The old man’s mother reached her century a few days ago. In cricket parlance, a century is a batsman’s dream innings, a cause for a massive celebration. The exuberance of the crowd would make it a big occasion for the cricketer to soak in the adulation. A performance that is often characterised by a doggedness in determination, flamboyance and ruthlessness in stroke-making, and patience in execution. It felt not so long ago that the old man’s mother was a demure young woman. Shy and quiet, she attracted the young man who was self-employed as a laundryman next door to her uncle’s dhobi shop. He had rented half the shop next door from the tenant who was struggling to prop up their business selling lollies and preserved knick-knacks such as sugar-coated nutmeg, dried mango, dried plums and other fruit pickles. She was sent to spy on his business by her uncle who worried that his business was losing its clientele. She reported to her uncle that he had nothing to worry about; the majority of his business came from wealthy plantation owners who played an important role in the rubber and coconut output of the country whereas the skinny lanky man next door merely catered to the locals, mainly poor Malays. ‘She will be my wife one day,’ the neighbour said to himself the moment he laid his eyes on the nubile young woman who was still in her teens. Realising that her efforts at espionage had been uncovered, the demure woman offered a sugar-laden smile and coyly left her post. In her mind, she would have to find another hiding place the next day, surrendering to the notion that her task to spy on the young man would be a daily task, whether required or not by her uncle.
Much to the chagrin of the old man’s Mrs, she has always felt his filial piety took precedence over his love for her. “Of course not!” he cried out loudly in despair, but his pleading voice failed to convince The Mrs. A woman’s instinct is seldom wrong,” she said. The Mrs is a modern woman, being demure doesn’t cut it for her. The modern woman will speak her mind, and often, as loudly as possible, to win an argument. Her akimbo stance is a language that clearly tells the old man his Mrs is assertive and comfortable in her own skin, and will not take kindly to any egregious insults. Her extensive interests in politics, art, music, Chinese Classics, allow her to engage with anyone in deep conversation. When she turned 60, she decided it entitled her to speak her mind and not care about what people think of her. The modern woman will not hesitate to tell someone they are wrong and tear off their layers of pretence. But, for the old man’s mother, rarely was she heard and never did she hog any limelight in her heyday. Deep-rooted in the traditions of her parents who hailed from Ningbo, the old man’s mother perceived herself to be devoted, kind, and considerate. She could not see her imperfections, and therefore did not correct them – her doggedness about thrift and money matters, her ruthless accusations about her husband’s infidelity and her wasteful use of time as she patiently undertook her daily chores remain her major character flaws. Her name is Mei-Leh, in her dialect meaning ‘plum orchid’.
The old man was seated next to his mother at her 100th birthday party. In truth she has celebrated more than a hundred birthday parties. Being the matriarch of a big family, her birthday is celebrated at least twice a year, following the lunar calendar and the Western one. Her biggest pleasures in life is to be with her children and their off-springs. Any occasion that brings them together would please her no end. “She’s a party animal,” the old man told me. It soon became an appealing part of her nature, this love for parties invigorates her and perhaps is her elixir of life. “That’s her secret of longevity,” explained the old man, as he shoved a Hakka fishball from the steamboat pot that he had let cooled, into his mouth and merrily chomped at it. Her eyes closed tightly as she focused on chewing a sliver of beef, extricating every bit of taste from the crushed and thoroughly ground fibres and sinews of the meat. Even on her 100th year, she easily tires out some of her children. Just the other night, the old man had to bring his niece’s birthday to an abrupt end. It was a week night and he still had to rise early the next day to work. But, Mei-Leh was not pleased, to her it was only 10.15 pm as she patiently relished the last crumbs of the birthday cake – a chocolate mousse cake – scraping every bit of cream and dark chocolate from her plate with careful deliberation. Her mouth moved up and down slowly and deliberately as she ruminated on the crumbs, the rhythm synchronising her purplish lips and the surrounding wrinkly folds of skin deeply carved with creases as busy as lines of streets on a big city road map. Her edentulous mouth, nicely disguised with a full set of dentures, pursed occasionally but more often than not, it bobbed up and down in a fixed rhythm, quietly chewing her cake. It would be another fifteen minutes before she started sipping the tepid peppermint tea served by her grand-daughter before the birthday song was sung i.e. a good half-hour earlier. It would take three trips to the micro-wave oven to reheat her drink before she finally finished it. She examined the cup to satisfy herself that every last drop of it was consumed before she readied herself to leave. It would not be an Irish goodbye. As matriarch, she is accustomed to receive everyone’s undivided attention in the room, whenever she arrives or leaves a gathering. She lifted her left arm from her side without a word, but the old man understood clearly that she required him to help her up from her chair. He got her walking stick from the side of the wall and handed it to his mother. His duties, having being honed for many years, are perfectly understood and performed with utmost reverence and love. A request is rarely necessary, a command is superfluous. On their way home, the old man’s Mrs asked, “Why is it you can’t read my mind and know what I want?” The old man remained quiet all the way home. He refused to be baited into making a defence.
Great as heaven and earth are, people still find things with which to be dissatisfied.Confucius
At 100, Mei-Leh is no longer demure. She decided she ought to free herself from the shackles of civility and be who she really is. When she turned 90, the old man took her aside and spoke at length about protecting her legacy and advised her to think of how she wanted to be remembered. “Don’t you want your future generations to know you as a loving and kind matriarch? A reasonable and happy person?” he asked. She didn’t answer in words that afternoon but in the following decade, she has answered him in spades by her actions. She didn’t care or isn’t capable of taking care of her legacy anymore. Ageing not only ravages the body but sinisterly, it ravages the mind too. We sympathise with someone who is physically impaired. We feel their pain when we see their missing limbs or cancerous wounds. Her damaged brain cells, invisible to us, are no less severe on her well-being yet we don’t acknowledge that advanced dementia is also a pitiful disease. Mei-Leh lives pretty much in the past; she speaks of names that the old man doesn’t recall and her failing memory has meant that he no longer can write her stories down with any conviction of accuracy. As if to prove he is right, those who aren’t demure do often demur. Mei-Leh had a big argument with one of her daughters this week causing her carer and companion to leave their house in tears. Despite her frailty and fainting spells, Mei-Leh refuses to be pacified, and maintains her rage at her daughter. “Wham!” she slammed at the dining table, treating her palms like a judge’s gavel. No further discussions will be entertained. The old man resigns himself to simply let her demur as loudly as she wants. After all, she is 100.