The first time you hear the three words, you learn how love is supposed to sound. You learn how to say it, then to listen for it, hoping the people you say it to say it back.
It's not until much later in life that you realise love exists in variations, and 'have you eaten?' sounds a lot like 'I love you' if you listen close enough.
But talk is free, or so Mrs Evelyn Koh, a mother of three, believes. Everyone can talk. The 63-year old housewife has a refreshing and practical take on the topic of love.
"I love my children through providing food and taking care of their everyday needs. Don't need to say 'I love you' lah. This is already love."
Her daughter, Koh Li-Yen, concurs: "It's true! We can't take it. We're a traditional Chinese family who expresses concern through actions."
Li Yen, an accountant, started making contributions to her mother's CPF account after her Dad took ill.
Theirs is a typical Asian parent-child relationship, where love is doled out through an extra spoonful of rice, measured by attempts at trying to build a better life for the next generation through savings plans.
"We don't really celebrate Mother's Day. My mom doesn't believe in once-a-year events. She also does floral arrangements, so she will scold us if we buy her something she can make herself."
Mrs Koh nods, the undisputed Chief Financial Officer of the family according to her daughter. "Roses die anyway. What can you do with a dead rose? Mother's Day only benefits businesses."
This frugality is largely due to their easy contentment with life. Growing up, Li-Yen wondered why her family did not have financial difficulties, despite her dad being the sole breadwinner. Mrs Koh would tell her that it is because they spend within their means and mainly on food.
The Kohs also bonded through simple activities, such as walks at nearby parks or watching airplanes take off at the airport. They have always been close — I know this partly because they tell me, partly because I sense the quiet self-assuredness that comes from knowing you have been loved in ways you can't repay.
Mrs Koh, a homemaker, doubles up as her family's chef and CFO.
This strand of unwavering, unconditional love also underlies Li-Yen's recollection of her dad's recent illness. The soft-spoken accountant speaks more surely; it is a fresh memory.
When her dad took ill, she realised that her parents had clean forgotten about buying healthcare insurance for themselves because they had been using their income for their children's needs. Her mom left her job more than 30 years ago to be a housewife.
Her dad's health scare came as a reality check for the family – Li-Yen needed greater peace of mind. While everyone's basic healthcare needs are covered under MediShield Life, she decided that an Integrated Shield Plan (IP) might suit her family's needs better as it gave them an option for medical care with their choice of a doctor and at private hospitals. She then looked up how much she could use from her Medisave to pay the additional premiums for the private insurance component of the IP for her mom and herself*.
"It was then that I discovered that I could do cash top-ups for her CPF Retirement Account (RA) and get tax relief for myself. I give her a monthly cash allowance, but I'm glad to top up her RA too," Li-Yen says.
Contributing to her mom's CPF retirement sum every month also means Li-Yen, 37 this year, gets to ensure her mom a future like the childhood she was given: one without worry for basic expenses.
"Hopefully the rest of my children can follow Li-Yen's example. The CPF interest rate is very good and the money that she puts into my CPF will be streamed out as monthly payouts for my retirement, which helps me save. Otherwise, once you see money, you'll spend."
* There are Additional Withdrawal Limits (AWLs) to enable Singaporeans and Permanent Residents to use Medisave, up to a cap, to pay for the additional premiums for the private insurance component of IPs. The AWLs apply on top of the amount of Medisave used for MediShield Life premiums. More information can be found here.
The view from the Kohs' family home in Bedok. They have been staying in the same HDB flat for over 30 years.
Even their disagreements are built on a similar strain of love: Mrs Koh just wants Li-Yen to enjoy a good life. The weight of a mother's love extends beyond the present and beyond the self, naturally leaving its mark in every decision.
That is why she also keeps her problems from her children. "They already have their own stress, why exert more? It's better to solve things on my own."
Her mom's selflessness can rub off as stubbornness, Li-Yen admits. "Sometimes we only realise her problems after they have been solved. We get angry and ask her to talk to us in the future, but she still doesn't. We have to learn to sense it."
This isn't the only aspect that mother and daughter have differing opinions on: Li-Yen claims her mom is an extrovert, though Mrs Koh insists she is quite aloof.
"My mom naturally commands respect. She has high expectations and my siblings and I can't even live up to half, no matter how hard we try."
It is a familiar thought: every child grows up thinking their parents are heroes, and we all want to make our heroes proud. But pride is a complex emotion, and the reach for it can be equally fulfilling and frustrating.
Then Mrs Koh recalls: "My daughter and I were from the same school, with the same Chinese teacher. I remember asking him how Li-Yen's Chinese was, and he told me, 'Better than yours!' That's what I wanted to hear."
You don't have to tell someone you love them to love them. The pride shines through Mrs Koh's voice, and I know Li-Yen hears it too.
I wonder if Mrs Koh has ever felt she's not good enough. A wistfulness passes over her face. "Yes," she trails off, both of us content with leaving her answer open-ended.
During the photoshoot, Li-Yen adjusts her mom's blouse, smoothing it lightly over her shoulders so it sits just right. Then her hair. They meet each other's eyes. The forced intimacy cracks them up. The photographer clicks away.
In one afternoon, I am reacquainted with the sound of love. It is unspoken but heard clearly, extremely quiet but incredibly loud.
The Kohs believe in planning for the future, no matter your age. The CPF Retirement Sum Topping-Up Scheme gives them peace of mind by helping them build retirement savings — for oneself or for loved ones. These top-ups can be carried out via e-cashier, OCBC Internet Banking or GIRO. Read more about the scheme here.
This article first appeared on RICE Media.