By: Melanie Lee
ing fulfilled every bullet point on my Ideal Husband checklist. He was a tall and strapping corporate lawyer with chiselled, Russell Wong-like good looks. It was a fairytale come true when Ting began wooing me with roses, candlelit dinners and first-class trips to Paris. When he proposed to me on top of the Eiffel tower two years ago, I immediately said yes and we had our dreamy seaside wedding in Bali six months later.
Besides his romantic prowess, Ting also had a good heart, as seen by the way he treated his mother. His father had died when Ting was only five, and his mother had worked as a hotel chambermaid to put her son through school. Now that Ting had a successful career, he wanted his mother to take things easy and enjoy life. He bought her a huge four-storey bungalow and hired two maids to tend to her and the housework.
Whenever I went to their house for dinner while we were dating, Ting would always wash the dishes even though there was already a dishwasher. “It’s just something I’ve always done since I was a boy, Jules,” Ting said when I asked him about this. “When I was a boy, Ma would start cooking dinner for me the minute she got home from work. She didn’t even have time to wash up after a tiring day of cleaning up all these grimy hotel rooms. Washing dishes is the least I can do.”
Women’s magazines always say that the best way to gauge someone’s character is to see how they treat their parents. Having come from a close-knit family myself, I knew that I’d found perfect spouse material as I watched Ting roll up his Armani shirtsleeves, don pink rubber gloves and toil relentlessly over the sink.
After we got married, we moved into his mother’s bungalow. While women’s magazines do warn about staying with the in-laws, I figured that the four-storey house was big enough for everyone to live comfortably and maintain some semblance of privacy. Besides, Ting and I had the whole top floor to ourselves and we still could have friends over for drinks at the rooftop lounge without disturbing his mother whose room was at the ground floor.
Things seemed blissful initially. Every evening when we got home from work, we would hear the gentle pitter-patter of Ting’s mother, a petite lady with short grey curls and a slightly crouched back, coming to greet us with bowls of herbal soups that she’d brewed in a clay pot for 48 hours.
However, when these soups didn’t help in getting me pregnant after six months of trying to conceive, she started behaving strangely. It first started when Ting was away for a business trip, and I came home to find my mother-in-law crouched over and scrubbing our master bathroom toilet bowl with a toothbrush.
“Ma, how did you get up here?” I asked out of concern. Her doctor told us that her back was bad, and stair climbing was to be avoided as much as possible
“Aiyah, Ju-lie ah, I just want to make sure your room is clean so Ting can rest properly. He sneeze a lot when there is dirt, you know? And then, you see what I find here? Brown lines! How come you all never see them? Don’t know why Ting want to hire such useless maids for what,” she muttered as she vigorously scrubbed the toilet bowl.
I tried to take over the cleaning but she brushed my hands away abruptly and told me to go downstairs to drink some American ginseng herbal soup she’d prepared. When Ting returned from his trip the next day, I told him about what had happened. For the first time in our relationship, he lashed out at me.
“How could you let an eighty-year-old woman do this? You know what the doctor said. Why didn’t you get the maids to clean the toilet again?” he shouted.
“I tried, dear. But your mum told me they weren’t doing a good job. Something about brown lines.”
“So the maids have been goofing off and you didn’t even know about it? Julie, I expect more out of you. As my wife, you need to help me make sure Ma is well taken care of. I’m going to talk to her about this now.” Ting slammed the door as he walked out of the bedroom.
The two maids were fired the next day and we had to wait a week before the new domestic helpers came in. Out of goodwill, I offered to take a few days off to help with the household chores. Ting merely nodded when I told him about my gesture, as if it was expected of me.
That week was gruelling, to say the least. If it wasn’t the toilet bowl with imaginary brown lines, it was fingerprint marks on windows. Bed sheets had to be pressed and folded just like how she used to do at the hotel, and even Ting’s Calvin Klein briefs had to be ironed. It was always, “Not like this.”
It even got down to how I scooped rice, which was appalling for her exacting hospitality standards. “Not like this,” as she dumped back the rice I’d scooped out of the cooker. “Must use rice bowl so shape of rice is round. Not messy all over the place like yours.”
When Ting came back from work, his mother would lament about how tired she was in helping me with the chores. “Maybe young women these days not brought up to do such things,” she’d say with just a hint of resignation. He’d shoot me a dirty look while massaging his mother’s aching back.
On the second last day of housework hell, I was watering the plants on the rooftop balcony when I heard Ting bellow a loud “JUUUUUUUUULIEEEEEEEEE!” I froze in dread, wondering what domestic transgression I’d unknowingly committed. Within seconds, Ting had sprinted up the four flights of stairs to confront me. He was panting, seething almost. His nostrils were flared and his fists were clenched like he wanted to punch something.
“Why do I come home to find Ma in a pile of shit? She was calling you for help for the past 30 minutes. Even dogs get treated better than that!”
His mother had soiled her bed. She had a stomachache after eating the steamed fish I’d cooked (“overcooked frozen meat”) and the pain had been so excruciating that she wasn’t able to walk to the bathroom.
“I’m so sorry! I really didn’t hear her, and I was busy up here with some other chores she asked me to do, I really didn’t know…”
Ting snorted, his nostrils growing bigger than they already were. “So now you’re blaming her? I don’t believe this. I should have listened to her when she told me you were a selfish bitch.”
