Mum's the Word
Winter Solstice. The day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. When the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky. Chinese celebrate this day with family reunions, coming together to eat rice dumplings in hot peanut soup. Dong zhi isn’t the same day every year on the Roman calendar. But somehow we always remember.
She doesn’t stay with us now, my mother-in-law, Angela. We still meet, from time to time, for Chinese New Year, Mother’s Day, her birthday, Mid-Autumn and Winter Solstice. Always outside, at some expensive Chinese or Japanese restaurant. This evening we meet at Sushi Tei, in Raffles City in central Singapore. Midpoint between us in the East, and Angela in the West. She appears, holding onto wildflowers, the kind people bring to temples as an offering. A sign of gratefulness to the gods. She looks like she has put on some weight.
“Has everything been good?” She asks us, looking at her son. Kit does not respond so I tell her everything’s going well, and thank you. She continues looking only at her son.
Is she also living well? I ask in Chinese.
She gives some complaints about her room being too hot, that there is no aircon, but adds that a strong fan will do the trick. She likes her landlord, who is also her employer. He drives his taxi-cab in the day while Angela takes over for the night shift.
Two years ago.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Does she not get it? I rephrase, for her endearing, uneducated mind: actions have consequences. I don’t say this aloud. Chinese women tend to keep secrets.
It’s ten PM. We’ve just had dinner at an expensive Chinese restaurant she chose for my husband to pay for. Fried rice, the cheapest dish, shared three ways. Angela had twitched at his selection, not-so-secretly displeased. She’s unhappy her son shows so little filial piety. But she’s had a lot of practice in forgiving. A second later, big-hearted and charitable, she offers in Chinese, “I’ll drive you home.”
Angela takes the driver seat in her taxi-cab while my husband and I slide into the back. I should call her Mummy and I do, but in my head she’s Angela. Kit, my husband, doesn’t even have a name for her. He just goes straight into the subject matter when he has to speak to her. But I remember how he whispered to me in the back of her taxi-cab, when I first got on it while we were still dating, that the driver was his mother.
Kit is sulking beside me. He’s like a tomato in a broiler, red-hot skin at its bursting point and still sitting pretty. Angela is her usual chatty self despite everything that’s happened in the past two months – harassment calls, paint splashed on our front door, and the worst, walking home every day worried some thug might be just around the corner with a knife or acid, threatening to hurt us.
She was the cause, borrowing from an unlicensed moneylender, sending him not just her information but ours too, through WhatsApp. Pictures and identification card information, as verification for a loan. She doesn’t even know his name. In fact, it could well be a her.
“Night shift must be hard. Ever thought of doing something else?”
My husband glares at me for speaking. Does she even deserve this conversation, his eyes seem to say.
In Chinese she tells me, she prefers the night. She couldn’t work in the day. Too many people, too much impatience and traffic jams. There are no faces she wants to see in the day; they give her neither well wishes nor respectful regards. It’s been like this for a long time, she’s used to it.
What did you do before, I ask in Chinese, as if crossing a fast-moving river, searching for the right words like I would search for the next stone to step on, to move me over to solid ground.
There’s laughter in the front as my husband grabs my arm. His glare could kill but I am not so easily silenced.
“Haven’t told you my story, have I?” She says. I start to wonder if I should have opened this conversation while Angela was still driving.
She tells me she worked in a night club after the divorce, that she was quickly promoted to be a Mummy to the other girls, the woman in-charge. Good money, she says. Some clients were really generous. She looked into her rear view mirror, at Kit. He’s rolling his eyes at the world. Does he remember her hair salon, she wanted to know. The business she set up after saving all the money she earned from the night club. He doesn’t answer.
Anyway, she says, doing business is really hard. There weren’t many customers, so she closed it down after a year. Lost a lot of money. Her friend recommended her to work at Changi Airport as a cashier, but it was backbreaking – her words. She had to stand all day. I didn’t think standing in an air-conditioned shop was such a difficult job to keep.
“Should I tell her,” Angela asks, in guilty titter.
Kit had shrunk into his corner of the backseat, looking outside at the heavy downpour. It was, for him, worse weather inside. I know so because he always clams up or deflects when I try to probe him about his mum or stories from his childhood after his parents’ divorced. With Angela in the car this evening, ready to talk in front of her son - this was too good an opportunity to pass on.
“There was an opportunity in Japan,” she says, and something in her voice tells me she is lying, but I do not call her out. “There was an opportunity in Japan and I didn’t have enough money to go, so I stole from the cash register.”
What happened after? I ask, knowing she hadn’t done any jail time.
“They told me not to come back. But when the contract ended I had to come back. Luckily the shop owner didn’t charge me. He didn’t even ask for his money back. Phew!” She says all this with glee, then a tinge of gratefulness, as an afterthought.
Kit peers at me from his corner of the seat, apprehensive, searching. Angela’s dishonesty – that she stole! He’s right, I’m shaken. But looking at him gives me reason to love. Amidst all the difficulties he’s had in his life, despite the imperfections of my family and I, he’s chosen me over and over in the daily grind of life. So I ask if she ever stole again.
