My porpor was eighty-eight years old, same as our minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew. She was definitely ancient looking with her unkempt frizzly looking white hair and her wrinkles creased with age. Her eyes bore into my eyes through her thick, round and huge lens. Her face was a mixture of emotions. Regret, sorrow or maybe even relief? I do not know. But what I do know is that I will find that out in whatever she is going to tell me within the next few minutes.
Her lips cracked into a smile as she told me the good news. She is going to leave 2000 dollars for each of us (my three siblings and I) for university. Pang gugu (means fat aunt, what we called her from young) is going to withdraw the money from the bank after she passed away. She beamed one of those smiles, one that would appeared on a kid when he have something important to declare, as she revealed that the money was what my grandpa left for her when he passed away. The money would be for us to buy food in university, she says, so that we would not go hungry while we are studying. She hastily added on that she was telling me now because in a few months time, my eldest brother, Zhi Hua, and my sister, Hui Min, would be going university and she would be handing the money to them. She was afraid that my 2nd brother, Zhi Qin and I would be jealous over the sum of money and create a fuss out of it. Rest assure, she says, I am leaving each of you the same amount. With this she placed her right hand upon her heart, her left left caressing my head and said
"I love you all the same. All four of you."
Then she laughed and goes on telling me how lucky she was to have four grandchildren. Suddenly she sits up with her back straight, her eyebrows narrowed and said
"Zhi Qin is the real nasty one. I bet you don't know this. When I asked him to help me do simple things like switching off the fan or finding something, he will fly into a rage and act like he is going to hurt me. Really. He is the nasty one."
The fact that I know that Zhi Qin sometimes bully porpor makes me cringed with guilt. I was not able to stop that at all. The only thing I could do was to respect her and listen to her. I do not have control over how my siblings behaved towards her, do I? I tried, yes I did, to stop them from throwing a tantrum towards porpor. She is just an old lady, I say, there is no need to be angry over her. But they do not heed my words at all. When porpor take nearly half the plate of the char siew, leaving very little for the family, my 2nd brother and sister would yelled at her. I said just let her have her fill but they were not appeased at all. What could I do?
"...sometimes your sister also. She would ignore me when I asked her questions or shout at me to not ask so many questions."
She paused and added,
"You and Zhi Hua are more polite and patient towards me. But both of you are away most of the time, him in the army and you living in the school."
Up to here in case you misunderstands, my sister and 2nd brother are no tyrants. They were simply more hot-tempered. I remember when we were young, both of them sleeps in one room with porpor. They grew up with her. Maybe that's why they were sick of her and her flaws. My porpor is no angel herself. Her antics sometimes really grates our nerves. When she eats, some food would drop to the floor. Or she would leave the skin of the fruits she ate on the windowsill. I am sure she don't really mean what she says. The one about Zhi Qin being the nasty one. In fact, she dotes on Zhi Qin more than anyone when we were young. She would rub Zhi Qin's tummy with those medical oil whenever Zhi Qin felt unwell or have constipation. Zhi Qin was also the one who carry out every errands for her. He would buy the medical oil she always use when they were finished. Maybe that is why when Zhi Qin grew up and stop listening to her, she felt hurt. I am sure she still loves him a lot.
"Did you eat properly in the school?" ( I think she meant boarding school)
I said I did and she would reply as per normal,
"That is good. Eating is good. Porpor is very scared you all would go hungry. You all look so skinny, especially you. I was afraid you did not eat well in school. Eating is good. When I give you the money for university then you could spend the money and eat more. I am scared when I die my grandchildren will go hungry."
She goes on telling me the importance of studying in school. So when we grow up, we would get a good job, we would have sufficient salary so that we will not go hungry. She goes on telling me about the money from grandpa.
"When I die, the money left would be split to everyone: papa, mama, da gugu (big/eldest aunt), pang gugu and all four of you. Its not much, the money for you in the university. But that is what I can do for all of you. Other porpor may not do that you know."
She said that with pride. She should be proud.
There was not much she could do for us. She was denied of chores since we were afraid that she might hurt herself or tire herself. we kept quiet about all kinds of problems so that she need not worry. In her perspective, she probably felt that her existence was insignificant. But with the money, she still could at least prevent her grandchildren from going hungry. So, she should be proud. I am proud of her love for us too.
She wondered about if Zhi Hua has eaten well in the army too. But she quickly continues to say,
"Zhi Hua is going to come out of army soon. Then he will go university."
Once again, I cringed with guilt. She has no idea that Zhi Hua flunked his A levels. He might not be able to university at all. Most likely not. However, he is retaking A levels this year along with my sister. My parents are concerned over this since he spent 700 dollars to retake but he was not putting in efforts to study. Anyway, I shall not digress. That is completely another issue. I decided that there is no point telling porpor about this. Since that would only make her sadder.
Probably noticing that I was thinking of something else, she starts to talk about the past. The past where she used to live with everyone in the kampong. And she knows everyone in the kampong. I took this chance to confirm with her how my father met my mother. I got my parent's version already but this is a rare chance to know more.
"One day, don't know where was it already, I told my friend who was your mother's aunt, that my son has no girlfriend. My friend said her brother have a nice girl so I told your father and he called your mother that night."
She paused for a while, maybe more than a while. Seems to be considering something. Then she said,
"Your mama is a nice woman. She really is."
I always felt that my mother was not very close to porpor but it seems like my porpor and my mother both were very alike. Both were unable to show their affection for each other. My mother always asked my siblings or me to offer the nice food to my porpor when she could very well do it herself. Guess that is just the way how daughter-in-laws and mother-in-laws behaved.
"Your papa is also a rare species himself. A man who do not smoke or gamble. He can cook, sew, fix household appliances and take care of all four of you. And he is very filial to me."
She laughs when she said that wherever my father goes, he would boast that nobody can beat her cooking skills. That is just what kind of a person your father is, she says.
After hearing her, I cringed with guilt and embarrassment (for the 3rd time?!). I am not a bad son but I am not a saint too. I realized that so much have change since I was young.
When I was young, I would climb onto my parents bed to hug and kiss them goodnight. (though I still do them but less often, especially I am in boarding school now)
When I was young, I would jump at any chance to help my mother cook. Although she only let me wash the vegetables or beat the eggs. Sometimes she would let me cook for a few seconds then she would take over lest the food overcooked. (that was when I was very young)
When I was young, I would answer "aye!" when my porpor calls out "Ah zhi yong ahhhh" (that was also when I was very young)
Now that I grown up, instead of showing more respect to my parents, I became more rebellious. I stopped listening to everything they said. I began to censor information that would cause me to face a scolding.
My porpor must have seen me stare into space while I recalled the past and decided that she talked enough for the day. She told me to continue doing my work on my computer and declared that she is going to have an afternoon nap.
Maybe its time I heard enough too. For if I hear anything more, I might have let my tears out in embarrassment, guilt and nostalgia.
P.S. The following conversation is translated to English but the original meaning is 99% retained.