Memaw

By Thierry Ng


Mothers day passed and I wrote this. Hope you enjoy reading it.

Before hanging up the phone on memaw, I always squeeze in the words, ‘love you’. Not on passing, but on purpose.

After hanging up the phone on memaw, I always think to myself, ‘Did she notice?

My grandmother sets the bowl down on the glass sheeted table. They clink. My father slumps on the couch as he plays poker stars, and my sister plays club penguin in my uncle’s room as he watches her. I dine at the table with four empty chairs.

Beyond the window, the day wears a shade of cobalt blue and the shadows wax and wane. An Asian Koel cries over and over, louder and louder. The pearly white Correlle bowl is older than me. It is strong, and it steams. I loom over it. The food is this coarse and uneven pudding, like bleached white tarmac. Tiny orange cubes and green tubes swim in what I call porridge. Minced pork is strewn across its surface.

Breathe. I savor the smell of steamy umami, the fifth taste. What appears to be blasé is my favourite food. Not Ossu Bucco, Foie gras or beef wellington, which is what I tell people. Conversation pieces.

Dabble in self-help and it won’t be long before you encounter neuro associative conditioning. In NAC, you have things called anchors. When you avoid The xx because it reminds you of that time you were cuckolded, that’s an anchor. When you catch a whiff of Marlboro light and it calms you because you are reminded of a loved one who smokes it, that’s an anchor. Stimuli that trigger specific thoughts and emotions.

Congee is an anchor.

When I was little, I visited my grandma every fortnight or so. This was before we weren’t allowed to see her. Then, she lived in a se-tenant house. The houses along the stretch of road were old and the roofs were made of rusted, benga style metal. It was more common for houses then to be roofed with spanish tiles. The gates were formed by two rectangular iron frames with metal wires that criss-crossed to form diamonds, and a latch that grated when touched.

On the cramped driveway made of cracked concrete that was laid before the house, I had many fond memories. During the festive season, I would light sparklers with my grandma, these little handheld sticks of fireworks. My favorite sparkler was green. I remember running around the driveway with lanterns, kicking dust and rock. The animal shaped lanterns were made of wire and translucent, colored sheets. There was a placeholder right in the center of the hollow lantern for a candle. My lantern took the form of a rooster, which was also my zodiac sign.

In that home away from home, housed my old mom, my true mom. We heal by forgetting, and how it works is, we can’t control what we forget. Not fully. In the process of forgetting the time outside that place, I forget much of what happened inside. But what I never forget, is the wicked bowl of congee my grandmother served me without fail, every visit.

Grandma has a habit of nicking things. Not shoplifting, just things like the hotel towels, cups and utensils. My favorite spoon, which I hold at my grandma’s apartment now, has been with me for years. It’s small, almost like a teaspoon. It has the logo of a bird stamped into it’s handle, courtesy of Singapore Airlines. The rest of the family joins me at the dining table and we eat. My grandma is getting older, so sometimes the porridge is salty. Sometimes there’s too much water and other times there’s not enough stock and it’s tasteless. Today, just like every other day, it’s perfect. We speak as we eat, but we don’t say much. My dad plays eyeballs his phone as he eats. I mention something that happened on the news in passing and my uncle grunts. My sister abandons her half-finished bowl of rice for the computer and we’re done. And I slouch next to my dad on the couch, day-dreaming in front of the television screen that blares some Taiwanese game show into the night. The kind of program that has silly graphics and sounds to cue the funny parts.

My grandma sits at the empty table that brims with unfinished food. Chewing in silence. Lost in the strange thoughts of the old. Red-rimmed, cataract filled eyes hover the leftovers. She rises and clears the dishes.

After the separation, my father and I moved just across the street from her. No longer barred from seeing her, we frequented her apartment for a time. The closeness hit and we spent less and less time together.

I think of her mortality and it scares me. All the time that I should have spent with her in the years that passed, but didn't.

It has been months since I've spent time with her, and I tell myself, tomorrow. On the rare occasion that I do go out with her, for dinner, lunch, or a movie, she chides me.

Did you know that your father is under a lot of stress?

Did you know that you need to study hard and be a good son?

I know these things.

Did you know that none of you appreciate me?

Did you know that you are good for nothing?

I know these things.

I guess while I may not like hearing these things, I should bear with it nonetheless. The price of spending time with her.

Is this what love is about?

One time, I was fifteen and depressed. My first girlfriend had dumped me and I needed to go out. I needed to be with someone. I called my grandmother and she was in the middle of some Chinese opera thing. The kind with white face paint, pink eye shadow, high pitched voices and gaudy costumes in shapes and patterns that I don’t understand. I called her, and she dropped everything to spend time with me.

She may not be tender about it, but she’s always there for me, and in spite of the sometimes hurtful nagging, I know that she loves me.

Dear Mama, Papa, Sister, Friend, Ex-lover. Love me. That’s what I write on greeting cards. On the top, and then on the bottom. Pre-written generic message sandwiched in the middle.

May all your wishes come true.

One time, I scribbled the words, thanks for always being there.

Did she notice?

My grandma the cook, my grandma the babysitter, sometimes we drop my rowdy sister off at her place. They yell at each other a lot, my rude bratty sister, and my angry, nagging me-maw. Just as we use her to have a few hours of peace, my sister uses her, bosses her, makes her buy crap she doesn’t want.

My grandma the giving tree, she’s the glue that holds this dysfunctional family together.

What will I do when you are gone.

Do you know that you are loved.

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