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Famous Widows Creating Legacies

Since Oky’s death in June 2019, I have made it into one of my goals to preserve his architectural legacy. I truly believed he had unique ways of solving problems that could benefit further generations of Indonesian architects. Not only that, continuing his legacy keeps him in my life. Ancient Egyptians believed that people die twice: the first time when their bodies take their last breath and the second time when their name is spoken for the last time.

At least while I’m alive, I wish to set up structures that enable young designers and architects to look at his works, be inspired, and in turn create some awesome works. One of the ways I did this was by writing the book Sketches and Regrets.

In a podcast episode I did for The Widow Jokes (Janda Becanda) with Intania Fajar – herself a widow – she suggested this idea for other widows. Write about your husbands. Keep their memories alive – there is no reason NOT to keep remembering them. Unless, of course, if they were abusive husbands while they were alive.

What do Hamilton, Raffles, and Curie have in common?

You might be surprised because a lot of legendary men in history were famous because their widows wrote about them. Had their wives not written about them, they would not have enjoyed their place in history now. Some of these people are Alexander Hamilton, Sir Thomas Raffles, and Pierre Curie. They all died tragic deaths at a very young age, and guess who preserved and spread their works to the world? Their widows: Eliza Hamilton, Lady Sophia Raffles, and Marie Curie.

After the death of their spouses, they soldiered on, creating legends of their deceased husbands. In light of feminism, I often wonder why these famous widows did not just make legends of themselves? I bet they have as much brilliance (in Marie’s case RADIANCE) and with as their men, perhaps even more.

Going back to my situation, I find myself wanting to do both- keeping Oky’s legacy while also continuing to build my own life and story.

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Bobo Lie, Part 2

Now, Bobo Lie (as the huge Efferin-Lie clan) calls her, can’t recollect clearly who she is. Due to her dementia, she has no idea what day, time, or year it is. She has no teeth. But she doesn’t need teeth anymore because her food is all soft porridge-like meals.

She was one good cook.

Around the time my parents got married (the 1980s), Bobo Lie was about fifty years old. She lived in a large estate which she turned into a boarding home, sometimes with up to ten boarders at a time. She needed the money from boarders to survive and care for her sons. She has four sons, plus two nephews that she took under her wing because their mother-Bobo’s sister-had died at a young age.

If a woman can manage a home, she can manage an office. If she can manage an office, she can manage a company. If she can manage a company, she can manage a country.

In her home, Bobo always made sure the best meals were set out for everyone: sons, nephews, boarders, eventually daughters-in-law, and all the grandchildren that visited. Her signature dish was rawon: black beef soup with turmeric, lemongrass, lime, and green onions.

She was one angry lady.

The reason she needed to turn her house into a boarding home was because Kung-Kung (my grandfather) divorced Bobo in her forties. He was a highly respected doctor in Surabaya, East Java. One of the first medical professionals in the whole province, in fact. After three children, he left Bobo (who was pregnant with a fourth child) to marry another lady. Now, I call her Granny Rika. I call her that behind Bobo’s back. I suppose reconciliation takes generations.

According to Bobo Lie, she never wanted the divorce. But somehow, in one of her angry emotional fits towards an unfaithful husband, it is possible that she signed the papers in exchange for ownership of the large estate.

She was one talented lady.

Before she got married to Kung Kung, Bobo loved to sing. As a teenager, she won singing competitions and even sang regularly on the radio. Being a radio star in the 1950s is like being a YouTuber with millions of followers in 2021. She was the belle of the town.

Bobo continued singing as a hobby, even when her mental capacities started to decline. Somehow, she managed to remember melodies and songs. Sometimes, she even sat on my piano and plunked out some tunes.

I suppose she doesn’t remember any of this now.

But I do. And now, you do too.

Bobo means grandmother. It’s a common term for Chinese-Indonesian families. Kung Kung means grandfather, another common Chinese-Indonesian term.

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Bobo Lie, Part 1

Bobo Lie

In November 2020, my 95-year-old grandmother’s health condition dropped. After clearing with the necessary checks to confirm that it was not Covid, we admitted her to the hospital for about a week. Honestly speaking, her 4 sons, 4 daughters-in-laws, 12 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren probably all had the same thought: Bobo Lie (that’s what we call her) is going to die soon. Her sons even gathered in the hospital room, hosting a masked service. Just in case.