No, she hadn’t.
“Don’t you remember?” Kit says, his voice rising in a trembling crescendo. “That year, when you took all my angbao money. I kept them for years in a box under my bed, my blessings that the uncles and aunties gave me during Chinese New Year. You took them.”
Angela tries to say something but Kit’s anger like a heatwave cancels out her voice, which glistens like some distant mirage.
“I will never forgive you. How many years has it been? Every time you say you will change, then I find that you went on a gambling ship, or owe more money again… All the books I buy for you to learn about money management, why don’t you read them? You just spend and spend. Blindly spend. Does money grow on trees? A pop-up in your games app tells you to buy something, you just buy. You don’t even care how much money you have. If the app keeps billing you every month, you don’t even know, right?”
Angela tries to defend herself. “I’m old already. I don’t gamble big things. Buy TOTO, small amount, play mahjong occasionally, that’s my enjoyment. How can you ban me from everything? What’s the point of life in that case?”
“Your whole life, just do things anyhowly. You tell me what do you care about? Nothing! You just want to enjoy life.”
“I stop talking,” she repeats several times, in Chinese, to pacify her son. It takes him awhile to stop shouting.
A year before that sounded the same, except the outburst had been in our home since we all still lived together.
It’s my third month married. I’m living in a rented flat with my husband and his mother. No one talks to each other so the house is always quiet, tuning in to traffic noises and young boys playing football downstairs. Not today. Today I hear them in a shouting fit from outside the front door.
“Are you trying to burn the house down?” He says.
“Why must you always blow things up?”
“Your whole life. Can’t you get even one thing right?”
Kit is formidable when he’s mad. His usual silence, like the sky, turns into a frightening thunderstorm with cutting words like lightening, lurking behind sinister clouds. His mother folds into herself like tissue paper, retreating to her room. A dense, heated silence lingers. What did she do? I ask, shutting the door behind me. Kit ignores me and continues shouting at his mother from the kitchen.
“Leave. The only thing you know how to do. Great.”
I learn later on that Angela had forgotten to switch off the stove. My husband had come back to the smell of gas and, finding his mother watching television in her room, that pissed him off. When the smell finally clears, Kit holes himself up in our room, sitting on his side of our bed, doing his computer things. I know enough not to disturb him when he’s this way so I decide to do laundry. Waiting for the hour to be up, I occupy myself with O Thiam Chin’s book of short stories. Love, Or Something Like Love. The title called to me. About a mackerel tabby, he wrote: “She hissed at me, baring her fangs, trying to bite me. I hissed back at her, and when she sank her fangs into my left hand, I threw her to the floor. With nimble, dexterous grace, she landed on all fours and ran into the kitchen.”
“Wife of my son,” a voice whispers in Chinese. I jump up from my seat.
My mother-in-law is standing beside the sofa. She’s in a secretive mood. I move closer. “Can you lend me five hundred dollars,” she says.
I think about my dad. When Kit and I were dating, I got a little freaked when Kit broke the news about Angela’s gambling habits. My dad had put some iron in me by saying, “If Kit is good to you, then that’s okay. You’re marrying him, not his mother.” Later on after meeting Angela, he also added, “Don’t let his mum pressure you into anything. Have no secrets from Kit.” And on the morning of our wedding he said, “When you are married, you and Kit are a team. One unit. Don’t be wilful. You’re not a girl anymore.”
But now Angela is asking me to go behind my husband’s back. Friends ask this of one another. They have each other’s back.
“What do you need the money for,” I ask, biting my lip.
“To tide me over. Taxi income isn’t regular. You can spare me five hundred right?”
I think about the monthly allowance Kit already gives her. Dubious, that she’s asking me in such hushed tones. Usually she keeps out of my way, and I return the courtesy. But I have always wanted us to be closer.
Still, my dad’s advice has never let me down. I tell Angela I need to run this through her son. Immediately she says, “Never mind, then.” Later I tell Kit about this and all he had to say was “I give her enough.” It upsets me that he’s so tough on his mum, so I preach honouring thy parents whenever I can. Kit listens to me. He starts throwing up ideas about how to help his mum save money. We plan to open a bank account with her, and match her monthly savings. I am happy to witness Kit changing his approach towards his mum.
About three months later, before we could share our plan, Angela comes to us, her face ash white. The human body, upon cremation, produces white ashes and bone fragments. In Chinese she says, “Sorry son I tried to resolve this but they keep asking me for more money. I’ve already paid them more than twice in return. Now they are threatening to harm the family. So I must tell you. It is the right thing to do.”
She shows us a video of men setting fire to a flat. The consequence of stopping payment, writes the person who sent it, in Chinese. I recall the mackerel tabby in O Thiam Chin’s book of short stories. The cat was the last thing to have seen her father alive, and he had been dead for five days before anyone came to him. The cat had stayed by his side, but it had also gotten so hungry it ate the edges of his ear.
