Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places


March 2015

Two years today

Between the passing of Lee Kuan Yew on Monday and the anniversary of my mother’s death today, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about who my heroes are.

Lee Kuan Yew was the man who made a great nation rise like a phoenix from the ashes of separation from Malaysia, and the kthxbai desertion from the Brits. My mother was the woman who rose far, far above her circumstances. And made it her life’s work to build us a deeply loving home.

And while I’m thankful to LKY, I’m indebted to my mother most of all. Because what good are four walls and a roof over one’s head, if there is no love therein?

Very disjointed thoughts, filled with themes that collide on occasion. I thought a little about what I wanted to blog about her today. I thought a lot about what I want my children to know about her. What I want them to remember before I forget.

Like the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled. And how perfect her teeth were. She never wore braces — wouldn’t have been able to afford them even if she had needed them, which she didn’t. I remember visiting a dentist at the National University Hospital and how the dean of the University’s dental faculty – also a brother in Christ – was so impressed by the fact that my mother, about my current age then, didn’t have any fillings in her teeth. He ended up getting photos done of her teeth to frame up, or use as teaching aids. I can’t quite remember. But she had perfect teeth, and a beautiful smile that she gave away generously.

I loved that smile. I yearned for her approval. No matter how hard I rebelled on and off, I know how much I always craved her approval. Even despite my best efforts.

Mothers and daughters.

My mother was still in her twenties when she faced the reality of living the rest of her life as a young, divorced mother. Singapore still isn’t a welfare state, and back then there was definitely nothing in place like Centrelink for young, struggling mothers. So it took a special kind of courage to decide to go it alone. I remember going to the old church building during the weekdays and playing with Pac Man on an Apple computer with the green screen while I waited dutifully. We were there, because my mother was seeking counsel. It was a decision that took years in the making, even while my parents stayed separate. Ultimately, I think she made the decision because it was obvious my father wasn’t serious about his vows, and my safety and security were paramount to her.

It’s why I feel particularly protective of her whenever I hear a sermon or a bible study about divorce. Sometimes, she would wonder aloud if she had made the righteous decision. It was the right decision, perhaps… but was it righteous in the sight of God? That tormented her sometimes. I wish it didn’t. My father walked away from his responsibilities, and then brought trouble back — repeatedly. She protected us. To this day, it makes me furious when I hear anything that could have made her feel guilty about her divorce because it was one of the most heroic actions she took for us.

I know she would have loved to meet Atticus. She would have made him laugh so hard, just as she did with Arddun that age. She just had that way with Arddun. I look at Atticus as I soak in his babyness, and I miss my mother because she can’t. Not in the flesh anyway.

I was just saying to Tony last night how I still can’t believe that my mother was cremated. There is something just so final about burning a body – even more so than burying it, perhaps. And yet, I remember holding her bones and letting them go in the sea. It remains the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do. The heart physically squeezing as it breaks. The finality of it.

I still shop and mentally pick out things she would’ve liked. Bought a bag yesterday that she would have adored, and I would have probably given to her as a present. It was pure leather and had blue in it, of course it did. My children, your Grandma Singapore was almost obsessed with the colour blue. It’s why when she finally renovated her kitchen, it was like walking into Sea World. Blue upon blue. We called it the fishtank and laughed gently at her. But she loved her little kitchen. And then she stuck sea animals on the blue glass cabinet, because she loved us for laughing.

Blue never used to be my favourite colour. But I love it now, because when I carry a bit of blue, I take with me a bit of your grandmother.

It’s been two years. And I still wish fervently that I’d round a corner, only to find you standing there. Arms outstretched for a hug. Grinning.

Farewelling Great-Grandma Joan

Dearest Kids,

You may not remember this one, but last week Wednesday, we all got on an airplane and went up to Brisbane to stay with your Nanna and Poppy, so we could farewell Nanna’s mummy, Great-Grandma Joan. She passed away on March 6, aged 87 years, 1 month and 15 days old.

It was Atticus’s first airplane ride and despite your Daddy’s nervousness about his ears, he travelled very well. Even slept most of the way over. We had a lot of turbulence while the plane was descending, which — after a lousy year for aviation — induced your Mummy to hold on to the armrest and Atticus in a death grip. Arddun, however, thought it was tremendous fun – rather like a $260 kiddy ride – and laughed and laughed the entire way down.

We had lots of evenings with family, where Arddun got reacquainted with her cousin Evie who is now able to run around with her.

Atticus, meanwhile, made some new friends on his sister’s old playmat. And sometimes, he enjoyed making friends with his Poppy, too.

I don’t know if you remember your Great-Grandma Joan, Arddun. But you certainly were remembered by her. You were her first great-grandchild, which was kind of a big deal. I remember when you first visited her. Typically, you didn’t like sitting on anyone’s lap for very long (with the possible exception of your Daddy’s and your Poppy’s), and I remember you wriggling and squirming within 30 seconds of meeting your Great-Grandma.

“She doesn’t like me,” Great-Grandma Joan thought aloud, as you pushed first her then Nanna away with your fat little hands.

“No, no…” I tried to explain. “She just wants to get on the floor so she can explore.”

Nan, Great-Grandma Joan and Arddun
Nan and Great-Grandma Joan

She sent you a little something every Christmas. And she always had your picture in her little flat, updated lovingly by your Nanna and Grand-Uncle Martin as you got older and lankier. The last time we came to visit her in her flat, she marvelled at how strong and solid your legs were.

And then Atticus came along, and she heard all about you too, Little Man. That was one of the sad things about coming to say goodbye. It was a reminder that she didn’t get to meet her first great-grandson before she went away.

Your Daddy’s early recollections of your Great-Grandma include carbonated lemonade and other sweet treats that were otherwise contraband at home. Because she was retired by then, she had the latest electronic gadgets of the time, including a VCR. (Remind me to explain what a VCR is.) Your Nanna used to call Great-Grandma Joan to tape this cartoon and the other for your Daddy and his sisters to watch. Your Nanna was one of four children. It’s hard enough having two children, but four – and especially one with disabilities. And yet your Daddy has never seen Great-Grandma lose her temper. As long as he’d known her, she was gentle, soft, and kind. He’d never heard her raise her voice.

Your Mummy remembers a woman with small soft hands and a tender heart. Your Great-Grandma came down to Canberra for our wedding, and she participated in the tea ceremony, which moved her to a tear or two. Your Mummy remembers she kept saying, “I’m very touched!” over and over again at the end of her turn, which in turn moved her. And again, she shed a tear when Mummy’s cousin, your Aunty Celina, died in that car accident before you were born. And again, she shed another when Grandma Singapore got sick with cancer. Your Mummy remembers these things, because she remembers how much empathy Great-Grandma Joan had, and how much that empathy touched her in turn. Great-Grandma Joan was the kind of grandmother your Mummy never really had before.

At the funeral, the family had put together a wonderful eulogy. An outline, if you will, of Great-Grandma Joan’s life and the ones she touched and loved. Someday, when you’re old enough, we hope you get to read a copy of it.

We were glad we went up as a family to say goodbye, and to reconnect with others. In recent years, it feels like our close extended family is shrinking slowly. Or maybe it’s because we live in Canberra by ourselves for much of the year, because sitting with extended family at day’s end after a nice barbeque and dairy-free/gluten-free dessert felt like a luxury and a special, special comfort. Watching Arddun having a great time with her cousin Evie was a thing of joy.

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