your room inside my room inside yours and mine
On certain days when I come back to visit, I’d catch the late afternoon sun streaming in and I could still see you sitting on the old leather couch with your glasses almost at the end of your nose bridge. Your back was bent forward, not in a slouch, but curved like a seated fetal position. Your hands seem to dance daintily; one hand holding a piece of clothing, like a caress between the thumb and the index finger and the other, a needle and thread. sometimes you hold the piece of clothing up, letting the light catch the stitch as if to straighten it. I have seen you like this in all the houses you’ve lived in. I still have my pyjama pants, the one you bought at a pasar malam. It is pink with orange stripes and was too long for me.
One day, you hem the end. I don’t wear it anymore but I cannot seem to throw it away. The ends of the pants are so worn out now but the hem never came loose. At your side, was Mak’s sewing box with your needles and other sewing tools. Sometimes I watched you but you never met my gaze. You seem lost in the task of repair. I remember how you’d light a cigarette and let it sit at the edge of the table. Sometimes you had it between your ring and middle fingers, taking a long drag and then letting the cigarette burn out with the ash precariously growing longer. It’s almost as if you were fighting against time to complete your sewing before the ashes fall to the floor. None of us actually have asked who taught you how to sew. I imagined you had learnt it on you own because Nenek was already doing so much of the domestic chores at home. You seem to be able to fix anything that was torn. I imagined you probably picked it up because you take pleasure in anything meticulous. I remember how naturally organised you were. There was one method of stitching that you have taught me which is to loop the needle into the thread so it would hold longer. I cannot remember the entirety of this (such as what I was sewing and in what context was this exchange) but I used the same method to this day.
When you passed away, you left many of your belongings behind. I’d open the sewing box sometimes to find your packet of cigarettes, a piece of soap, your needles and sewing tools and a faded passport photo of Ana and Kakak. I’d open the cigarette box and take a long sniff but the smell of you was lost a long time ago. But I can’t seem to stop opening the sewing box on days that I miss your presence. I never learnt to sew from you because there was never an actual desire but the memory has never left me. It was the realisation that domestic chores are not only carried out by the women of the household. I cling on to this memory too because of how you’d gently repair these holes and tears, folding these clothes and keeping them in the wardrobe wordlessly, as if there was no need for us to reciprocate or recognise you caring for all of us through this simple gesture.
Salty Xi Jie’s memory:
On a gloriously sunny afternoon, the playroom was a peaceful, dim cave ensconced in golden light protecting it like a womb. Mama, my paternal grandma, sat on a musky, melancholically pastel sofa like a fat whale. She accompanied me as I did my homework. We must have just had chicken porridge for lunch. The lingering taste of sesame oil in our mouths. Her patient gaze behind tattooed eyes. The smell of pencils being sharpened, shavings gently falling onto red carpet. I went up to her, could see the piercing gold lining the curtains. She told me how, at my age, she stood by the classroom window of the village school, watching, wanting badly to learn. She asked her parents to send her to school and they used whatever money they had to do so. She loved it, and did well. Her female teacher said she was very smart. But as this tale predictably goes, her parents decided after a year to save the money for her brother’s schooling. She was sad, and it was too embarrassing to stand outside the classroom watching. I was so moved I started tearing. But being ashamed of my tears I told her something got into my eye. I felt my heart breaking. The object in this memory is lacrimal fluid, or tears. It is warm and salty. It contains deep sadness and guilt. Tears continue to live preemptively in my lacrimal glands. I secrete tears almost everyday as a practice of release for my wild emotions. I let it flow as it pleases like the soothing undulations of the sea. This was the first time I viscerally felt the hollow of opportunities in Mama’s humble life that was so different from mine. On hindsight, my little self was coming to the realisation that with my privilege, I could never truly understand what it was like to be told that my family was too poor for me to learn about the world by going to school. Now she was old and I could never make it right. But I could make good of her love for me.
Hello there, we invite you to share your memory with us below as an act of recollection, indexing, speculating, poring. Your contribution will help us in our research on embodied knowledge, memory, lineage, alternative forms of kinship, as well as personal and collective histories. It will become part of an archive of memories at an installation and might be used in a workshop with performative elements as an audio component. We deeply appreciate your vulnerability and inadvertent act of time travel with this simple ritual of recollection.
We hope to see you at the installation and performance:
your room inside my room inside yours and mine
by ila and Salty Xi Jie Ng
ON/OFF/SCREEN at DECK, 21/1/21- 18/2/21, Singapore Art Week
Curated by the Moving Picture Experiment Group
Workshop on 6/2/21, 3-430pm (Do indicate if you wish to be part of the workshop)