My mother was born four years after the First World War and has since lived through many more wars and rumours of war. Her few precious possessions act as time markers for her long life. These can be little things like her silver chain-link belt. She bought that shortly after she was married at nineteen. Her eyes light up whenever she tells a tale or two about her belt.
Some of the markers are bigger objects like trains. When she reminisces about the various places the family had stayed previously, the good old keretapi or the Federated Malay States Railways comes to mind. For some inexplicable reasons she had always lived next to the railway line or near enough for her to hear the train’s whistle – in Nibong Tebal, Jawi, Sungai Bakap, Taiping, Ipoh in the north, and finally much farther south in Kuala Lumpur.
Her daily routine was calibrated with the times when the trains would pass by. “Oh, time to prepare lunch,” she would say typically when the southbound train whistled and hissed to a halt near our old government quarters in Nibong Tebal. We lived there sometime in the early fifties. By the time we moved two decades later to KL, the federal capital, there were more trains. Apart from the morning and night runs, the faster intercity ones had also been added on. So there were more whistles to guide her day by, from breakfast to the occasional midnight cuppa.
Even her school timetable was tied to the sooty Puffing Billy’s chug-along between her town and Bukit Mertajam where the Anglo Chinese School was. She studied there from standard one to form three, the highest level then. Thereafter, she had to go to Penang or the Prince of Wales island as it was known in her days. But that was too far away. It was on this shuttle that she first met Father. He had just started work at the District Office in her town.
Father passed away 16 years ago. Mother moved into a nursing home four years ago. Her few precious possessions became even fewer. The less significant time markers had to be given or thrown away. This was heart rending. The odd pieces of Sheffield cutlery had to go. So too her collection of “By appointment to His Imperial Majesty” jam bottles and biscuit tins.
There are two particular time markers that I would not get rid off because she keeps asking about them. Her foot-peddle Made-in-U.S.A. Singer sewing machine and her meat safe. But they can’t fit into her room at her new home.
She repeatedly reminds me not to give the 50-year old sewing machine away. So it stays with us until further notice. Mother has not said anything about the meat safe for over six months now. But that stays too as it has gathered too many memories to be moved.
She still talks about her Singer as if it is part of the family. Her machine is special as she had paid an extra ten Straits dollars for a reversible feed oscillating shuttle model. In other words, it can sew backward and forward. The neighbours were envious, I suppose. But that was a lot for an optional feature considering a bowl of noodles would cost perhaps five cents then.
With four young mouths to feed, Father’s salary as a Division Three clerk could not stretch far enough for us to get the local tailor to sew our school uniforms. Off-the-shelf ones were not invented yet. So after the last train whistle, Mother would start sewing our shirts and pants and pajamas and bed sheets and whatever.
Then there’s her meat safe, which had travelled from town to town as Father was promoted through rank and file to become a Division One officer in the Auditor General’s Office. Mother designed it herself as a food cabinet and got it specially crafted by a carpenter in Hutton Lane in Georgetown, Penang. Mother had also cleverly thought of putting the ventilation netting at the rear so it won’t look like one of those cheap meat safes.
I marvel at those times when Father’s salary was almost eaten away by inflation yet she managed keep her food cabinet quite well stocked. At least it was never empty. They say there are nine ways to skin a cat. Mother knows just as many to cook a chicken. The bones go into the soup, the entrails pan-fried with vegetables, the wings and drum sticks deep fried and the breast meat and larger pieces steamed with Chinese wine.
They decided to become Christians in 1987. Their pastor presented them with a large print Bible. Like her Singer sewing machine and food cabinet, the new found Bible has also become another of Mother’s time markers. She reminds me of the woman of noble character described in two verses in Proverb 31 in the Bible:
She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat from the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her
“Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
Indeed you surpass them all. Happy Mothers Day.