My mother prefers to drown her grief with a cup of tea.
Now seventy-seven years young, she trusts pool depths only to one metre at the swimming class she attends. While she clings to her grandson’s foam noodle and only lifts one leg off the pool bottom, she has learnt to dip her toes. “I’m floating”, she whispers.
I’d always wondered why she never valued my insisting my kids have swimming and water safety lessons. Why she never appreciated the joy of water play for children. Why she had stood, frozen, twenty years ago, when my toddler fell into our backyard pool. Hubbie and I had always assumed she had just expected us to do the rescuing.
Recalling his Grandma’s fear of spas and waterfalls, he quips, “It’s just like a humongous bathtub, Grandma. You’re a champion!”. But he too, knows it is not. With her short lead-time for anxiety and no warm water on tap, Grandma isn’t in the pool for long.
At home, in our bathtub where she can indulge her scrubbing ritual to an obsessive-compulsive’s delight, it’s another story. And Grandma isn’t clean till she looks like a lily-white prune. And bathroom walls and ceiling perspire with heat. She had always longed to be the daughter of American movie starlet Esther Williams. “She used to advertise Lux soaps on TV too”. I’d been told this a million times especially when mum wanted to gift me away as a young girl to another more deserving, more capable mother.
As I now stare down half-a-century in age, my mum has just let it slip out that she was the last one with her young mother. Neither swam. My mother watched her mother leave her….a motherless girl.
Sun Kew, her mother, had married a man much older than her for love. It was a love that was not condoned by either families. Her family cut all ties with her and his family finally learnt to run the family business and family without him.
In Papua New Guinea in the nineteen-thirties, a wife or mother washed clothes by the river. Clever, to be trusted children would sit and play at a safe distance from the river’s side.
The day my grandmother lost her foothold and fell in, the river greedily caught her and swept her out to sea. Her body was never recovered. The six year old girl my mother was then and often still is, knew her mum was waving goodbye. From that day on, indigenous help was paid extra to entice them to wash the dirty laundry by the river. Often, the clothes weren’t scrubbed clean enough.
I imagine it’s a hard thing for a mother to leave her children unexpectedly. Just as we often have an unspoken affinity with our birthplace, is it the same with place of death? Or is it something in the water?
Sun Kew’s ghost returned. Her bitemarks were often found on peeled potatoes left soaking in a pot overnight. Covered in water, the potatoes didn’t turn black.
Her ghost also appeared often on the other side of the river calling out to her son who was her favourite. “Ming Fay, Ming Fay, come to me, I long to hug my son.” And her little boy would start walking towards the river. His older sister/my mother would hold onto him and keep him safe. But as the boy grew, it took a widowed father to keep his son safe.
Once when Leon was almost in the river, his father called, “ Boy. Stop. Turn around. Do not look back. It’s not your mama….it is death calling out”. After that, Leon, my only uncle, never saw the ghost again, but he began a disabling lifelong stutter, often requiring his sister to speak for him.
When the Japanese invaded PNG, Grandfather was unable without help to flee with all four kids all under the age of 6.
In those days the unspoken rules of war were that churches and missionary ships were not to be attacked. He left his two youngest children in the care of catholic nuns. The ship was bombed. The twins remained toddlers forever on a ship no longer afloat.
Much of the hope and buoyancy of the future generations also sank to the bottom of the ocean.
My mum believes my youngest son is the reincarnation of her deceased little brother. Whether her deceased little sister has been reincarnated, I know not. Perhaps her sister’s spirit, too, is still treading water?
Kathryn Yuen is a playwright, poet. storyteller and writer. Her work has won awards, and has been published, staged and played on radio. Her play The Stockwoman was part of Women, Power & Culture at the New Theatre in 2011. bus TRIp, and Chaos Theory and butterflies were part of Short + Sweet 2013.