Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places



The home of precious memories, the celebration of our family’s milestones

10 years

I find her death anniversaries the hardest of all.

Not so much because of the sadness — that has baked itself on my soul and all the adages are true: you’re never the same after a significant loss. Even when you’re happy.

It’s not even so much the wistfulness. Of laughing at something the kids say and then wishing in almost the same breath that she got to hear this for herself. That she got to know them. Watch them become people. Figure out which bits are ours, which bits are theirs, which bits are all their own.

I baulk at every anniversary. It’s been 10 years and there’s no ritual. I lit a candle one year. I made her signature claypot garlic prawn dish several other times. I posted on Facebook. Wore her clothes. Looked through photos. Sang a song. Sometimes I even have a good sob. Usually very short, not very indulgent. More on that some day.

I blog. Some posts don’t make it out in the wild. Maybe this won’t either.

I think fleetingly about making a grand gesture every anniversary and every anniversary, I choke because it all sounds too trite, too banal, too surface. And then I think it has to be trite and banal and surface because writing what I really feel could come across a little too dark, almost histrionic.

10 is something, isn’t it. It’s a whole decade. Some sort of milestone that involves an element. I just looked it up: tin or aluminium. Hardly sexy elements. Very everyday and supposed to symbolise resilience because they don’t rust. Funny. I thought tin rusted all time, but apparently they don’t rust — they oxidise. Which is the semantic equivalent of saying someone ‘graduated to glory’ instead of just ‘died’.

I’ll tell you what, though. This death — her death, my mother’s death — shadows my everyday.

I don’t think she’s ever really left my side.

And maybe that’s why the grand gesture for every anniversary eludes me. I remember her every day. And I remember she’s dead every day. Every day is an anniversary.

10 things I miss about her (in no particular order)

  1. Her smell
    I don’t know what it is anymore. But the top drawer of her dresser was a veritable pot pourri of Clinique, Estee Lauder, roses, musk, that weird sweet glue from ang-paos because that’s where she kept the emergency money, and she. And there ain’t no perfumery on earth that smells as comforting as that.
  2. Her smile
    Fun fact: she had such great teeth, the Dean of Dentistry at the national university hospital in Singapore actually took photos because they were in such good nick for her age. So hey, teeth model!

    And she loved funny people. And she loved to laugh. And I miss making her laugh.
  3. Her ears
    She was a damn great listener. I try to be that for my daughter but I quite suck at it. There are days where I wish she were here to hear. To sit with my precocious tween and give her another set of arms and another set of ears.
  4. Her love of shopping
    It’s so funny to think how I’m shooing our kids to bed by 8pm because her diaries betrayed how bloody late she used to keep me up. I was her little shopping buddy even at the tender age of 3 or whatever. We’d go out, walk the length of Orchard Road, meander through Metro Galleries Lafayette and if she had enough money, we’d take a taxi home. I’d fall asleep on her lap, her hard patent-leather handbag as my pillow. Shopping was our shared love even when we were broke. Especially when we were broke. It’s ironic I live in Canberra now because it’s a retail desert compared to the mecca that is Singapore. It don’t matter. I window-shop with Arddun now because it’s what I understand and what I do best and what I remember. It’s my shorthand for love, my legacy, my heritage. “Your mother is a shopper. Your mother’s mother was a shopper. Your mother’s mother’s mother was also a shopper. You come from a long line of women who like cheap clothes that look expensive.”
  5. Her love of games
    She used to tutor a boy 3-4 years older than me — Christopher — also single child with a single mother. Latchkey kid. Home alone after school every day in a Tanglin Halt 2-bedroom flat that managed to be even tinier than our home. I used to read his books while she tutored him. And then she made it a point to stay on half an hour longer, giving him her time and those wonderful ears. They’d play UNO or Boggle, because he was lonely and the boy could talk. When I got old enough, I’d join in, my flat butt numb and sore and flatter from sitting on cold terrazzo tiles for two hours while inhaling his Ladybird book collection like a reading fiend.

