THERE’S no doubt we love our mothers.
But dig a little deeper and, as any woman with a mother will tell you, it’s not all motherhood and apple pie. The cycle of the mother-daughter relationship is fairly predictable: the unconditional love of childhood is followed by the “I hate you” and “You’re embarrassing” years of adolescence, which slides into the adult appreciation of your mother as a person who has flaws but rather more good qualities.
My Jo (my mother hates it when I call her that) turns 76 this year and our relationship — while close — have been nothing short of tumultuous. She frustrates me, annoys me constantly and if there was a prize for being a chief nagger — Jo would win it hands down. In Jo’s eyes I’ve never quite grown up, and yet in mine, she’s the one who needs to let go. The constant tug of war continues on, but truth be said I can’t imagine life without her.
In her 1939 memoir, A Sketch Of The Past, one of the most important 20th-century modernist authors Virginia Woolf begins with one of her earliest memories, an image of “red and purple flowers on a black ground — my mother’s dress; and she was sitting either in a train or in an omnibus, and I was on her lap.” Soon after, she adds another memory of the nursery and of her mother, “...come out onto her balcony in a white dressing gown.” For Woolf, as for so many memoirists, the starting point of an excursion into the self is the mother. After all, our earliest memories are of her.
Many would agree that it is through our mothers that we first come to see a glimpse of ourselves. As I get on with age, I find myself sharing a lot of things in common with my mother. In fact, there’s a little of Jo in me as much as there is a bit of myself in that little old lady with a clear-cut case of
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and who nags at me constantly to clean out my room.
And I’m not alone in my rollercoaster ride of a relationship with my mother. “I know exactly what you mean!” exclaims Francissca Peter as she nods at her mother who sits with a sage-like smile across the table. “You can call her aunty!” she says graciously as I greet Alice Peter who’s elegantly clad in an light green blouse and printed pants.
It’s Mother’s Day today and I’m here to interview both Francissca (or fondly known as Fran) and Alice, exploring their dynamic relationship as mother and daughter which has evolved over the years. “It has been quite a journey,” concedes Fran with a smile as she gazes affectionately at her mother.
She may be mum to iconic songbird Francissca Peter who — if you grew up in the 1980s — graced our TV screens and ruled our radio airwaves, but she’s unfazed, if not a little perplexed, by her daughter’s fame. “There are so many people who want to take a picture with Fran. I don’t really understand why they love her Malay songs. Maybe because I don’t understand the lyrics,” she confides looking faintly surprised as Fran breaks into peals of laughter. “That’s my mother for you!” she quips.
Who doesn’t know Fran? With more than 20 No. 1 hits in the local music charts, she has over 30 albums to her name. Her “Malay” (as Aunty Alice would put it) songs were classics, from the award-winning Sekadar Di Pinggiran, the nationalistic Setia and even the radio-friendly Ku Ke Udara Lagi. The latter remains a perennial favourite of mine to this day.
Malaysians would know her as the other half of the popular duo, Roy and Fran — her “partner” was Royston Sta Maria and they were an unbeatable evergreen duo act in the 1980s. Dubbed “The Carpenters of Malaysia”, the pairing brought them immense popularity back in the days. Fran is also ambassador for international aid organisation World Vision in Malaysia since 2004.
Yet Fran’s story is the quintessential rags to riches tale that not just speaks of her determination to pursue her dream but also the inner strength of her mother who saw the family through hard times.
Fran tells me her father — a former journalist — who joined a national news agency and then went on to start his own newspaper called The Straits Echo, fell into depression and eventually left home. “That was when life took a turn for the worse,” she confides. “Though left broken-hearted by my father, my mum had to hold it together to provide for the family. I was there to witness it and it was a monumental task, as she had been a housewife all the while.”
“My mother is the real hero of the tale,” she adds bluntly. “We were dirt poor when we were growing up. She raised us singlehandedly, doing what she could — renting out rooms, washing clothes and catering food,” discloses Fran.
Motherhood is not only the proverbial hardest job you’ll ever love, as the slogan goes — it is also the hardest job you’ll ever do. “It’s true,” agrees Fran. It’s relentless, worrying, emotionally-draining work. It is like a grey day with intermittent bursts of sunshine, and these occasional breaks in
the cloud are what mothers like Alice try to focus on. “It was hard, but you just do the best you can. We had hard times but we had good times also. I think every family is the same. It’s normal-lah,” the 80-year-old matriarch says, shrugging her shoulders.
