It's strange thinking back a year ago and realizing how much my family's life has changed without Ma. I miss her dearly, and yes, though this is my first Mother's Day without her, don't fret, concerned friends, your posts celebrating moms don't bother me in the slightest: in fact, more, more, more of this! Celebrate and recognize people when they're here!
In honour of this day, I'm posting the eulogy I wrote and read for her in December -- all the words I can express to thank Maryam, a strong, feisty woman who made me who I am today. And though it may seem morbid to embrace death this way, in doing so, I find a whole new lease on life, reminding me to stay strong, make fresh connections, keep learning, and grab every day by the balls.
Thanks for everything, Ma. And Happy Mother's Day to all: you deserve it.
EULOGY FOR MARYAM TSANG (December 2015)
There was a Cantonese term that was used a lot in our household -- “mo mah-fahn”. I may be butchering it, but it’s a phrase meaning don't trouble, don't annoy, don't be a bother to others. Ma was the spokesperson for “mo mah-fahn”. A woman of few words, she never brought attention to herself, deflected compliments, would speak only when spoken to, and rarely reached out to call. Her leaving a time stamp in your life, taking time out of your day, was a bother.
She never made any blatant displays of love that our friends’ parents did, never an “I love you”, and hugs only done for humour’s sake; it crossed my mind that Ma didn’t care about us. But I keep thinking back to her slogan -- don’t trouble anyone -- and that just because she kept to herself, didn't mean that she was heartless. Truth is, she cared a lot, but her emotions were just a reflection of her hard, impoverished past in India, a prisoner of her thick, strong-willed casing. The occasional letters I received from you had a tender tone, always signed with the “love you” I never heard in real life. And if you saw the family living room and looked at all the pictures displayed in our house, every single family member in this room was represented in some way, through your marriages, your babies... Ma may not have wanted to impose in real life, but you all comprised a part of her tiny, private world. So in thinking about this, everyone’s visits this year, and this final gathering today to celebrate her, taking time out for her, rescheduling of your busy lives, this may have been the last thing she ever wanted.
When I left home, I moved to Toronto. I had a landline at the time with a very loose-fitting cord, always hanging precariously from the jack. I rarely used it, but one day, realized it had dislodged -- for how long, I’m not sure -- but the very second I plugged it back in, the phone started ringing. Ma was screaming, wondering where I’d been, what happened, that she’d been calling non-stop for the last few days. Because of this small incident, she insisted I call home every day. She said I didn’t need to talk, just call, let the phone ring twice, and then hang up, once a day, just so she knew I was alive. This was a reversal of her not wanting to trouble anyone, and though I resented this, I obeyed, and all through university, I spent 10-15 seconds a day, dialling the family number, letting her know I was alive.
Ma got things done. If she wanted something, she’d work at it and make it happen, do it herself, and if not, she'd pass the most fiery stare that would convince Lucifer himself to grovel. Some would call it stubbornness or control. She preferred to call it determination. She left Bangalore in her 30s and came to Canada with her first husband and my older sisters, and despite not having much education, found work, a place to live, and eventually owned and operated a string of Chinese restaurants in small-town Ontario. It was difficult work running a restaurant, serving customers in the dining room, scurrying back to the kitchen to slave away by the grill, and basically operating the business side of the restaurant on her own -- managing, human resources, financing, and all the legalities. This may sound simple to those sitting in ivory towers, but for someone with next to no education, fairly new to the country, and raising a family on top of that, I find this absolutely impressive, and most especially for that time, doing this all in the ’60s and ‘70s while being a woman.
Looking back to my childhood watching my mother -- someone so strong-willed, industrious, who never questioned her abilities or even physical strength as a woman, who took care of family business affairs and raised a family at the same time without complaining -- I realize I’d been given the best feminist role model that no textbook figure could ever provide. And for this, I am the most thankful.
