A senior recounts her past through her book, and comes out of it with a little more understanding.
BY: Eleanor Yap
The eldest daughter in the family of six, Lee Ali had a tough childhood. Her parents were poor and illiterate, and they found work and housing where they could. She also had to deal with an abusive mother who taunted her.
Recounting her hard past in her first-ever book, “Growing Up With Ignorance: Memoirs of a Singaporean Baby Boomer”, 65-year-old Ali wrote: “When I turned 12 years old, mother decided she could not beat me anymore. But the emotional abuse that followed was much more painful than the physical abuse.”
Despite all this, she harbours no ill feelings towards her mother who passed away in 2011, and finds that growing up in the difficult years when Singapore broke off from the British colonial rule shaped who she has become today.
Ageless Online talks to the mother of two about her book, her mother’s abusiveness and what she misses most from her past:
Why did you decide to write the book? Was it cathartic?
In the course of my counselling work (for about eight years), I discovered family upbringing had a long-lasting effect on our lives. Then, in the process of facilitating Guided Autobiography with support groups during one of my volunteering stints, this became more apparent.
That started me to examine my own upbringing and my difficulties relating to others. I needed more clarity – who am I? Who could I have been had it not been for the baggage that hung over me all these years? So I started recollecting and journalling the incidents that happened during my growing-up days — and my reflections on them. I wanted to put them in perspective.
Then at the urging of my children, I re-wrote my life events into a narration. All these took about two years before I finally published the book in October this year. Was all this intended to get things off my chest? It was not my intention, but the writing and re-writing certainly facilitated lots of unloading. It was therapeutic.
Why do you think your mother treated you so badly?
I was my father’s first blood relative (he was an orphan), and he doted on me. I think my mother was jealous. My mother also mistook my sister’s separation anxiety as a love for her and my indifference when she was out of sight, for lack of feelings for her. So she was disappointed with me.
I complicated the matter with my love for and intense loyalty to my father. Each time she attacked him, I would jump to his defence. I think that incensed her even more.
My mother’s role model was my great-grandmother who was physical when enforcing discipline. So, my mother was physical with her children. Being the most stubborn and rebellious of the lot, I got the brunt of it.
Throughout the book you shared your experiences with your mother. Can you retell some of those painful moments?
Whenever I think of the beatings, I can somehow feel the cane slashing over my back and the sheer pain on my fingers as I tried to ward my mother off. But there was a stubborn streak in me: No, no, I would not ask for forgiveness — I did not do wrong. So she beat me even more.
Physical beatings aside, the emotional abuse were the most painful. It was worst after her hysterectomy and my maternal grandfather’s passing on. She also seemed to be very unhappy with my father, but directed her nagging and complaints at me. I became stressed and often cried uncontrollably. Then symptoms of nightmare, panic attacks and migraines appeared.
Did your mother eventually mellow as you grew up?
For many years after I got married, my mother still behaved as if my father and I were one opposing camp. She would call me on the phone to give me a scolding just because she had a quarrel with my father.
Our relationship became better after my father passed away in 1994.
As for mellowing, I am not sure about that. My mother would get very upset when she was against someone and we (the children) tried to reason with her. She would be at us for a long time. So, to keep peace, we learned to “agree” with her.
How many years did you endure it? How did you cope with it growing up? What were some lessons you learned from the experience?
My book covered the first 25 years of my life. At the end of that narration, I was running away from her (through marriage). My source of solace was reading. Through reading, I entered into another world, one much better than reality.
My academic results were my saviour. My mother liked to boast about it and there were times when she was more kind towards me. But as her sense of insecurity grew, she became emotionally abusive. Somehow, I became her target, because of my father, and because she was afraid I could leave home and go abroad through a scholarship. She loathed and loved me at the same time. She was very confused herself.
I came to realise much later that my mother was emotionally unstable. My father’s love for me and mine for him, actually upset her even more. But I also realised her strict discipline had contributed towards my successes. I have lots of self-discipline and would devote my energies to bring any project to completion be it work or self-improvement.
Beyond the nastiness, you also had a good relationship with your father and grandfather. Can you share some of those good memories?
