My Ah Mah, my maternal grandmother, used to sew pyjamas and quilts for every single one of her twenty odd (or is it thirty odd) grandchildren.
She’d buy yards and yards of fabric every year, and when we’d go visit her in Seremban, we’d come home with a new pair of jammies, knowing that every cousin would be kitted in identical jammies that year.
It was 1981 and the last pair I got before I was too old for pyjamas was the most embarrassing pair of mickey and minnie pyjamas a boy could ever be caught wearing when visitors came to the house later than usual.
Ah Mah spoke no English and very very few words of Mandarin. She could yell a lot in Hokkien, and in that household my mother grew up in, you needed a strong pair of lungs to go with the strong pair of hands that held the family of 15 siblings together.
Mission schooling in pre and post-war Malaya meant that a generational gap widened into a cultural and linguistic one as my mum and some of her siblings started going to church and appending Anglo-Celtic-Judaic names to their Hokkien-Chinese ones, which were often mispelled by inept officials at the birth registries (I have an uncle called Lim Songkok).
Grandchildren arrived from the 60s onwards and were christened, named and in the case of my brother and sister and myself, did not (and still do not) understand the complicated hierarchical nomenclature of the many uncles, aunties and cousins. We’d know of an Uncle Michael, who’d be Uncle Number Something to other cousins, or an Auntie Wendy, who’d be Auntie Some Other Number.
Ah Mah on the other hand, had lots of difficulty remembering all our names, and used to complain about my brother’s and my name.
“Haiyah, mm chye simi Benny Kenny lah. An chua sama kio ka Nee Nee lah!” she’d say.
(Haiyah, dunno what Benny, Kenny lah. Why do they have to all sound like Nee Nee lah!)
And as if adopting foreign names wasn’t bad enough, several of my mother’s siblings married outside of the wider Chinese population.
My half-Sephardi Jewish cousins’ names came in for Ah Mah’s shelling too.
“Haiyah, mm chye simi Nathaniel lah. An chua sama kio ka neow neow neow neow lah?”
And my half-Welsh cousins’ names, Teckwyn, Selwyn, Edwyn, Eilwyn and Colwyn…
“An chua sama kio ka win win win win win lah!”
Ah Mah loved every one of her grandkids, and that’s no mean feat – I remember being part of a family photo – of almost every kid and grandkid, numbering up to 50 plus – where the photographer had to cross the street to get everyone in the shot.
That’s like having to run a pyjama factory. And the patchwork quilt that she gave me before I left for Sydney is made of many hexagonal pieces of scrap cloth she’s collected and painstakingly sewn together. It doesn’t look like much, but it does keep the warmth in.
Ah Mah, Madam Chua Chu, passed away last Thursday in Seremban.