Nenek Muda - June 26 2007
The long sofa by the wall seemed to be just the right place to sit. It offered a vantage point where nothing and no one could escape me and my watchful eyes. Besides, being heavily pregnant, I needed to remain in one place. The sofa was just right.
We -- my siblings and our spouses and children -- waited anxiously for the arrival of our dinner guests.
The table had been set for a party of six or more. Oh well, if too many came, it would be a buffet.
There are some things we all can remember and there are some that we cannot.
Like what was served for dinner. I know Bapak had prepared a feast. But I cannot remember what was served. I asked my sisters and they couldn't either. But I think for that occasion, Bapak prepared nasi beriyani, chicken kurma, acar, beef curry, prawn sambal and fried chicken.
I remember the house was lit up as though we were having a celebration or a festivity. But we were not quite dressed up for the occasion. We did not want to. Call it our statement of protest.
I was in my baggy t-shirt and trousers with my hair tied up, looking very plain. I figured that without make-up I would look harsh and unfriendly. Just the way I wanted to be.
Adel, then two years old, was colouring pictures with his father by his side.
Nina was not around. She told us that she was attending lectures but did not say whether she would be home for "the dinner". She had made sure that the living and dining rooms were cleaned and done up, and Mak's photographs were suitably displayed.
Then, they arrived.
I remained seated, waiting for the party to walk in.
My cousin the marriage broker arrived with the woman, the one Bapak was to wed. There were others in the party but I forget who they were.
"Why is she wearing a tudung? Is she wearing it sincerely or just for this occasion?" I wondered as I watched them slowly making their way in.
"Eda mana?", my cousin the marriage broker asked, rather nervously. I was sure she could feel the daggers thrown at her.
Of course she would be asking for only Kak Eda. Dear Kak Eda in whom "they" found an ally for "their scheme".
Kak Eda was naturally and predictably acceptable to Bapak's decision to remarry only because of her religious beliefs.
One day I found myself questioning Kak Eda about how she could, her tabligh beliefs aside, be so accepting to having someone else in Mak's place. Surely she would feel some sadness.
She replied: "Ena. I have to accept it. I have to. If only you know what is deep in my heart. I feel as much sadness as you do. But I cannot allow that to distract me. I have to accept it. We have to accept it, Ena."
I understood and I respected her stand. But it was hers, not mine.
Kak Eda emerged from the TV room and "salam" my cousin and the woman in tudung whose face I could not quite see but could tell, from where I was sitting, that she had chubby cheeks.
I watched the goings-on like a preying hawk.
I knew she felt uncomfortable as she sat on the sofa across me. I was looking at her with my right eyebrow raised and my lips pursed.
"Aah. Is that why you are wearing the tudung. You can't fool me. It is for Kak Eda's benefit," I whispered to myself. My eyebrow raised higher. I began to smirk.
She did not look at me. I did not take my eyes off her. Her eyes were on the floor, possibly checking out the oriental rug.
Then, Bapak appeared.
He gave the signal that he wanted to introduce everyone to her. So, everyone approached her to "salam".
Reluctantly I got up. I walked towards her, extended my right hand, and with just my fingers, brushed the fingers of her left hand, turned around and walked away.
Then, Adel came up to her and kissed her hand.
"Nenek muda," he said, mouthing the words his father had earlier tutored him to say when addressing her.
She smiled at Adel.
My cousin, the marriage broker was with Kak Eda in the TV room.
And then, Bapak announced that dinner was served.
Just when everyone was beginning to settle down for dinner, I heard Nina at the door. She looked like she was in a rush. She "salam" everyone, disappeared up the stairs, emerged moments later as she rushed down the stairs, carrying a pillow and a blanket.
She was not having dinner with us and she was not spending the night at home.
Nina, of late, had felt a crushing sense of desolateness and abandonment.
Although she was given a room at the International Islamic University hostel, she hardly ever stayed there, preferring instead to come home. Especially after Mak's passing, she felt the pressing need to be home with Bapak.
But since Bapak told her of his decision to remarry, Nina was given to bouts of wanting to be far away. On many occasions, she would come home very late or come home to just collect her pillow and blanket and then disappear into the night.
She would also drive all the way to visit Azah in Setiawangsa, Ampang, to just let her heart out.
Nina couldn't talk to Kak Ton or me because it would make her feel worse. Neither could she talk to Kak Eda who would tell her to accept it and that did not help.
So she turned to Azah who would listen to her without saying much. Nina found this comforting.
For instance, later on when invitation cards for Bapak's reception were to be given out to our neighbours, Nina couldn't bring herself to do it. It was Azah who volunteered to do it.
At dinner, you could feel the tension in the air. But it gradually eased.
I cannot remember what was spoken or if there was any conversation taking place at all.
I was as not nice as I could possibly be. But I could not go beyond that. I just could not. Neither could the rest of us.
I could plan all the terrible things I was going to do but, the truth is, I could not pretend to be mean.
I could not do it to Bapak, or to Mak's memory.
She did not raise me to be "kurang ajar". And what would this woman think of Mak's children if we behaved so badly to her.
