My mum reminded me to request Holy Mass for the soul of Gua Mah, my late maternal grandmother. Gua Mah would have been 100 years old in a three weeks’ time. For me, time usually freezes the moment a person dies, but my mum remembers every birthday and death anniversary of our loved ones like clockwork.
My fondest memories of Gua Mah are of her and her friends squatting around a makeshift long charcoal stove, making kuih kapit – a popular traditional wafer snack – for the Chinese Lunar New Year.
The ladies would get me to turn the iron waffle molds constantly up and down the length of the charcoal stove. The stove was a long metal grill placed on top of several rectangular old tins containing burnt embers. After every second flip of the mold, they would expertly lift the cooked wafer out, fold it into quarters and smear another thin sheet of egg batter onto the decorative mold for the next round.
When they were not making nyonya desserts or prepping those laborious nyonya recipes, Gua Mah and her friends would sit at the sunny back verandah of our house, embroidering handkerchiefs. My task was to pull out their gray hairs – especially the really itchy thick short ones, for which I was paid 2 cents per gray hair pulled.
There, I eavesdropped as they gossiped incessantly. Often, they forgot that I was standing behind plucking gray hairs, until I interrupted their juicy stories with a laugh or a comment; and in which case, one of them would turned and warned me not to be a “kepoh” – a busybody
Gua-Mah was ahead of her time. While most girls growing up in pre-independent Malaysia in 1920s were kept at home and groomed to be the perfect housewife, Gua Mah was enrolled by her father, a herbalist migrant from China, at a Catholic girls school where she spent most of her early years learning to read and write in English, arithmetic and needlework.
Hence, it was hilarious when in the later years, guys trying to chat me up were intimidated when Gua Mah answered the phone in perfect English and corrected their grammar as they dictated their messages to her for me.
Gua Mah loved singing Latin hymns and was an active member of the Church choir until 1965 when Catholic Masses moved from Latin to vernacular language.
Her favourite hymn was Ave Maria and it was one of the first songs I learnt to sing, albeit imperfectly, as a child. Being her eldest grandchild, she would nag, cajole and bribe me to sing that song in front of her friends.
It would always begin softly. Slowly. Before their eyes misted over:
Ave Maria, gratia plena.
Maria, gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Ave, ave dominus,
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
Et benedictus fructus ventris,
Ventris tui, Jesus.
As I ate the kuih kapit over tea today, I hear this song from a distant past in my head. It would always begin softly. Slowly. Before my eyes misted over.