I’ve known Grandma Aunty for as long as I have known my childhood best friend – seventeen years, to be specific.
She is one of many family friends who has literally watched me grow up and, without fail, rooted for me every step of the way. My best friend and I first met at the young age of seven, in primary school. We went on to the same secondary school and although our college journeys took different paths – she stayed at home and attended a private college where she built new, permanent networks at home while I went abroad, Stateside, where I built new, temporary networks halfway across the globe – we have stayed the best of friends. We are not one of those best friends depicted in movies and dramas; we’re not inseparable, for one. In general, we appear every now and then in each other’s lives. We do a good job of leaving each other alone, and just as good a job of reconnecting at whatever life phases and intervals we’re currently in. Frankly, there were plenty of long periods of silence and zero communication during my time away. Even today, now – I’m home for good, living in the family home again, and she’s still living in her family home just minutes away from mine, yet we don’t meet as frequently as people might assume. We’re also not the kind of friends who share similar interests, forget personalities.
To be honest, I don’t know why and how we’re friends – that we’re still friends is a revelation unto itself.
But I like this description of us I’d once used to describe our lasting friendship – one I made nonchalantly and without thought, only to realize how true it is that it’s now one I repeat, ha – “I think our friendship works because I’ve got so much emotional capacity, while she has almost none. So it’s like I feel for the two of us, all the time, while she holds the(my) fort.”
Because we’re childhood best friends, it’s natural that our families are familiar with each other. My siblings still endearingly call her Panda, a play on her name, even though they are well-aware we’re now twenty-four. She knows all their names, remembers all their occupations, and talk to Third Sis like she’s an older-sister-slash-friend. She has only one sibling, a younger sister, whom I’ve always considered like my own younger sister. In a way, I’ve watched her grow before my eyes.
Back in the day when cell phones weren’t common, we’d call each other using landlines. I’d call her house and end up chatting for several minutes with whoever picked up the phone. Back then, Grandma Aunty picked up pretty often that our conversations would span longer than I intended; whenever I’m at their house too, usually before school starts since their house is walking distance from our high school, it’s normal to sit at the dinner table with Grandma Aunty. In Malaysian context, we are of different races – they’re Chinese and I’m Malay (though strictly speaking, half-Chinese) – and yet it’s never been an issue. There were times when I borrowed a room in the house to pray and we shared meals without fuss or insensitive, ignorant remarks. Growing up, having a best friend who’s Chinese was as natural as breathing – it was a happenstance that she’s Chinese, but so what? What’s the big deal? (Nothing) – and not a point, like it is today.
Over the years, Grandma Aunty and I have kept in touch. Each year when I’m back for the summer, I’d make an effort to meet up with her – a quick visit of hello, a lengthy conversation one lazy afternoon… she’s still doing well, thankfully, but age is unfortunately, mercilessly wielding its sword on her. Her eyesights are still okay, but deteriorating. She walks at a slower pace and has long since quit driving; now she’s chauffeured by her granddaughters.
Sometime last month, I had a get-together – open house – at my house and of course, insisted that my best friend brought her along to feast and stuff herself with Mum’s cooking. When it was time for them to make a move, I noticed that it had started raining – without hesitation, I took out the umbrella leaning by the front door and sheltered the two of us while we waited for her granddaughter, my best friend, to bring the car. I held Grandma Aunty’s hand as I walked with her, one hand on the umbrella and the other on her forearm – a gesture, I thought, that’s really the least I could do for her. In my mind, I thought she appreciated my warmth and gesture, so when she turned to look at me in the tender way that she always does, I admit that I expected something along the lines of, “N, you don’t have to.” I even had my reply in mind.
Instead, Grandma Aunty, as admirable as ever, looked at me with clear eyes, cleared her throat and simply said, “N, I’m not made of sugar. I will not simply crumble.” As in, there’s no need to be extremely gentle with her because she can (still) take care of herself. The hand on the forearm was unnecessary, the umbrella too because pfft, it’s just a little rain! I’ve always thought of Grandma Aunty like my own grandmother… still, with just one statement, I don’t think I’ve ever looked at her with so much admiration and awe as I did in that moment. Goals, that’s the first word that popped on my mind.
Goal: how to age gracefully without losing one’s spunk.
I am grateful, always, for the women I am surrounded by – those who raised me, love me, look over me like their own… I’m grateful, always, for their presence and influence in my life. They who taught me, before I even understood the worth of a woman, what it means to grow up as an independent woman in a highly cultural setting. Grandma Aunty, aside from my mother and sisters, is one of my earliest windows to womanhood – living examples of women who know to hold their own: possess an independent and strong spirit with just the right dose of gentleness and grace. All-woman, that’s how I think of it.
Grandma Aunty is the perfect epitome of all-woman – complete with a bucketful of spunk.
I hope I will one day look at my granddaughter with the same crystalline eyes that Grandma Aunty did to me on that rainy, eventful August afternoon, and with a similarly clear voice say, “Dear, I’m not made of sugar. I will not simply crumble.”