Ah-Mah caught me stealing from her one day. I must have been no more than three, and Ah-Mah’s hidden stash of sugar-coated cough jujubes was more than my grubby Milo-stained hands could resist. I crept into her room and dug inside her bedside drawers for her jar of ruby-coloured gummies, which I gleefully emptied onto floor. Cross legged, I sat hunched over my prized find, merrily sucking each jujube clean of sugar sprinkles before spitting the rest out and stuffing the soggy remnants back into the jar.
Ah Mah’s cough jujubes were bright red with sugar sprinkles. How could a three-year-old resist?
“Pai see!” Ah-Mah yelled, when she caught me in the midst of my sugar stupor. I whirled my head around, my pigtails and ribbons slapping against my cheeks as I discovered, to my horror, that Ah Mah knew exactly what I’d been up to.
She marched me to the bathroom and washed me clean of sugar before shoving a rag into my hands with firm instructions to wipe the stickiness off the floor. I sulked and whined, but she threatened to bring out the cane, so I dutifully did as I was told.
“I’m going to tell your mother,” she threatened, and I scrubbed even more frantically to ensure that not a trace of my misdeeds was left behind.
But Ah-Mah never tattled to my mother about my mischief, and neither did she ever make good on her promises to cane me. She was, on the contrary, a constant source of comfort in my childhood, and a gentle presence in our somewhat turbulent household.
She made ice lollies for me during the weekends, and pushed 20 cents, 50 cents into my hands every morning before I boarded the school bus. I spent it on chicken-flavoured Kaka snacks, Xiao Ding Dang chocolates and fruit jellies that you had to suck from mini plastic packets. When I knew beforehand that the teacher had scheduled lessons after recess in the AVA (audio visual aid) room, I stocked up on bags of blackcurrent Hacks sweets—five for 20 cents. It was against the rules, but I sneaked them into class anyway, and enjoyed them in secret as we watched videos of Mr Yakki and Miss Lala playing on an old overhead projector.
Jelly cups like these were a favourite childhood treat during the 1980s
And despite Ah-Mah’s efforts to be a tough disciplinarian, she was, at the core, softer than plasticine. She scolded me for leaving my Chinese homework to the last minute, but 30 minutes before the school bus arrived, as I struggled with my writing exercises, she would sigh and sit down patiently beside me, helping to finish off the pages that I hadn’t yet completed.
(My teacher always wondered why the Chinese characters on the right hand pages were always written so much more nicely than those on the left.)
Ah-Mah knew my timetable and schedule better than I myself did. She remembered Milk Mondays, when each of us in school would receive a triangular packet of flavoured milk, courtesy of the huge Marigold truck that pulled into the school driveway just before recess. On Wednesdays, she packed my toothbrush tumbler into my bag; mid-week was when all of us in class had to form a line along the drain just beside the tuckshop, where we brushed, rinsed and spat before being allowed to go back to class.
She showed me where I could find and collect the saga seeds that would make the best stuffing for my favourite game of five stones, and she sewed me the set that would help me clinch the class championship by the end of my last year in primary school. I wasn’t so good at zero point, but she taught me how to fashion my own nonetheless—handfuls of yellow rubber bands, looped, strung and coiled together to make a heavy rope that swung quickly into the air and bounced dramatically off the floor.
Saga seeds – Ah Mah said they would make the best stuffing for my game of five stones
We strung yellow rubber bands together to make skipping ropes
Ah-Mah was my main caregiver during my childhood years, and her understanding of my likes, dislikes, and other personality quirks developed way into my adulthood. “Kwa kwee,” she’d say, squeezing my hand and gently patting my back each time I came home seething with rage and brimming with tears after a fight with a boyfriend.
"Let it go, Cindy. Some things, you can’t help, and people, you can’t change. Kwa kwee. Let it go.”
And let it go, she did, even though the worry drew tears in her eyes when I told her that I was leaving Singapore. The ceiling fan whirred above as she gazed at me and contemplated the news, and she rocked back and forth silently in the old cane chair that she had come to claim as her own. She grabbed both my hands and cradled them firmly in the softness of her wrinkled palms.
My grandmother and I at the MacRitchie Reservoir
Ah-Mah’s health slowly withered away during the years that I was overseas. Almost every phone call and text message brought news that caused my lungs to stutter as I struggled to remember the familiar sounds and smells of home—the smoke of incense and joss sticks from the prayer altar that Ah Mah lit as offerings to the gods and deities, her melodious chanting of Buddhist mantras that woke me up each morning, and the aroma of five-spice and soya sauce-braised pork belly that she made so often every week.
I was 10,000 kilometres away from home in Germany when Ah-Mah quietly passed just before the new year, and as my family gathered to perform the last rites to send her off, New Year revellers around me danced and sang, setting off a riot of fireworks that whizzed and popped in colours of pink and yellow. I poured myself a glass of champagne and stared into the stars that dotted that cloudless night sky.
“Ormitorhood. Tigong bobi,” I whispered.
I could almost hear her chiding me in the lyrical alto of her voice when I flew back to Singapore to visit her at the columbarium some weeks later. “You finally came back to see your Ah-Mah?” I imagined I heard her say. But what other way would I have it? Because here in Singapore, I would always have my childhood. Here in Singapore, I would always have my Ah-Mah.
And here in Singapore, I would always have my home.
My grandmother – taken on a cruise ship holiday