So yesterday was International Women’s Day. I asked myself what that meant to me. Originally, I thought, I would write a homage to the very strong women in my family- my grandmother, my mother, my cousin B, my daughter. But when I sat down to write, I could not remove the image of another woman, a stranger squatting on the bridge of a UNESCO-protected temple, from my mind.
She wore a short-sleeved blouse and a long skirt. One of the sleeves of her blouse was pinned up to mask an absent limb. Using her skirt like a fishing net, she gathered the day’s hunt- empty plastic bottles, in the setting sun.
I wanted to offer my bottle of water. But she refused eye contact. In her refusal, I understood, dignity.
One day I went in search of Singapore War Heroine, Mrs Elizabeth Choy. At the start, the search was “abstract”- read all I can get my hands on, unearth history at the National Archives/National Library. But then I found out, she was still alive. I wrote her a letter, introducing myself. She replied immediately, inviting me to visit her at home.
Many afternoons were then spent sitting together in her house on Mckanzie Road, where the floor tiles felt cool on bare feet, and where the ceiling fan whirled gently, stilling time. I sat and I listened to stories of imprisonment and torture. I sat and I listened to stories of love, of a faith so unshakeable, stories of loss, of longing. I sat, I listened, and I cried.
In the early hours of a Cambodian morning, a group of girls chatter happily as they make their way to school. I see the requisite white blouses tucked into uniformed blue skirts. I see books and bags clutched closed. I see that none of them have socks or shoes to wear.
When my grandmother passed away, she surprised me with her request of having her ashes mixed with grandfather’s, and buried at sea. I never knew my grandfather, a man who died early, in his 40s. I did know however, that theirs was a very difficult marriage.
I knew my grandmother to be a woman of heart and passion. But I was surprised because I didn’t think she had romantic inclinations in any way. I wondered if at the end of life, she made this request because she comprehended forgiveness and peace; or was it that after spending such a long life alone, she was tired, and no longer wanted to venture onwards without him?
These are my thoughts this Women’s Day- flotsam, arrived at shore. I’m every woman, and every woman is me.