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Although she is the younger sister of my maternal host-grandmother and therefore my great aunt, she is without a doubt my Khmer grandmother. Mak Yaay is Sieklin’s true grandmother by blood but he has been generous enough to share while he is Phnom Penh for school. She is a widower of the Pol Pot years and she and her only child, my aunt and Sieklin’s mother, have made a sweet life for themselves in a bright blue house dwarfed by the communal manse of her elder sisters. Mak Yaay is pensive, strong as an ox, welcoming, inclusive, and curious without an intrusive or demanding bone in her body. Where most elderly community members greet the strange and uncommon with rejection or admonishment, Yaay cracks a smile and openly laughs in amusement. I have stuck to her like glue since some time back in the fall when she recognized me at a funeral feast among the table servants and flashed me two finger pistols and a wink in the style of The Fonz. Since Sieklin moved to the city last fall I have gradually usurped his most conspicuous and coveted grandchild’s duties, namely helping with Yaay’s produce stand and pulling her veggie cart home midday and evening. Over the months she’s demonstrated unparalleled patience and encouragement as I stack the potatoes exactly wrong x number of days in a row and doled out supposed 100 riel portions of Thai chilies that she would call a shade too generous. Her sympathetic provision of this purposeful family role has been unmistakable but shrewd, preserving my dignity while doing me far greater service than I will ever hope to provide for her.
Age? 68 years old. I think.
Siblings? I used to be the 4th of seven siblings total, now there are only four of us surviving. With the deaths I’m the 2nd sibling of three sisters and a brother.
Married? My husband was killed during the Pol Pot years, back when our daughter was just this big (holds a hand up near her knee).
Birthplace? Here, in our village. Yes, this village right now!
Something special about your birthplace? Our roads are beautiful, they’re so good. We’ve had electricity and running water for a long time but we only got our roads paved like this a few years ago. I don’t remember much about the village from when I was younger, only that I can’t imagine how we lived without clean water or electricity. Or these beautiful roads.
Farthest you’ve been from home? Sieklin and his siblings and another 20 of our relatives recently went with me to Mondulkiri and Ratthanakiri Provinces. That felt far.
Favorite place in Cambodia? I haven’t been many places other than that! My nephew is always inviting me to travel with him but he never pays for me (scrunches up her lips at me incredulously).
First thing you do in the AM? Most days I ride my moto-dub to Takeo Town and buy the fruits and veggies I will sell in the market. We leave around 4 AM and it’s 6,000 riel ($1.50 USD) round trip. I usually buy about 100,000 riel ($25 USD) worth of fruits and veggies each time.
Biggest wish for your future? Nothing much. Just happiness for my family. And enough money for them. Either one.
Biggest wish for Cambodia? What? No! Just more happiness. I try not to think too much.
Greatest source of income? Most of our money comes from my daughter and son-in-law working our rice fields. I actually don’t know how much we sell our rice for… Sieklin usually handles that for me, ask him. My veggie sales vary so much. Most days I make about 40,000-60,000 riel ($10-15 USD).
Skill you’re most proud of? Skills? SKILLS?! I don’t have any of those, I’m old! Just selling the vegetables and keeping track of everyone’s gambling debts.
What you think of gambling, then? Don’t do it, kid! It’s illegal! (Laughs.) This activity I run, though, it’s legal. I promise. They won’t arrest grandma. (This massive village-wide game, “Don Tinh,” is one that Yaay has tried to explain time and time again. It’s something like a money pool into which everyone donates 10,000 riel [$2.50 USD] and people can withdraw and/or deposit depending on the luck of the numbers they draw from Yaay’s little pouch of numbered paper strips. Yaay keeps track of 200+ people’s totals in her many notebooks.)
And what you think of drinking? Don’t drink it! No one likes a drunk. No one.
Job history? Before selling? I just went to school as a kid. I started selling this and that when I got married around twenty years old. I’ve sold veggies like this here in our village for more than ten years now.
Best cure for a common cold? I always buy medicine from our big provincial hospital, never from the commune health center. Sorry, I know you work there. It’s okay there, too. At the Takeo Hospital I usually spend about 5,000 riel ($1.25 USD) for one cold. If the pills don’t cure me I go back for injections. Expensive ones!
Favorite Khmer proverb? Oh, I don’t know what I like. They always have them written on school walls. Have you gone to look there?
Favorite Khmer tradition? I love all of them, all the activities at the pagoda. It fills my heart to gather with everyone and travel to other pagodas, too.
Something about another country’s culture that you find interesting? I’ve never been to another country and I don’t watch the TV. No! But the country I love the most other than Cambodia is America. They tell me that in America they help their elderly with money and a place to live. They tell me this.
Favorite Khmer belief or value? Our Buddhist values and beliefs. We should all go to the pagoda to respect and care for our monks. We should do this is if we want to develop our sense of well-being and fulfillment.
Your personal hero? (Thinks.) Maybe my grandkids. They work so hard, all three of them, despite the hardship we’ve all been through together (her oldest grandchild, Sieklin’s older sister, passed away suddenly a few years ago from an acute illness). They know how to look each day in the face.
If you didn’t need to sleep, what you’d do instead? Maybe sew and fix some more clothes, maybe fix up the house and rearrange furniture. Maybe even read some books! (Gives a look like she’s being very devious. When asked further, Yaay said she would read books about Buddha and his charity).
Most annoying question you get asked? (Thinks. Think some more. Looks at me quizzically.) Why would anyone be annoyed by a question?
Something everyone should do once in their lives? I don’t know how people should live, what they should do. I can tell you they shouldn’t get sick, not even once! Take care of yourself and don’t let sickness get you.
Luckiest thing that ever happened to you? When I was a kid I never got sick. I’m fortunate to have only been sick now, later in my life. I’m old! You knew that.
Best and worst things about growing up? The thing sometimes about growing up is it can feel like too much enjoyment causes misfortune to happen, as a balance. It’s like… joy has a price and you think about that more when you’re old.
Something you want America (and the world) to know about you? I want them to know that I love them. They send people from all over, they leave their homes, to come and help Cambodia because they learn to love it like we do. And America accepts Cambodians into their country. (I ask if she ever watched the U.S. news.) Just a few moments here and there. It looks so clean and beautiful.
*********EDIT 8/30/2017******** All of the vintage snapshots are from this past Monday, August 28th when Yaay turned to me once we’d packed up her veggie cart and stated, “You go to granny’s house.” In the entryway there was a bountiful spread of a half dozen dishes piled with food and countless cakes and fruit by the family shrine. “Is today a holiday?”” I asked pointing to the unusual spread. “Today is the day when my granddaughter (Sieklin’s late sister) passed away. It is five years today.” From a locked cupboard Yaay exhumed an ancient plastic sack filled with decades of photos. She introduced her late granddaughter, Sieklai, her niece and nephew in Australia, and some vignettes of her waterfall-swimming, horse-riding younger years. I looked in silence and when satisfied she said, “Eat rice.” While we munched, just the two of us, I wondered if the great void left in Sieklai’s wake felt for Yaay any greater than usual on this particular day, any smaller for the space I occupied beside her, or if it came out as something of a wash between the two.