Three generations. That’s all it took.
From Stella to Eleanor.
From Eleanor to Wilona.
From Wilona to Mia.
And from Stella to Mia, so much has changed.
Mia, my 10-year-old brown-eyed baby, set up Skype on her grandma’s Dell downstairs, all by herself. She dug around her dad’s office and found the web cam, connected and installed both it and its operating program like it was second nature. During Maryland’s Snowmageddon event, my techie gal web-conferenced her two best friends for five days straight, staving off boredom and wowing her parents at the same time.
Stella slept at night to the sounds of bombs exploding with flashes of light and the low, terrifying drone of aircraft rushing in seemingly inches above her head. There were no books to lull her to sleep as lights were not allowed, only silent repetitions of Bible verses to calm her pounding heart.
Mia laughs at Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent-sounding voice crooning “Baby, Baby, Baby,” giggling and rolling her eyes when I tell her I don’t understand why his voice still sounds like a 3rd grade girl.
Stella liked music too. Gathering around the piano, she’d join her family in English folk songs to cheer their war-weary hearts in the midst of the unfathomable anxiety and uncertainty of living in Japanese occupied Malaysia during World War II. It was their rendition of “Waltzing Matilda” that lured a group of lost Australian soldiers to their door — hungry, lonely, and scared.
I look at my Mia, clacking away on the laptop researching Duff Goldman for her “famous Marylanders” project for school. She zooms around the internet copying and pasting bio information and photos to her own flash drive, clicking and dragging like she was born at Google. And I marvel at her skills.
When Stella was in medical school her country bowed to an invading enemy and her school ceased to exist. Technology? Information superhighway? News? She used a Ouija board to find out her friends had been killed in a bombing.
How will Mia ever comprehend how staggering the path has been from her great-grandmother’s life to the one she lives? What stories can I tell her to make her appreciate every small blessing? Every casual convenience? Every night that she falls asleep safe and secure?
World War II is an unknown fragment of history to Mia right now. While she’s burning a path through the sixth grade, the history lessons of a war that devastated an entire globe — that touched her own bloodline with its icy fingers — are still to come. But it should mean something to her because that war shaped the life of a woman whose blood she carries — a woman who carried Mia in her arms, cooing and tickling her cheeks when she was just weeks old. A woman whose exact brilliance and resilience I see now in my chestnut-haired, wide-eyed daughter.
Stella’s stories of war and survival captivated me in my childhood, but Mia has no clue about them. And I know it is time to carry my grandmother’s voice forward. After all, in her twilight years when insomnia bothered her, she took the time to pen her life stories for me and her other grandchildren. I confess there were times when I didn’t always understand why it was important for her stories to be put on paper.
I never needed them till now.
In my own efforts to document Stella’s remarkable life, I needed to find the journal and notes Stella had written and given to me over the years. The time had come to tell her great-granddaughter about the blood she carried. Of course, I couldn’t find anything in a box of things I brought from my old bedroom in my parent’s house in California. My mother didn’t have it either, and I wanted to kick myself for being so inattentive to this treasure.
Several years before she passed away in 2005, Stella got busy doling out pieces of family history — photographs, jewelry, heirlooms, and her stories. She knew me well enough to know I might be negligent with these priceless treasures of family lore, so in her great wisdom, she quietly bequeathed them to my husband — a man who guards these types of things with his life. He carefully photocopied them and tucked them safely into a box he placed with crucial family documents — marriage and birth certificates, passports, healthcare information, etc.
As I ransacked my box, trying not to get sidetracked by autograph books from 1984, pictures of my best friend and me in our hideous 1990 choir uniforms, and an old love letter from my husband; he quietly went to the office and returned with precious cargo in his arms. Silently laying Stella’s boxed life stories on the bed, he mouthed “You’re welcome,” before I could get a word out.
Stella’s journal documented snapshots from her childhood, the war, and her hopes for her family with addendums noted when wishes were realized. In an entry from the 1980s, she expressed her desire that her youngest son would hurry up and settle down already. Then an entry from February 21, 1998 noted the birth of his twin sons and her joy that they increased her tally of grandchildren from four to six.