    Card games and board games were how we passed the time. After dinner chit chat over Uno, then Boggle as I got older, then Chua Dai Di. Long games into the night, the TV stuck on some romcom or other. She wasn’t a mother that knew how to play make-belief with me. She couldn’t bake. Couldn’t help with my homework past primary school. But we shopped and we played games and talked long into the night. She’d templated how I play with my children now.
  6. Her loyalty
    It only dawned on me much later on in life that there are mothers who aren’t loyal to their kids. And this, despite the immediate baggage my mother inherited from her own childhood. But her fierce love and loyalty shielded me from the worst ravages of not-much-money and the world’s prejudices when it comes to women — particularly women rendered Little by circumstance. We didn’t have much, but I had the happy confidence of the richest of them because I was loved hard and felt secure in her love always. This is probably the thing I miss the most: knowing that no matter what happened, I could count on her to always have my back. That her loyalty could outlast my marriage, even my own children. She would love me most and best, even in her most flawed ways. It is through her that I first glimpsed El Shaddai. God loves like a mother. I just didn’t understand at the time. I do now.
  7. Her love of blue
    She bought me a blue handbag. Her clothes were a sea of greens and blues. Her bedsheets were blue. My bedsheets were blue. My bedroom furniture was pine and blue. She loved blue so much, she completely overdid it when she finally renovated her kitchen. EVERYTHING in that little kitchen was blue. We called it the fish tank. It looked a lot like the Queenstown MRT station c.1998, right down to the tiles. It was, frankly, bordering on awful. But she was sooo chuffed she finally got a new kitchen, we didn’t have the heart to tease her too hard. I fly that blue flag pretty high now. It’s still my new favourite colour. My 10-year-old favourite colour.
  8. Her friendships
    For an introvert, she sure made a lot of friends. And they sure loved her and mourned her loss.

    To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone who is conventionally successful. But to watch as so many people came from near and far to mourn this tiny, humble woman when she died… to know she touched that many people with her time, her care, her checking in, her greeting cards for all occasions, her authenticity. There was no artifice about her: what you saw was really what you got. She was unthreatening and silly and fun and REAL.

    (Unless you were a bratty child or manchild, then you’d probably get a tongue-lashing. But it’d always be a fair tongue-lashing.)

    She died so rich. She taught me a lot about what it means to live well. What success should look like. What’s ephemera and what’s real and worth holding on to.
  9. Her courage
    It ain’t easy being a cycle-breaker. It takes a lot of self-awareness and even more self-reflection. It comes from a place of unfathomable love and the determination to swallow lifetimes of hurt so the next generation can finally heal. I’m not in counselling, but even my paltry understanding of trauma sobers me when I realise how much it must have taken my mother to carve a path she never walked before. I mean, we all do it with each generation. But to do so carrying so many monkeys on her back… I am eternally grateful.

    She didn’t just break one cycle — she broke quite a few. Watching her pick us up again after an implosion? Watching her piece our lives back together into something stronger and better? Such a priceless lesson in resilience and grace. Such a timeless lesson in knowing when to cut losses. Such a masterclass in cherishing one’s own worth.
  10. Her faith
    We were always, I suspect, reading from a slightly different hymnal. I came to faith differently from her. I was born into it. She stumbled into an oasis. Our lenses are different, but the saviour is the same.

    I don’t know if she was ever scared. But I know she was God’s right to the end. In these last five years of questioning everything I’d ever been taught to think about God and Jesus and the bible, my faith has deepened but now looks different from hers. Our linchpins hold together different parts of a very complex puzzle. Our faiths are both child-like. She trusted God implicitly. I keep asking why and how things work.

    As much as my faith no longer looks like my mother’s… as much as I think I’ve taken the red pill and can no longer really turn back… her life of faith was steadying and sure. I miss her because I long to tell her what I’ve been going through. What I’m still going through. What I’m learning. I’m certain that as uncomfortable as she would’ve been, she would have listened. And tried so hard to understand.

A First(ish) Easter

Growing up CofC had meant eschewing major traditional Christian events like Christmas and Easter on account of them both being pagan festivals, rebranded and rebadged.

So for 40 years, I didn’t have a particularly churchy Christmas or observe Holy Week. The CofC in Canberra didn’t ever plan a shindig on Good Friday, while the church I grew up with in Singapore used to spend that public holiday hunkered down in a whole-day retreat.

Continue reading “A First(ish) Easter”

Time to reconnect

It’s the first day of Winter and Reconciliation Day. Yesterday, the children had bible class online and talked about Sorry Day and what reconciliation means and looks like. Out of the mouth of one babe (not mine — a much better taught one), a little boy gave the perfect stock answer: it’s about making an effort to fix a broken relationship.

