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Living with my grandmother for a week

Singapore-Malay-grandmother-life-lessons-living-with-my-grandmother

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I thought it would be a long and awkward week, but I guess I really didn't know my grandmother.

My grandmother and I aren't particularly close; neither are we too distant. I enjoy a comfortable relationship with her where I visit once in a while, give her a hug and kiss, and exchange a few words. 

I've only ever thought of my grandmother as the matriarch of my family. But lately, I began to ask myself – do I know anything else about her? 

To get to know the woman who made my life possible, I decided to stay with my grandmother for a week

Visiting my grandmother on my own never felt like my responsibility as my mother usually initiated such visits. Naturally, I felt worried knowing that I won't have my mother around to help me with the awkward silences or say things in Malay. 

The only other concern I had about the one-week sleepover was having to stay in an area that was completely foreign to me – Jurong. 

For this proud Eastie, the journey to the West got me feeling a little out of place. But as I passed by the old bakeries where my cousins and I used to buy treats from and the gardens we once caused ruckus in, I started feeling nostalgic. 

83-year-old-Malay-grandmother-Singapore
The beautiful 83-year-old Esah Bahari, mother to 11, grandmother to 26 and great-grandmother to 12.

My grandmother lives with my aunt and her husband. While it's only the three of them, the house is usually filled with visitors and laughter. On my first day, I arrived to a few of my aunts and uncles having an impromptu dinner at the house. 

There was nothing special about my arrival. My grandmother and family members greeted me as they always had. There was comfort in that – as though time hadn't passed since my last visit. 

Thinking I'd need multiple sets of pajamas, I packed a big overnight bag to the brim. Little did I know that my nenek (grandmother in Malay) had it all covered. 

She'd already prepared my aunt's clothes for me to change into. 

Grandmother-prepares-towels-for-her-stay
My grandmother prepared a kaftan-like nightgown (also known as 'baju butterfly' in Malay), a towel and a blanket for my stay.

For a week, I tweaked my routine a teeny bit so I could spend more time with her. This meant waking up earlier to have breakfast with her and braving the peak hour crowds to get home as soon as possible. 

I'm not the best at having conversations with people and things can get a little awkward, but I knew I had to try my very best to get to know her. 

As we began to talk, I realised how little I knew about my grandmother. I've always remembered her as a great cook, a skilled masseuse and a hardworking matriarch, but she revealed herself to be so much more than that. 

She easily filled up the awkward pauses in our conversations. Despite her age, she could still recall vivid details about her personal life. 

She would reminisce about her childhood and her late siblings, and how happy she was when she was with her family. There were years where she was separated from them due to the Japanese Occupation and the circumstances of that time period. 

Old-photo-Singapore-Malay-Grandmother-with-siblings
My grandmother (second from the right) with four out of five of her siblings.

Sometimes, I couldn't help but notice the deep lines on her face when we talked about her own childhood. She lived in a completely different world – a life many could soon forget. I felt guilty for never taking an interest before. 

Her voice quivered slightly and tears began to form as she spoke about her late loved ones. She married my grandfather, whom I've never met, at the incredibly young age of 15. At 16, she had her first child. 

My grandparents raised 11 kids in a one-room flat in Geylang back in the 1960s. Times were tough, but they managed it well. 

Old-photo-Singapore-grandmother-with-siblings
My mother (bottom left) and grandmother (bottom right) with some of my aunts and uncles.

My grandfather passed away when he was 51 and she was left to care for her children by herself, the youngest being 2 years old. 

Despite being the sole breadwinner, she managed to set up her own nasi padang store at High Street in the 1980s and did well enough to pay for a trip to Mecca for her Hajj pilgrimage. 

As the week went by, I noticed how incredibly thoughtful and consistent she is. After she wakes up for her morning prayers, she accompanies everyone as we get ready for work, making sure we have a bite to eat and a cup of coffee to drink before we leave. 

Having-breakfast-with-grandmother-bread-coffee
Every morning, she would keep me company as I ate breakfast.

Once I got up to leave the house, she'd walk me to the door and wait by the gate to watch me as I walked towards the bus stop. She is probably the only person in the world who would do that for me – and I'm pretty sure I'm not even her favourite grandchild! 

Spending one week with my grandmother has left me with bittersweet memories. I was grateful I could still spend time with her, but at the same time, I found myself saying: "I should have done this a long time ago." 

I thought about how quickly life went by. I remember the large meals she used to cook and how she would randomly end up at my house by taking public transport. But these are things she can no longer do due to her age. 

This was more than just a sleepover for an assignment, this was a wake-up call for me. A reminder to always make time for family. 

Singapore-Malay-grandmother-HDB-gate
After spending a week with my grandmother, it was hard not to miss her warm aura. 

I thought it would be a long and awkward week, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. 

My grandmother wasn't worried about the lack of conversations or forming strong bonds. After all, she has known me all my life; from a tiny little baby to a full grown adult. Even though I am a small twig in relation to my large family tree, nothing could ever erase the connection I have with her. 

Before I started on this assignment, I've always thought that I only have to visit my grandmother when my mother was heading to her house. 

At the end of the week, all I could ask myself was: "Why wouldn't I want to spend more time with her?"

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  • PHOTO CREDITS: YOUTH.SG/ANISAH AZMI

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