Sixteen years ago to the day, she exhaled her last breath. That was the day my world turned upside down and I lost who I was. Who was she? She was Beauty in human form. She was my queen and she was the glue that held me together. She was my anchor and the place I would always return to no matter how I strayed. She was my grandmother or as I called her “Tok.”
Her name was Abrizah, but they called her Ungku Cantik. In my language, Cantik means “beautiful,” and I can’t think of anything more suitable for her. Tok was born in 1920, and had lived through World War 2 and the Japanese Occupation. I remember days sitting at the foot of her bed listening to her and her brother or some other relative tell stories of the war and of living in a haunted house in Bukit Senyum in the state of Johor. Even when I was doing homework or playing with my cat, I would just listen to the stories.
As an orphaned child whose father had passed away when she was young, she didn’t travel or do any worldly things, but she did make it to Year 6 of school and she could speak, read and write in English. By the time she married, she was considered a spinster for that day and age, but they did make up for lost time. My mother was born a year later, my aunt a year after that, and my uncle a year after my aunt. The names they chose for my mother and aunt were different combinations of the names Jaafar and Abrizah… they came up with Jaazah and Farizah. They moved from state to state because of my grandfather’s job, and my grandparents even went for a six month trip around the world by ship at some point while my mother was growing up.
Tok was very much a city girl, but when my grandfather decided to move back to his hometown, she adapted easily. Being very enterprising, she taught the local ladies flower arrangement and needlework. Even when my grandfather had passed on and Tok had moved to the city, I remember when we went back, she would always have visitors. They called her the “princess” because of her royal heritage, and I don’t think that’s why they came to see her. It was the magic that she weaved and the way she opened her home to anyone who would come. There were two local people who the villagers noted as being “not quite right,” one was a woman named Debab (nickname, we never knew her real name) and the other was my grandfather’s adopted son Atan. Like everyone else in the village, Tok could have turned them away, but they were always frequent visitors in her home. Often I would find Tok laughing at something crazy that Debab had said or giving Atan even more money, although we knew he was so frugal he had about $20,000 in the bank at any given time.
In the city, Tok’s house was always full of people. Mondays to Fridays, from 9.00am to 5.00pm, she would have visitors calling, a gathering of people who sat around playing cards. Coming home to this every day was pretty unconventional, I must admit, but it’s also what made my life really interesting. I would sit and complete my homework somewhere near them, and sometimes my cousins would come with their grandparents and we would have play-time. Somehow even while entertaining guests this magnificent woman could raise a grandchild. My homework was always done, and by the time I was nine years old, I could make tea and coffee for a bunch of guests and bake a cake. At 13 I could put a whole meal together. At night, she would watch “The Bold and the Beautiful,” or some other cheesy soap opera. She did love her shows.
When I turned 13, her health took a turn for the worse. For the next two years, my life would revolve around home, school and the hospital. People never stopped visiting her, no matter where she was. In the last few years, it was hard. She didn’t want to eat anything unless it was sate or unless I had cooked it. We were on standby all the time to rush her to the hospital, and I spent many days going from the hospital to school and then from school back to the hospital. There she was though, always calm, always full of grace. Somewhere around this time, Tok read “Flowers in the Attic,” of all books then she incurred my mother’s wrath because she passed it on to me. When she didn’t have visitors, or her younger grandchildren around, she would sit on her bed and play solitaire, or she would be on the phone to one of her cousins catching up on what was going on in the world. Tok was like a mini phone book. She probably had about 20 most dialed numbers stored in her head, and she remembered EVERYTHING!
She always called John Lennon, John Lemon for some reason, and cholesterol was pronounced as chelosterel. She always reminded me to stand straight, and she didn’t really mind when I didn’t do very well for exams. She was always more focused on me being honest, loyal, caring and patient. I remember her little wrinkled hands, and how whenever we went through a cosmetics department, some makeup salesperson would comment on her beautiful complexion. Whenever I had my hair cut, she would keep it so that she could make one of those stick on buns for herself. She was mortified when she went out without her bun. So much so that she would turn around and go home. High class lady or not, she would take a bus to travel interstate, and she always complained about how this younger generation never bothered to get dressed up to go to the cinema. In her day and age, going to the cinema was an occasion.
Occasionally, she would have a menthol cigarette and a cup of coffee, but generally she had two cups of tea a day – one for breakfast, and one for tea time. When my cousins and I were younger, she would either read or sing us to sleep. She had a wicked sense of humour that came out in spats when least expected, and sometimes there was sharp sarcasm, often aimed at my father. She hardly wore makeup, even when she was much younger, but she was always impeccably dressed when she went out. Most of the time, she was quiet, reserving her thoughts for herself. She was never pushy or aggressive. She was the kind of woman who would suggest something, and then leave it to the people involved to take the option or not. She allowed us to fly but when we came crashing down, she was always there to catch us.
When my grandfather decided to get rid of some beautiful carvings as part of a renovation to the Muar house, she cried every day, and the carvings are still there. When she suspected he was cheating on her (which turns out he wasn’t) she was very dignified about it except for the statement “my big toe in prettier than she is”. Whenever anyone needed a shoulder to cry on, she was there. One of my great-aunts by marriage until today refers to her as “my favourite cousin-in-law,” and until today, she keeps a tea cup that Tok gave her ages ago.
For the most part she was the very essence of elegance and grace. Every day for the last 16 years I have missed her, and I am glad I remember these things about her. One day (God willing) I would like to tell my children about this amazing woman and her beautiful story. I will show them the articles with the announcement “royalty weds commoner,” I would take them back to Malaysia and show them the haunted house in Bukit Senyum, my grandfather’s house in Muar with the big staircase that she hated and the beautiful carvings that she loved, the house she spent her last days in, and the place she rests in now. I hope someday, my children will honour the legacy that was left to them. If I have girls, I hope they learn that to be strong, a woman need not be hard, loud or a constant smart ass. In fact the real strength of a woman is found in her open heart, grace, gentleness and sometimes, silence.
When she passed, she took a bit of my heart with her, but in it’s place, she has left a bit of her heart in mine. Al-Fatihah to Ungku Abrizah Abdul Rahman.