When my mother passed away in November 2001, a family friend (and retired Katong Convent teacher), Mrs. Koh, tried to console me with these words. “God has summoned your mother. He must have said, ‘Polly, you need to come to heaven to make pineapple tarts for Christmas.’” I thought that this friend Mrs. Koh was being facetious. Perhaps not. This past week, God has indeed called another baker to his realm – the other person I wrote about in my cookbook chapter ‘The Housewives Baking Club’.
Aunty Paddy lived across the street from us at Yarrow Gardens, so began my chapter about the passion that my mother and her had for baking and selling cookies in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Chinese New Year. Indeed, this would have been around the time that they would have geared up for their annual cottage enterprise. "About ten weeks before Chinese New Year", she said. Aunty Paddy had in fact called my sister back in September to find out how she could repair her oven. I last saw her in early August when I called on her one afternoon.
Aunty Paddy was a tremendous help with the infamous ‘cookbook project’. She guided me on the principles of baking, tweaked my recipes if they seemed off, provided the other perspectives of my mother’s life (the cooking classes, the cookie business, her personality as a wife and mother). She was so generous that she even opened up her kitchen for our photoshoot and let me pull out all her tools as props. In a relationship that first began with me as a child bunking over when my parents went away, to a more recent one where I made customary calls unaccompanied by any of my ‘big’ sisters, I had come to know her for her maternal demeanor, her mature outlook about life and her pride as a mother and doting great-grandmother. She was a vessel who conveyed the traditions, customs and values of a Nonya, who carried over the things I did not get a chance to learn from my mother while I lived abroad.
She was unabashed about berating me for the long delay of the cookbook. I took it seriously because indeed, there were too many figures in the book who were getting old and might not be around to see its fruition. When the book finally came out, I drove over with a pile to show her that finally, we had done it. She beamed so proudly – one of those priceless images that told me that it had all been worthwhile. I had captured her generation of ‘mothers/housewives/cooks/tailors/bakers” and had preserved one bit of legacy for them all.
Ironically, Aunty Paddy had a stroke while I was enroute to Singapore last week. During my sixty hours in Singapore, I had been told that she was in intensive care and that I would probably not been admitted in to see her. Besides, I did not want to intrude on a private moment for her immediate family. Yet, I wonder if she would have chuckled to know that yes, I had come back once again. “Gila! Macam duduk bus”, (‘Crazy, like hopping on a bus between New York and Singapore’) was her favorite refrain everytime I appeared at her front gate. If only I could have proven once again, that I was there to see her one more time.
Aunty Paddy once asked my mother if she could move in when her loved ones were no longer around her. Of course, my mother did not fulfill that promise. Sometimes, I would leave Aunty Paddy and see her wave me off at her gate, a lone figure straddled between being a survivor who had outlived most of her family and friends, and pained by a somewhat quiet existence save for her children and descendants. I’d like to think that finally, she’s moving in with my mom and all those she loved once before.