The first time I make a Nespresso coffee for my mum, I ask her what she thinks.
It takes her a while to answer me. Eventually, after a few sips, she pauses.
I repeat my question in Cantonese. “Mum ah, what do you think?” I am really hoping that she likes it.
“Mmm…. it could be a little hotter.”
“Okay. But, do you like it?”
“Yes, good, good, but maybe a little hotter.”
That’s the thing with my mum. There’s always an improvement to be made.
In winter, if I put three layers on the boys, she tells me they should wear four. If I put four layers on them, then only five will do.
A few years ago, when the Sunday Telegraph published a piece I wrote about Cameron and stillbirth, they came to our house to take photos of our family. When they sent us the final proofs, I showed them to my parents. My mum’s response? “Why didn’t you wear shoes?”
And whenever they visit on a Monday or Friday and I catch my mum gazing at me with a certain studied expression in her eyes, I already know what she is about to say: “Ho Yee ah, your skin is looking a bit tired.” Or, “Ho Yee ah, why didn’t you cut her hair shorter?” Or “Ho Yee ah, why don’t you wear some brighter colours?”
Sometimes when I see myself with Rick and the boys, I wonder whether I have inherited this particular character trait of my mum’s.
Like when the boys come up to me after mealtimes, and all I can focus on is the fact that they haven’t wiped their mouths and washed their hands. Or when they pack away the entire play room, and I make a fuss about the four things that have been left out. Or when I can’t help but feel cranky about the one item that Rick has forgotten to buy from the shops.
How does one even characterise this character trait? Is it being pedantic? Is it being ungrateful? Or a tendency to hold our loved ones to an unrealistic standard of ‘perfection,’, thus making it impossible for them to ever be ‘good enough?’ Perhaps some strange combination of all three.
In any case, as my mum sips her cup of Nespresso, I make a mental note to heat up her cup with hot water before making her coffee next time.
* * *
This is what I do know about my mum’s childhood.
My grandmother birthed ten children: one boy, four girls, another boy, then four more girls. My grandfather had wanted more boys, but it was not meant to be.
My grandfather’s father was the one who started selling shoes. He would buy them from wholesale markets and sell them in his store. Eventually, my grandfather carried on the same trade. When the market became saturated with mass manufactured shoes, my grandfather started accepting customer requests for tailor-made shoes. The business thrived, with my grandfather selling shoes to American soldiers, grand prix racers, and even the television industry. My mother remembers them as the golden days. They lived comfortably and happily. It was truly a time of prosperity.
Then the unthinkable happened. Employees defrauded my grandfather’s business. The family fell into severe debt. They were forced to move to a much smaller location. My grandfather had to borrow money from family and friends in order to pay suppliers and contractors.
The real tragedy struck when two of the children, Number Five and Number Nine, fell sick and the family was unable to afford medical care.
Number Nine was a little girl, and Number Five was one of the two boys…
* * *
My parents left on Sunday for a two-week trip to Hong Kong. I spoke to my mother on the phone just before they boarded the plane.
“Remember to find out more about your story from Uncle One and all the Aunties,” I reminded her.
“Okay, okay, okay.”
“Love you, mum.”
“Okay, okay.” Her voice was almost inaudible by now. I wondered whether she would say more.