By Janice Teo
As far as stepmothers go, Lily Cordeiro drew the short straw. A very short straw. Lily's parents divorced when she was two and her stepmother subjected the young girl, already traumatised by her mother's departure, to almost daily beatings, teasing and merciless taunting.
Often she would promise her stepdaughter an outing only to leave her behind and take her own daughter instead. Lily cried herself to sleep almost every night and wet the bed until she was seven.
She carried the trauma into her adult life. Timid and compliant, she was an easy target for the office manager, who was a bully and would ridicule her in front of other staff by making her do the most menial of tasks even though she was the head of her department.
Conditioned never to fight back, she internalised the abuse so much she would shiver and cry every time the manager approached her. Her situation soon became known and the company sent her to see a psychiatrist every morning before work. Blinding headaches, the result of stress and fear, were constant companions.
"My stepmother was so cruel to me," said Lily, who turns 88 this year. "I think that's why I never learned how to love properly. I thought maybe that was how to bring up children so I didn't love my own son the way I should have. I said cruel things to him also."
The memories suddenly came flooding back. A pause. A tremble in the lower lip. Eyes suddenly tearful.
Thankfully, life as an adult had its fair share of good times. Lily loved dancing and pictures of her at parties show a happy young woman.
But the confidence and polish were just for show. Inside, she struggled with poor self-esteem and avoided being the centre of attention at all costs. She often said she felt she was somehow misshapen.
In 1986, she moved to Perth, Western Australia and was glad for the fresh start. But still, something was missing.
Lily attended a Christian school in Singapore and remembers one of her teachers as being a very God-fearing woman.
"I didn't really understand much but growing up in a Christian school I was always aware of God. I remember one night when I was so fearful of my stepmother, I think I had a vision or a dream of God standing over my bed and watching over me."
Friends and relatives in Perth would invite her to church services but she always refused saying "if God is everywhere I don't need to go to church. Besides so many Christians are hypocrites."
One day she was invited to a church lunch. With many Singaporeans and Malaysians in its congregation, the menu promised dishes Lily hadn't eaten for years. She agreed to go even if it meant having to sit through the service first.
"I went to the service and at the end the pastor asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to become Christians," she remembered. "I was horrified. I thought he was so rude! I couldn't think of anything worse than walking to the front of the church with everyone staring at me!"
That afternoon she told the friends who brought her she would never set foot in church again. Then the following Friday they got an unexpected call from her. "I told them I don't know why but I wanted to go back," Lily said.
"Till today if you ask me why I changed my mind I don't know. I only know something inside told me I had to go back."
Dreading the pastor's invitation to come to the front to pray and ask Jesus into her life, Lily sat in the back row so she could make a quick getaway.
She never made it out the door. When the invitation came, something made her get up and walk to the front. "I don't know what happened," she says, laughing. "I only knew I had to walk down and pray for God to come into my life. Usually I am so shy of anyone looking at me but this time I didn't feel shy at all!"
Lily says her life has changed dramatically since the day she made a commitment to Jesus Christ.
"God has made everything beautiful with me," she says. "Now I have peace and joy. No more fear. I am still quite timid but I don't have that same kind of shaking or terror of people."
She said her most significant breakthrough came during a church camp. The speaker prayed over her and she was overcome by the power of God. She said she definitely felt God's presence during that time and she knew she had been healed.
"My life is so good now," she says. "God has made my life perfect. I have never been so happy as I have since becoming a Christian. Now my life has meaning and purpose. God has given me my life back. My son and I have reconciled. I will always praise God for what He has done in my life."
Where she once avoided gatherings, she now shows up faithfully for prayer meetings and Bible studies. Lily has not lost her reluctance to be in the limelight but shine she has - many testify to her faithfulness, her humility, her kindness and generosity.
Lily says: "The most important thing is this: Give God your life. He will make everything beautiful and you will have so much peace and love. He is wonderful. He is beautiful. Nothing can compare."•