This is the tale of two sisters, Nelly and Rosy.
Nelly was born in 1924, the fourth of a family of nine kids. She was small, rail-thin and frail. Plainer, quieter, gentler and more retiring than her other sisters, you could call her the runty one in the family. The one who would stay home and serve, the one who would not likely marry.
Rosy, born three years later, was vivacious and smart as a whip. She had a formidable memory, and even without the benefit of any schooling had taught herself enough to do simple accounting and book keeping. Less kindly people would have called her calculating because of her strong personality and frank tongue. To me, Seventh Aunty (let’s call her Gu Por as that’s what my children know her as) would have been a brilliant CEO if she had the chance.
My aunts were like chalk and cheese, but they were inseparable, bound by the tiny horizons set upon them as women of that generation and the circumstances in their lives.
Like the heroines in any Jane Austen novel, marriage was the sole ambition of most Chinese women with no education right up to the fifties. Those who did not get the chance to marry ended up as servants, sam-sui women labourers (lady construction workers), hawkers or seamstresses. Otherwise, they ended up as the spinster aunties to be called upon to help with the nieces and nephews of their married siblings.
Breaking out of the mould, to go out into the workforce and to lead an independent life, this would have taken sheer courage and a devil-may-care attitude for a woman with no schooling in those times. Even now, most of my friends would have at least one unmarried aunty or two, and yes, it was and still is usually their lot to look after kids, grand-nieces or nephews and the old ones in the family.
Okay, back to my aunties.
Gu Por had a beau when she was young, a strapping, handsome young man. He was her grande passion. They pledged their hearts to each other and when he went away to America to study, he promised that they would marry when he returned.
And yup, you guessed it. He never returned.
He died tragically in a car crash while in the States. Gu Por’s heart was broken, and from that day on, never looked at another man. Finding a future beyond the family for herself, contemplating a career somehow was never an option or even a consideration. She just turned inward to her family, and thus to her mother, my grandmum, and to Aunty Nelly, who remained while all the sisters married out to larger lives beyond Number 12, Siang Lim Park, Geylang.
My childhood is filled with memories of my two aunts. They were always there in their flowered samfoos. If they were not helping my dad out at our home during the times when mum was in hospital, they were pottering around in the kitchen or sweeping the garden of their pre-war home in Geylang. They used to make little paper monsters for me when I was very little (they had the strangest names – Hood-tutus – must throw in Cantonese accent), and taught us all traditional Cantonese rhymes, cute verses that my sisters and I remember to this day.
Maybe it’s the richness of the Cantonese language, but my aunts also had the absolute best descriptions of people they encountered. Aunty Nelly was particularly adept. A young nephew with fair skin and a sharp nose was “bird-head” and “white board boy”; a skinny man was “Mr shoulders-higher than-ears”; a cousin that hunched was “camel-back girl” and another one “tortoise-boy”. Nobody was immune, everyone was labelled. Forget political correctness and sensitivity. It was not ill-meant and it was just their way. If you had a nick-name, consider yourself lucky. You were family.
My aunts’ little lives revolved round household chores, gossip and the church. Like frogs in wells, they bickered and chafed over the pettiest things. They were complete OCD cleanliness freaks, and I often marvelled how many times they could sweep one floor in a day. Yes, they’d fight over cleaning too, but come end of day, all was forgotten. Umbrellas in hand and rosaries in tow, they would then walk amiably arm in arm together to Queen of Peace church for their daily mass and devotions.
As a child of a luckier generation and the benefits it brings- education, career opportunities, travel and wide, wide horizons, I have often wondered what it would be like if our lives were reversed and I lived the life of my aunts. It is said that those who have more will always want more, and I guess I am no different. One thing I know. I would have totally hated the confines of their tiny worlds.
I do not think they were any less happy than I. They accepted their lot and they gave grace in the fastidious way they tended to the simple details of their day. They have since passed on but the memories of their presence, the Cantonese culture that they passed on have left their mark on me and my sisters. It is part of who we are.
Perhaps that Paulo Coelho adage is true, and one I should constantly bear in mind should I get tetchy and discontented: The simple things in life are often the most extraordinary.