I was reminded of my late grandmother this mother's day.
Ema, that was how we called her, was a Peranakan, an Indonesian Chinese whose ancestors had lived in Indonesia for hundreds of years, absorbing Indonesian cultures more than Chinese cultures. She wore Kebaya instead of Cheong Sam, she spoke Bahasa Indonesia, Betawi and Sundanese instead of Mandarin, and she cooked Chicken Curry and Lontong during Chinese New Year instead of Shark's Fin Soup. Her parents died when she was young so she lived with her aunt in Udik, a small village just 50 km away from Jakarta.
She was married at young age to my late grandfather, Ihkoong, who came from China. I don't know how they comunicated because Ema didn't speak Mandarin or Hok Chiu while my Ihkoong didn't speak Bahasa Indonesia. I think they communicated in Sundanese, the dialect spoken at my hometown. From what I recall, on the rare occasion that I actually spoke with him, I only spoke in Sundanese with my Ahkoong.
Few years after the marriage, Ihkoong took 3 more women to be his wives and numerous women to be his girlfriends, causing a lot of pains and heartaches to Ema. Being just a housewife with 5 children, she couldn't do anything but accepted her fate. I once asked her why she didn't run away and divorce him. She said if she left, she wouldn't be able to feed her children because she had no money and no place to live. Besides, although Ahkoong was a lousy husband, he was a very good father.... His children adored him...
She lived in the same house with the third wife and her 4 step-children. She told me that it was hell, living under the same roof with someone who stole her husband. They used to fight, argue, and compete to win Ahkoong's attentions. She lived like that for more than 20 years.
During that time, she ignored her feeling towards her husband and concentrated on raising her children. She loved children so much that she treated all the children from the other wives with affections. She told me that those children were innocent, only the father who was a B%#T?RD.
After her children were all grown up and married, she moved to Lembang, a small village by the mountain, about 30 km away from Bandung. She lived there with a maid. I remember my parents visited her almost every Sunday. Sometimes Ihkoong was there but most of the time he was somewhere else. When I saw him there, I usually said hello to him and left. He never talked or hugged or did anything like a normal grandfather does to his grandchildren. He didn't even remember my name. But I understand, it must be difficult for him to remember the names of 14 children, 35 grandchildren and countless girlfriends...
Ema lived in "exile' until Ihkoong died. During the "exile" period, she didn't go to Bandung at all. She only met her children and grandchildren when they visited her. She calmed herself by gardening, farming, sewing, praying, reading and cooking for neighbours. She was an avid reader.... Her room was full of books and newspapers. I perfected my Sundanese language by reading her Mangle magazine, the only Sundanese magazine available at that time.
When Ihkoong died, Ema moved in with my parents. While the other wives inherited hectares of land, factories, houses and cash, Ema was left only with her children...... no cash, no land, no house.... But among all of them, she was the one who lived peacefully... no fighthing of inheritance amongst her children. Others fought fiercely on their portions creating enemies among siblings.
The 10 years she lived with my parents was the time when I became closer to her..... Listening to her life story, I learned a lot about love, about being patient, about sacrifice, about the importance of being financially independent, about forgiveness..... but most of all, about unconditional love of a mother. She lived a very painful life but she still managed to spread love for her children. She sacrified her life for her children's wellbeing. I am sure she got angry a lot of times but she never took it on her children.
Sometimes I wondered if I ever had to experience her life (knock knock knock on wood 100x), I think I might be a very bitter, unpleasant, angry and grumpy woman. I don't think I would be able to be nice to anybody, more so to the innocent step children. I would probably swallow Zanac or Valium everyday, living like a zombie. But Ema survived without being bitter. I never saw her angry. Yes, sometimes she seemed like she didn't care about us, her grandchildren.. But how could she care when she had so many things that upset her life? Until now my aunties, my step-uncles, my step-aunties, my father, my mother, and even my maid (she used to care for Ema before she died) only have good things to talk about her.
During the last few years of her life, she forgot a lot of things. She forgot who I was, she forgot that my father was married, she tought my mother was a girl who flirted with her son, she forgot that Japanese war was over, and she forgot the value of money. But there was one thing that she always remembered to do everyday around 6pm : she waited at the front door waiting for Ahkoong to come back. After waiting for about an hour, usually she would go inside the house with a sad face and told me that her husband was not coming back tonight. She would then go to her room and stare at the ceiling quietly...
I cried when I saw her like that and I hated my Ihkoong even more. Even after he died, he still hurt her feeling.
Months before she passed away at the age of 85, she told us that she wanted to be cremated and her ashes should be released in the ocean or river. She refused to be buried next to her husband. She prepared a bundle of things she wanted to "bring" when she died. Inside, my mother found her Kitab Wedha, the Buddhist Holy Book, her favourite kebayas and batiks, some photographs and few hairpins. We did as she wanted us to do and scattered the ashes at Ciliwung River, near Jakarta.
This blog is for her... I wish she were still alive and I could write this in Bahasa Sunda so she could read this.
To everyone who reads this blog, please be kind to your mother as we don't know what kind of pains and sorrows that she had been holding inside her to give us a good life. A mother's love is unconditional... While we can't match our mother's love, at least we can love, care, understand and be patient with her as much as we can...
Happy Mother's Day....!