Reading about the purported drama brings back memories of my late maternal grandma. At 16-years-old, grandma was not only a child bride, she also became the second wife of my grandpa who was already in his fifties.
Once married, she had no choice but to live under the same roof with my grandfather, his first wife and children. I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been for her.
My grandma told me she had no idea she was going to be married off. Nobody asked for her consent. This was in the 1930s.
Grandma’s father died when she was small, leaving my great-grandma to fend for her four daughters. Great-grandma had to work and leave her daughters under the care of relatives who later arranged the marriage for my grandmother. Back then, women who had to leave their families to work outside their homes, were scorned.
My mum told me that my grandma whom I fondly called Mak Tok, was initially promised to my grandfather’s son. But grandpa decided to take my grandma’s hand in marriage as his son could not hold on to a decent job, was a gambler and irresponsible.
When I was small, I was oblivious to what went on in my grandparents’ polygamous househould.
But as I grew older I became more aware of the pain that the arrangement had caused those living with it.
I don’t have much recollection of my step-grandma or her children. My step-grandma died when I was small. However, when she was alive, I would not go anywhere near that woman as there was something eerie about her.
My step-grandma was a superstitious woman. She believed in black magic and hocus-pocus.
Step-grandma hardly talked to anyone and would stay in her dark room all the time. Her room sometimes smelled of burning frankincense and she always had her windows shut. She didn’t like bright lights. During meal time, she would have her food brought to her, by one of her step-children or my grandmother. The only time she would leave her room was to ease herself.
I called my step-grandmother, “Tok Bulan” because she had a growth on her upper body which looked like a full moon to me.
When I was small, my mum sometimes related to me her experiences of living with two mothers. Occasionally, when I misbehaved or when she felt melancholy, she’d tell me how lucky I was that I didn’t have to live with two mothers under the same roof.
Growing up, my mum, aunties and uncles had had to endure endless shouting matches between her mother and her stepmother while their father was hardly at home. They witnessed helplessly as the two women quarrelled and called each other names.
Oftentimes, her stepmother would vent her anger and frustration on them. She would even pinch hit, and use degrading words to hurt her stepchildren.
After a while my mum just learned to shut off. I suspect, she had used it as a defence mechanism to preserve her sanity when she was growing up in her polygamous househould. I suppose, it later became her coping mechanism when faced with relationship conflicts.
One of the stories mum told me of grandma was how she (grandma) married my grandpa. My grandma who had refused to be married off had apparently, during the long drive to grandpa’s house, used everything she could get her hands on, to break the car door. But her attempt to escape failed miserably.
Grandma always discouraged her sons and grandsons from committing polygamy. She said, there was nothing sweet about “bermadu”.
When my grandpa who lived to be more than 100 years old passed away I started seeing a different side of grandma. She laughed more and worried less. Sometimes she even let her inner child out and would blurt out her wish to be young again.
For the first time in her life, grandma probably experienced a taste of freedom. She no longer had to take care of her ailing “madu” or husband or do things out of expectations.
My grandma died of suspected thyroid cancer. Used to suffering, she kept her condition to herself until it was too late. She died a few days after being admitted to the hospital.
I was heartbroken when I heard of her passing. But deep down I know that before she passed on she had made peace with her past.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.