19 Dec 2016

A letter from a 50 yr-old to my Ma and Pa

Began Friday, 1 July 2016
1:53 PM

Dear Mother and Father, I will turn fifty at the end of this year. Considering that the earth may be 6000 years old, fifty is pretty old - just take a few zeroes away!

I so wish you both are around with me; living together in good health, mutual respect and easy love.

Of course this is an idealized state - except for the mutual respect which we clearly had -  and even that required a lot out of us.

Mother and my firstborn. Every grandchild knew your love.

I remember grumbling so much about you Father: that you did not have a job title I could report to my school teachers with pride. While my classmate rattled off 'driver, manager, hawker'; I had no clue what it was you actually did. That in turn triggered off memories of times when Mother would say quietly, "just tell the teacher I will pay her next week" , I wondered if you did anything for us. What was obvious were the Toto receipts, the smoking, and the long stretches of time you weren't at home. 

But of course, I was only just figuring out about life as a kid.

No one, absolutely makes pigs' tongue soup like you did. I can still taste it; clearly some fireworks went off in my brain the few times you ladled it out for us. The pasty combination of soy, onions and melt-in-your-mouth potatoes and the chewy bits of meat (I ate unquestioningly and avoided the unfamiliar looking bits with the gristly surface, but knowing it was tongue did not deter me in the slightest for I had been won over by the aroma and the taste!),

In my teens, my self-righteous indignation ruled me with a ferocity and I persuaded, scolded, debated and gave you the cold shoulder for the many imperfections I saw in you.

It would be a few years of such suffering for you before your daughter grew up more to realise that you have a personal story that may account for the person you are; and to develop a compassion and curiosity to know about it, and so treat you as a person and not just someone who owed me proper fatherhood.

Mutual respect took us a long time. But I am glad we reached that shore.

Probably out of convention, I asked you to all the most important occasions of my life: my baptism, graduation, and my first public sermon. Convention has its place for sure; because your presence normalised us - I now have regular photos with parents - and for sure, we are both glad for it.

We did grow to respect and like each other. If there is anything I feel sad about now; it is that you did not get to walk me down the aisle and blossom into the amazing Grandfather I am sure you would. My children will never get to hear you tell your lame jokes, play the accordion, and watch your favourite Hindi movies and follow every episode of whatever David Attenbrough was up to ( I was shocked one time when I heard the august commentator's voice and instantly recognised it). And of course, that soup.

I wonder if you tell stories about us in heaven.

One thing we felt sure would happen in heaven. In fact one of us dreamt about it even. It was that when Mom arrived, you were thrilled to bits but she ignored you, like she did on earth.

Mother, you are a wondrous mystery to me. You weren't perfect for sure, and you often lacked the wisdom to guide us as the world spun crazily fast in the decades of immense change. You had no words for what to study, who to date or marry, what to do for a living. 

You did better than that. You showed us that learning is something we can all do. You did not get to start school because the war broke out, but you did not shrink from learning: going out to work, basic English conversation,  singing, crochet, reading your Chinese Bible, swimming, using the ATM, traveling, cooking new dishes, dancing… Your life demonstrated the meaning of the word 'possibility'  for us. What a precious gift. We knew we could suggest anything to you and never feel put down.

When we felt like quitting, you wouldn't let us. Opportunities don't come easy. While you never pushed us in any direction; you showed us that some things are worth every sacrifice, and that effort is what counts. Your fierce commitment to the family, your pride, your core values are the lights for a family that had little and could have turned out very differently. You took illness, nasty relatives, work injustices, hunger, lack, all in your stride. Never once did I hear you whine, complain your lot or blame others, except the glaring frustration you had with the government when you applied for public housing. If it had to be done, you saw to it that it was.

You stayed up long nights to twirl old calendar pages into beads and strung them so we could have some beauty in the home.  At night, as we lay together like sardines on floor mats, you sang us the silly song about the boats at Clifford Pier that 'fell down' and ate dog shit. I never got to ask you where that came from. You did everything you knew to ensure the family would be provided for: cooking and selling fried noodles at dawn to folks making their way to work, operating a Tontine, going out to work at the hospital despite your aversion to it (just take the job that comes), joining an MLM briefly….and always, bringing whatever donation cards schools required of us to help us get it all filled out.

I dig not know it then although I certainly felt it - mothers have a way of being pervasive in their influence.

You grew up without a father, and your own Mother was a compulsive gambler. As a daughter, your future would be marriage. In the meantime, your older Brother must be cared for, and supported through school; so from an early age, your life was turned outwards to solve problems and care for others. You survived the war after being recruited to work in the soldier's mess, and your diligence sometimes paid off with a few sweet potatoes above the rice they paid you with. You figured out how to make a quick buck by selling theatre tickets at black market prices.

But when it came to your own life, you did not take charge as you had for others. Your mother took a liking to Father, in part because they were both gamblers and had good chats over their games. So despite your own conviction about the evils of gambling, you acquiesced and married Father - and stayed faithful to him all the long and hard years.

 We are a bundle of contradictions aren't we?

I am not sure why, Mother and Father; but I really want you to be proud of me.  I want you to know that your pain, suffering, sacrifices have meant something.

It feels unfair to me that only as a young adult, when I was beginning to take the effort to understand and truly appreciate the contours of your lives; that my life became so full of my dreams and commitments, that although our conversations and interactions could be so rich; they often stayed mundane and thin. That when the roles were reversing and I was meant to take charge, I was too absorbed with my world. I did not neglect you per se, but there is so much I want to say to you and do for you still.

And then, you left suddenly, painfully, and alone.

Some things in life just cannot be managed: the heart attack, the car accident.

Father, we could go bargain hunting together. I now see the value and fun in it.
Mother, where else did you want to travel to - for once - not in order to visit one of us?

I don't know how you two did it. In your authentic and courageous lives, I witnessed and received Providence, Grace, and Mercy. Through your refusal to give up on life, I have a legacy of resilience and optimism.

Fifty years feels a long time. You were more than half of it; and I am going to make sure you will always be a part of whatever remains….until we meet again. Then, let's read this letter together.

Jenni Popo

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