But beyond all these big-picture traits, it was the day-to-day stuff that most of us will remember fondly -- her hands were a gift, her sewing machine was her third arm, and her house, a drop-off centre for family alterations. Her war-time years taught her to use and reuse things over again: we had book bags and neck pillows made out of old jeans, shorts out of thick living room curtains (which, by the way, she forced me to wear to school and made me the laughingstock of my class). She made us a million nightgowns, and experimented with new patterns, even making the very skirt I’m wearing today. She was the best bargain hunter. I knew better than to ever tell her that I -- God forbid -- bought something full-price. A tattered hand-me-down purse would gain more approval ratings than a limited edition $2,000 coin purse from Louis Vuitton. Impressing Ma was not done with money or gifts, but by proving your frugality.
And her cooking! The best meatball curry, biryani, rapini and bean bhaji, and dahl to rival the top chefs of India. As my brother-in-law Mike says, she could make something taste good out of anything, and if there’s any regret we daughters have, it’s that we can’t cook a fraction as well as her. But it was her food, her secret recipes, that allowed her to express love in a way she couldn’t say out loud. Instead, we all knew that being sent home with a container of homemade paratha was her way of saying “I love you” in a more meaningful way than those three overused words could ever convey.
And finally, her sense of humour. I will never forget her dancing in her underwear at my bedroom door, talking about farts and poo, laughing at dirty jokes -- the ruder, the better. I loved it when she found things amusing, the way she said, “get lost”, whenever she thought you were pulling her leg, the way she covered her face while giggling in public, or how she moved to tears while watching Just For Laughs Gags. In the last year, when her ability to communicate hit a brick wall, we all used physical comedy to get a reaction from her. Over the last few months, when she lost her ability to laugh, I was crushed; it was then that I knew she was really hurting, slowly disappearing, and that the end time was near.
It gutted us to put her in a nursing home, especially because we are all able-bodied as a family. But we all lived apart and, for better or worse, live in an independent society where full-time caregiving is not possible. When she finally moved to a nursing home in Toronto, I thought back to that time when I moved away, and how she made me call every day, ring the telephone so she knew I was alive. Now that the roles were reversed, I would’ve given anything to have her ring my phone every day, too. In the absence of her ability to use a phone, I made sure to see her as much as I could, even if to drop off a dessert cup or squeezing in a 15-minute stopover between jobs. I just wanted to know she was still alive.
Ma is absolutely in a better place -- in whatever afterworld she is, she’s breathing properly, can form full sentences, eat as many doughnuts as she wants to. She can cook, sew, gamble, and right now, is probably kicking back with her brother and sister, Uncle Michael and Aunty Ahyung, probably enjoying a round of dirty jokes. And although it’s very sad to know her physical body is no longer here to with us, her spirit is here. I was chatting with cousin Michelle the other day, talking about how our mothers feel even closer to us now that they’re gone, more than ever, as they’re always home, here in our hearts. This comforts me, to know that for the rest of our lives, despite geography, through future travels and moves, this will never keep us apart.
There are many people in this room who took time out of their schedules today and this year to provide companionship when she and we needed it most -- so thank you. From family who brought her food, left her giant packs of juice, who sang Hindi songs to her in the break room, to my own friends who supported me, offered help, and when I was away, came in to feed my mom, brought in their dogs, and just let me know that she was doing okay.
More than anything, I want to acknowledge the team of PSWs and nurses at her nursing home, who out of all of us, were there for her the most, and became extended members of our family, just by virtue of being around daily. This is a highly underrated profession, full of frustrations, and lacking money, attention, and resources. It is one of the most important duties in life, yet many of us pawn it off on you because we're too busy. Thank you for your concern, for feeding her, bathing her, comforting her, treating her like your own mom, and for giving us busy people the freedom to continue with our lives, however selfish of us that may be.
Again, seeing as my mom never wanted to bother anyone, this service may be too much for her and we debated about whether we were going to open this up to extended family and friends. But in addition to the idea of “moh ma-fan,” she also taught us to go above and beyond to thank people whenever they did go out of their way. Most of you weren’t asked to do anything, yet you came out of the woodwork to support her and our family, and for this, I thank you. I know she would want to thank you herself, recognize what you did for her.
Thank you, Thank you, Ma, for everything, thank you for bringing us together. Admittedly, the last few years were frustrating, but let me tell you this: you were never, ever, once a bother. We love you. XO