“We now have three girls and three boys,” she wrote. “Perfect!”
Finding those journals was a divine moment because I heard a whisper telling me, “You have these stories for a reason. Tell them.”
Weeks before Christmas, 1941
December 8, 1941. Japanese forces land in South Thailand and North Malaya. Singapore, at Malaya’s southernmost tip, was considered the Gibraltar of the East — impenetrable and guarded from the sea. “Who would have thought Singapore would fall?” Stella wrote in her journal.
“When war was very imminent, my parents thought we should all stay together with my grandparents and other family members. December 8 — all the morning papers, their headlines spelled “WAR” — Singapore bombed!”
“From that day and all through the week, we sat at the window and watched people moving, evacuating from the city. Families with all their belongings in trucks, cars, buses, bicycles, rickshaws, some walking — any kind of transportation people could move with. Every day the news in the papers, if anything, became more and more alarming. Finally, after a week, it was decided that we should evacuate and move out of the city.”
Stella and her family moved to a rubber estate, to a property owned by her father. They packed essentials — clothes, some valuables, dishes, silverware, food, sleeping mats and blankets — using a bull and wagon to transport heavier items as they walked. There was a small building on the property that had been used to cure and dry rubber sheets. It had an attic and that was where the women and children slept. The men camped outside in tents, and together, with others who had joined them on the land, they constructed an air raid shelter where all valuables and dry food in cans were hidden.
“We did not realize we were near a large electric power station that was a target for the enemy planes. So an order was given that no lights or lamps of any kind could be used after dusk. Very often we saw fighter planes in formations of 3s, 6s, 9s, and 12s.”
“Often” she continued, “our days were interrupted with sirens. Each of us carried a little food packet of biscuits, bread, and water and we would run to the shelter and wait for the all clear.”
I can’t fathom the sheer horror of my grandmother’s life then. What is it like to huddle together against the terror of your homeland invaded? To pray for daily protection — that every night you go to sleep, God shows mercy to you in allowing you to see dawn? To wonder if the ruling country that has occupied you for so long can withstand the onslaught of a more vicious power. Who could protect you?
This was life for Stella — a life Mia, God-willing, will never know.
“On Christmas day we had pitched a large tent in front for more space and accommodations,” remembered Stella. “The day after, there were a number of fighter planes, flying low, surveying mid-air. The day was noisy and we were scared. The sirens went on and we went into the shelter several times. By 8 p.m. we noticed search lights so near and low in the skies. Then, around midnight, there was fighting mid-air, and we heard shooting in flashes. None of us dare run and we all thought that was the end. We prayed, ‘God is our refuge and strength.’ After a whole hour of terror, everything stopped and got peaceful and quiet.”
Stella’s uncles, living with the family at the time, had been away on three days of volunteer service duty and when they returned, the shell-shocked group related their horrific story. The uncles ordered that the new tent be taken down immediately. “You see,” said Stella, “we did not realize the danger. It was an army tent we pitched, and it was thought and suspected to be a hideout of British soldiers.”
We are not a camping family, though Mia thinks it’s fun (from the few times we’ve done it). I think camping in a well-protected park with modern, maintained bathrooms is still heinous. Yet nearly 70 years ago, Stella’s family pitched a tent — camping for protection, — not vacation — and it almost cost them their lives.
“War is cruel,” Stella wrote in her journal. “And if civilians suffer atrocities from the hands of the reigning enemy power, cruelty is at its peak.” She knew this first hand.
“Two Indian doctors from a well known hospital in Johor Bahru [Malaysia] — a government-run hospital — were cruelly bayoneted and killed and their bodies were thrown into a trench dug by the hospital staff, who were forced to witness it. What was their crime? Giving medical aid and treatment to enemies of the Japanese military, who were hiding in the jungles of Malaya. I suppose the doctors were called traitors,” she said.
“One doctor was the father of my best friend [Mabel Luther], who was a dental student, and the other was her uncle.”