(Or something very close to that. I didn’t have pen and paper ready, but what he said was gold.)

Continue reading “Time to reconnect”

Happy Birthday to my Sister from Another Mother

One of the main things I am hugely thankful for in the midst of this pandemic is technology — specifically our ability to afford it, understand it, and be in community with others who enjoy such privilege and access.

This afternoon, I got to catch up with Audrey — one of my sisters from another mother. Audrey’s family and mine are linked in many ways — primarily through church but also through proximity in terms of distance, life stage, and opportunity. My mother had tutored all three kids in that family, and they, in turn, had been my babysitters twice or three times a week at one stage, when my mother had to work late evenings tutoring other kids. I’d eaten their dinners, learned all their hiding places, played in their playground, watched their TV, read their books, practised on their piano (badly), and loved each of them as I still do.

Audrey is the friend who is closer than a sister, and easily one of the kindest people I know. Her Christian faith is deep with far-reaching roots so I find comfort in knowing she’s still here — running the long race, face tilted towards the Son. Her faith is child-like but hardly naive — the best kind of child-like there is — while I find myself constantly questioning and doubting and uneasy. I really treasure this woman, even though we can hardly find the time to chat between the children, the time difference, and our jobs.

Until today. It’s her birthday, and thanks in part to this pandemic, we managed to have a long and luxurious chat — she in her kitchen, me amongst the books. She’s one of those lifelong friends with whom I can easily oscillate between the superficial and the sacred, the shallows and the deep. So much shared history that there’s such an easy shorthand. So much silliness that we can dissolve into the kind of laughter that hurts.

As for that kitchen she was sitting in, it’s where I experienced that crazy unconditional love — her stripping and cleaning my stroller when Arddun (still not quite 2 years old then) had taken suddenly and violently ill while out at the zoo. That was a seriously gross endeavour and Audrey had been amazing. Honestly, I wouldn’t have taken it well if someone else’s kid had made such a mess and I helped clean it up. I can barely stand my own kids’ mess, much less someone else’s.

Happy Birthday, sis. You know I love ya and miss ya. xx

Three jobs and a Lady

It has been a time of massive adjustment for our household. It’s time to take a breath. Let’s recap.

Thanks to the Sunday of Tumult (22 March) wherein the east coast of Australia speedily jumped within the day from “self-isolate as far as possible but SCHOOLS ARE DEFINITELY STAYING OPEN” to “Wait… we’re closing the schools! Except for those in ‘essential services’, whatever that means — sort yerselves out?” to the Federal government stepping in just hours later and yelling, “SCHOOLS ARE DEFINITELY STAYING OPEN! Take your kids out at your own discretion and peril!” I paraphrase. But it was an abysmal day for Not Confusing the Australian Public, with many of us in the communication field screaming silently.

Silent screeching from the peanut gallery
Continue reading “Three jobs and a Lady”

Our sky is orange, our sun is red

For those in my community who live and breathe outside of Australia, I thought I’d let you know how we’re holding up as news of our bushfires light up media outlets around the world.

We’re fine for now. My little fambam lives in Canberra and although the nearest out-of-control bushfire is 86km away from our house and presently 27% of Singapore in size, current modelling indicates we’re not in danger. We’re in a State of Alert, however. Canberra sits in a narrow corridor where our neighbours to the southeast and west of us have been told to evacuate, and many have naturally landed in Canberra. These evacuees — tens of thousands from rural and coastal regions so devastatingly driven off their own homes by catastrophic fires — are the ones the Canberra community try to feed, shelter, and comfort at present.

Canberra has held the dubious honour of the worst air quality among the world’s capital cities for a week now. We feel churlish to complain about the smoke here when our close neighbours have lost their homes, watched the beauty of their hometowns melt or explode before their eyes while they huddled on beaches, and faced utter blackness in what should have been broad daylight. But the fact is I woke up this morning to an orange sky. And for weeks now, we face an eerie red sun at dusk while smoke sneaks into our homes. That in itself is heartbreaking if you know how fresh and clean Canberra’s air usually is. We’re elevated 600m above sea level, and our air comes straight from the mountain ridges surrounding us. Our air is so pure, we get unbelievable sunsets I’ve long taken for granted after living here for over 16 years. The prettiest purples and pinks melting to amber and blue. Well, I don’t take them for granted anymore.