“My mother never talked about how difficult it was. She simply did what she could to provide for the family,” says Fran, who tells me that they were so poor that the Canossian nuns (a Catholic religious order focused on charity and mission works) from the Catholic church helped lessen their burden by paying their rent, groceries and even school fees.
“I could only cry to Jesus,” says Alice simply. “It was tough then, being a Chinese married to an Indian. Back in those days, a union like this wasn’t the norm. I couldn’t rely on either side of the family as I was always deemed an outsider.”
It was Fran who suggested that perhaps leaving school and pursuing a full-time career might help ease the burden. “When I was in Form three, I spoke to my mother about pursuing singing as a full-time job. I told her, ‘I better become a singer. Maybe I’ll earn a little bit more’,” she recalls. “...a little bit more”, she tells me, went a long way in paying the bills. “There were so many to pay, and we really were struggling to make ends meet.”
Both mother and daughter scoured through the newspapers together, searching for agents who would help Fran secure a singing job. “My mother was nervous. She constantly wondered whether she was doing the right thing by letting me do this,” she says softly.
“Of course, I was worried!” interjects Alice. “I prayed for her every night. I pray for all my children but because she was a singer, I was very worried, you know!”
“Everyone said she was a wonderful singer. She sang to packed clubs and venues!” says Alice proudly. “She always loved to sing when she was young. She took part in so many singing competitions and she won!” “Ma! I never won,”exclaims Fran. “Oh okay, yes, she didn’t win.. but she loves to sing and everyone said she’s a fantastic singer,” her mother adds while Fran laughs heartily. “I love singing with a passion. I love it so much but I never won anything then!” interjects Fran, still laughing.
“She’s like me. I used to love singing too. In fact, I used to listen to the radio and learn new songs when I was young — like her!” her mother adds. “Well, that’s new! I’ve not heard this before!” remarks her surprised daughter. Her mother smiles sagely in response.
Over the years, Alice and Fran has had a relationship as conflicted and layered as any other mother-daughter story, but their rapport is evident through their easy banter and jokes.
“I had my first gig. I was a scrawny child, with no clue of using make-up, no stage clothes and I started out singing, with a guitarist,” recalls Fran. “Oh she was so good, that in one or two months, she came out in the papers because she had a very good voice!” interjects Alice, pride evident in her voice.
Her “very good voice” took Fran far. To date, Fran has over 20 No. 1 hits, more than 40 hits in the local music charts, and the title of “Best Female Vocalist” for five consecutive years in the 1980s. “Are you proud of your daughter?” I ask her mother. “Of course-lah!” is her indignant reply. “But I constantly pray for her. I didn’t want her to fall into those pitfalls that many entertainers seem to step into. Like drugs, for one!”
This mother-daughter represent, in the push and pull of their relationship, something familiar to so many other mothers and daughters (including my own with Jo), something they recognise in their own lives: the turn-taking in the role of caregiver, the pleasure and suffocation that comes with being worried over whose turn is it to watch and whose turn is it to be watched?
We grow up looking at our mothers as the strongest people in our world. They handle everything, they take care of everything, and they can do everything. Then you grow up and as you grow older, unfortunately so do they. “One day you wake up and realise that your mum can no longer handle and take care of everything. When that day comes, it’s a hard realisation and it feels incredibly unsettling,” reveals Fran.
“Oh I can take care of myself!” insists Alice indignantly. “That’s my mum. She’s still sprightly at 80 thanks to her active lifestyle when she was younger. She used to cycle everywhere back in the days!” says Fran. “I’m just grateful that she’s healthy.”
She concedes that the reversed roles can be challenging. “It’s not easy telling my mother what to do!” she says with a laugh. “I have to make sure she’s well taken care of when I’m away performing. My schedules revolve around her and I’m always fussing over her!”
Looking at her mother who smiles serenely back at her, she says exasperatedly with a laugh: “She doesn’t listen to what I say sometimes! Sometimes I wonder if it’s payback time. After all, she raised four monsters!”
Sitting back, she adds softly: “But I’m always grateful to her for raising us the way she did. She taught us respect, integrity and to always work hard for our success. I can never thank her enough.”
A brief pause, as she looks at her mother fondly before concluding: “The dynamics are no longer the same, now that I’m caregiver to her. But the bond hasn’t changed. She’s my mother and I love her dearly.”