Well, here we are in February 2021, celebrating Chinese New Year-Zoom family dinners and all. My father contracted the virus and got better (see my reflections on that), the nurse contracted the virus and got sent back to her village but through it all, Bobo Lie? Despite her dementia, she’s still alive and virus-free.

She is one tough lady.

She now lives with my uncle who takes excellent care of her. About five years ago, she was still staying with my parents. I was there practicing piano, as usual, preparing for a concert. I remember I was working on a Brahms Rhapsody. It was a particularly loud passage, so I couldn’t hear anything else. After the forte passage, I heard the household helper scream. My parents were not home, so the helper ran to my piano room in a panic. All she could say was “Bobo, Bobo, blood!” 

I stopped the Brahms and went to check inside Bobo’s room. Bobo was lying on the floor, surrounded by blood. She was conscious though and calmly asked me to help her.

“What happened?” I asked, trying to help her get up.

“The scissors,” she answered vaguely. I saw there was a pair of scissors in the pool of blood, and there was a huge gash on her hand. I knew that she did her sewing, so it was likely that she lost muscular control and somehow fell while cutting her hand very badly.

She is one generous lady.

Bobo is much too old to go anywhere now. Ten years ago she was still able to go to church every Sunday. At that time, her dementia was just beginning. She dressed up as usual, and put some money in her wallet for the offering. The church protocol was for an offering bag to be passed from person to person as people put their money gifts in the bag. Sometimes there would be different colored bags for different purposes/projects.

When the bag reached her, she took out her wallet. There was the money she had prepared: a twenty thousand rupiah bill (equivalent to 15 USD), and spare change in the form of a one hundred rupiah coin (equivalent to 0,01 US cent). I suppose she originally meant to give the bill. However, she reached for the coin instead and dropped it proudly in the offering bag. Reactions from surrounding people included laughter and embarrassment. Perhaps in her mind, she was back half a century ago before the devaluation of the Indonesian currency. Back to a time when coins were still valuable while that particular bill had not even existed yet.

She is one beautiful lady.

When I was a child, my parents often took me to visit Surabaya in East Java. Bobo Lie lived in Surabaya until she was seventy. Then she moved to Bandung (West Java), where three of her four sons lived.

She introduced me to this amazing thing called nail polish. Her nails were always shiny with bright colors. She taught me how to cut my nails properly, how to patiently polish them, and also how to remove the polish when I got bored of the color. Bobo had a large collection of different brands and shades of nail polish. Manicure was an art form for her.

Sadly, I don’t keep up with proper care of my nails. I wonder what she would say now, if only she still recognized who I am.

Continued to Bobo Lie, Part 2.

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A Discussion on Coping with Grief

Last week I had the honor to be featured on Grace Tahir‘s Iso-Late Show Episode 30 with Grace Tahir and Intania Fajar from Janda Becanda (The Widow Jokes) Podcast. It was a rainy afternoon with bad internet on my part. The discussion on coping with grief was solid though. I didn’t know Tania (Intania’s nickname), and she didn’t know me, but we connected through our mutual experiences.

So many people have experienced losses recently. Thus I share some of our key takeaways with the hope that it will help readers who are processing grief.

Key Takeaway 1. Instinct before sudden death.

Some people have an instinct that their loved one is about to die. This was the case with Tania. She was in Manila, and Joel (her husband) was in Hong Kong about to fly to Manila when he got into an accident. He died in the Hong Kong airport. Tania was with her mother-in-law, and at that exact moment, she had an urge to call Joel.

This was not the case with me and Oky’s death. Oky crossed a road (on foot), got hit by a motorcycle going 90km/hour, and died there. It came as an absolute shock to everyone.

Key Takeaway 2. Five stages of grief.

The five stages of grief according to Kübler-Ross model are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I didn’t go through the five stages of grief (mainly because I didn’t know what they were at the time). But I knew I was ANGRY. Even now, I’m still angry because the whole situation involved irresponsible people and corrupt authorities.

Tania believes strongly in destiny. “The good die young-Joel was as good as good can be, so he went young,” she said. Tania was very sad but there was no denying it. Joel died end of 2008, so it will be 12 years by the end of this year. And the feelings are still coming and going.

“The good die young-Joel was as good as good can be, so he went young,” she said.

Intania Fajar, Janda becanda podcast

Key Takeaway 3. Loneliness.

