A few years down the line, when I was old enough to drive and take girlfriends to quiet areas where we could "talk in private," I discovered my dad and I thought alike. It was actually hilarious when we both ended up in the same "make-out" spot one afternoon. My dad grinned bashfully at me as he reversed his car to make way for me - and I managed a loud chuckle as I waved conspiratorially at him and tried to identify the young woman beside him. At the time I felt smug that I had slightly better taste in women than he did.

Anyway, my parents managed to remain "happily married" for nearly 60 years till my mom's death on 14 July 1995. During the distressing years of her declining health - she suffered from heart palpitations, high blood pressure, diabetes, and renal failure (which required her to undergo dialysis thrice a week) - my dad nursed her with a loving dedication that revealed the incredible depths of his love.


Indeed, he would dutifully drive her to the hospital three times a week and sit outside reading the papers and dozing off for 4-5 hours while her blood was mechanically filtered and cleansed. This routine went on for at least four years - and if my mom had lived another six months, I believe dad would have succumbed to exhaustion and checked out before her.

Mom loved traveling but not my dad. On a rare vacation together to the US, with a Hawaiian stopover, in 1983.

Three years after my mom's death, I visited my dad with a beautiful Japanese girl in tow - and he became instantly besotted with her. Indeed, the only time dad ever visited my jungle abode was in 1998, when Keiko agreed to accompany him and me on the train from Johore Baru. Dad was 82 then and Keiko only half his age - but that didn't deter him from behaving like a lovestruck puppy.

He repeatedly told me Keiko reminded him so much of my mom when she was in her prime. It was perhaps the last major passion of his life, although he did succumb a year or two later to the undisputed charms of my sister's Filipina housekeeper - a red-blooded 28-year-old I would have happily dated myself.

Looking back at my parents' lives and my own, I just have to laugh at how alike we actually are - when all pretense and outward appearances are stripped away.


Does she look like my mom just before I was conceived? More like my grandma, I guess, but melon-seed faced nonetheless...



My beloved mom would have celebrated her 98th solar orbit today. She probably would be totally embarrassed and annoyed by the stories I have told about her and my dad. But, then, she wasn't very happy either when she read the family history recorded by her sister Grace.

"You know how M.Y. loves telling stories," was mom's only response.

Yes, but at the end of the day, what do we have except our stories - our experiences, our memories, the beautiful mystery of our very existence? And if we distort the truth and deny the facts of our lives, do we not become less than pure fiction, do we not become non-existent entities?

At the end of time - which isn't very far from now, going by most prophetic accounts - all we are left with is the innocent truth of our being as humans. If we continue to spin and lie and conceal, rather than reveal, we end up in a limbo of our own making. And I want to see you in paradise - not as my mother, but as the compassionate, forgiving, angelic soul you have always been

This is my birthday present to you, dearest mom, I am resurrecting you in my memory as a beautiful and desirable young woman - with secret admirers and romantic fantasies and adolescent dreams. And a wonderful, passionate, fun-loving husband who loved you till the very end, though his genes were perhaps a lot more adventurous than you would have preferred...


Behold, mom, your 4 surviving children - plus 9 gorgeous grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren - who absolutely adore you and celebrate your goddesshood!

[First posted 23 March 2011, reposted 23 March 2014]