(Delivered March 24, 2013, at the memorial service for Heang Say Hoy.)
I think I’ll begin with saying that, as one of numerous grandchildren in this diverse, far-flung, entirely magnificent family, as a member of a lineage that spans continents and cultures and hews to age-old tradition whilst simultaneously forging ahead into the future, I did not happen to know our Grandma very well. She was the undisputed matriarch of our clan, beloved and admired by all, a near-constant presence in my early life and a mainstay throughout the rest, but she was always sort of enigmatic to me, and I find this, well, lamentable.
The reason for this dissonance was simple: language. For despite the fact that “Ma,” as we called her, functionally essentially as a live-in babysitter to my brothers and I for many years, cooking for us, cleaning after us, and occasionally doling out punishment as needed; despite the countless hours we shared under the same roof, in the same van on months-long road trips, in the same tuk-tuks gadding about Cambodia; despite all these experiences we shared, we never shared a language. Her English was limited to a shaky “Hello”, “Bye”, or “Telephone” (which meant, “One of you boys come get the phone, because I’ve answered it and found only incomprehensible English spewing from the other end); my Khmer, meanwhile, never progressed beyond bland pleasantries, badly pronounced—“sah-took”, “juhm-rreap-su-ah”, “aw-khun”—and an olio of food-related nouns: “duc da goh” for milk, “trey” for fish, “sait-moin” for chicken, and the all-important “skaaw,” for sweets. It was a woefully scant repertoire. And yesterday, Andy reminded me of another phrase, a favorite utterance of my brothers and I as we sat glued to our computer screens: “tich-tiet,” meaning, “Not now” or “In a little bit.” Grandma would be calling us to dinner, and of course we would be immersed in some critically important—or so we fervently believed—time-sucking game on the computer. “Tich-tiet,” we’d yell down to her, hoping to postpone the inevitable.
By simply spending time around her and other Khmer-speaking relatives, I picked up the gist of much of what she was saying, but there was never a conversational aspect to our interactions. It mostly revolved around directives: me trying to understand what it was Grandma wished for me to do. It made for an interestingly constrained relationship.
But it also allowed me, perforce, to form an impression of my grandma based entirely on her deeds, the kindnesses she showed to my brothers and I, the efforts she took to ensure our comfort and well-being above all else.
There are a couple of memories I’d like to share. Once, when I was five or so at the Delridge house, I slipped and fell down the stairs on my bum, striking each step with a butt-crunching thud. It was painfully embarrassing and embarrassingly painful. I thought I had broken my coccyx—I wailed like a baby, declaiming my outrage to all who would listen. Turns out I was fine—no surprise there—but Grandma insisted that she put tiger balm on my back, and its oddly cooling burn coupled with her patient ministrations immediately soothed my sore bum (to say nothing of my bruised ego). This was perhaps the first of what would become countless applications of that miraculous, cure-all salve.
Nowadays the smell of tiger balm elicits a sense of calmness for me, a reassurance that everything will, in fact, be all right. When I rode my bicycle through Central America a few years ago—spending almost three months in the saddle, covering nearly 2,200 miles—I brought a tin of tiger balm for—what else?—my sore, aching bum.
Another memory dates back to my junior high years, at the peak of my often misguided youth. Those days I would grow my hair out long—sort of like this, actually—but pick it out with a comb, so that it stood almost a foot above my head, shooting out in all directions. I also bleached it to a lurid, Ronald McDonald-like hue. It was my self-styled “Cambo-Fro,” and for some ungodly reason I thought it was the coolest look in the world. It was Grandma, I think, that helped me see things more clearly. I will forever remember that first time I walked downstairs to the kitchen, having spent the previous fifteen minutes in the bathroom picking out my hair, and encountering Grandma sitting on the couch watching T.V. She took me in at a glance, looked up at my hair, and immediately burst out laughing. Great peals of laughter shook her slight frame, one after another, each rolling off in waves. She couldn’t stop—she laughed so hard, tears came to her eyes. I had never seen Grandma laugh like that. I didn’t know what to do. I stood there, squirming, my afro falling flatter, it seemed. Needless to say, this was not the reaction I was hoping for. When at last her chortling subsided, she wiped her eyes, said something in Khmer I couldn’t understand, chuckled once more, and then went right back to watching T.V. I was left feeling baffled and foolish, and strangely chastened.
I could go on and on, digging deep into the trove of memories I share with Grandma, but I think I’ll hold off for now. Those are stories for another time.
People say actions speak louder than words, and if this is indeed the case, Grandma’s unrelenting support and bottomless well of patience spoke volumes to my brothers and I—and we could sense her goodwill, I think, deep down, through the fog of pixelated war and simulated violence that we so often immersed ourselves in—even though we never quite found the words to express it.
I want to take this opportunity, then, to finally thank Grandma for everything she did for me, for all of us. Aw-khun, Ma, you will be sorely missed.