Every time I come across mothers who have aged and perhaps who are no longer in the best of health, I would imagine them when they were in their prime, more youthful days.
In amidst of my attempts of regenerating a younger look of these unknown women, I am drawn to the precious recollections of my own dear mother when she was still alive. She was always this person who had unfailing agility and efficiency in carrying out every task she did. The absence of a formal education with others who were more fortunate was something she never allowed to get in her way of achieving a sense of accomplishment in her own way.Mother was an extra-ordinary cook, a weaver who was keen to details, and a tailor who had hands like a sewing machine. She was forty two years old back then. Mother could cook various types of foods.
I, the daughter of my mother, will never come close to the culinary talents of this figure I highly regard of. ‘Nanggiu’, a Kadazan-tribe dessert popularly savored among the community, is one of my favorite. I vividly remember her pair of hands scooping the ‘natok’ from the clay jar, rolling them onto her palm to make miniature balls, and putting them into boiling water until half-cooked.I watched how the appearance of her rough hands and fingers contradicted the graceful movement of kneading those half-cooked ‘natok’ balls, and flattening them to be sliced into thin strips.
She sliced the flattened ‘natok’ dough with care using a very sharp knife to get the even sizes of the strips. As she went through these steps of preparation, I could see how strongly she portrayed patience in her character. For mother, preparing ‘nanggiu’ was almost like a routine for her as she would do it during weekends and during the much celebrated Chinese New Year.Her father, who was of pure Chinese decent from Hong Kong, also celebrated this yearly occasion when he was still alive.
However, he succumbed to a fatal disease when she was still of tender age. Little did my mother know of the bitter path that lay ahead of her upon her father’s death. Life started harsh when my grandmother found love again and re-married to a local man. It turned out that this new husband wasn’t exactly a role model step-father to the children of his wife.
He attempted raping my mother several times but she managed to escape from being a victim.Hard life has shaped her into an independent woman where household tasks such as cooking, sewing, weaving, and so forth were self-taught. She had no other better option, but to force herself to mature attitude and character wise at such a young age. I would miss her presence whenever I recall the familiar sweet aroma coming from the now antique kitchen where my mother used to steam the Chinese local cake called ‘Kinalang’ – the ingredients prepared with precision by memory. Mother’s homemade coffee which was passed down from my grandmother always brought a tingling satisfaction to my taste buds.Not only that, but the mixture of smells from her dishes and pastry delights reminds me of the beauty of her fair, flawless face.
Her fine lines of wrinkles only deepens my admiration for her, because I know behind them are wisdom, love, and sacrifice. Life those days was hard and to purchase a readymade basket from the market is considered an impossible luxury. Fortunately, my mother was skilled in weaving baskets. An ordinary village family like us found the basket of great use both at the field and around the house. Mother relied on nature’s resource to make her baskets.I would follow her into the woods and whenever I did, the smell of fallen rotten trees on the ground greeted my senses and the sound of birds chirping and the little cries of insects were constant company to my ears.
I ran like any active child would behind my mother. Occasionally, she would look back making sure I didn’t wander off alone or didn’t get hurt because she knew I liked to run without caring much about my fragile skin. I could feel her shower of care and love just by looking into her kana-shaped eyes that closely monitored my every move.Those stern yet soft pair of eyes told me a silent story of a mother’s unconditional love.
Other than baskets, she also made ‘bubu’ for catching small fish in the river. She would cut down the bamboo with her strong arms using a ‘parang’, and continue shaping it to the size of chopsticks. Flexibility was in no doubt when it came to that size. Mother first made the basic structure of the ‘bubu’ and later attached the sticks around it using a very strong rope with its origins from a creeping plant called ‘bakau’.
Her fingers tied strong firm knots around the sticks to avoid any chances of getting loose and being separated from each other. She placed the ‘bubu’ in the river early morning, and by night, we enjoyed fresh barbequed fish wrapped in banana leaves which we ate with hot rice and yam stalk soup. I can still picture my mother’s long hair, and how she kept it neat even right before she did her sewing. It had barely grayed because she cared for it by religiously applying her very own homemade virgin coconut oil.She applied it all over her hair and scalp, and gently massaged it with the tip of her long fingers onto her scalp.
While waiting for her hair to absorb all the nutrition from the oil, she would clip her front hair back, and twist and roll the rest of her hair into a bun shape at the back of her head. My mother could mend almost any torn cloth material – from that of a daily-worn shirt right to the hanging curtains of a window. I was simply amazed by what she could do when it came to needles and threads – the mended spots were well-hidden as if they were magically camouflaged.I ask myself sometimes, “How did she do it? ” She could also sew clothes from scratch, so buying ready-made clothes wasn’t a concern.
Once, she sewed me a dress, light cream in color with floral patterns spread across the entire cloth. It was old-fashioned in style, but the dress somehow made me feel like a wealthy, beautiful princess when I wore it. I lost my mother when she died of cancer in 2002. Her loss brought a great deal of pain, emptiness, and sadness in my life when I had to face that moment.
The only thing that keeps her alive are the fond memories I have of her. I can never thank my mother enough for what she has given me. Her many talents, skills, and life experiences have made me more vigorous to face every hardship, to overcome each failure, and to press forward. Far more meaningfully, the influence of my mother has helped me to realize the invaluable gift of life and true happiness that I may view the world more optimistically and believe that a brighter future exists.