By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
There was nothing he could do to save his daughter, but the little girl who was left behind is a performer whose grace evokes a bygone era.
Published by Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, March 20, 2016
She said, “I think I was dreaming. I was sleepy, but I mean, I sort of remember, and it wasn’t scary. Mum in heaven whispered ‘Ahh — ree — sah — rah ... my daughter, you’ve got to mend granddad’s broken heart and stop the pain in our family. Please do this for me, and I shall rest in peace. I didn’t mean to, but I hurt him so much.' ”
He lost his adult daughter. She married a ruffian, and that’s OK in itself, but the ruffian showed no respect. He mistreated granddad’s only daughter. And that's unacceptable.
Granddad "did some time" years ago, and he thought that was all "behind him". And it was, at least until this ruffian husband slapped around his daughter. Granddad saw his pregnant daughter fist-bruised — and no dad can handle that. Granddad "put out the word", gathered his own lads together — lads of a bygone day, but still lethal, living scattered around Klong Toey. They gathered over a bottle of local grog one fine evening and visited the ruffian husband. That night they taught him the old-fashioned meaning of the word ruffian.
But ultimately granddad and his lads with knives and guns couldn’t save her. The damage was done. Her bruises would soon heal, but the dead ruffian had given her something that wouldn't — virulent TB with HIV/Aids. Plus, just after the ruffian problem was removed, she found that she was pregnant, but her pregnancy — her child born — became a blessing. But now, a widow, alone, she confided to the ruffian’s mum, who came to help that very day.
This is a Klong Toey story of granddad’s only daughter, and her child: Granddaughter Miss Ahh-ree-sah-rah, now 10 years old and a traditional northeastern pong lang dancer. The old folks who see her perform with the phin hai (four matching clay pots) say that she has certainly returned — must be from a bygone age — to once again perform and share fluid motion and grace wherever she goes. Such beauty mends broken hearts, broken families, just like her mum whispered to her in that dream. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it’s what the old folks say. And granddad says "the circle is complete" and life wins over death.
A TRAGIC, THEN BEAUTIFUL TALE
Miss Ahh-ree-sah-rah is the granddaughter’s name. It means: Spiritual power over your foes.
There was a quiet cremation at the temple for the ruffian. Nobody attended, as he had no friends. True, the dead ruffian’s mum and some of granddad’s lads were there, but they "had" to be there. The undertaker at the temple had managed to get a donated pressed-wood casket from the Chinese Benevolent Society. You don’t need much when you’re going to be cremated in a few hours. Granddad’s lads took a quick look in the casket — just to make sure. Plus, a couple of retired policemen attended, out of uniform. No questions were asked. No tears were noticeable.
"Good riddance to bad roughage" might be too strong an expression, but it does convey the mood of that late afternoon cremation. Granddad’s daughter, newly widowed, attended. Before she went to the temple, the slum neighbour women made sure she had pinned a kem klat (safety pin) on her dress, over her tummy. Local custom says this will ward off any bad ghosts that might bother her or her pregnant child.
Ruffian’s mum attended also. She had just gotten out of three days of local "government service". Someone had beaten up her dog, made him limp. So she beat up the old drunk who beat her dog. Made him limp. The police said, no, you can’t beat up people, not with a stick, not at all. Not even when you’re old; not even when they beat up your dog.
She came directly from the police station to the temple, sat beside her widowed and pregnant ex-daughter-in-law. My son did horrible things, she said to her. I want to make amends. The widow's mother had died many years earlier, so the ruffian's mum said, let me be your mum now. Let me be with you during your pregnancy. Let us light joss sticks, chase away the bad ghosts. As for her dead ruffian son, she said, let the bad blood drain away with him in the cremation fire and make room for the good blood and holy prayers that will stay with the baby. Together, let’s make sure your baby is beautiful and strong.
The granddaughter had a shack, a 60 baht per month room at the dead-end of a smelly canal.
Ruffian’s mum came to live and care for her during her pregnancy; made sure she took her Aids antivirals every day. The two ladies worked together, gathering "collectables" to sell, and the junk man down the street was generous enough to give them a fair price.
Meanwhile, granddad’s respect in the community went up a bit. He still lived in his lean-to with two pieces of tin and mosquito net next to where trucks park under the expressway, but there was opportunity in that. A couple of folks who own the big 18- and 22-wheel rigs joined together to offer him a small weekly stipend to guard the guards who are supposed to guard the trucks at night. Granddad accepted, saying it would also help him get better food for his cat — "Super Cat", he called it, because it kept the roaches and rats away.
Granddad was a bit lame and had to walk with a cane. Still, he never missed his weekly walk of 10 minutes (with Super Cat) to the 60 baht-per-month row house at the smelly dead-end of the canal. There he'd visit his pregnant daughter and her ex-mum-in-law to give them all his salary (minus cat food — slum style). So, with granddad’s new salary from watching the guards who guard the trucks, there was enough.
It's been 10 years now since Baby Ahh-ree-sah-rah was born in hospital with no complications except for the virus that mum had passed along to her.
The two women stayed together with the dead ruffian’s mum looking after Baby Ahh-ree-sah-rah and gathering collectables early each morning. Mum was doing poorly with the virus, in and out of a hospital. Dead ruffian’s mum was healthy and continued to live there and devote her life to taking care of her daughter-in-law and the baby. Even with regular doses of the HIV/Aids antivirals, mum was not improving, even though the meds did stop the virulent TB — sparing the baby a second deadly infection.
So life goes on. Baby was growing up, and, with granddad’s money, the family was able to buy baby milk and food supplement for sick mum. Baby was two years and a day when mum died from Aids. There wasn’t enough money for both baby food and a proper cremation, so the temple didn’t charge.
Before she died, mum begged for her granddad and ruffian’s mum to bring up her baby "proper". Made them promise. A promise that maybe the baby could somehow bring peace beyond the grave and there could one day be family forgiveness and happiness for them all in heaven.
Things happen so quickly. Not long after that, granddad had just taken his weekly walk to deliver his salary money when he collapsed. But he was "of an age".
Shortly after that, dead ruffian’s mum took a nasty fall, leaving her alone in a wheelchair with a baby that needed care.
She couldn’t keep up with a lively two year old or with the money needed to feed her. So, one morning, some eight years ago she came in her wheelchair, with two-year-old infant walking alongside. "Could the baby stay with us?" she asked. Ruffian’s mum remained in her wheelchair and in her shack. She got food, leftovers from the temple monks in the morning and we sent along her noon meal. Sometimes granddaughter Ahh-ree-sah-rah goes over to visit grandmother, who always asks her to dance. It's a prayer, really, as in her dream. A prayer that her dancing will bring peace and forgiveness to their broken family even beyond the grave.
Miss Ahh-ree-sah-rah has been with us eight years now. Ten years old, third grade, not quite at the very top of her class, but in the top five. And, of course, she is her grade school’s best Thai traditional pong lang dancer and our beloved.
No one really knows when she began dancing. She doesn’t even remember herself, but she thinks it was after her dream. She overheard some traditional Thai music one day. Went to see, joined in. Didn’t need many lessons. Now, it seems like she’s been dancing forever.
She and her troupe have won various competitions in the city. Even been on TV a couple times. Calls herself the girl from Klong Toey and has a tiny locket; one side holds a pic of mum and the other a pic of granddad.
But that’s not what's important here. What's important is that when she dances she closes her eyes and listens — really, really listens — to the voices of her ancestors.
That's important. Perhaps we can be as bold and brazen … and do the same.