by Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Published in Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, Dec. 4, 2011
She's never been in a shopping mall, never owned a pair of shoes. She never found them necessary – even when working construction, flip-flops were fine. Granny Pot mentioned once that her own mother who worked as hired help in the rice fields before taking construction jobs in Bangkok never had shoes either. Granny said she'd look funny wearing them. Feet were important, not shoes.
So when her three granddaughters told Granny this year that all first, third and fourth graders must wear shoes to school, the old woman was mystified. The whole business of mastering left foot, right foot alone! She threw up her hands.
But dear goodness, Granny's daughter Ms Oey is another story! She loves shoes – even owns a bright red pair. Granny called her utterly shameless when she saw those. And Ms Oey said, "Mama, I might not be a good girl, but I ain't shameless!"
Ms Oey is Granny's youngest. Her elder sister comes once a year to visit, always bringing Granny a new pair of flip-flops and a bag of that expensive sweet-smelling rice.
But back to Ms Oey of the red shoes. Five months ago, she gave her three-month old baby to Granny, the fourth she has left with her mum, up until recently a full-time job for the old lady.
And of course caring for a young baby means Granny can no longer spend her weekly day at the temple with the other ladies of Klong Toey. Babies need constant care and attention. Granny misses the solitude and meditative moments of those Sundays and the other three grandchildren also miss the temple, where they play all day and chomp down on the food and sweets donated by pious worshippers and merit makers.
Granny Pot looks after four of Ms Oey's six children. So what happened to the other two, a boy who is now about four and her oldest girl, now 10?
Ask Granny Pot and her eyes fill with tears as she looks away. She won't talk about it. Oh, she knows, but there's not much to be done, so why talk about it?
Although the word is never mentioned, the boy was sold. Given away. Whatever. The eldest girl is with her other granny, the mother of Ms Oey's first husband. She didn't disappear like the boy, but was just "commandeered" by the other granny.
We're not sure if she's still in school. The Other Granny's son, Ms Oey's first husband, was killed in a motorcycle crash. Coming home late from working overtime in the port where he had a good job with the Customs Department, he was sideswiped by a big rig running a red light. The back duel tyres got him.
He was waiting at a red light at the time, chatting with Ms Oey, his true love, telling her he'd be home in a few minutes. She heard the crash, heard him scream her name. Widowed at 18.
It had been a proper wedding. She was sweet 16 and he wasn't much older, but had a steady job. The dowry: a small gold necklace. She loved her man. They were inseparable and had planned to marry since they were in slum kindergarten together. He left her with a baby in her arms and another on the way.
Ms Oey never got over his death. Meanwhile, his mum, Other Granny, turned sour and mean, blaming Ms Oey and Granny Pot for her boy's death.
Once the police paperwork and temple cremation ceremony were complete, Ms Oey and Granny lit joss sticks before washing the dried blood off the mangled motorcycle. They asked his spirit for permission to sell it, requesting that he help them fetch a good price.
They got just enough money from the sale to pay back the 10% per day loan for the funeral/cremation and a week's supply of milk for her baby. Ms Oey wanted a bottle of whiskey, but Granny said no. Drinking booze at two months pregnant was not good for her unborn baby.
Life goes on.
Granny Pot was a bag lady, collecting bottles, and whatever else she could trade for cash. Ms Oey, pregnant, needed a job. So Granny got her work washing dishes for a noodle vendor in the port where her now dead husband used to eat lunch. The job didn't offer much of a wage, but plenty of noodles.
Usually Granny brought Mrs Oey's baby, her granddaughter, with her when she went collecting bottles, but sometimes when it was raining, she would leave the baby with a neighbour.
But Other Granny made a fuss. Granny Pot's neighbour was (don't tell anyone) not Thai, although she had proper documentation papers, and would croon to the baby in her own language. Other Granny feared this might corrupt her flesh and blood. One day she just came and took the child.
In short, she kidnapped her own granddaughter. She destroyed Ms Oey's life. She'd lost her husband in a hit and run. Now, she'd lost her first born to a conniving vengeful mother-in-law.
Then the time came when the 18-year-old widow gave birth to her second daughter – a child who would never see her father. Ms Oey and Granny Pot nicknamed the baby immediately. They called her Kao, rice, so she would always have something to eat.
They also got the other women in the slum to say how ugly Baby Kao looked, so that any bad spirits passing by wouldn't bother the child.
Granny convinced Ms Oey to hold off on returning to work to nurse her baby for a while. After all, they didn't have enough money to buy powdered milk.
Then one day Ms Oey told Granny Pot, "I'm going for a walk to find someone to keep me warm at night and love me in the morning; someone who won't abuse me, and will bring home his paycheck for our family."
Granny Pot said, "Daughter, my love, there will never be another. You only have your memories now. And your children."
Granny was correct, of course. It did not get better, at least not for a long while.
Ms Oey set out to find that person to keep her warm at night and love her in the morning. Granny said she'd look after baby Kao until Ms Oey returned.
Ms Oey ain't no saint. Yes, she finally did come back but it wasn't a neat and tidy return. As the song goes: it took some years and some tears.
Ms Oey has given birth to six healthy children, four now with Granny Pot. And now finally she's come home and she's caring for the children, what Granny has been waiting patiently for all these years.
And she's found a new man, the father of her last two children and he loves her. So cross your fingers. He is a kind man who doesn't ask a lot from life. There's not much money as he's a labourer in the port, lugging 100kg sacks of rice on his back from the wharf to the holds of ships. Yes, he gets cheated often on wages, but he'll die to protect Ms Oey and the children.
Ms Oey secretly tells Granny Pot that she does love him. True, not as she loved her first husband, but he is faithful and adores her. Ms Oey also got her old job back, washing dishes at the noodle stand in the port. These days she even cooks sometimes.
The children stay with Granny Pot about half the time. Ms Oey and her husband live in a rented shack just a few minutes walk from Granny. They have work and wages and a tomorrow.
To be concluded.
The fabulous four granddaughters living mostly with Granny Pot are any grandmum's dream. These Cinderellas win slum beauty contest after contest anytime, anywhere on the planet, or at least Klong Toey slum, Bangkok and sometimes that seems like the whole world!
Granny Pot, bag lady, low in station but someone each of us would want for a kind, loving and forgiving Granny. She cannot read or write, never owned a pair of shoes, a bottle collector whose most lucrative day brings in 34 baht.
Ms Oey, a sixth grade graduate, has finally stopped searching. She has found a man – the best available, for today, for a lifetime. Sometimes her girls stay with her. After school, they help Granny scavenge for bottles.
But what the heck, Granny is only 63. Ms Oey has a man who adores her, the kids are going to school, they have a shack the size of a postage stamp, but what more could you ask for?
Granny has told her granddaughters that they must study a lot, so that some day a long time from now, when Granny gets old and falls ill they can come back and buy her medicine. And then they can all go out one more time to collect some bottles together.