By Jackie Oei
It was a hot, more-than-the-usual-humid day as I sat beside my Great-Aunt Lily in air-conditioned comfort inside her central Jakarta apartment. It was a perfect time for reconnecting with my great-aunt since we were also visiting my cousin,who was busy preparing for a trip to the United States. Learning all about my Indonesian “roots” during my yearly sojourns to Indonesia is important so I can relate to my East-West lifestyle, otherwise known asmy “American-yet-Indonesian” psyche.
Great-Aunt Lily, with very little prodding, started recalling old memories of her childhood in a small village in Lampung, Sumatra. It was the happiest time of her life despite the hardship and havoc that World War II imposed on the urban areas. Lily’s rural life was almost untouched by the war’s atrocities. As the oldest of five children, Lily was a normal child with typical childhood dreams of “living happily ever after.” There washer mother, O-oh, and her father, Ah-pep, who were the family’s source of strength and unity. Great-Aunt Lily was also deeply touched by Ah-pep’s love for O-oh.
“Can you imagine what it would be like to leave your family?” Lily asked me, which was a signal that she was about to start sharing stories about her family. Another oral history lesson straight from the source, I mentally noted.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“I think she knew. I think my mother knew she was going to die.”
Startled yet curious, I listened carefully to what she had to say. Lily’s voice,soft-spoken like a gentle breeze, continued to command attention as she opened an unseen doorway, carefully peeling away thoughts and entering a nostalgic part of her mind where forgotten memories had collected dust.
This is Great-Aunt Lily’s story:
My mother was patient, kind, and very neat. O-oh raised the five of us very well. We would make a mess after school but she would always wait until most of us were asleep at night before she started to clean. We all grew up in an organized, clean home when we woke up the next morning.
O-oh worked as a housewife. She treated everyone with equal measure. In her eyes, no one was worth more or less than anyone else. She loved us all. O-oh was also an expert with her hands. She could embroider anything from curtains and tablecloths to sandals.
I was lucky to be the oldest because I spent more time with her compared to any of my siblings. There were days when O-oh would share her wisdom with me—as if I was a vessel for all her treasured memories.
”Nona,” as she called me, “always remember that if the water is clear, you can always see the fish beneath the surface.”
I would nod in agreement. She was reminding me to live my life as an honest and truthful person so the world could see the beauty that hides below a person’s outer layers.
Although her wisdom ruled our family’s way of life, I think my mother’s superstitious beliefs were her greatest weakness. I was told that O-oh visited a fortuneteller who had predicted that she would get very sick when she was 38 years old, but if she was able to recover from this serious illness, she would live a long and prosperous life. My mother,a true believer in fate or predetermined destiny, decided to prepare for her death.
A couple of years before my mother passed away, she would ask me what I thought about death or what would happen to me if she died. I was confused. I didn’t want to listen to her talks about death. O-oh, in her no-nonsense ways, was trying to prepare me for my responsibilities as the oldest child. I kept asking myself, “How can my mother think about leaving us when we are so young?”
There is a scene that I will always remember. This was during O-oh’s last few years with us. At night, whenever I studied or did my homework for school the next day, I would peer into the downstairs room to watch my parents.
Ah-pep’s devotion to my mother was unconditional. During these nights, they would sit together at the sewing table. Sewing machines were very basic inventions in my childhood. A woman would use one hand to turn the wheel for thread and the other hand to feed the fabric through the sewing machine. It was an arduous process, but my mother was fortunate. My father would sit beside her, patiently turning the wheel for her as she guided the fabric. He would turn and she would guide. They worked in quiet synchrony for hours, turning and guiding.
This was O-oh’s final act of service for her family. It was her way of caring for us because by the time she finished her sewing project, O-oh had made enough clothes and underwear for the five of us. It was not just one set of clothes for every child. Every time we outgrew our old clothes, there was another set prepared for us. Her act of love continued until my youngest sister, who was three years old at the time, turned 14 years old.
In her 38th year, my mother died from “maternal death.” She had lost too much blood when she gave birth to my still-born baby brother. Medicine was not easily available in our village. The midwife could not save her. I remember my father holding O-oh in his arms, weeping. He told us to leave the room—and he was never the same after her death. From that day onward,Ah-pep’s hair began to turn gray.
My great-aunt Lily’s life changed. She gave up her childhood dreams of going to school and took over as the surrogate mother when she was only thirteen years old. In the next few years,Lily learned how to sew, arrange flowers, and speak Dutch. In 1945, her family said good-bye to the quiet village of Lampung and moved to Jakarta, where the effects of war were more evident.
Lily worked hard to take care of her siblings and made enough money to put them through school, give them bicycles, and provide for their needs.She was happy to endure it all for her family’s sake. Her final words to me during this visit were: “It is important to live life humbly and to raise children well.”
Whenever I think of Mother’s Day,I usually visualize flowers, breakfast-in-bed, and chores to honor our mothers. This is an official yearly holiday when children and husbands work to show their gratitude to the women in their lives. Yet, after hearing my great-aunt’s story of her mother’s legacy of “Guide and Turn,” I changed my perspective about mothers. I think Mother’s Day will always remind me of O-oh and Lily’s sacrifices for the sake of family solidarity and love. Guide, for the wisdom being passed on to the succeeding generations of men and women in my family. Turn, for the interconnected wheel of life’s choices of the loved ones who came before me.
Wisdom guides the turning, interconnected wheel of life’s choices.
I am blessed to have met my Great-Aunt Lily and listen to her stories.After all, she raised my grandmother—and without her, I would not be here writing this story.
Happy Mother’s Day!
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