May 2017, London
It was 2AM in the morning, and I was woken by the loud “Ding!” on my phone – I had forgotten to keep it silent before I went to bed. I squinted as my eyes adjusted to the piercing brightness of the screen, and somewhere in between being in the state of unconscious and conscious (mostly the first), my heart took a little leap when I saw who the Facebook message was from. I think I must have smiled a little too.
“Very difficult to reach you must remember i am an old lady and modern technics are not really for me can you give me your phone number or email address other than face book i seldom get into this web firstname.lastname@example.org.”
I would soon learn that it is not wise to reply to a text message (especially an important one) in that unreliable state of semi-consciousness. I curtly replied, “Hello, of course, you may email me at email@example.com.”
That abrupt one-liner almost undid all my attempts of reaching her. Lucky for me, I realised what I had done (or not do) the next morning, and decided to write a proper email to reach her once again. I failed to do so two years ago, I was not letting this chance go.
And so, after a well-needed dose of caffeine and a warm shower, I wrote:
“Dear Aunty Rose,
I apologise for the abrupt reply on Facebook earlier on, do allow me to start over.
I’m not sure if you still remember SP and Ewe Jin of the Soo family in Penang, Malaysia, and I am SP’s youngest daughter, Vern, currently doing my master’s degree in London.
If it is of interest and convenience to you, I will be in Fontainebleau, France from the 13th to 18th June, and will be making a day trip to Paris while I’m there (we’re not certain which day yet but it is flexible for me) – and I would be more than happy to meet you or pay you a visit.
Do let me know what works for you. Looking forward to hearing from you again.
Additionally, my UK number is xxxx should you prefer to reach me that way. “
And then I waited.
August 2015, Petaling Jaya
“You’re going to find Rose? That’s good! Hold on, I think I might have her contact details somewhere,” my uncle got up and went to rummage his study. He was the last person who saw her more than 30 years ago when he visited Paris, after which Aunty Rose got into an accident when they parted ways and the family never heard from her again.
“Aiyah, I can’t find it-lah. Don’t know where I’ve left it. But you said you found her contact number?”
“Well, Google did. I’m not sure if it really is her number but I could give it a try. I tried reaching her on Facebook but I don’t think she’s really active.”
“If you see her, please send my love and tell her I miss her,” he told me. And then he and mom started to reminisce of the times when she was still in Malaysia, and tried explaining to me how we are related.
MANY, Many YEARS AGO, Penang
“Mom, do you think it’ll be cool to work with the UN?” I asked whilst we were executing our post-dinner ritual – watching the 7PM Cantonese drama on the local telly.
Barely looking back at me, mom replied nonchalantly, “Yes, of course. What do you want to do there? In fact, you have an aunt who works for the UN.”
I sat up, my interest piqued. I went through my aunts in my head – all seven of them – and did not recall any of them working for the UN. “Who?”
“Oh, she’s not your aunt aunt. I think she’s your grandaunt, in a way. We’re not blood -related. Her grandmother, who’s Burmese, was close friends with your great great grandmother, almost like family, connected by gratitude. Her name’s Rose – she worked hard, made her way to the UN in Paris – the last person who met her was Ah Koo when he visited her, but that was many years ago. I think she’s still there.”
“No one’s spoken to her since?”
“Don’t think so. I do think about her from time to time. She used to be closer to Ah Koo and myself when we were growing up.”
“What does she do in the UN?” I was beginning to form an image of this grandaunt that I’ve never met.
The commercials were playing, and mom looked at me, “I don’t know.” She continued to tell me stories about Rose, adding little pieces to a very vague puzzle.
September 2015, Petaling Jaya
“I figured you’re really good at putting puzzles together by now, so I got you a tough one – this one’s a 3000-piece of medieval Ghent, our favourite city in our entire trip,” I told my uncle as I handed him his gift. My uncle had been spending a lot of time with puzzles lately, there was already a small stack of completed pieces laid on the table.
“So did you manage to find Rose?” he asked as he took the box.
I shook my head and sighed. I told him we did not locate her as we had quite a limited amount of time in Paris and because it was our first time there, we didn’t really know our way around. Maybe next time, I suggested.
“Oh,” my uncle managed.
There are some instances that stay forever in our minds. One of them was the look of disappointment my uncle wore that day. I could not understand the depth of his or mom’s relationship with aunty Rose, but I suppose it was a little more than I had thought.
NOVEMBER 2016, London
I was walking to class in the chilly winter streets of London, and my brother texted to tell me that after more than a decade long of his battle with cancer, my uncle had gone to be with the good Lord.
Winter was a little colder that day.
JUNE 2017, PARIS
“So if you guys start feeling awkward and want to go about your own ways, just go ahead and we can meet somewhere later,” I told Rojan and Julia, my climbing buddies who decided to join my little detour to Paris from Font. We were in the train, and they were just as intrigued to know that I was about to meet someone who had no idea of my existence just as I didn’t about hers. It was like a blind date, only a lot more exciting.
It was 10.00AM, and we had finally arrived at the Gare de Lyon train station.
“Do you know how she looks like?” Julia asked.
“I have an idea, I found her Flickr account but I’m not quite sure which is her,” I replied. I dialed her number and waited for a response. Just then I noticed a short-haired Asian woman in a red shirt picking up the phone whilst looking into the crowd as if looking for someone.
That has got to be her.
Being socially awkward by default, I didn’t quite know how to approach her. But she made it easy by giving me a hug, and warmly greeted my friends. No, she did not carry a French accent, and spoke English in a very familiar, Asian twang. She told us she was waiting for Karl, her good friend who would bring us around that day as he was a lot more street-savvy than her. Uncle Karl showed up a few minutes later, and soon we found ourselves on the familiar cobbled-stone streets of Paris.
