I had an awesome childhood – quarreling with my sisters, making a mess in the house and then promptly cleaning it up, playing with the neighborhood boys, learning how to bike and then scrapping my knees in the process. It really helped that I had siblings to get in trouble with and to take 1/3 of the blame and punishment.
Friends always told mommy that she is lucky to have three daughters.
According to mommy, little Chinese girls don’t fight like there’s no tomorrow with each other. They are not suppose to scrape their knees racing bikes with boys five years older than them. They don’t turn their rooms into pigsties. They don’t talk back to their parents. Most of all, they don’t get into mischief. But that’s what she is stuck with; three hyperactive, quarrelsome, boisterous Chinese girls. Mommy thinks that she must have done something bad in her past life to be punished this way.
Cheh 姐, elder sister, was born in 1974 in KL, the year of the wood Tiger. Cheh was named snow flower, because daddy wanted her to be strong and brave – very aptly named. After cheh was born, she was cared for by Popo and Kong-kong in Malacca. Mommy traveled back and forth KL and Malacca every weekend to see her newborn baby. Daddy was in Japan at that time for training.
Two years later, mommy had me, her extra tiny fire dragon – coming in at only 4.75 lbs, in Malacca. Ironically, my name means intelligent flower. I was the only one who daddy wasn’t around for during birth. But he flew in from Sabah the next day. Only a day old, and I had jaundice. Daddy spent the day “sunning” me while shielding my delicate eyes from the bright rays. When he left me, I cried and I cried. By the time he returned the next morning, I had already lost my voice yet desperately crying. It was only when he carried me in his arms again, that I quieted down. I have, since then, earned the title of Cry Baby of the Family. Soon after my arrival, we relocated to Kota Kinabalu (KK), Sabah.
Mommy would have stopped after me, but daddy yearned for a son. You see, only the son can pass on the family name. A daughter, once married, looses her name, taking her husband’s name instead.
In a twist of fate, the next baby two years later turned out to be a girl too. She was a little feisty earth Horse, refusing to accept the fact that her name is so uninteresting compared to cheh and I. She was told her name meant “stop.” When she was older, she looked up a English-Chinese dictionary to find the exact meaning of her name. She became saucy and insolent when she realized that her name meant exquisite grace, elegance and uniqueness. Boy was she happy that day. She was born the biggest among the sisters, but grew up to be the smallest of the lot. She is, in every sense of her name, the epitome of grace.
One day in KK, when cheh was just 4 years old, daddy brought her to visit a friend. The devil must have possessed her, because as soon as she found a pair of scissors in that house, she started shearing their curtains like Edward Scissorhands. Daddy didn’t know where to put his face, but to teach her a lesson, HE went at it on her pretty frock – just to teach her a lesson. That had no effect on her whatsoever. Cheh 1. Daddy 0.
Then another time in KK, cheh had pestered daddy the entire morning to bring her to the cinema. He finally caved in and brought her to the movies. After purchasing the tickets, she decides that she REALLY didn’t want to go to the movies afterall. Daddy was seeing red. He brought her home and gave her a good spanking, which left my Popo in tears. She probably just blinked. Cheh 2. Daddy 0.
Through the years, cheh did more mischiefs and daddy and mommy thought of ways to “teach her.” She was left out in the garden to feed mosquitoes. No effect. They put her in the dark but VERY CLEAN “store room” to take that stubborn edge off of her. She shrugged it off and used it as a new living quarters. By the count, it is child 4. Parents 0.
The only person these “lessons” had an effect on was me. I was never on the receiving end, but I saw everything that took place. My imagination got the better of me. I never want to be food for mosquitoes and neither do I want the pleasure of knowing how dark the storeroom really is. In fact, I grew to be more and more timid with each passing day, and started to rely on my parents even more.
My younger just tagged along with what the two older sisters did. Because we both shared a room, I doted on her like a mother would. When we were younger, after we moved back to KL, cheh would always hid behind a wall on the top most stair and jump out to frighten the unsuspecting person (most of the time it would be me). We were both afraid of going upstairs at night alone, but for her, I would always suck it up and lead her up the stairs instead. In primary school, when we were both in the same session, I would spend the day combing and tying her hair into pretty frenchbraids while I left for school looking like a raving lunatic.
When we were old enough to look after each other (blind leading the blind), we were allowed to stay home by ourselves, with the promise that we would NEVER open the door for strangers. After school everyday, we would go home to an empty house without parents. That was our greatest times together as siblings. We brought out the best and worse in each other. Together, we assembled the atari machine. Together, we hooked up the video and tv to watch serial dramas that were watched only the night before. Together, we played with mommy’s jewelries and makeup. Together, we broke mommy’s “good” china. Together, we buried it in the garden.
