We all go,
what we leave should be bigger than you.
Resting her head against the cool car window, watching the cars and world pass by, Hui Lan allowed herself to savour the cold pressed to her cheek. Raindrops pattered against the window, she watched the drops of water trickle down the surface, like they were racing one another to the finish line.
The car ride to her paternal grandmother’s house didn’t take long, twenty minutes at most. Barely enough time to get some shut-eye.
This time however, thanks to the dreadful monsoon season, the floodgates of heaven opened, making it everyone’s problem. Car honks were traded and windshield wipers moved at furious speeds.
Such chaos was always terrible to handle.
“Call Mah Mah to tell her we’re going to be late.”
Mah Mah, the honorific she used to call her paternal grandmother. It was a Cantonese honorific, despite Hui Lan’s father’s side of the family being Heng Hua.
Dinner at Mah Mah’s house was part of their weekly routine. Three times a week meant three out of seven days her mum didn’t have to rush home and prepare dinner. A win-win situation, food and company, who could resist?
“I already did before we left the house.”
“Oh, that’s good.”
A few minutes went by, mostly filled with her mum tapping her fingers on the steering wheel and the booming thunder until Hui Lan decided to break the comfortable silence.
“How’s Ah Kong?”
She was referring to her maternal grandfather, using Hokkien honorifics, that was what she called him.
“I don’t know,” her mum calmly replied. “I didn’t really get to talk to him the last time.”
Oh, right. Hui Lan almost forgot. She kicked herself in the shins mentally for asking a redundant question. Things were rocky between her mum and grandfather.
Stemmed from misunderstandings and misguidance, discussions were frequent, usually conducted through a WhatsApp voice call since Ah Kong lived with her uncle overseas.
The topics varied, ranging from bills, collecting the tenant’s rent to the removal of a bee hive. The list was exhausting.
All this time, Hui Lan kept quiet to not barge into any matter, even if it involved her. The discussion boiled over when Ah Kong gave his opinion regarding her overseas education.
“It is nice for you to come and visit for holidays.” Her grandfather’s words rang in her ears, the call volume was loud enough for her to hear everything. “But it would be troublesome if you stayed here any longer.”
“Dad, you can’t say that—”
“I would like to spend my final years in peace.”
Her mum hung up after that. Plans were made and instead, Hui Lan decided to pursue her course at a well-known local university.
Changing the topic to something different, Hui Lan figured some exchange of words was best for now. “Mum, how did Ah Kong get promoted?”
“It’s a funny story, actually.” A smile bloomed on her mum’s face, the light from the passing street lamps reflected in her eyes. “He had a friend who was friendly with the boss. Basically said that your grandfather was a good doctor who served the government for a long time.”
“Ah,” Hui Lan said, nodding her head thoughtfully, “so you mean nepotism.”
Her mother laughed, bringing a sense of lightness around them. Hui Lan liked it when her mum laughed. It was as if the sound could wrap her into a warm comforting hug. A forcefield from the bad things of the world.
To Hui Lan, her mum held stardust in her hands.
“He should be the one telling you this, you know.” Her mother sighed as she kept her eyes on the road, traffic was clearing up. “He should be spending time with you.”
With that, silence settled upon them once more, her mum turned the radio on and hummed along to a mainstream pop song whilst they resumed their journey.
Her paternal grandmother’s house sat at the top of a small hill, overseeing the rest of the neighbourhood, a grand view of houses and elaborate gardens full of beautiful flowers. Hui Lan could see a rainbow peeking at them in the distance.
Beautiful things indeed bloomed in the aftermath of mayhem.
“Mah Mah,” Hui Lan greeted as she entered the living room. “We’re here.”
The first thing she noticed was the tennis match which flashed across the television screen, the players fighting for every last chance to seal their win. Her grandmother watched all the sports channels, a favourite pastime since her retirement as a piano teacher.
“Ah girl.” Mah Mah smiled. “You’re here already. Dinner should be ready soon.”
“It’s okay, we’re fine. Ming isn’t here yet.” Hui Ming was her older brother, an accounting major who got himself a part-time job at a dessert stall.
Her grandmother nodded her head, turning back and was once again immersed into the intense world of sports.
After her brother arrived from work and the victory of the tennis match was ignored due to small talk, dinner was served.
Steamed fish doused in soy sauce, shiny green vegetables and lastly, wrapped in banana leaf was orange otak-otak. Ground fish mixed with spices, tasty when paired with rice. Mah Mah liked to serve it, a signifier of her Peranakan roots.
Helping themselves to the glorious spread of food, Hui Ming grinned as he scooped the vegetables onto his plate. “Sweet potato leaves, my favourite.”
“Food commonly grown during the war, you know.”
Hui Ming ate a mouthful of rice and soup. “It was easy to grow back then, no?”
“Exactly,” Mah Mah explained. “In fact, some people don’t eat it now because they ate a lot of it. It reminds them of their past pain and suffering.”
Ah Kong, Hui Lan thought.
He rarely spoke about his childhood, not wanting to remember the difficult times his family had to pull through. Sweet potato leaves only brought memories that he wanted to bury, hence the refusal to order it at restaurants.
One could close their eyes at reality, but memories came to haunt them anyway.
“Mah Mah, is there any memory you would like to forget?” Hui Lan asked after dinner. They were currently eating fruit in the living room, munching on sliced apples while their eyes focused on the newest episode of a popular television series.
Her grandmother laughed, a jolly sound that made Hui Lan want to laugh too. But this time, she kept chewing.
“No, dear. There is nothing I’d like to forget in my lifetime.”
Perplexed, Hui Lan frowned. “Why?”
“Because each one is so very important.”
Her grandmother’s fingers went over the jade bangle on her wrist, admiring the smooth green surface.
“You’ll see.” A pause before she continued. “With time, comes understanding.”
Who knew that a few months later after a major argument, Hui Lan would be boarding a plane to visit her grandfather?
Two weeks of semester break was a blessing, and Hui Ming suggested she pay a visit just for a week. It was going to be fun, he said.
With a flight consisting of children screaming and bumpy turbulence, Hui Lan had never been so glad to reach solid ground. After finally collecting baggage and pushing a luggage trolley with a faulty wheel that didn’t budge, she finally found her uncle, holding up his hands to wave grandly.
Unlike previous times, due to his age, Ah Kong didn’t come to the airport to pick her up.
A sharp pain stabbed into her chest, a reminder that her grandfather was getting older. And one day, he would be gone. No matter how much she hated it, death was inevitable. His memory would be something she would have to carry every single day for the rest of her life.
Gripping the strap of her backpack tightly, Hui Lan tugged her suitcase along, forcing herself to move. Her uncle led them to his car, ready to drop her off at her grandfather’s house.
Perhaps fear will kickstart her initiative to visit more often, to connect with Ah Kong more before it was too late. When she still could, memories had to be made and held close to her heart, the vessel of her soul.
“Enjoy yourself, okay?” her mum had said. “Spend time with Ah Kong.”
Storytelling and remembering was the least she could do to still keep the people dear to her alive. The bad memories were still bits of her, no matter how hard she tried to erase them.
After all, Mah Mah always said to learn from mistakes. Not everyone was perfect, even if they tried their very best.
“Ready?” Her uncle smiled, looking at his niece with a cheerful twinkle in his eyes.
Buckling her seat belt and making sure it clicked, she grinned. “Yeah, let’s go.”
This time, perhaps holding on was all Hui Lan needed.
Written by: Zhen Li