My father would make any sacrifice for me. His love was truly unconditional. I remember once he spent the whole sum of a rare gratuity he received from his job to buy me a typewriter. When I started school, he built me a writing desk out of plywood he picked from the streets. He lovingly varnished it and expected me to use it when I did my homework.
Instead, I laid on my tummy and did all my homework with hands propped on the floor. But he never complained. He also liked to watch me. I remember one particular rare occasion he caught me singing and dancing, and teased me about it.
I enjoyed sitting under my grandmother’s bed and watching my maternal grandfather smoke his opium. I was only a small child and chattering nonsense. But this was quality time with him.
Despite your mother’s misgivings, you preserved her humanity in your book. Why?
I sincerely believe my mother tried her best to bring me up. What went wrong were her difficult emotions – she was unable to handle them appropriately. First was her jealousy – my father loved me ‘more than her’. Second, her disappointment with my father and my fierce loyalty for him angered her. Finally, her sense of insecurity; she was afraid I would disappear from her life – my potential to be breadwinner for the family as my father approached his retirement age and the possibility of our whole family becoming homeless. We were living in accommodation provided by my father’s employer.
As I wrote in my book, I realised my mother was trying to relive the adolescence she lost during the Japanese Occupation through me – the type of clothes she bought for me, the excitement when someone of the opposite gender showed an interest in me, and her dreams of a well-off spouse when my second-Auntie relayed a proposal from a wealthy family.
So what was it like growing up in the 1950s/’60s?
Those were the rock-n-roll days when children and teens swoon over stars like Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard. I remember my classmates sang songs like that and they went to the cinemas. But I was confined to my room. During school holidays, there were long periods when I did not get out of home. My mother disliked her children going out beyond school hours. Besides, I hardly had any money to spend on outings.
How did the experiences including with your mother shape you as you grew up? And being a mother to your children?
My mother certainly had a great influence over me. I was also strict with my children but I made a point not to own a cane in my home. My children were obedient and quite disciplined – I think they were afraid to see me angry. Generally they did well in school. My daughter is a high achiever and presently works as a consultant in an MNC. My son was more rebellious, but he has turned out well too. He works with a private bank. I have only one baby granddaughter. She is the one I pamper, my son is complaining.
A lot has changed from the time you grew up in the 1950s/60s. Can you name five things from the past that you don’t see anymore such as food, places, etc and why?
My childhood places have all disappeared – the dispensary and the cabin I lived in; the place my grandparents lived which was called the Twenty-Rooms that were actually rooms for port workers’ families; the building that accommodated families of hospital staff amongst which was the room I lived in during my schooling days; and my primary school. All these have sadly given way to development.
As for food, my grandfather’s favourite Hokkien noodles fried with big head mussels and wrapped in large ‘oh pay’ leaves has disappeared. I think now it is hard to get those leaves and the big head mussels are expensive.
Finally, the hawkers that ply the streets with poles balancing on their shoulders have disappeared. They were unlicensed and have been forced out through regulations and law enforcement.
Anything you have kept from your past?
I have only a few family photos that my father arranged to be taken at the studio when I was small. We were very poor. My father could not even afford to have a photograph taken of his wedding. So these photos were very precious to him.
When my father died suddenly, I retrieved the ring he wore from his finger. It was made of cheap metal and cast with a brown stone. But as far as I could remember he was always wearing it. I just want to keep a part of him with me. On the evening he suddenly passed off, I returned home and slept on his bed. His smell was still fresh amongst the bedding. I can still remember that smell.
If you could say something to other baby boomers, what would it be? What about to youths of today?
To fellow baby boomers, all I can say is: I missed much of the youthful activities you enjoyed. I wish I could start all over again.
As for the youths of today: Be active and enjoy your youth, but prepare yourself well before you enter parenthood. The happiness of your child depends very much on your love and the family condition you create for him or her.
Lastly, are you planning to write a sequel? When?
I hope to write a sequel. As for timeline, I have not made any decision. My children are encouraging me to do so.
** Ali’s book is available at online platforms – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Partridge Singapore Bookstore, in hardcover, softcover and ebook versions. It is also available at RSVP Singapore–The Organisation of Senior Volunteers, which sells the softcover version. Profits from sales at RSVP Singapore will be donated to the organisation.