My mother and her three older sisters were born and grew up in the Dutch East Indies, the country now known as Indonesia. By the time my mother was born as the youngest of the family, her eldest sister Elisabeth was already engaged, and she married and left for Holland soon after. The remaining three children, much closer to one another in age, developed a very close bond; and all my life, I, my sister, and my cousins, have regarded our 2 aunties more like surrogate mothers than aunts. Strangers could never tell which children belonged to what sister, the family resemblance was so great. It's the same with my sister and me -- her children often get ascribed to me. When I was a child, people thought I was Auntie Maddy's; and she was my favourite aunt.
Aunt Maddy wasn't in any way remarkable, although as a girl she had been a badminton champion; but she was a warm and loving woman with a dry wit and a penchant for telling stories, family histories, tales of tempu dulu. She and her sisters came to Holland with their mother, my Nanna Darling, in 1950; after Indonesia had achieved its independence, and it had become clear that my grandfather had not survived the Japanese POW-camp. Here, the girls finished their schooling, and then all 3 of them went into the WRENs.
Aunt Theodora, the middle sister, was the first to get married, which went much against my grandmother's idea of propriety. Which was why, when my parents first started talking seriously of marriage, she put her foot down and demanded they wait until after Maddy had been married first. Luckily, my father's best friend fell in love with her, and in the end my grandmother gave her blessing to a double wedding for her eldest and youngest daughter. My Mum and Dad's marriage didn't last, but Aunt Maddy was looking forward to celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary in October this year.
Aunt Elisabeth (Lies) died two years ago, and the sisters buried her with their mother in the family plot. Although we went to the funeral, her death barely affected my sister and me, or our cousins; while of her own 9 children, only 2 bothered to attend. There were no speeches, and the funeral people made a mistake in the music that was played, which meant that instead of a solemn hymn, an upbeat, up tempo piece was played...which no one really minded, because it was actually quite funny and we were sure Aunt Lies would have laughed as well.
What a contrast though, to today's ceremony. The crematorium was packed with friends and family. There was a mass of flowers. After a 2 hour train journey, my sister and I arrived in time for the final viewing of the body. It was quite a shock. I'd last seen her in September, and she had looked much as she always had. But what a change was wrought by just a few months of illness! She seemed shrunken, wasted away, and for the first time in my life I actually saw her as an Asian, or as they like to refer to themselves as Indo-European, woman; very slight and fine-boned. Her hair had gone grey, and for a moment I couldn't believe that this was my beloved auntie. The one person in my family who still often called me by my Malaysian name, Mata Kranjang, which had been my grandmother's name for me, and got away with it, because she made it sound like she had; more than just an interesting kind of nickname, it was a term of endearment, and she could say it without making it sound twee.
After the casket had been closed, they played 'Someone To Watch Over Me' as sung by Frank Sinatra, her favourite song by her favourite artist, and a classical piece I didn't recognise. Then my cousin George, her youngest son, got up to say a few words. And the few words became many -- he held a wonderful funeral oration, painting a picture of his mother that we all could recognise, and that moved many people to tears. Me, I hadn't been able to stop crying since I had come face to face with her earlier on, and I haven't been able to stop for very long since.
I hadn't expected this. I had felt sad when I was told the news of her death, but the overriding feeling had been one of relief that she had died so quickly and, as I was told, so peacefully and without being in pain. When my stepmother died 4 years ago, also of cancer, she was in a terrible agony, and I was glad to know that Aunt Maddy had been spared this. I also felt concern for my mother, who was devastated by the news. But as of today, I feel an enormous grief for my auntie, for my uncle and cousins, and for myself because I know I will never hear her voice again in real life or on the phone, or feel her hand in my hair, or taste her cooking which was every bit as good as my Mum's but different; and I hate that I never got to speak to her and say goodbye, because I thought there'd still be time and I was actually planning to go and see her soon and now I can't.
And I'm so scared of what will happen when my Mum goes, if I feel this bad for my aunt how much worse is it going to be when her time comes? There were 4 sisters once; now there are only 2. I know it's selfish of me to think this, but I really can't be without my mother, now or ever. She's my rock, my touchstone and my lodestar...she's my mother.
The service ended with a Malaysian song, 'Selamat Jalan', or Bon Voyage. A lunch had been prepared for family and close friends, we sat around and cried and remembered her; and then we left for The Hague again.