Soo Inn often quips when asked about his mum’s former role as Chairperson of the Penang Baptist Church Board, “She was the best man for the job!”. Known throughout the church as Deaconess Ho (何执事), mum was the one you would go to when you wanted to get something done. And done well. Whatever she applied herself to, she excelled in.
As part of the silent generation that had lived through the war, she had to strive hard to survive. An early immigrant to Penang, Malaysia, when she was only seventeen, she joined her brother’s household and finished her studies before becoming a teacher. Mum was quite a ravishing beauty and I’m sure caught the eyes of many young men. So, understandably, when Soo Inn’s Papa, Tan Teik Siew, was courting her she was hardly ever left to her own devices outside of school hours. He would pick her up to send her to her workplace and, at the end of the day, would be waiting outside the school gates to take her home, or to dinner.
It wasn’t long before her potential shone through at work and mum steadily worked herself up to the position of lecturer at the Teacher’s Training College. Her gumption to do all she could included spending a whole year away on her own at the University of Singapore to obtain her certification to teach in English. The amazing thing was, she had been educated in Chinese all her life. With the help of a few other English-educated classmates who were also from Malaysia, mum completed her studies and went back to Penang with the extra certification under her belt.
The calibre of the lecturer she was and the training she provided, is reflected in the many students who continued to stay in touch with her through the years. It was not unusual to have middle-aged ex-students visiting her regularly long after she had retired. They had become friends who treasured her.
Even when dementia began to set in, her light was undiminished. Her ex-students and church friends continued to visit. Old classmates, many of whom had migrated and were living in other states or overseas also continued to stay in touch by phone or by snail mail. Only a month or two ago I received a call from her friend in Perth who was asking after her. It is interesting that for someone who was very task-oriented, she had extremely long-lasting and vibrant friendships. I think she brought her spirit of excellence to everything she did, including how she nurtured others.
One of the people she made an impact on wrote a eulogy that spoke volumes:
“She took a very personal interest in all of us. You could tell she put in effort, though we were but a bunch of kids. There’s always a sweet, lollipop or chocolate at the end of class! I remember how she would pack a bunch of us into her Volvo to bring us to church to practice for performances for Christmas night celebration. … That, together with the annual VBS, was the highlight of our end-of-year school holidays for many years. A large group of kids were from a less privileged neighbourhood where the church had a preaching point. I grew up with many of them and at least 3 became pastors and many continue to serve the Lord faithfully.
She was involved in many roles in church — Sunday School, Women Mission Union, Chairperson and also key in leading the reconstruction of the church building at 224 Macalister Road. She was kind, generous and zealous for the Lord through the ups and downs of the church. She loved the Lord and showed it by the way she loved others.” (Excerpt from Dr Sam Ong’s eulogy)
To my mind, mum was the personification of Proverbs 31:10–31. She worked hard to feed, clothe and house her family. I remember her regaling me with her memories of solo road trips to towns in other states in Peninsular Malaysia to provide teacher training/assessment. She drove hours and hours both ways, all on her own.
She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks. (vv. 15–17)
Whenever we visit mum at her home, I’m also often tickled by the fact that even vv. 22–23 were lived out — one of mum’s hobbies was making quilts for the family!
She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
And because of her industriousness, Papa, who was the unofficial mayor of Pulau Tikus (a district in Penang where the family lived), was able to thrive as the relational person he was in meeting, encouraging, and blessing others.
Her children, Soo Inn and his sister Suat Kwan (and their spouses); her grandchildren and their spouses; and her greatgrandson, count ourselves blessed to have her example of faithfulness to emulate. It’s tough to bid her farewell, but if she was man enough to live the life she did, the least we can do is man up too.
Her children arise and call her blessed… (v. 28a)