Wednesday, June 30, 2010

17 years later, I still don’t wash my hair on my birthday because I miss her

Little Miss loves to sing. Well, technically, she’ll make a request “Bus!”, I will sing her current obsession, “The Wheels on the Bus,” and she’ll chime in where she can,  “roun roun” and “aaahh tooo taaahn” (all through the town), right on cue. Not quite pitch-perfect, but she isn’t self-conscious about it either - in fact, she sings her little heart out despite her inability to say most of the words. Suddenly this vision of my daughter transports me back to one of the stories of me from my past.

Often recounted by my favorite aunt, my “Kuma” (elder aunt in Cantonese, pronounced koo-mah), who passed on 17 years ago, it involves watching Grease in the theater with her when I was barely three years old. Apparently, during the song and dance scenes, I stood on my seat (a.k.a. my stage) and sang loud enough for everyone to hear. Embarrassed, she tried to coax me to sit but to no avail, so the audience in the theater had to sit through two John Travoltas and two Olivia Newton Johns that day.

It’s one of my favorite stories about me, not because I particularly enjoy being obnoxious (that’s later, Justine - The College Years), but because it was my Kuma who shared this moment with me. While it wasn’t ideal, it was certainly memorable for her, as she always laughed at each retelling. It’s the echo of that laughter in the back of my mind that floods me with longing. I miss her.



Kuma was the eldest of eight siblings, and she was more the matriarch of my dad’s clan than her mom, my grandma. Widowed when her only daughter was eight, Kuma was the first mother I knew who single-handedly raised her child. Uneducated, she taught herself to bake and made cakes out of her home that she sold to friends, neighbors and department stores for a living. To do that, she rose before the sun every day at 2:30. While everyone’s in deep slumber, she toiled in the heat, exacerbated by the ovens, stopping only after the city was bustling with life.

However, baking wasn’t her passion, cooking was. She loved laboring in the kitchen by herself, creating meals that rivaled the best restaurants. I feel a little guilty but my most treasured memories of her involve food - the fried pork patties, the sweet and spicy anchovies, the silky smooth savory egg custard. She could elevate a dish as simple as fried rice to a sublime experience just by adding golden caramelized shallots and Chinese sausage. Needless to say, she was a profound influence on me in the kitchen despite my inability to replicate her masterpieces from my childhood.


CNYdinner We’ve never taken pictures of meals with her, but this is the closest approximation to what it looked like.


I admit, I resent her for not allowing me to watch her as she cooked, which was how we usually learned in our non-recipe-keeping culture. Now I have about two dozen Chinese condiments and sauces in my house that lead to good, even delicious dishes but they are never truly satisfying because they aren’t hers. Had she lived longer, she might have left her legacy behind, but as it turns out, life (or rather, death) had a different plan for her. At age 59, she suffered complications from hypertension and died while doing laundry - alone - in her flat. I was 18. Everyone was shocked as she had always been a picture of health. Naturally, we were all devastated.

We didn’t just lose an amazing human being, we lost the glue that held my dad’s side of the family together. We often gathered at her place to dine on meals she happily made for us. The last time I saw everybody again was at her funeral. No food. Just tears. It was the first real loss that had impacted me directly, but I did not feel the weight of it then.  It wasn’t until 15 years later that I would feel the enormity of my loss - when I became a mother myself. That’s when it clicked. Though she never said it, in her own way, she loved me as her own.



Now I mourn for three – for me who looked up to her and was entrusted in her care as my parents worked full-time jobs, for my baby who will never meet the woman who played an essential role in shaping the person I am today, and for my aunt who will never be able to delight in the way my daughter’s smile lights up the room.

Kuma’s quiet determination and strength carry me to this day, but I remember her laughter the most. I recall being a night owl even at a young age, and she was my late-night TV partner - we watched hours of Chinese soaps as well as “The Benny Hill Show” and “Three’s Company”. She didn’t know any English yet she chuckled at the antics all the same, which made me laugh even harder. But apart from the occasional crystalline memories of her randomly triggered by a scent or a ghostly taste in my mouth, recollections of her seem to diminish in intensity with age. Honestly, that is why I am writing this post, as difficult as it is, hoping to capture what’s left before they too are ravaged by time.

I also subscribe to superstition and adhere to traditions that are rather uncharacteristic of me because Kuma did. My Guy makes fun of these beliefs for which I am too pragmatic, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized I hang on to them because it’s an extension of her life. She is why I refuse to wash my hair or sweep the floor on auspicious occasions like birthdays and New Year’s for fear of bad luck; I always have ginger in the house to help soothe ailments, opting instead for ginger-chicken soup or rice porridge when I’m ill rather than the ubiquitous chicken-noodle soup favored in this country; I won’t sleep with a mirror facing my bed and I won’t live in a house whose main entrance faces the end of a street for feng shui reasons; I will always celebrate Chinese New Year with mandarin oranges, raw fish and noodles as symbols of prosperity and longevity, and I will always depend on the healing properties of food to achieve a balanced chi – forbidding yogurt when one has a cold or encouraging herbal remedies for common discomfort, remembering the dead wasp as an ingredient floating in my medicinal tea that my aunt swore would heal my sore throat (and it did).

Perpetuating my Kuma’s passion and beliefs is my way of keeping her close since that is all I have left of her. Sadly, I don’t even have a picture of her. As I lovingly peel, slice and dice an apple for Little Miss, I remember the countless apples and oranges that Kuma prepared for me as it was the only way I would eat fruit, and it made me smile.

She is alive. In me. And Little Miss may never meet her, but she will certainly know her. Through me.


Click on image for source.