Mother reminds me that today is my grandmother’s death anniversary.
“Guess what? This round your uncle’s daughter insists on cooking your grandmother’s Babi Pongteh recipe. So action that girl, just because she went for Culinary course. Anyway, if you no time to go to the temple, I will send food to your house later, especially the Babi Pongteh. That one must try.” She laughs scornfully.
At each of my grandparents’ death anniversary and again at Qing Ming (the annual Chinese day of the dead), a buffet spread of delicacies is offered to the deceased loved one alongside Hell Money joss papers, and paper replicas of the latest offerings from luxury retail brands.
After the prayers, the Hell money and paper replicas will be given a grand send-off in a huge bonfire so that the deceased Beloved can receive it on the Other Side.
As for the buffet spread of foods, we will happily divide them like spoils of war; to be gorged over – in my case – several meals.
Hence, a week or two before each anniversary, Mother and her family would go into a cooking frenzy; unleashing a competitive spirit for “Best Dish” bragging rights which frequently resulted in protracted belly-aching, accusations of recipe misappropriation and someone not speaking to someone else for weeks thereafter.
I often wonder aloud what Grandmother and Grandfather thought of the humongous food offerings that occupied a whole table, or two, before their tablets in the temple on their death anniversaries.
But things were not this “chummy” with Mother and her siblings when my grandmother was alive. Mother was always viewed as the one who “disowned her family” by marrying someone who was not only of a different ethnicity but also of a different religion.
When she married Father, Mother did the unforgivable in the eyes of her parents. She converted from Taoism to Christianity.
As a result, we grew up estranged from Mother’s side of the family; saved for the gifts that we received from our grandparents – by registered post – on our birthdays. Gifts that grew more cryptic as time went by; as though my grandmother was trying to tell me something.
When I turned 13, my grandmother gave me a bracelet. I thought that the brown beads were boring. So I promptly embellished it with acrylic stickers and proudly showed it to Mother when she got home from work. She looked at it strangely and asked what I had done. I remember the sharp slap across my face. Later that night, I crept out of the house and rummaged the garbage bin in vain. Years later, I chanced upon something similar in a Thai market and realized that my grandmother had sent me Taoist prayer beads for my 13th birthday.
When I turned 18, my grandmother sent me an all-expense paid holiday to Hong Kong. I showed it to Mother who took one look at the itinerary, pursed her lips sternly and stomped into her bedroom with my gift. As I pressed my ears keenly against her door, I heard her accusing someone over the phone of trying to turn me against my parents.
Things only started to thaw the year Mother discovered she had cancer. Without hesitation, my grandmother sold a prime piece of land and helped Mother get the best treatment available. Unfortunately, Mother never had the chance to properly thank my grandmother who passed away as Mother’s cancer went into remission.
The other day I cheekily asked Mother why was she performing Taoist rituals for my grandparents. “Please don’t be confused,” she scolded me. “This is honouring your ancestors, not worshipping. Besides, I don’t hold the joss sticks to pray.”