Sunday March 17, 2013
Dear Ah Ma and her old house
By REBECCA CHIENG
Home may be a shack, but still it provides shelter, and one that’s filled with love and a lifetime of memories.
Where we love is home. Home where our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
IT HAS been many years since my husband left his grandmother’s house in Ayer Tawar, Perak. But whenever he has the opportunity, he would make the effort and take the time to visit her little hut.
I call it a hut because it is reminiscent of the kind of wooden shack that we used to draw as kids during art class. When we were instructed to draw a kampung scene, we would commonly draw a timbered house surrounded by tall, coconut trees situated in the middle of a wide expanse of meadow. The sky above would then be dotted with V-shaped birds and fluffy clouds. That was kampung to a lot of us.
However, as a city child myself (I sheepishly acknowledge), I never really saw a real wooden village hut until I married my husband and tagged along to visit his Ah Ma (grandmother) for the first time.
The sight that greeted us filled me with both delight and apprehension. To my husband, this was home, where he grew up playing freely, when mornings were greeted with cool mist and the nights illuminated by the moon. To me, after a four-hour drive from KL, my only thought was: “Nature’s screaming and I need to answer!” So I prodded my husband, “Where is the toilet?”
My husband nonchalantly pointed outside the kitchen. I looked at it – it was just a makeshift cubicle with zinc sheets and a rickety door. There was no toilet bowl inside, not even the squatting kind. Only algae-green concrete floor.
“This is where we do our ‘business,’” he said. “Just wash it away with water when you’re done.” My insides curled as did my toes and I decided to risk urinary tract infection by holding on a little longer.
Ah Ma’s living room was as simple as simple could be. During the day, she would be out with friends, and during the dull nights, she would be resting on her reclining chair with the little television as her companion.
There was a bedroom on the left side of the living room where my husband slept as a young boy. He and his brothers fought often over the one single mattress which was a luxury back then. The victor slept cosily, while the rest would have to curl up on the solid wooden planked floor. Nevertheless, Ah Ma’s house was the only place where my husband could slumber deeply for 12 hours straight.
The floor was devoid of any fancy marbled tiles or laminated wood flooring that we easily find nowadays in nearly every household. The grey, concrete floor was bare and on a rainy day, chilly enough to cut through the bones.
Another thing that held fascination for me was the well. My first well! Apparently, this was Ah Ma’s sole source of drinking water. Every day, she would draw water from the well, collect it in buckets and have it filtered before boiling for consumption.
Ah Ma has her own water filtration system. Mind you, it is nothing like those commercialised Diamond water filters. Hers is purely D-I-Y, extracted right out of our secondary science text book. Big rocks are piled on top of layers of pebbles, then sand of different density. One might wonder, is the water sanitary enough for drinking? Well, my husband and his siblings drank from it for years and lived to tell about it.
The kitchen, however, is the place where love manifests. As a boy, my husband was often instructed to collect eggs from the chicken coop; sometimes he had to extract it directly out of the hen’s posterior. Disagreeable as that may be, nothing beats the taste of freshly half-boiled organic eggs. This was his breakfast staple and henceforth, supermarket eggs have become inferior substitutes compared to the good stuff he was brought up on. It was a shock for me to find out that Ah Ma cooked using firewood until only recently. She had to collect and chop the wood with an axe by herself. What a feat for an 80-year-old woman! When my husband tried to help her, she lectured that he did not do it properly, resulting in the firewood chipping and fraying all over the place.
According to my husband, there were proper steps to follow when starting a fire. First, the twigs had to be dried thoroughly. Then, a gooey mixture of latex and kerosene had to be applied onto the twigs as fuel. Once alight, the logs kept burning for a long time.
It was no wonder then that cooking was truly a labour of love. Imagine, Ah Ma had to collect the firewood, draw water from the well and gather (sometimes, catch) the ingredients from her own backyard: the free-range chickens, ducks and vegetables. So much trouble and yet, she relished cooking for her grandchildren.
Recently, it became more and more apparent that Ah Ma was struggling with the heavier chores, so it was only timely to provide her with a gas stove. The initial concern was, “Will she remember to turn it off?” So far, so good.
Ah Ma cycles around on her rusty, trusty bicycles to visit her friends and to the shop. My husband recalled riding with her wherever she went, sometimes even long distances, when he was around six years old.
“What? No helmets? No safety gear or protection pads?” I asked, incredulous. Apparently, the only “safety measure” was him clinging to Ah Ma for dear life. Again, he lived to tell the tale.
There was once, though, when Ah Ma had an accident and fell into a drain. She was rescued by a nephew but when he offered to take her to the hospital, she adamantly refused, saying it was no big deal. That is Ah Ma for you, who does not like to bother anyone with her troubles.
Some people may ask, “Why leave Ah Ma by herself?” or “Why not upgrade her house so that she’s more comfortable?”
Well, Ah Ma is a feisty, independent woman who baulks at the idea of living under someone else’s roof and on charity. To her, comfort is a relative experience.
Believe it or not, Ah Ma is quite happy where she is. She lives in the middle of a three-acre (1.2ha) oil palm estate which she and her husband purchased for RM300 per acre more than 50 years ago. Her husband has since passed on, yet she is able to manage the estate and reap a comfortable income from it every year. Ah Ma is, in fact, a wealthy woman with simple needs.
Her dilapidated house may be unremarkable for most people as we live in a time when old things are rapidly torn down to make way for the new. However, it stands as an apt reminder for us to appreciate the past which has made our present. Our roots supply us with a stronghold when the sirens of success seduce us to forget who we are. Similarly, the people that shaped our personal history must not be conveniently discarded in our chase for a better future.
Which is why, as we return to visit Ah Ma every year, I hope that someday my own children may come to regard their home as a place where their feet may depart but not their hearts.
I once asked my husband whether he might feel embarrassed if his business associates knew about his humble origins. “Embarrassed? I’m proud of it!” he answered without hesitation.
If nothing else, that speaks volumes about the love that enveloped him when growing up with this little old lady in her little old house.
■ This page is for stories that are heart-warming or thought-provoking. If you have an original one to share, write, in not more than 900 words, and e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.