For Tania, that’s one of the main themes in Janda Becanda Podcast: that feeling lonely is not an experience exclusive to widowhood. We’re in quarantine now so many people feel lonely at this time. It’s always good to know how to cope with feeling lonely.

For me, there were two moments in which I felt utterly alone. I just felt an absolute darkness and I did not even know what to think. This mainly had to do with the circumstances surrounding Oky’s death with the crime and corrupted police and law officials of Bandung. At that time I reached out to some mentors and they helped me with frameworks of thought.

Key takeaway 4. Annoying messages from people.

For me, it was tiring because so many people continuously asked what happened. However, I would rather have people asking than telling me how to react. Many people told me to “forgive”, or “move on”. That was incredibly annoying because they said those words without any idea of what I was going through.

For Tania, there were some fundamentally rude questions that people asked her. She refused to even repeat it because it was so unsympathetic. Some people that didn’t even know her or her husband started asking questions simply because they wanted gossip material.

Key Takeaway 5. Support systems.

Tania had a very strong support system. The moment her family found out, they dropped everything and flew from Jakarta to Manila. By maghrib (evening prayers) that day, they were already able to be with her. They showed the same support during her divorce from her second husband.

I stayed tactfully silent because this is at the heart of my issue with my parents. (Look forward to future writings…)

Key Takeaway 6. Ways to cope.

Journaling was one of the ways I coped with everything that happened. From my journaling habit, the exhibition and book Sketches and Regrets was born. Not to mention this blog, my poems, short stories, and hopefully more books to come! A practical tip from me includes a breathing technique called box breathing to help stay calm in extremely stressful situations. Another tip is to be committed to taking care of your body: drink a lot of water, go on walks or routine exercise, get enough sleep, and eat well.

For Tania, it is important to have other aspects of life to be able to focus on. Career, work, and other creative projects. Her late husband was an amazing person and she honors it, but life has to go on, especially because at the time she was responsible for a 1,5-year-old baby. There are also many resources out there including the Janda Becanda community that she created.

The complete interview is available on Grace’s Instagram channel (it’s mostly in Indonesian, with English sentences here and there). I hope this article helps to make the contents of our conversation accessible to more people.

With special thanks to Grace Tahir.

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Lessons from Indonesia’s Richest Woman

One of the most illustrious women I have the privilege to get to know is Giok Hartono, wife of Budi Hartono, the richest person in Indonesia. He is listed on Forbes with a net worth of US $18billion, most of the fortune coming from their family business Djarum clove cigarettes and stakes in Bank Central Asia. His wife is well known to love and support a wide range of the arts from visual to performing. It is through her philanthropy in music that our paths crossed.

Tante Giok (or Auntie, as I called her) was a patron of Cascade Trio, Indonesia’s premiere piano trio which I co-founded, active around the region from 2014-2019. In addition to financial gifts, she also opened her private facilities for us to rehearse at while we were in Jakarta. There are only so few Steinway pianos in Indonesia, and to be able to practice on one was an unimaginable luxury. Needless to say, her support made a huge difference to our musical careers.

From several conversations with her, I observed some daily habits which I have since tried to implement in my life.

1. She takes cold water showers every morning.

Although this sounds like self-torture, it actually has health benefits from increasing endorphins, improving metabolism and blood circulation, all the way to beauty benefits for hair, skin, and scalp. Tante Giok looks about 20 years younger than her real age.

2. She exercises at least one hour every single day.

I will never forget how in my first meeting with her. She proudly told me that she could still do the splits, and promptly demonstrated it right in front of me. I was speechless-not just because she was so flexible at her age, but more because I certainly did not expect the wealthiest lady in Indonesia to be so…unorthodox.

3. She always responds to her WhatsApp messages.

She might not respond immediately, but she would respond at least within 1-2 days. For someone like me who has done so much fundraising (this is the reality of a musicians’ life), I have gotten hundreds of rejected asks, and even more ignored asks. I was used to being disregarded by “important” people who had a lot of money. From getting to know her, I learned that truly important people don’t make other people feel bad. On the contrary, they make YOU feel important. Her default mode is treating everyone with respect, even the lowest person in the social chain.

I’ve been very lucky to be able to learn these lessons from Tante Giok Hartono. Are there super successful people that have surprised or inspired you with their daily habits?

Featured image: Giok Hartono as the goddess Dewi Banowati with Ali Marsudi as the heroic Arjuna in a wayang performance, December 2015. Photographed by Romli Sawunggaling.