Kit and I go into our room. He has been surprisingly quiet. The situation, I suppose, has gone beyond what an angry outburst can repair. “I wonder if she’s in this with the loan shark,” he says.
I draw back, once again shocked by the extent of the distance between them. Angela had seemed genuinely in fright. Not in a fake way. Plus I know she’s been trying to make amends. She wouldn’t gang up with an outsider to cheat him.
“She’s not, babe,” I say.
“If she isn’t, then we’ll settle it easy. We go to the police. And I confiscate her handphone. No more conversations. I’ll also install some cameras outside our flat.” This is what I love about my husband. He may be indecisive about what to have for dinner, but in times of real trouble, he has things under control.
“You stay at your dad’s place for the time-being,” he adds.
We receive a letter that our new flat is ready. Kit’s and mine’s. We can, finally, stop renting. We don’t know if Angela should come along after recent events - splashed paint outside our door and crude writing threatening the goodwill of our neighbours.
Angela cries, begging her son for forgiveness. I intercede on her behalf, and Kit and I decide to let her stay with us. I am completely embarrassed. A mother should not have to beg, but after the difficulties I’ve had with Angela, it is clear that Kit’s family is quite different from my own.
“We must monitor her. If she does something foolish again, I will use it as the reason why she must stay separately from us,” he tells me.
We don’t have to wait long. One evening we come home from work to see her bed linen removed. The mattress is exposed, as if no one sleeps there. Angela’s cup and toothbrush are gone, as are her towels, and her facial wash and moisturizers. Angela’s phone and credit card bills are laid on her bed, as are her taxi cab’s car key and a scribbled note to tell us where she has parked: Big Box carpark, level 2, section O. Big Box, the largest local superstore is in the far west of Singapore. We live at the farthest most east point. Is she hiding again, from loan sharks? I’m scared and tired.
Kit’s phone rings. He looks distastefully at the caller ID, but picks it up moments later. It’s Angela, she’s in trouble, I can hear her just standing next to Kit.
“Son, I’m so sorry, really I’m sorry. I’m in trouble, need to go away for a while. Can you transfer me some money? And my taxi-cab, can you return it? So we don’t have to pay the daily rental anymore.”
“Where are you now,” he bites back, promising nothing.
“Airport. I’m going to Japan for a while.” Kit goes ballistic. It seems this has happened before. He tells her not to come back. She’s desperate, agreeing to everything he says, wanting only cash for her air ticket. To pay back her friend. A male voice can be heard in the background. Kit winces. I’ve noticed how he hates seeing, or hearing, men with his mum. Even men who look like gentlemen, clean-shaven, combed hair, upright posture and ironed clothes. He hangs up.
If money can solve a problem, it is an easy problem. Is Angela a money problem?
She’s enjoying her salmon sashimi and salmon head at Sushi Tei. “I like living alone,” Angela says, in a sort of snigger. “Carefree.”
She reminds me of the wildflowers she has placed on the chair next to her. They grow as weeds do, without anyone to care for them. Not flowers for a bouquet, but to display on temple altars. A kind of self-giving, perhaps.
“Red bean soup with mochi for dessert?” Angela says, with lighted eyes.
Kit turns to me to check what I want. I give a few rapid nods, my way of saying of course, you needn’t have asked. Especially not in front of your mum.
We order this, our winter solstice dessert, just one bowl, for Angela. Kit and I watch her eat. She’s satisfied. My husband pays the bill and we and Angela go our separate ways. On the way home, Kit says he may consider letting his mum move back with us, if she can stay debt-free for another year. I tell him she seems happier on her own.
From time to time, I re-watch the video of a flat being set on fire. The video that the loan sharks used to scare Angela into emptying out her joint bank account with Kit, even though she’d already paid them back in full. The video that forced her into revealing her secret life - her gambling and growing problems with moneylenders - to her son. I realize the video doesn’t scare me much, unless I picture my mother-in-law trapped in the house, alone and abandoned, lost to cruel flames, burnt beyond recognition. Could it be that she was scared of the same, that Kit and I might be physically harmed?
Immediately, Angela is no longer like the mackerel tabby that had gotten so hungry it ate the edges of its dead owner’s ear. She values our lives and well-being. Even if she had no money, even if she were poor and hungry, she could not possibly conceive to harm a single strand of hair on our heads. I must hold onto this, even if Kit doesn’t.
This is how I see my mother-in-law: if she were alone, she would be like the tabby, hissing at degenerate moneylenders, baring her fangs, trying to bite them. Even if they threw her to the floor as she sank her fangs into their hand, I can see my mother-in-law landing on all fours like a nimble, dexterous cat, full of grace in challenging times. This is how strong she is. This is the substance of the family I have married into.
But she has Kit, and she has me, and we must grow stronger to match the way that my mother-in-law is resilient. More importantly, we must always leave the door open, so she will not feel trapped inside, like the tabby, which became so hungry it had to eat its dead owner’s ear. Instead, we must leave the door open so she can find her own way home.