I should have said something at that point. But I didn’t, mostly because I was too horrified to retort. Instead, I kicked three flowerpots down and locked myself in the bedroom, where I read women’s magazines that told me that the first year of marriage required adjustments and it was important to compromise.
However, Ting began sleeping downstairs on the living room sofa from then on, even when the new maids came in. We led separate lives – me on the fourth floor, Ting and his mum on the ground floor. From a Cinderella, I suddenly felt like I’d become a Rapunzel, trapped on top of this oppressive, disinfected tower every evening because I wanted to avoid the mother-and-son duo as much as possible. I’m sure the new maids thought our living arrangements were strange, but they were nice enough to make small talk when we bumped into each other. Our conversations consisted mostly of whispered complaints about how Ting and his mother were very fussy about keeping things clean. I felt a twinge of pity that they now had to bear the brunt of Ting’s tyranny.
Every evening, I’d overhear him shouting at them, usually going something like this: “Do you know how much bacteria there is in one single speck of dust? 100 million! And yet, I go into the kitchen today to find that the top of the refrigerator has a thick layer of dust. Do you want to poison my mother?” I soon developed disturbing fantasies about emptying the vacuum cleaner bag on my husband and his mother.
One night, about three weeks of this cold war treatment, I went downstairs to confront Ting. I’d read about a “Mother-in-law from Hell” true-life account in a women’s magazine, and knew that it was time to thrash things out with my husband. I was going to remind him that now that he was married to me, I should be the first priority in his life. I was going to tell him that he should side with me and not let other people turn us against each other. More importantly, I wanted his mother to hear everything I had to say.
The sofa he usually slept on was empty, and I found him at the laundry area behind the kitchen, frantically scrubbing bed sheets with his usual pair of pink gloves. There was a twirl of detergent froth on his perfectly-coiffed hair.
I gently took his gloved hands into mine and said, “Dear, why are you doing laundry so late? Please stop this madness and go to sleep.”
He hissed at the indirect physical contact and snatched his hands away, looking at me venomously with bulging, bloodshot eyes.
“Ma can’t sleep well these days because of the soiled bed sheet. This is the tenth time I’m washing this but the brown patches are still there. Are you happy now? Seeing all the suffering you’ve caused?” he snarled as he flung the bed linen at my face.
I caught the dripping bed sheet and examined it closely, but couldn’t see any discoloration under the fluorescent lighting. “Ting, this bed sheet looks fine. It can’t get any whiter than this. You and Ma have to stop being so uptight about things. It’s driving me nuts. Even the maids are saying…”
“SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP, YOU EVIL SLOB!” He threw the wooden scrub at me, leaving a wet patch on my nightgown. Encouraged by the hit, he began throwing clothes pegs, detergent powder and even the tub of water as I stumbled backwards, arms flailing.
Ting was just about to hurl a bottle of bleach at me when his mother came out to see what the commotion was about. By then, I was drenched, soapy and sobbing uncontrollably. She hobbled over to her son, embraced him with her small, bony arms and spoke in hushed tones. “Sssshhhh boy, sssshhh. There’s no point getting so angry.” As she stroked his head to subtly flicked off the froth from his hair, I saw a slight smile curl up her wrinkled face.
I ran out of the house as fast as I could. I ran and ran for goodness knows how long until I reached a police station. It took me two hours and three cups of sweetened black tea to get me to stop crying and babbling. My parents came down to the station and both of them burst into tears when they saw me in this state.
My father was livid and insisted on accompanying the police back to the bungalow. He wanted to confront Ting and his mother for abusing me. However, he never got the chance to do that because when they reached the mansion, Ting’s mother was screaming hysterically while clinging on to her semi-conscious, convulsing son. Apparently, while she’d been comforting him, Ting had suddenly cried out, “Not like this, Ma! I’m too dirty!” and proceeded to down the bottle of the liquid bleach he’d been clutching in his hands. He went into cardiac arrest and passed away while his stomach was getting pumped in the emergency room. According to the nurses, Ting’s dying and somewhat befuddling words were, “Cleanliness is Goodness.”
In a way, this tragedy was a blessing in disguise. Ting would have hated a messy divorce. Since he hadn’t prepared a will, by default most of his possessions went to me. As my last wifely duty, I liquidated his assets and used that money to book his mother into a posh senior citizen’s home. I ensured she got her own personal bathroom and hired three cleaners who worked in shifts to provide her with 24/7 cleaning services. Everyone tells me I am such a virtuous widow.
It’s the least I can do. BW
This story is inspired by the Chinese folktale, “The Filial Piety of Huang Ting Chien” from The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety.
Huang Ting Chien's mother has a special habit of making sure everything is clean. Though he is of a rich family and has many servants and maids who can do all the cleaning work, they cannot make the night-stool very clean. This causes his mother to be angry. So he then does it himself everyday in order to make his mother happy.
To the filial son, everything of his mother is holy, because he thinks of his mother as a benefactor and never thinks of anything so connected being dirty.
A proverb that pays tribute to him:
Cleanliness is next to Goodness
Mr. Huang thinks of goodness as works of cleanliness!
Though he is a well-known scholar
He washes the night-stool of his Ma
His mother likes all things clear
He fears those servants do not hear
Melanie Lee loves reading short stories by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Miranda July. She recently started dabbling in writing some brief tales herself and will be releasing a collection of stories by MPH as an illustrated e-book later this year.