Grandma Wardrobe Legacy

Our grandmother passed away peacefully at age 103 on July 2.  After bidding her a fond farewell with a grand send-off, my mum invited family members over to look at grandma’s things and pick out something of hers to keep as a memento.  

Grandma's stock of Sam Fong square cakes
of face powder!
That night, my siblings joined our cousins and aunts to open the storage boxes and old suitcases where gran’s things were stored.  Mum had kept everything that belonged to gran when she lived with us, exactly the way gran had packed the items.

We saw that gran had meticulously preserved her old clothes – sets of outfits she may have outgrown but were too precious to throw out – neatly wrapped in sheets of old curtains and secured by large safety pins.  While most of her outfits were tailored, there were also blouses and trousers that were bought ready-made or received as gifts.

For home wear, gran used to wear matching sets of blouses and loose trousers made of cotton material.  The blouses were usually sleeveless or with cap-sleeves with two patch pockets in front.

I remember she was fond of shopping for fabrics to tailor into sets of blouses with collar and sleeves, teamed with trousers.  Her regular tailor was a seamstress in Kulai known as Heong cheh, and later when Aunty Polly and her husband were based in a farm near Kluang, gran found another tailor in Kluang.

Bernice is thrilled to find a quilt among gran's belongings
Then we saw gran’s sewing box.  Gran may not have been skilled in tailoring her own clothes but she was handy in mending tears and sewing on buttons.  I remember, when she was living with us, gran would sew a few markings with red colour thread to identify her own flannelettes and panties, as if they could not be identified next to those belonging to mum and I! *Wink wink!*

There were also separate boxes of buttons and threads, scissors and other sewing items but one of the unique looking things was a rectangular metal box that was darkly discoloured and smooth with age.  It was that type of deep box used for dried pellets of Chinese herbal medicine that were wrapped within balls of hollow wax.  

Grandfather [wearing dark jacket, standing Right behind
trophy] with a sports group; Photo dated 1935
Gran, who was a proponent of traditional medicine for maintenance of good health, had melted a great deal of wax into the box and it was half-full of solid wax and stuck with pins and needles.  My sister-in-law, Veronica, was so fascinated that she quickly claimed it.

Speaking of panties, gran had a collection of underwear which mum distributed to her sisters – particularly the white cotton Marks & Spencer ones – which they had previously bought for gran.  There was also a stack of brassieres that were virtually brand new.  And since there were no takers for gran’s bras, Veronica took the lot!

Cousin Bernice was after a particular patchwork quilt that gran was using but we discovered that it was too late to retrieve because it was buried with her.  Her disappointment turned to joy when she found another quilt among gran’s belongings and happily kept it for herself!

Family at funeral of great-grandmother, Lim Ah Nee,
in front of 154, Jalan Ngee Heng, Photo dated 1941
Gran also had a variety of hand fans – woven and feather fans – but the Japanese-style foldable ones were more convenient to carry.  So Bernice picked out one folded fan made of batik cloth for herself and I chose one made of sandal wood for her to take back to the UK to pass to my sister, Pearly, there.

As Bernice unpacked the bags and boxes, she took the liberty to throw out what was confirmed as “junk” and retrieved a number of interesting items like back-scratchers and massage equipment, gran’s compact powder as well as her stock of favourite face powder – boxes of Sam Fong square cakes of face powder!

Notice how the front windscreen of this hearse has two
glass panels that open outwards for ventilation!
While some of us were going through gran’s wardrobe, the others were looking at old photos from gran’s collection in two photo albums.  One album was filled with photos of grandfather or Ah Kong while the other had some coloured photos of gran when she was on holiday.  Besides postcards and birthday cards that she received, we found more loose photos kept in separate envelopes.

In a large envelope, we discovered large photo prints and were amazed at the well-preserved photo quality even though they were now faded sepia tones.  The inscribed dates reminded us that the funeral photo for mum’s Teochew grandmother was 1941 while another group shot of Ah Kong with a sports team was dated 1935. 

Unfortunately, another photo of a funeral was undated and no one could identify the face of the deceased.  But I noted that the hearse – clearly not air-conditioned – had two glass panels for the front windscreen that were opened outwards for better ventilation!

A card that Pearly sent to grandma
on her 90th birthday
It was also fascinating to see the building in the background of the 1941 funeral photo that shows the row of shops that still exists along Jalan Ngee Heng, opposite Wisma Maria and DoubleTree by Hilton JB.  A bit of Ah Kong’s house, No. 154, a double-storey bungalow, built with concrete ground floor and wooden upstairs, can be seen at the far left.  It was a landmark on the road with the entire compound of a bungalow and badminton court, surrounded by a tall bamboo fence, but it has been demolished.

It was interesting that for that funeral, the family was wearing traditional sackcloth with all the trimmings of a somber send-off for great-grandmother Lim Ah Nee, who was Ah Kong’s mother.  I remember horror stories of gran’s mother-in-law who earned the nickname, Nyonya Kuching because she was reputed to have a hot temper.  A similar portrait of her that was used on the hearse, is in my own collection of family artifacts.

More than a week later, mum reminded me to take a final look into the storage boxes and bags before they are disposed.  So here I am looking through gran’s wardrobe, admiring the fabrics and discovering interesting outfits.  

Trixie is also curious when I opened the bag of gran's clothes
Dad couldn’t help laughing as he watched me trying on gran’s clothes and was brutally honest to tell me that in gran’s clothes, I have added another 20 years to my age.  I saw some blouses that I like and may even wear but assured dad that I would certainly dress up the outfits to make them look trendy!

Mum picked out a few pairs of gran’s solid colour trousers, especially the black silk ones while I found a dark mustard coloured casual pair.  Then mum spotted the blouse that gran used to wear with that particular pair of trousers and asked me to keep them.

There was a silk blouse, the type bought from the Chinese emporiums with a label that read: Hand Embroidered, Made in China, and I had to keep.  There were also several sets of China-made cotton pajamas in pastel green and yellow with embroidered flowers and butterflies that looked almost new so we set them aside to present to the aunts later.

Check out these classic buttons that were
fashionably wrapped in the same fabric!
Mum pulled out matching sets of tailored blouses and trousers made from flannel-like fabric that were sewn by late Aunty Helen, gran’s daughter-in-law in Sydney.  This aunt, who was also skilled in knitting and crocheting, had a sewing business then and must have machined several sets of outfits for gran to keep her more comfortable in cooler weather.  I thought these were uniquely sentimental so they are kept for our eldest sister, Ruby, who could wear them in winter when she stayed with her sons in Perth!

My favourite piece must be one of gran’s tailored silk blouses that featured big buttons.  In those days, it was the fashion to have buttons machine wrapped in the same fabric and I thought they were simply classic!

I took my choices from gran’s wardrobe for a quick hand wash and when I soaked them into water, my nostrils were assaulted by a pungent mothball smell.  It instantly brought back memories of gran’s penchant in preserving her things with generous portions of mothballs!  When two rounds of rinsing couldn’t quite remove the mothball flavour, I gave the clothes a final rinse with fabric softener for a more familiar fragrance.

Now I have some of gran’s things not just as precious mementos but also to use.  With the clothes neatly ironed, I’m waiting for the opportunity to wear them in honour of our beloved grandmother. So look out!  And don’t be surprised to spot me with the vintage, gran-look-alike style.

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