Surviving WWII and the pandemic: Life lessons from a 104-year-old great-grandmother

104-year-old Tok flashes a peace sign. (PHOTO: Darzian Darbi)
104-year-old Tok flashes a peace sign. (PHOTO: Darzian Darbi)

MALAYSIA – Surrounded by her beloved family, Tok, at 104, is perfectly happy. Her days are filled with warmth and affection of her family, good food, lots of rest, and reading the Quran. She smiles at her 38-year-old granddaughter, who loves to dress her up and do her makeup, and she sleeps when she wants to.

As Tok says, “When you get to my age, the concept of time is different. I know day and night by looking out the window. If it is bright, surely it is daytime. And if it is dark, it’s nighttime.”

Born on 6 October 1916, at Sungai Nipah Darat, Bagan Datoh, Perak, Malaysia, Hjh. Rahmah Bt. Hj. Salleh, or Tok, will be 105 years old in 2021. Over that century, she has survived childhood poverty, Japanese patrols looking for comfort women, and now the coronavirus pandemic.

Ironically she is not even aware that she has survived the pandemic.

“There’s a pandemic? I’m not aware of any pandemic (laughs). Pandemic? That sounds scary. But I’ve been staying indoors most of the time with my son and his family.

“I don’t go out because I can’t stand for too long these days and I prefer to be at home with family. I don’t like being alone. It’s scary. I like seeing other people at home,” says Tok via the translation of her granddaughter, Darzian Darbi. Tok’s son, Darbi B. Hashim, is Darzian’s father.

“Tok is 105 this year, and her hearing is not so fantastic,” Darzian explained to Yahoo Lifestyle SEA, with a smile.

I’m a Survivor

Tok poses with her granddaughter, Darzian Darbi. (PHOTO: Darzian Darbi)
Tok poses with her granddaughter, Darzian Darbi. (PHOTO: Darzian Darbi)

While her life now is filled with ease, during her life, Tok has experienced physical hardship and fear, alongside three marriages, three divorces, and bringing up three children as a single mother.

“[Our] way of life was sombre and demure. We were struggling to make ends meet, busy surviving the peasant life,” explained Tok.

During World War II and the Japanese invasion of Malaysia, Tok experienced the danger and fear of a child in an occupied country.

“I can’t remember what took place during the war, [but] I do remember feeling scared,” says Tok. “We lived deep in the rural area of Sungai Nipah, Bagan Datoh, Perak, where even the Japanese (army) could not venture that often. But we were still always vigilant.

“There were stories or rumours circulating within the community of girls or women being snatched or kidnapped by the Japanese soldiers. Some of these ladies were never heard of again, while some managed to return to the village but partially dressed.

“This never happened to anyone I knew of, but we were still always careful. I just followed the advice of my elders. Where my mother went, I would go. What my mother said, I would follow.

“Whenever a news spread in the village that the Japanese soldiers were coming, we would hide in the ceiling of our stilted home,” she added.

Her remembrance of obedience as a child during a time of war leading to safety makes Tok think about the world’s current state. Her thoughts turn to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It sounds serious from what my family members told me. You better take care and follow instructions. Obedience helped me get through the war; maybe obedience will also help all of us get through this pandemic?” she said.

Family is forever

Family portrait. (PHOTO: Darzian Darby)
Family portrait. (PHOTO: Darzian Darby)

Experiencing the dramatic changes of the last century, the change Tok has enthusiastically welcomed is to have warmer relationships with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

“Time has changed. People change. When I was younger, people during my time were more reserved, more tradition-bound,” Tok replied.

“There was love, but love and affection were not shown or professed freely. There was a generational gap between my grandparents and me, and during that period in life, people had no time to play or joke around.

“I am not the same grandmother that my grandmother was toward me. I am much closer and affectionate with my grandchildren and even my great-grandchildren," she added.

Being a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother is an important part of Tok’s identity. When asked to describe the most exciting events in her long life, Tok chose her family.

“I am just a simple kampung lady who has led a very simple life. A life of struggle as a single mother trying to raise my three children. Been married and divorced three times.

“It’s hard to find excitement in life’s experience when life hasn’t always been easy. Motherhood [has been] the most exciting experience for me," Tok shared.

Family is so important to Tok that she even puts up with Darzian dressing her in fashionable clothes and giving her a fashionable makeup look.

“My granddaughter (Darzian) thinks I am a young woman,” Tok said, while laughing and waving her away.

“I always tell her I am shy and that it doesn’t feel appropriate for a woman my age to have makeup on. My granddaughter would reply, ‘that’s nonsense, Tok’. My granddaughter loves dressing me up and applying makeup on me.

“She tells me I look beautiful, and I play along with her. We play dress-up and makeup during weekends. On weekdays I am usually in my batik and baju kurung Kedah.

“I don’t mind it; sometimes I just check with my granddaughter so that she doesn’t use red lips or any dark colours.

“The makeup doesn’t stay on me for too long, because usually, I would wipe off the makeup and my granddaughter would moan, ‘Why, Tok … Why?!’" Tok laughed.

Laughter - and family - is the best medicine

Darzian bonds with her grandmother over fashion makeovers. (PHOTO: Daezian Darby)
Darzian bonds with her grandmother over fashion makeovers. (PHOTO: Daezian Darby)

It is obvious how much Tok loves and relies on her family, and equally as obvious how much they love and rely on her. Tok’s health is good despite her many years, something she appreciates but not something she has much thought about. When asked how she has stayed healthy and lived so long, Tok laughs and says she really doesn’t have an answer.

“It could be the will of Allah. It could be the prayers from my children or family members. It could also be the food my son and daughter-in-law feed me,” Tok said, returning to the importance of family.

“At my son’s home, we always eat together. We have breakfast, lunch, teatime, and dinner together, and I enjoy it. It is nice eating together with the family. I just eat and drink whatever is being prepared.

“At this age, I put my trust in my family members. If they say it is good for me, I don’t argue,” Tok said.

Never lose your faith

Tok flashes a smile after her 'beauty' makeover. (PHOTO: Darzian Darby)
Tok flashes a smile after her 'beauty' makeover. (PHOTO: Darzian Darby)

For Tok, her long life has always been about family and the people she loves. The one thing she misses from her earlier life is her mother.

“Make sure you raise your children well, with family values and a sense of responsibility because when you reach my age, you will be lucky to be still cared for, looked after and loved," Tok added.

“Success isn’t about the things that you have, rather it is the people you have, who you can trust your life with when you are old when you have nothing left to offer. Never lose your faith and trust in God.”

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