Frankly, as the evening wore on, I had no heart to sustain that look of disdain that I thought I had so perfectly carved.
But that did not mean that I endorsed the whole charade.
We had finally met our soon-to-be stepmother. Her name was Habibah Hamid. My mum was Hamidah Hassan. Habibah was also Mak's mother's name.
The wedding was to take place soon.
The "akad nikah" would be held at the bride's parents' home in Lumut, Perak and a reception would be held later in Gombak where she used to be staying.
None of Bapak's daughters would be attending the "akad nikah". Abang Med, Kamal and my brothers-in-law, Abang Ani (Roslani) and Aziz would be accompanying Bapak to Lumut.
As for the reception, we were all reluctant to attend but we did not want Bapak to feel that we were abandoning him. We knew that Bapak had invited some of his (and Mak's) oldest, closest and dearest friends and their wives. We knew that they were put in a very difficult decision
because they were aware of our sentiments but could not boycott the reception on our account. And we did not want them to either. We understood and we did not hold that against them.
Bapak was leaving for Lumut.
He had earlier asked Kak Ton to help clean up his bedroom.
After Mak died, Bapak told us not to remove any of Mak's belongings, to leave them where they were.
For two years her belongings were intact-- in her cupboard. Her handbags were where she had left them.
But since there would be a new occupant, we decided to take out all Mak's belongings -- her books, bags, clothes, -- pack them in boxes and keep them in the store room.
Bapak also left clear and specific instructions for Mak's photographs not to be touched.
I had never found spring-cleaning to be such an emotional experience.
We felt so sad as we cleared the room of Mak's personal items. I found my eyes filled with tears. So did Kak Ton..
Her handbag still had the "minyak angin" scent and the contents intact from the day she left home for the hospital two years earlier.
Her diary was still on the desk with several dates circled -- birth dates of her children and grand children.
We opened her wardrobe and looked at her clothes -- her kebaya, baju kurung, selendang and kain batik lepas.
I took out two baju kurung which I recognised to be made of materials I had bought her.
"What are we going to do with her clothes?", I asked.
"Give some away to our aunts for remembrance. I am sure they'd like that. The rest we can keep. We can take some if we like," Kak Ton said tearfully.
We looked at the room, all nice and clean. It was now ready for Bapak and his new wife.
Nina had already left for London to be with Lalin who was preparing for her finals after which she would be returning home for good. Nina would be accompanying her "kakak" (Lalin is the only one she calls just "kakak") home. She was also to break the news of Bapak's remarriage to Lalin.
They would both be home in time for the reception.
The "akad nikah" went smoothly, we were duly informed.
I had conversations with myself.
Ok. So I had made my stand very clear to Bapak that I was not happy with his decision. So, I had gone out of my way to make life a little miserable for him. So enough was enough because that woman was now his lawfully-married wife.
I had to accept that Habibah was now my step-mother who would be living in my parents' home. My kids would know of no other grandmother (besides their father's mother) but her and as their "nenek muda' who is their Datuk's wife.
We were at home (at Bapak's) when the groom and bride arrived.
We prepared a little "makan" for Bapak and Mak Cik, as we called (and still do) her.
If she had expected me to misbehave, she was in for a disappointment.
At that dinner, she was not my step-mother yet. She was the woman my father intended to marry. She meant nothing to me. And, besides, I was the angry daughter.
But now, she came as my father's wife. She was something to him, and so she was, therefore, to us. No, it was not that I had suddenly grown fond of her.
She was my step-mother and I had to accord her due respect. For Bapak and for Mak.
As she accompanied Bapak into the living room, we took turns to kiss Bapak's hand, and then hers.
We were still reluctant to go for the reception in Gombak.
Kak Piah and Kak Ton were thinking of all sorts of excuses to stay away but there was simply none.
I had the perfect excuse - my hefty condition.
Just before the reception, Lalin and Nina came home from London.
Mak Cik was in the living room to welcome them home.
If you ask Lalin and Nina about this part of their life, they will tell you that they remember very little -- just scant details.
I think they have blocked the memory of this episode.
The day of the reception, Bapak went to Kak Ton's Media Strategy office in Damansara Heights.
Kak Ton was not in so Bapak left word with my cousin, Kak Che Nah (Julaina) who was working there for Kak Ton to please attend the reception.
That evening, my sisters arrived late for the reception. They sat at the far corner of the hall.
Sure, we had all accepted Bapak's marriage to Mak Cik, but we still had not come to terms with seeing Bapak as a groom with another woman by his side.
We thought Nina would not be there. But she arrived very late for the reception and was dressed in a plain ordinary cotton baju kurung, one of those she would be wearing for lectures, and she was in slippers .
Kak Piah, Kak Ton and her older siblings watched her as she made her way towards them. She greeted them and kissed their hands.
Then she caught sight of Uncle Swee (Lee Siew Yee) and Aunty Lin. Nina went to them and Aunty Lin who was a little tearful, hugged her.
"I'm sorry. But we had to come for your father," she whispered to Nina.
Nina nodded, tears in her eyes.
She got up, turned around and made a swift exit. And disappeared into the night.