And that was the beginning of mommy’s hell. At least that’s what she says. Not a day went by that the three of us never fought and quarreled with each other. We bickered and we squabbled, and as someone new at this parenting job, mommy sincerely began to think that there was something wrong with us.
Maybe it was her, mommy thought; she didn’t know how to teach them. But as the years drifted on, mommy finally realized that it was normal for siblings to fight amongst themselves. In her mind, she always thought it abnormal for girls, her girls for that matter, to be doing that. She was brought up too prime and proper to have children like us. Mommy secretly longed for the promise of docile, gentle and sweet girls.
I used to spend most of my childhood days in the “toy room.” Never mind that mommy called it the toy room, since the room also had a big, mud-green refrigerator, a black and gold, antique sewing machine and daddy’s cupboard full of his handy-man tools. The toys had a miserable corner, right on top of daddy’s tools. No wonder I thought that the tools were one with the small, destitute pail of toys.
The “real toys” were stuffed into a big blue bucket, that had stickers fading and peeling away like dried skin dangling on chapped lips. After a closer look at the pail, I realized that it first began as a washing detergent container called Persil. The cupboard that the pail sat on, is dark-khaki colored, and built from cheap rickety wood. It stood tall, tall enough to prevent me from reaching my toys. So I reached for the nearest objects, which were my daddy’s tools. As far as my little brains knew, those were my toys; the hammer, the box of nails, screwdriver and spanner. Shuffling through daddy’s toys brought out the little boy in me. That was how mom found me, hammering closed the stubborn drawer with daddy’s nails. She finally realized that I couldn’t reach my toys, so she taught me how to get to it. She pushed the even a shakier wooden chair next to the cupboard, that had a soft plastic covering for cushion, placed me on top of the chair, and held me as I tried to grab my toys. I finally realized that, all I needed to do to get my toys was to climb up the chair and get the toys. I told you I wasn’t that bright.
The toys inside the pail were mainly “cooking utensils” that as children, my sisters and I called masak-masak, which roughly translates to “cook-cook.” We would play masak-masak all the time, cooking food for ourselves.
One day, we decided that our little make believe masak-masak was going to come true with a little help and persuasion from Cheh. We emptied mommy’s sweetened condensed milk into my chrome orange finger-sized jug. My younger sister wanted hers to be filled too. So I graciously scooped one huge, dripping spoon into her set of vermilion, bigger-than-mine-jug. She smiled at me with a little impish grin, and then proceeded to lick the spilled condensed milk from the sides of her jug. She wanted more, but I said no. As an older sister, it was my responsibility to look after the well-being of a person younger than me who didn’t know better.
I didn’t give her a second helping because I knew that little sister is addicted to sugar. The moment she gets her tiny hands on sugar, she gets so hyper, she refuses to have dinner.
It was one of this occasion, of her consuming too much sugar that daddy had to practically force dinner down her throat. Our dinner table is a round, good-wood-table that had huge legs that branched out like the roots of an enormous tree. Right next to the dinner table is a divider that separates the dining room from the living room, which housed our television. This divider is designed by daddy, and made by my uncle, da peh, his older brother. This darkish wood divider is dressed with ornaments from all over the world. There is a colossal Sarawakian vase, a vase made by the natives of Malaysia; a set of Japanese dolls garbed in black and white (male) and red and white (female) kimonos; a Chinese fairy made of jade; miniature mythical Chinese fairies made of dough, each put in a small encasement, a stonecarving of the Great Wall of China; a pair of wooden buffaloes from the Philippines; and then there is the bigger-than-life from France carving of a topless woman with cloth draped around her waist with a little leg showing. There is also a hand-sized wood carving of an extremely skinny Kenya man holding an even thinner stick. Yup! Daddy has been all over the world and back!
Anyway, we have to have dinner together, because mommy says that, “This is the only time that the family gets to eat together and have a little ‘family time.’” However, we never said much to each other, especially when mom said to “never talk with your mouth full.” And she had to add, “You are girls. Keep your mouth closed when you’re eating.” So we had dinner with the television as dessert everyday at 7:30 p.m. sharp. Mommy is quite a prompt person you see, except when we are going out shopping, then daddy and I will be waiting for not only my sisters, but mommy too. Mommy sat closest to the divider, and next to her was daddy, while younger sister had the privilege to sit next to daddy, and me next to her, and finally my older sister. This is why daddy had the honor of feeding youngest sister.
He would feed her, and she would just leave it in her mouth while she stared at the television screen, hypnotized. When daddy finally realized that she hasn’t chewed for the pass ten minutes, he would remind her, “Chew.” And this she would do, maybe for another 5 seconds, rather briskly at first and then slowing down later. When daddy realizes that she has stopped once again, he says more forcefully, “Chew!” This happens everyday, with daddy’s voice getting louder and louder by the second. On a good day, my younger sister, finishes dinner in one hour – with my help. I am her DBKL (waste disposal service) on most days, that’s why I grew up a plump kid. On a bad day, with lots of sugar from earlier on, it will take her almost two hours. That’s why, many people who pass our house at that time of the day, think that my parents are child abusers, what with my sister being all skin and bones.
