By Yong Shu Hoong
Naturally, Big Brother and I didn't have the heart to tell Mother the truth.
But we both knew that she knew about the severity of her illness anyway – though neither of us had witnessed her shedding a tear over her impending death.
It must be the food, quipped our busybody neighbours after getting wind of the news.
That was exactly what they claimed when Father died suddenly of heart failure a decade ago. The maid who came to wash our clothes told me then that one neighbour had blamed the tragedy on Mother's oily food which had allegedly clogged up all of Father's major arteries over the years.
I attributed such accusations to plain jealousy. It was widely acknowledged that Mother was the best cook in our neighbourhood, and all the rumours about her heart-stopping cooking did nothing to deter her regular customers from returning year after year to order her homemade pineapple tarts for Chinese New Year.
After Father died, we continued to live in our terrace house in Serangoon Garden. Since Big Brother moved out after getting married five years ago, it was just Mother and I living together.
In the past, I used to think of Mother as an imposing parent, even though she was a woman of few words. It was her presence, facial expression and silence that got her messages across, subtly and effectively.
Sometimes I could even second-guess her moods through her cooking. Whenever she was unhappy, the dishes would turn out just slightly bland (I was sure she had intentionally withheld a pinch of salt on those occasions).
Now all I could think of were her virtues – especially her culinary skills that I was already beginning to miss.
It had been seven months since the diagnosis. Mother had continued cooking for me, and for Big Brother when he dropped by with his wife and two sons for visits, right until two months ago when she got too sick to get out of bed. That was when I decided to quit my job as a journalist to stay at home and look after her.
Most of the time, I scoured Singapore to find Mother's favourite hawker food. But occasionally I would cook for her, even though I was never any good in the kitchen.
On top of my ability to cook instant noodles and simple dishes like fried rice and omelette (picked up while I was studying overseas), I also gleaned ideas from a macrobiotic cookbook that an ex-colleague lent me. With a special diet, Mother just might get better – I was still hoping for miracles.
Once, after I fed Mother the first mouthful of my soup, her face got all wrinkled up in disapproval.
"Is it too bitter?" I asked.
"It's awful, May!" she exclaimed.
"Well, it's got some Chinese herbs in it..."
"Perhaps it's your cooking skills at fault. A little more salt to the broth would make all the difference. Oh, I do wish you had learned how to cook properly!"
I felt my face heat up in embarrassment.
I was never really interested in cooking, although I probably didn't hate cooking as much as I thought I did. I just felt that a woman's place should not be confined to the perimeter of a kitchen; I had other worldly aspirations.
Mother didn't plan to let the opportunity slip by – "If you had been a better cook, you might have impressed someone enough to marry you. You're already 32..."
"Ma, let's drop the subject."
She sighed, "When I leave this world, who's going to look after you?"
I retreated swiftly into the kitchen.
While washing up, I realised that Chinese New Year was approaching in a week's time. It was our family tradition to have a big feast at home on the eve of every Chinese New Year, when Mother would take the opportunity to cook her signature dishes and even debut newly-invented dishes.
"What are we going to do for this year's reunion dinner?" I wondered.
Big Brother suggested that we buy something back. How unfortunate it was that we would be eating MSG-laden takeaways from the nearby hawker centre for what could very well be our last reunion dinner with Mother!
I could only wish I had taken a greater interest in cooking – aside from just eating. All I had to do was to spend some weekends standing beside Mother and observe how she churned out her dishes. But instead, I avoided the kitchen whenever the stench of oil was in the air.
All of Mother's recipes – whether improvised versions of local hawker fare or Hakka cooking passed on from her own mother – were all trapped within her memory. Now it was too late to siphon that knowledge off her.
"It's never too late," Mother exclaimed, her weary face suddenly brightening up. "You're a trained journalist, so just take out your pen and note pad, and treat me as one of the many interview subjects you used to chase for quotes."
Mother was serious.
Personally I thought the idea was a little morbid – much like how an elderly martial arts guru would (in the many Chinese martial arts fantasy novels I had read) transfer his lifetime of pugilistic skills to his designated successor in his dying days.
"Ma, you better rest. You need all the rest you can get so that you can recover."
"I've got plenty of time to rest," Mother retorted. "It's more important for me to pass on my recipes to you and train you up so that you can cook just like me. Maybe you can even cook some dishes for the reunion dinner."
"Me, cooking for the reunion dinner?" I raised my eyebrows.
But Mother won the argument in the end.
For the next five days, I transcribed around thirty recipes Mother had picked as her representative best. Before I knew it, I was whipping up dishes – with varying degree of success – for Mother to sample and offer comments.
The reunion dinner was now just a day away. The menu, as ordained by Mother, consisted of Clear Peanut Soup, Claypot Beef Stew, Stir-Fried Asparagus with Oyster Sauce, and Braised Pork with Preserved Vegetables. Too bad there isn't more time to squeeze in a last-minute "rehearsal" of the more difficult dishes, I thought.
As Mother was taking her afternoon nap in her room, I continued with the preparations for my big night. The chopper's handle felt strangely reassuring in my grip as I cut up the asparagus with rhythm and ease.
With my mind preoccupied with all the stir-frying, deep-frying, boiling and steaming I had to do the next day, there was no longer any space left for sadness or morbid thoughts. All I could think of was Big Brother's surprised look when confronted by the sight of all the home-cooked dishes steaming on the round table.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 1 Oct 2006