For the A TO Z CHALLENGE, I’m blogging for 26 days in April (except Sundays) based on the alphabet, and my theme is #foodiefiction, inspired mostly by the foods of Singapore.
I was the only visitor my grandmother would permit these days. I think it’s because I was the only one who didn’t flinch at her cursing and would bring her cigarettes. Yes, cigarettes. My 90-year-old grandmother had taken up smoking again, something she had given up half a lifetime ago. In the last few months she had asked me to buy her cigarettes. That coincided with her admittance into the nursing home, when my uncle and his wife decided that they could no longer handle her. My Dad had never had a good relationship with his mother and my Mum often admitted she couldn’t stand her, so it was off to the old folks’ home for her. My uncle and aunt said that she would finally have company and could chat with other elders. My Mum snorted and said my grandmother would probably antagonize everyone in sight.
Alas, my Mum was right. My ah-mah had no friends there. The staff barely tolerated her. And I was her only visitor.
I would walk her outside to the garden and help her sit down on the bench and light up two cigarettes. One for her, one for me. I wasn’t a smoker but the first time I had brought the cigarettes, she insisted that I light one too. I just held it between my fingers as far from my face as possible. She didn’t really mind as I noticed that she didn’t smoke hers much either. She would just wave it in the direction of the other inhabitants of the home, ‘inmates’ she called them, pointing out all their idiosyncrasies. Mr Chua over there, she said, smoke wafting in the direction of the tall decrepit man in blue pyjamas, he refuses to wear anything but those ugly pyjamas, that’s what he wears all day and all night. Madam Lee over there, she said loudly, pointing to a squat woman with a flowery hat, never cuts her toenails. They’re so long they’re starting to curl up, she announced to everyone in the garden. Then she cackled until her cigarette nearly burnt her fingers.
I finally asked her about the smoking one Sunday afternoon and she leaned towards me and whispered, “it’s to chase away the ghosts of those I’ve cursed”.
She pulled back, gazed at my shocked expression then burst into wild laughter.
She sometimes acted more like a nine-year-old than a ninety-year-old.
Her laughter turned into a hacking cough and some minutes later, she wheezed, “it’s because this place smells like kiam hu, salted fish, and kiam chye, salted vegetables. Every day we eat kiam hu porridge for breakfast. They cook kiam chye t’ng, salted vegetable soup, for lunch. Dinner sometimes is chicken or pork but they always make us eat tau geh with kiam hu, beansprouts with salted fish. I smell like I have been pickled and salted. I am a kiam ah-mah now. The cigarettes stink like only cigarettes can but I’d rather stink of cigarettes than salted fish.
“And cigarettes remind me of your Ah-Gong.”
That was odd. I remembered my Dad once saying that my Ah-Gong had nagged and nagged at my grandmother until she finally gave up on her daily cigarettes. It didn’t seem a pleasant thing to remember. I cautiously mentioned it to the old woman.
She closed her eyes, took a long drag on her cigarette and explained.
“I’m very old. I haven’t much time left. I haven’t many memories left. So I just have to cling onto those that I can remember, even if they are not good ones. So the cigarettes remind me of my husband nagging at me. But this way I can still remember his face, remember his voice. He’s been gone for twenty over years now. I’m just trying to hold on to what I can. Even if it’s his nagging voice and the smell of cigarettes.
Better than smelling like kiam hu right?”
Kiam chye means salted/pickled mustard greens in Teochew or Hokkien, which are both Chinese dialects. Kiam hu means salted fish. “Kiam” essentially means salted. Kiam chye t’ng is a soup made with the preserved mustard greens and it can be made with a variety of proteins like duck, pork ribs, or tofu. My favourite is kiam chye ark or salted vegetable duck soup.