So there she is, trying to beg for more condensed milk to suck on. It was only too obvious that I will say no, no matter how much I loved her. So we went on putting chocolate powdered milk in our cups, granulated sugar, and pieces of cake that we found rotting at the corner of the larder in the kitchen, which we later cut into bite-size pieces and then used them to decorate our plates. Cheh said that it’ll be fun if we had ourselves a little tea party by ourselves without mom and dad at home. So I took mom’s thermos flask from the kitchen to fill our little plastic cups with hot water. Thankfully, the plastics didn’t melt from the heat. We stirred in our chocolate powder and added loads of sweetened condensed milk. Happily drinking away, older sister finally said, “Ohmigosh!! It’s 4:15. Let’s go.” Four-fifteen is the magic word everyday – it is the time that mommy and daddy are expected home, therefore it means clean-up time. We had to straighten the house before they got home to find out what naughty things we did. Mommy would go berserk if she knew that her girls, her sweet little angel girls, turned the house up-side down the entire day, to take only a few minutes to bring it back to parents-world.
Cheh did the ordering – “Clean this!” “Wash that.” My younger sister and I cleaned and washed and packed. What we didn’t realize was we left some sweetened condensed milk behind in our jugs. Throwing our play sets back into the blue pail up in daddy’s cupboard we domesticate the house right before mom and dad came back. What a relief! We were grinning so much that you could only see our teeth but not our Siamese-turned-eyes.
A few days later, mom found some ants crawling in our toy room, and thought that the ants originated from outside. I told you, she thinks that we are angels. The three of us were worried sick that mom would follow the trail of ants and finally see through us. Finally, the next day after mom and dad went to work, the three of us took the can of Shelltox, a mosquito repellent, and sprayed right into the blue pail. Cheh was very brave; seeing so many ants laughing at us, leaving the culprits (us) with tons of sweetened goodies to fatten their queen, she volunteered to wipe them out. Tensely, she climbed up the rickety, wooden chair as the two younger ones stood at the back of the refrigerator, meekly cheering her on. She quickly sprayed into the pail without looking, and proceeded to jump off the chair after the dirty job was done. “Ewww!” was all she could say. We couldn’t have agreed more.
Later, when mom was cleaning our forgotten toys out from the pail, she found white, rough stains on our jugs, which she could not wash out. She asked us what happened, but all of us just shrugged and chirped, “Don’t know.”
One day, when cheh was about 10, the three of us decided to play teacher-student with the white board daddy just bought. The markers had run out of ink, so my younger sister, standing barely at 3″ 5′ volunteered to refill them. She wanted to refill the markers on the floor, but The Boss-cheh, told her she either did it on the table or not. So standing on tiptoes, she pumped vigorously from the inkpot to the markers, one by one until she was satisfied. With her huge black eyes, and cute little upturned nose, and her heart-shaped mouth opened in awe, she meticulously dripped drops after drops of ink into the markers. Unfortunately, a few drops of ink fell on the parquet flooring, growing like mushrooms after a rainfall. Panic stricken, she yelled for both cheh and I.
The two older ones quickly assessed the situation. Ink on the floor of the master bedroom, and boy were we in trouble! Cheh quickly grabbed yards of toilet paper to wipe up the mess, and we both followed in pursuit. After sedulously wiping the mess, we surveyed the damage. It was bad; blue ink on brown wooden floor. No it didn’t look good at all. My younger sister, being the culprit, started vacillating. To stop her from being frenetic, cheh said calmly, “Let’s wash up the mess. You, (she pointed to me) go get a scoop of water with some soap in it, and a little brush.”
I as the second-in-command went straight into the adjoining bathroom to collect my battalion of helpers. On receiving the materials, cheh heartily went straight to work. She brushed and she scrubbed on all fours, while the two younger ones stood by like onlookers of a road accident. Finally, cheh stopped and surveyed the spot. There was only a scintilla of what resembled a blue spread of fungus before, and the onlookers oohed and ahhed in merriment. However, the brushing and scrubbing created a bubble of mess on the floor. Once again, she ordered me to pour buckets of water on the mess while my younger sister pushed water back into the bathroom. We thought it was a good, as well as, a fun idea. The water came gushing into the room much faster than the draining took place. Pretty soon my younger sister was soaked right down to her panties from trying to push the water out of the room with her small frame. On seeing her drowned situation, both cheh and I went on to help her out.
