Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The washerwoman's daughter -- a lesson in gratitude

I CAN see and smell her in my mind's eye still. She's got short straight hair (home cut, like all of us). And of the lightest brown -- too light for a Chinese. She smelled musty, and of unwashed clothes. Her pinafore was washed to a whitish blue. The white shirt had turned a yellowish brown, with tattered edge along the collars and sleeves.

If there was one person who irritated me no ends, it was her. After school, without fail, she would be waiting for me outside the classroom. A struggle would ensue as she tried to grab my school bag. Not that she wanted to steal my bag. She just wanted to carry it for me to my mum waiting at the school porch in her blue Morris Minor.

I hated it. I would glare at her and snatch my bag back from her. But somehow, this skinny girl had the strength of Godzilla. I would walk behind her reluctantly as she carried my bag triumphantly to the car. The crux of my problem was that I had to thank her profusely -- my mum insisted on it.

She did this for some years. She was the daughter of the neighbourhood washerwoman who also went round collecting swills from each household to sell to pig farmers. Sometimes she would follow her mum to help, and to earn a few more cents washing our school canvas shoes. Whenever she saw us, she would grin and walked hurriedly by, following her mum. And I would make monkey faces at her.

My mum used to pack old clothes and toys for the washerwoman to give to her daughter. And sometimes, mum would slip 10 cents or 15 cents into the daughter's grimy hands should she see her during recess. I felt very indignant when my mum told me that. I could have done better things with those money.

When she eventually did not show up outside the classroom, I was extremely glad. Nobody knew what happened to her. But it was also the same time the washerwoman "disappeared". And for the longest time, I had to help mum with the laundry.

I have learnt to appreciate this little girl now. She was paying back mum's kindness through the only way she knew how -- by helping me carry my school bag.


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