The modern mother must be able to face all challenges, and more


Combo photo shows a montage of the mothers in the columnist’s life (clockwise, from top left) Grandma Geok Sim, Grandma Gek Ngo, Grandma Swee Lian, Doreen and Dyan, Madam Sai Hua, and Mother Lee Kheng.

THIS Sunday is Mother’s Day, which is celebrated in the United States annually on the second Sunday in May.

It is widely observed in most countries, except in Europe when it falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent on ‘Mothering (or Simnel) Sunday’.

Family reunions were the usual form of celebration – with sons and daughters assuming all household duties and preparing a special meal in honour of their mothers.

In 16th-century England, the eldest in the family would bring a ‘Mothering Cake’ or ‘Simnel Cake’ – a dried fruit cake with two layers of almond paste, 11 balls of marzipan icing on top (representing the 11 disciples of Christ sans Judas), with sugar violets also being added.

Today, families would book eateries to treat their mothers and dedicate the entire weekend as ‘Mother’s Day’ due to a shortage of available capacities at most popular restaurants, cafés and bistros. It is as big as, if not bigger than, Valentine’s Day.

Florists and gift shops too would have a field day!

It is all well and good to have a dedicated day for mothers, but for me, every day should indeed be Mother’s Day, as they are the force to be reckoned with insofar as the strengthening, bonding and prospering of family ties are concerned.

In virtually all families, be it those imbued deep in Western culture or here in the East, it is the mothers who personally run households – manage the daily routines, enable chores and home budgets, discipline the children, and play the most important role as educator and role model.

I know for a fact that mine did. My mother was the ‘supreme commander of the home ministry’.

Today, I see this too in my wife, mother of my children and in turn, my daughter with her two sons.

The circle of life goes on!

But what has changed from the days of my grandmother and in families of different backgrounds and cultures? Has anything changed?

The biggest change has been in the numbers.

My paternal grandmother Wee Geok Sim was blessed with 10 sons and four daughters, all born between 1914 and 1934. She passed away long before I was born in 1950.

Grandpa Ong Kwan Hin had then taken on a second wife from Singapore, Lim Swee Lian, who did not bear him any children.

I had stayed in the family homestead for the first eight years of my boyhood, during which time I was completely pampered by Grandma Swee Lian and my two spinster aunts, Mary and Rosalind.

In those days, there were no playschools, kindergartens and specialist child-careers of any kind: all the children were under the communal charge of the elders within the same household – this Eastern-style tradition has continued in many families till today.

My maternal grandmother was Ong Gek Ngo, who had 10 children and had lived to a ripe old age of 92 – she passed on in 1975, the same year my first-born son Dylan came into this world.

Grandma Gek Ngo too was authoritative, smart and certainly held together the fort of the Tan Cheng Pun’s family throughout her life.

My mother, Tan Lee Kheng, had ensured that we, as an extended family, should never lose touch with her side of the family – most locals then would incline to be closer to the family of the patriarch rather than that of the matriarch – insofar as to fix a weekly Friday evening to spend time with Grandma Gek Ngo.

This we had done religiously for a minimum of four hours per visit without fail.

Besides this, there were compulsory family events, functions and celebrations to attend, till we reached adulthood.

Sadly today, my children and their cousins have mostly drifted apart and they do not even know each other’s names.

On my wife’s side, her mother Tan Sai Hua had borne three sons and three daughters – she too was adamant about maintaining close family ties and had, at various stages during her life, stayed with her eldest son Denis wherever his employer, The Borneo Company, had transferred him to, in Sibu, Bintulu, Simanggang and further afield.

At various points, she had also stayed with us in Kuching, especially during the early years of my first two children.

Although Madam Sai Hua did not have much of a formal education earlier on, her many life experiences and personal life had strengthened her resolve and given her a wealth of anecdotes, stories and tales which she would share with us to guide us to make better lives for ourselves.

She was a great cook and homemaker, had a good sense of humour, and was game for anything – tolerance and long-suffering were her forte!

Among all the mothers whom I mention and pay tribute to in this article, Madam Sai Hua had probably lived the most challenging of lives.

Most people’s first memory is from the ages three to four – personal events or experiences require different areas of the brain working in tandem, which takes time to develop.

Dr Rachael Elward, PhD, an expert in cognitive neuroscience of memory states: “The hippocampus should be ready at about the age of four, and this is usually when children start remembering things consistently.”

Around that age, my first memories had involved my mother reading to me and also introducing a love for music and song.

At the time, she was very much into musicals like South Pacific, My Fair Lady and Flower Drum Song. Her favourite singers were Nat King Cole, Mario Lanza and Anneke Grönloh.

Mum had a smaller family – we were five, three boys and two girls, all born between 1950 and 1957. Already you can see the trend of family numbers: I have three, a boy and two girls; and my daughter Dyan has two sons. Within four generations, our family members have greatly dwindled from 14 to two.

My mother was an exception in the 1950s. A working mother, she was an English teacher at St Thomas’ Primary School.

When I was first enrolled in 1956, I remember having my interval breaks standing next to her table in the staff room, timidly consuming my food and drink. After school, we led a very regimented life: homework, hobbies’ time and a limited amount of radio or record-listening period (this was all pre-television days, and of course, before the Internet).

Magazines, books, cinema trips and record-buying sprees were highlights of our lives.

Library time was much anticipated. Any playtime outdoors with cousins and neighbours’ kids was extremely restricted.

Mum was firm, but fair. Although a great disciplinarian, she did allow us a lot of leeway to go about our independent ways, which had enabled us to cultivate and nurture our own personal interests and hobbies.

She was as generous as Dad was not.

With one look, she could put the fear of God on any of us! In return, we loved her back with all our hearts.

At age 85, after a long 14-year bout with the much-dreaded Alzheimer’s disease, Mum left us – rising to the Glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On reflection, I could see that with the five of us, it was extremely difficult for Mum to play favourites, or to render to any one of us any special attention or ‘more love’.

It could not have been easy – I know it now because I have three children myself, and I find it difficult too.

The two mothers who are here with us today – my wife Doreen, and my daughter Dyan – continue with the Ong tradition.

From the 1950s through to the 2000s, it was perhaps somewhat less complicated to handle a family for the mothers of growing children. There were the basic needs of feeding, clothing, ensuring their good health, making sure that they would get a good education, and making sure that they would be safe and secure wherever they might be.

Today, my wife and my daughter are faced with the ever-changing issues and life decisions.

We all know what they are and need not go into detail of the expectations of being able to ensure our children’s safety, education and good health, with the addition of keeping track of the company they keep, the good or bad habits formed, how they interact, use (or abuse) and present themselves on the Internet via social media, and most of all, their sense of belonging and their ultimate happiness and self-fulfilment.

The modern mother has to be able to face all these challenges – and more!

May I wish you all a happy, blessed Mother’s Day, and may you continue to be a blessing to your families.

Stay strong, healthy, happy and wise!