Lifelong friendship began with curry


It may have been more than 20 years ago, but Madam Iruthayamary Arulnathan still remembers her former neighbours’ sons boisterously running in and out of their Potong Pasir flats every day.

 “The doors could not be closed or they would bang them,” recalled the 67-year-old housewife, her face breaking into a smile.

“Sometimes they would even sleep over in our house, and my husband would read stories to them.”

Madam Mary, as she is known, wishes she could bring those days back.

It all started in 1985, when Mrs Grace Sim and her husband Danny moved into the unit across hers at Block 144, Potong Pasir Avenue 2.

“Somebody knocked on the door one day and it was Danny. He had caught this huge mackerel – more than 1m long – and he offered me some of it.

“Grace was pregnant with her first child Jeremy then, so with the fish, I cooked some curry for her,” she said.

This little exchange soon evolved into a friendship.

When Jeremy was born, Madam Mary visited the family in the hospital, and even took on the role of a confinement nanny, cooking for Mrs Sim and feeding the baby.

To thank her, the Sims took Madam Mary and her two sons to Hong Kong in 1986, and paid for their flight and accommodation.

Together with her husband, Mr Vincent Jothiraj, she would often babysit the Sims’ elder sons, Jeremy and Jarrod.

The boys started calling them periyamma and periyappa (Tamil for auntie and uncle) – something which they still do today.

“She’s very good with kids,” said Mrs Sim, 50.

“My children remember her very fondly. At one stage, they could even count in Tamil.

Things changed, however, when Mr Vincent died of cancer in 1995, and Madam Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer two months later.

“Jeremy was crying and screaming at my husband’s funeral. That’s how close they were,” said Madam Mary, who recovered after chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.

She then went to London for six months to stay with her two sons who work there. When she returned, the Sims, who now have three sons in their 20s, had moved into a bigger flat a few blocks away.

“We don’t see each other often now, but we still think of each other,” said Mrs Sim, who is a real estate agent.

Although they live apart, they try to stay in touch.

“Jeremy came over last year to introduce his girlfriend to me. It’s nice to see him all grown-up,” said a beaming Madam Mary.

The Catholic also invites the family over for her annual Christmas feast, where she cooks for about 20 guests.

“My favourite is her thosai with curry. It’s the best I’ve tasted,” said Mrs Sim. “She’s a very nice lady, very warm and very friendly.”

Other neighbours agree.

“When my mother-in-law was ill with mouth cancer four years ago, Mary would visit her and make herbal soup every day for three months until she died,” said Madam Puspavalli Suppiah, 64, a retiree living in the same block.

“Her selfless love really moved us. We don’t know how to repay her,” said Madam Puspavalli, who nominated Madam Mary for the two Good Neighbour Awards she received in 2011 and 2013.

“It’s her personality, she’s very friendly to all the neighbours and always shares her food,” said Madam Rebecca Tay, 55, a childcare educator who lives opposite Madam Mary.

Madam Mary is thankful for the friendships.

“You don’t lose anything by being friendly. Rebecca always invites me over for their Chinese New Year reunion dinner,” she said.

“It makes me feel like part of the family.”


From The Sunday Times, June 22, 2014



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