A few months ago, my First Uncle Shing passed away at the ripe old age of 95. Normally, most people will say, when you tell them such news, “Aww, I’m sorry!” Others may add, “I hope it was a peaceful death?”
In my family, the first thing my mother and her sisters said when they received the news on the family WhatsApp chat group was, “I wonder who inherited the house?”
“I hear all the children flew back in last night,” Auntie Sook-ling added, her lips pursing with disapproval the way they always do whenever the subject of Uncle Shing’s children comes up.
“Those unfilial monsters,” my mother sniffed. “I still can’t get over that scene at the hospital.”
A few weeks before he died, Uncle Shing’s second daughter, Patricia, with whom he’d not spoken for a decade on account of the fact that she’d become a born again Christian, suddenly showed up at the hospital with her parish priest in tow. “Daddy needs to return to Jesus!” she told her mother, Auntie Peck-ling who replied in the ringing tones of an irritated exorcist, “And you need to leave!”
And just as Patricia opened her mouth to protest, the abbot of the Buddhist temple which Uncle Shing regularly frequented came around the corner, resplendent in his saffron robes and prayer beads. Apparently, Christian priest and Buddhist abbot eyed each other cautiously like two dogs meeting in the park.
According to my mother who was sitting next to Uncle Shing’s bed and who therefore had a front row seat to this riveting drama, Auntie Peck-ling then did the most astonishing thing. She stepped forward, took a firm hold of her daughter’s arm with one hand, and the priest with the other, and literally pushed both of them out of the room and shut the door firmly in their astonished faces.
Following Patricia in quick succession came her siblings: Phil from London, Penny from Sydney, and Pam from Boston. All of them had left home a long time ago and all hadn’t spoken to their father in all that time.
Auntie Peck-ling shut the door in each of their faces.
“How do you not speak to your father for years?” Amanda asked.
“He wasn’t the easiest man,” I told her. “He had the most terrible temper. He was quite tough on all of them. I remember he had a huge fight with Penny when they were living in New York and threw her out of the house in the middle of winter.”
It was snowing, too, and for some reason that no one could quite remember, Penny had been wearing a mink coat when her father had manhandled her out the front door. Somehow, with no cash or credit card, she made it to Boston to Pam, and she never saw her father again till the day she showed up at the funeral home on Serangoon Road where Uncle Sheng was lying in his open casket.
“My God, so much drama in your family!” Saffy sighed.
“It gets worse!” I told her.
Earlier that morning, my mother rang me in a state of excitement to tell me that she and her sisters had just come from the lawyers where Uncle Shing’s will had been read. “You’re getting the family urn!” she announced breathlessly.
It took a while for my brain to catch up. “But why? Phil’s the eldest son!”
“He’s been disinherited! He and his siblings have all been disinherited!” Mother reported. “Their shares are going directly to their kids in trust! Except the family urn, which is coming to y0u as the eldest son of the next generation!”
“Please tell me the family urn isn’t what I think it is?” Amanda later asked at home. I sat across from her at the dining room and nodded glumly.
“It’s the ashes of my mother’s parents. It’s a huge responsibility and I don’t want it!”
“Can’t you scatter them at sea, or something?” Saffy suggested.
I was horrified. “Are you mad? I’d be breaking a sacred family tradition. I’ll never hear the end of it from the family.”
“Well, you don’t have to tell them!” Saffy said, radiating reason.
“And risk being haunted by my grandparents for the rest of my life? I couldn’t even watch ‘It’! How do you think I’ll cope with my grandparents? Apparently when they were alive, they were even more fearsome and abusive than my Uncle Shing! Imagine what their ghosts will be like!”
“You have seriously weird family issues!” Saffy told me.
Meanwhile, the family lawyer has been in touch to say the urn is sitting in his office ready for collection. I’ve sent all his calls straight to voice mail. He must have reported this to Mother because she just sent a message warning me not to disgrace her.
“Weird!” Saffy repeated.