“Where would you like to go?” uncle Karl asked, and since Julia and myself had been to Paris before, we said we had no preference, except the necessary pilgrimage of visiting the Shakespeare and Co. We walked along the Seine, with uncle Karl showing some of the sights to Julia and Rojan, while aunty Rose and I caught up about family. I showed her photos from home, and she was able to recognize some of them despite not seeing them for so long.
“This is one of the most famous gelato shops in Paris. On weekends there would be a long queue,” she told me. “Would you like to have one?”
It was 11.00AM. But it was also summer. Of course we would like some gelato.
Soon, we had developed a funny system of going around – uncle Karl would flip open his map (yes, the foldable kind) with aunty Rose constantly teasing “Do you need the GPS, Karl?”, and I would end up taking us to where we were suppose to go via Google Maps.
After our visit to the bookstore, roaming about a little bit more with aunty Rose and uncle Karl telling us about their time in the UN (they were both statisticians) and going around the same block a few times to locate one of the oldest buildings in Paris (that aunty Rose was really keen to show us), it was time for lunch.
We arrived at this busy Lebanese restaurant called Chez Marianne at Rue des Hospitalières Saint-Gervais, as recommended by uncle Karl’s daughter. The gelato we had a couple hours had all but dissipated after all the walking. While waiting for our food to arrive, I texted mom and told her about my latest adventure. She sent her regards to aunty Rose, and soon they were texting each other through my number.
“Would you like to speak to my mom?” I asked aunty Rose.
“Yes, yes! Of course!” she replied enthusiastically, with me half-wondering why I had not thought of it much earlier.
I called mom, and handed the phone to her.
This would be their first conversation in over 30 years.
The vague puzzle in my mind rapidly became clearer as aunty Rose shared more about her life with me. For instance, how she got her name. I found out that neither her nor her siblings have surnames. People back then were named after the days that they were born in, and part of her name meant Friday. English names were given to them to distinguish themselves, and Rose became hers.
She then explained that she was off-the-radar for awhile because she was too busy caring for her late mother who passed in January, and her husband who has difficulty walking. Being the sole caregiver, she had her hands were full and it wasn’t only recently that she started opening up again. She has no immediate plans to visit Malaysia, but tells me she thinks about family back there quite a bit.
Then, I finally did the very thing I came to do.
I sent her my uncle’s love and told her that when he was alive, he missed her very much. I told her I wished I could have let her speak to him just as how she had just spoken to mom, if only I had chalked up the guts to locate her when I was in Paris two years ago, and how it broke my heart to know that I couldn’t tell him about this amazing adventure when I return.
And yet, at that very moment, I felt closer to him than ever before.
“I tried looking for you, two years ago. But there was no response on your end, and I was afraid to actually locate you when I was here,” I admitted.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Even if you had looked for me then, I probably didn’t want to be found.”
Aunty Rose and Uncle Karl continued to shower us with their bottomless generosity. At the Sacre Ceour, she took out a stack of metro tickets for us to take the tram (current and retired UN staff get to ride the metro for free but she had tickets with her just in case we needed it). They bought us rounds of beer (yes, they drank like champions too) as we rested by the sidewalks of Paris towards the end of the day where Rojan amused aunty Rose with his accidental proclamation that he “will never walk again”.
But we knew then, we would do this all over again if we could. Rojan, Julia and myself bonded like we’re old friends, and welcomed two of the warmest and kindest old souls into our young, naive lives. We had almost forgotten about the anticipation of awkwardness at the beginning of the trip.
We headed to the train station to go back to Fontainebleau, as we were queuing up at the ticketing machine, uncle Karl shoved us aside, pressed a few buttons on the machine and presented us three tickets to Font.
All three of us were genuinely speechless, and I could only muster,
“This…wow, we can’t… I can’t…you’re too kind.”
He took my hands, and replied with a wink, “Don’t overdo it. Now go and change the world.”
We hugged, bade our goodbyes, and we soon found ourselves on the train again.
There was a slight moment of silence, as if we were quietly digesting and reflecting on the magical day that had just passed.
“I can’t believe how kind they are. They’re like the nicest, sweetest people ever,” Julia commented.
“Thanks for coming along on this random trip with me, guys,” I told them.
“No, thank YOU for having us. It was such an honour to have met them,” Rojan, who had just visited Paris for the first time, responded. I’m quite sure there was no better introduction to the city of love than this.
“I hope when I’m old and grey, I’m at least half as kind and generous as they are. And friends to grow old and grey with,” I said.
“Yes, definitely,” they both agreed.
PRESENT DAY, PETALING JAYA
We sit on the old couch in the empty apartment, just catching up on lost time.
“Do you miss him?” I ask my aunt, who has kindly invited me to stay.
“Yes, every single day,” she replies softly. “But he would be glad to know how well you did in London – your occasional writings inspire me.”
I tell her that being away from the usual noise back home gave me the silence I needed to find my voice again. If I didn’t have a job waiting for me here I would have stayed on and work odd jobs to just write until my visa expired. I miss that silence.
“There is one piece that I’ve been struggling to write, and I think it’s because I so badly wanted to tell him first when I came home,” I confess, “and each time I think about how I couldn’t, I shove it at the back of my mind.”
“What is it about?”
“Do you remember aunty Rose?” I ask.
“Rose… ah yes, the one in Paris?”
“Remember the last time I wanted to find her when I went to Paris with mom? And how excited he got when I told him?”
“Yes, yes! He went to search the study for her contact or something.”
“And I didn’t actually find her then. But earlier this year, during the summer, I finally met her.” For some reason, my heart is beating a little faster as I speak.
“You did? Wow! How? When?” she asks in excitement.
And then I tell her.