“Fortunately or mercifully,” Stella remembered, “she did not live to see this, as she was one of the first victims who lost her life during the shelling and bombing of Singapore. Ten other medical students were killed with her when they went to bury a friend — the first victim among them.”
Singapore was the jewel of the British Empire in Southeast Asia for 100 years. Nestled at the tip of Malaya — a country rich with natural resources such as rubber and tin, it was prime real estate in the region and the British weren’t fools. They did however, vastly underestimate Japan’s sheer will, and the results changed the landscape of that part of the world forever.
The Japanese army easily overran Malaya and beat a confident trek down toward Singapore. The allied soldiers — mainly British, Australian, and Indian troops — could not stop them.
“The Japanese army had conquered Malaya — a walk-through [their troops literally walked, rode tanks, and bicycled from their landing points in the north, to the South and onto Singapore]. The Sultan of Johor’s palace, overlooking the Johor causeway, had fallen into their hands,” said Stella. “The palace became the official headquarters of the Japanese under the command of their General Yamashita. Finally, in February, Singapore was captured. The Ford Motors building in Bukit Timah (facing the Singapore side of the causeway) was the headquarters of Lord Percival, commander of the British forces. General Yamashita gave him an ultimatum. Surrender or the water supply to Singapore will be cut off. Communication between the two commanders went back and forth across the causeway.”
Singapore fell February 15, 1942.
Mia has never known a night where she awoke to sheer terror, and not even summer thunderstorms with their sharp, cracking lightning or bad dreams have ever caused her to lose precious sleep. On the rare occasions she sleepwalks, she’ll stumble to our room only for her dad to gently guide her back to bed. In the middle of any given night, she has always found him when she’s needed him.
Stella also had a protector in her dad. So one night around 3 a.m., when the family was awakened by the sound of a truck in front of the house and three Japanese soldiers marched into the home “in a fury,” all hell broke loose.
“When my father tried to talk,” Stella remembered. “They shut him up by pointing with their bayonets.”
Stella’s dad, Mia’s great-great grandfather, was taken.
But by 8 a.m. the next morning he returned, sweaty and shaken. He unfolded the story to the terror of the entire family. Apparently, there was a false tip that Stella’s home housed anti-Japanese resistance fighters. So soldiers came for her father and took him to the local commander’s headquarters where he was forced to kneel at bayonet-point for hours. “He could only breathe silent prayers,” Stella said. “But then in walked another general and that was his own boss.”
“On seeing my father he said, ‘Mr. John-san, what is the matter?’” This general, whom Stella remembered was called Kigawa-san, got the true story from her father, and because he outranked all the other officers present, promptly arranged his release with the warning that the family needed to move immediately. So they did.
It would be three years before they would go home. Years before Stella would finally lay her head down on her own pillow, in her own bed, and sleep without fear.
And by then, she would be married.
As I write this, Mia is in bed, in her orange-accented room adorned with her hipster, red chair and key chain collection, and clothes tossed on the floor. I kissed her good night, making sure she’d put her glasses on the desk and didn’t forget her lip balm. Her favorite books are stacked next to her head between her pillows and the wall. Sometimes, if she wakes up before us, she’ll read for a bit. It’s a good habit, I think. Her love of reading will only feed her brilliance.
One day soon though, I’ll slip in these stories of her great-grandmother’s war-time survival into the stack.
She will read of the faith and courage that sustained a young woman when there appeared to be no hope. She will read of the strength and resilience that has been passed on to her, and understand how to use it. She will read the stories to recognize in herself, a person she never really knew.
Mia must know just how far she’s come.
1. Stella Rachel Rao, personal journal, 1980s-2001.
2. Barber, Noel. Sinister Twilight: The Fall of Singapore, Cassell, London, 1968, 2002.
3. Stein, R. Conrad. World at War: Fall of Singapore, Children’s Press, Chicago, 1982.
About Wilona: Wilona Karimabadi holds a master’s degree in nonfiction writing from The Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland with her husband and two children.