Some of you have already started posting news articles about these fires, which is honestly a relief. It’s comforting for many of us in Australia to know that the rest of the world is paying attention and dismayed, and that there is solidarity after all. There was, for a terrible moment there, a kind of bewilderment that these fires — so ferocious, so unprecedented in their magnitude and decimation — hardly seemed to rate much in international media. But then, many of us rather suspect that our politicians might have burnt bridges with their doubling down on their commitment to fossil fuel. I’ve already personally encountered comments on Kiwi news site asking their government to prioritise Australian climate refugees below pacific islanders. Because karma is a bitch, even for those of us who think differently about our economic, social and moral imperative to do better by the environment, plan ahead, and to curb our profligacy. The fact is, our conservative government remains defensive, reactive, and reactionary.

Still. It’s sobering to watch more than a billion getting pledged to the rebuilding of a beautiful but largely uninhabited building than to mitigate the loss of half a billion animals and 6 million hectares of bush, not to mention the myriad small towns and coastal communities who have lost their livelihoods and the homes they love. There’s pretty sobering accounts from survivors huddled on beaches in the hundreds and thousands, watching their town on fire and listening as gas bottles explode homes in the distance.

A State of Alert basically means we’re not in a state of emergency yet, but to gird our loins in case things turn bad. The fact remains that so many of these horrifying fires are maliciously started, and so we can model the heck out of wind direction and current bushfire trajectories, but there’s always the possibility that some cruel arsewipe out there will decide to be funny and start a fire to feel, perhaps, significant and consequential for once in their bored, selfish lives.

Press conference about the 53 suspects responsible for 69 bushfire-related incidents.

It’s quite confronting to start packing for a possible evacuation. There’s an infographic that takes you through it and it feels at once overwhelming and thin on detail. First, the choice of whether you stay to defend your property or flee with the clothes on your back is entirely yours. There’s already anecdotes about communities leaving their recycling bin out in the driveway so firefighters know to check into those properties to evacuate homeowners opting to protect their property, should it all go tits up. There’s advice about stuffing your socks with sand to clog your drainpipes so you can fill your roof gutters with water. (Thank goodness for Atticus’s sandpit!) There’s things about getting the flammables out of your home. But where do you put them otherwise? I have no idea.

Meanwhile, there’s a map to tell you if your home is bushfire prone. Our house technically isn’t… but every other street to the northeast of us is, so that’s cold comfort. I’m half planning for both an evacuation and the possibility of sitting tight in a home that’s still upright amidst a fire-affected city. I’m trying to figure out what to feed my family assuming that we lose power. (Tuna. And cold sandwiches. Two things my son loathes.) I’m trying to remember to withdraw enough cash because I heard about all the ATMs going down in one place and affected people, in a largely cashless society, basically stripping a supermarket bare out of desperation and running out because they can’t pay. I need to get a radio that runs on batteries, assuming we lose telecommunications and we need to know what the hell is going on. I’m stocking up on torches and batteries. I’m charging our power banks every night. I’m seriously thinking about buying a small power generator.

And if we were to evacuate, what do we leave behind? We don’t have a trailer, just a wagon. So it’s the important documents, and then jewellery and photos. The kids’ favourite toys. Clothes. Toiletries and feminine products. Dry shampoo in case you can’t drink or use the water. Food. Lots of water. Wool blankets because they’re fire retardant, unlike cotton. Sunscreen. Favourite pillows, if you can squeeze them in.

I keep wondering if I’m panicking, paranoid, or just preparing like a pragmatist.

I have been hoarding so many things of my cousin’s and mother’s since their deaths, but nothing quite distills what the truly sentimental things are when you’re faced with a wipe-out and a car boot that can only hold so much.

That’s pretty much us, at the moment. It’s hardly as nerve-wracking as my friend who runs a wildlife sanctuary in the path of looming infernos. It’s hardly as tricky as a young family in an evacuation centre with a newborn. It’s hardly as harrowing as watching your town flattened and the factory you work in or own, literally going up in smoke. To return and shoot the livestock you own and love that are half-burnt and in agony.

But it still preys on the mind. Even if we were to live in a bubble, there’s a myriad of pinpricks to remind us of this sword of Damocles. Two electrical substations went down in NSW, and now we’re being cautioned in Canberra to watch our energy use. We hit record-high temperatures yesterday in Sydney (48.9°C) and Canberra (44°C); Arddun and I, along with our friends, were in the mall yesterday to watch a movie and hide from the heat when all the screens went down at the same time from a suspected power outage or brown-out. Escalators in malls are turned off, many shops are closed. The postal service hasn’t been delivering mail for a few days now, so there goes everyone’s online order for face masks because the shops are continually out of stock from people panic-buying.

