The best reminder of my mother’s love for me comes whenever I see her hands. Those rugged and rough hands are a result of years of hard physical work to raise not just her children but her siblings as well. Born into a large poor family that were migrants from Canton, China, she was not accorded any privilege to be sent to school but had to toil from a young age of nine to help provide for the family.
It was clear she did not enjoy a childhood of much play and laughter. Instead, it was one of labour and sacrifice. She was completely different from my father who enjoyed an English education in reputable schools in Singapore, a motivated self-learner, and one who had a greater zest for life as shown in his wide range of interests and engagement with causes. They were poles apart and I, up till this day, could not fathom how they got together. Creative match-making at its best, perhaps!
As I was growing up, I found it difficult to connect with mother as she only knew the language of toil and labour for a better future. I was a child looking for fun and relationships. My father had a greater influence on my siblings and I when it came to education and learning abilities. However, despite my difficulty and frustrations in connecting with my mother, she played the greater role in building my character.
When my father was stricken with heart disease in the early years of my life, my mother took on the role as sole bread winner for the family. It was a role she was not unfamiliar with. Literally, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work, taking on two jobs on most days to support us through our school years. In the day, she worked as a hotel chambermaid, making beds, cleaning toilets for hotel guests, while at night; she served restaurant customers as a part-time waitress. This was her routine up till the time she was able to send my siblings and I to university. Money was hard to come by and whatever was earned was used to keep us in school. I remember meals that sometimes consisted of just rice and steamed toufu in dark soya sauce.
In those early years, conversations with my mother were limited due to the lack of contact time with her and whatever time she had with us she constantly reminded us to work hard in our studies to not suffer the same fate as she. Though I did not really spend much time with my mother growing up, I believe I inherited my mother’s resilience and loyalty to family. What I could not comprehend back then due to my lack of maturity, I absorbed through personally witnessing her example of dogged tenacity and self-sacrificial labour as she toiled day and night for us.
Even in retirement, she continues to tirelessly avail herself to help care for her grandchildren when called upon by her own children. Despite not having much in terms of finances, her love language of service and labour continue to resonate in our lives. She is not a woman of many words but her life – an example of sacrifice, resilience, patience, tenacity and tolerance – has deeply impacted me and many others in my family. I pay tribute to my mother as her deeply wrinkled hands remind me regularly of a mother’s love that ignores pain, comfort, inconvenience and obstacles to provide for her children’s future. It is a picture I will never forget and when I teach my children what love and service are, I will direct them to look at their grandma’s hands.
Keen Len Chan