Mourning & Memory: Recommendation Letters

I had discovered the letter while packing to leave for New York city. Sitting in the corner of a drawer was this sheet of folded paper, slightly yellowed with age.

Two words on it stood out: “Ngan Yow”.

That was the name of my grandmother, who had passed away 13 years ago. As both my parents work, she raised me up as a child. We used to share the room in the apartment, until she died when I was 16.

Before she took care of me full-time, my grandmother was an “amah”. It was what the British called domestic servants in Singapore when they still ruled the country. But I never knew much more than that, until I read the letter last August.

It was a recommendation written by her employer, a Mr. Michael J Cook. In 1980, some four years before I was born, my grandmother had decided to retire after serving the Cooks for 20 years. I later found out that she could finally afford her own apartment and my father, as well as both of my aunts, were already working.

The letter was addressed “To Whom It May Concern”, but it felt like a personal ode I had never written to my grandmother. Mr Cook praised her for being hardworking and reliable. I remember waking up bleary-eyed daily to see my grandmother up and about preparing breakfast and working on chores. Mr Cook said she cooked both Western and Chinese food. How can I forget the butter cakes and Cantonese soups that I never got to taste again? At the end of the letter, Mr Cook wrote, “It is with regret that we see Ngan Yow leave us after such a long time…”

I miss my grandmother too.

Ngan Yow

In many ways, recommendation letters are a kind of mourning. They are only written when someone you care about is leaving — to seek employment elsewhere or in pursuit of further studies. Writing it is bittersweet: as you pen what you loved about the person, you recall the good times together. It only makes the departure more poignant.

Reading Mr Cook’s letter reminded me how much I’ve lost with my grandmother’s passing. Her death was sudden, and I never got to say a proper goodbye.

I also thought of the recommendation letter a close friend wrote for my application to graduate school in New York. He had been the least excited about my departure, and I found out why when he insisted I read what he wrote. In it, he confessed it was selfish to have discouraged me from leaving, but only because of he would miss the great times we had together. In the end, he realized I wasn’t leaving, but going some place better for my career.

That is the other side of recommendation letters — they are messages of hope. They contain good memories we have of the departed, and the wish they end up someplace better too.

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Written for Akiko’s Busch Reading Design class at D-Crit.

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