It’s the long school holidays in our territory, but our children’s vacation care provider just notified us today that they’re cancelling care all this week because of the smoke and the State of Alert. Two of the four universities here are closed for two weeks. They just cancelled flights to and from Canberra, because our bushfires are so insane, they’ve started creating their own weather. So now there’s pyrocumulus clouds, also known as “fire clouds”, which form fast and move quickly, creating gusty winds and thunderstorms. After a Qantas flight experienced poo-in-pants-inducing turbulence, they started cancelling flights today.

Meanwhile, we’re mostly staying indoors because face masks apparently aren’t recommended for children under 14. And the blame game has long started, so my social media is inundated with tales of heroism and blame-shifting in equal measure. There is solidarity, but there is also a lot of anger and defensiveness. I battle with frustration and a tinge of despair every day.

Pray, if you believe in it. Be specific and ask for rain, good bushfire quenching rain. We really, really need the rain. We’re in horrible drought, and certain places couldn’t even be saved because they ran out of water. As if that isn’t hard enough, the water reservoir burst in a town called Cooma yesterday and so their town got flooded. Cooma is right in the middle of that narrow corridor in the Leave zones. They needed that water in the event of a bushfire and now it’s gone. The heat is relentless, nothing like I’ve ever experienced in Singapore. Pray for rain.

And then donate. There’s so much to rebuild. I cannot imagine the havoc of rebuilding and insurance claims after this. I read on in disbelief when individuals on Twitter dismiss what’s going on in Australia, citing how huge our land is and how low the death count has been. The death count is low because we have processes in place to evacuate people. But then there was also a horrible period when the window of time to leave got abruptly cut short with changing weather and towns were stranded. I’ve read about people, unable to escape in their rural properties, who basically had to seek shelter and wait for the fires to pass over them. Imagine that kind of horror. I can’t.

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh

“When the wise men saw the star, they were filled with joy. They came to the house where the child was and saw him with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. They opened their gifts and gave him treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Until the sermon on Sunday, I’d never really wondered about the significance of the gifts that the Wise Men brought.

(Growing up in a Fundy church, we seemed more focused on the number of Wise Men than the reason behind their gifts. The thinking went that traditional and commercial imagery usually depicts three wise men on donkeys when in actual fact, the gospels are silent on the actual number of men who showed up. When brought up, it was a lesson in my church about not presuming or adding to Scripture what God is silent about. I’d argue that there are more interesting lessons to glean from these ancient baby gifts, honestly.)

Interestingly, there are several possibilities for the three gifts. It could just be the “done thing” at the time — you meet a new baby, you give money and spices. Other reasons include the medicinal properties behind the spices as a symbolic and practical gift for the longevity of both mother and child, and the practical thing of giving money to a pair of refugees on the run from Mad King Herod. (Note to self: best to steer clear of Herod as a baby name.) Yet another interpretation is that the three were standard gifts for kings and deities in the ancient world.

In fact, these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E. The Book of Isaiah, when describing Jerusalem’s glorious restoration, tells of nations and kings who will come and “bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).

Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?

Also, check out this nerd chart:

On a separate but related note, hearing a reflection on the birth of Christ from a woman brings a slightly different flavour, I thought. As women, and particularly women who’ve been through childbirth, there is a kind of empathy in the retelling. Coincidentally (or not), there was a dedication on the day where a family brought their very smiley baby to the front, and the church pledged in unison to support this family as they bring up this child in the Lord.

It was wonderful to see both men and women contributing to the service, something they probably take for granted by now, and yet so empowering for someone like me to watch. Yes, there really is a sense of completeness when there are literally different voices heard from the front — men, women, and children. As grand as the building was (it’s a historical building with the stained glass windows and the vaulted high ceiling), somehow the fellowship was cosy, the music and singing loud and sincere (oh the lyrics! some of them were just breathtaking), their minds set on higher things. Of course, every church will have its problems and I am coming in cold as an observer, newly burnt and bruised from current troubles. “Anything but this, anywhere but here” is almost my desperate plea for a better 2019.

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