It wasn’t too long that we made a sport out of the chore. We did the frog-style on the floor while pushing the water into the bathroom, but quickly got soaked too in the process. So cheh suggested we strip to prevent our clothes from getting any wetter than it already is. So there we were, three naked girls swimming in our parents’ room, five minutes before mommy and daddy were expected to return.
The moment mommy stepped into the house she smelled trouble.
Mothers know this kind of thing. They just do. In fact, I think that they are born with it.
The stairs leading to parent’s room had water trickling down to the dinning hall like a filtration system.
Mommy stood at the end of the steps, mesmerized, not even wanting to know what we did. When she finally found her voice, she screamed blue-murder for the three of us to scram down right away. We knew then that we were in trouble. Our future looked very bleak at that moment. Silently and quickly, we put our cold, wet clothes back on and solemnly marched down the stairs to meet our maker – literally.
Cheh did all the talking, but intentionally left out the swimming part when mommy interrogated us. Unfortunately, as two much younger siblings totally without experience in such situations, we were acting too coltish, and mommy became fervorly angry sensing that we were lying to her. To add salt to the wound, daddy was acting too placid about the entire flooding matter. Mommy began to loose her patience, and did the next thing that made her regret for the next few years of her life. (At least that’s what the three of us like to think).
She dragged the three of us up the stairs to survey the damage that we did to the wood. Without our knowledge, mom whipped out the dreaded cane from thin air. The fearful cane that cheh hid much earlier, was found behind her room door. The moment we saw the cane, the three of us huddled timorously together. What were once guilty expressions were completely taken over by fear. Our eyes glazed with shock, apprehension, and betrayal. We just stood there staring at the cane, while it smirked at us, knowing the pain it would cause. We held on to each other, hoping that each blow will be bolstered by the other. Finally with our breathes held, mom-the-she-devil raised the cane and lashed it out with all her might on cheh. The quiet, still air died when a piercing scream struck. The cry of cheh frightened both of us younger ones into sobbing. It also made the abuser stronger, knowing that for once she had the power to determine what would happen. With a stern expression, the torturer pulled me to her, and lifted the cane once again.
I cringed, shutting my eyes tightly, hoping that it will not hurt that much if I did not see the weapon. I cried and I cried, pleading with mommy not to hit. “No mummy! …Please …no!” I cried out in a wretched whisper. My younger sister, with her baby voice shaking and broken, cried in support, “No mummy. No!” She turned a deaf ear to our cries. All the torturer knew was these girls had to be punished. When the rod made in contact with my tender, pink skin, I let out yet another horrifying scream that shattered the silence. The red lines were drawn. There was no turning back now, and my youngest sister took her turn in the judgment.
We were crying uncontrollably now, thinking the worst of mom. No, she’s not mommy anymore. She’s the one that hit us. All the stories about wicked stepmothers, we finally understood that. She is not our mom. She is stepmother. We hated her. We hated her. We painfully walked to our room, the room that my younger sister and I shared, in little hiccups. We went in with hate pouring from our little bleeding hearts, crying, and feeling unloved. Mommy doesn’t love us anymore.
It was much later, when the crying stopped, mommy quietly knocked on the closed door and waited for us to let her in. She was scared, I guess. From the timid knock on the door, to the weightless footsteps that she took, we knew that she regretted her hasty reaction
She didn’t know what took over her. She didn’t mean to hurt her little girls. She didn’t. My sisters chose me to open the door. Little heads looked up at mommy, waiting, just waiting for an explanation.
“I’m sorry…, ” mommy began. “Mommy didn’t mean to cane the three of you.”
What did she do? All she wanted was good, nice girls. Girls that she could be proud of.
Unlike other children, we never threw temper tantrums in public especially in a toy store. We were happy with what we have and never asked for more (and we really didn’t have much toys growing up). When we were told to do a chore, we never asked why. It was just so. The family was never dull with us around to stir the pot. We only had two new sets of clothing every year and the rest were hand-me-downs. We were never ones to complain either.
She knew that she has the best girls in the world. So why did she do what she did? She had forgotten what good girls we are, and in a moment of fury, vented out her anger and used the cane on us.
She pleaded, “I’m sorry.”
My younger sister was the first to walked over to mommy and embraced her.
Mommy held on tightly, while saying, “I’m sorry. Mommy’s sorry. Mommy promise never to do that again.”
“Promise? Promise you won’t hit us like that anymore? Even when we are really bad?” I said, hoping to hold the answer as a tool for the “next time.” Remarkably, she nodded, giving us a promise that she will never cane us again, and gave me a hug. It was later that cheh crawled to mommy, resentment leaving her, and mommy thanked whoever up there who was looking out for her, for giving her naughty little girls like hers.
True to her words, after that incident, we were never caned again. Daddy, on the other hand, was a different story.