Mei, my youngest sibling, celebrated her birthday recently. We were sent a couple of pics. They were the usual family pics, taken in a restaurant for the occasion. A nephew (YJ) was in that pic, showing a rare smile. We visited that boy when he was a little toddler living in Shenzhen, some 8-9 years ago.
This morning as I looked at my phone and saw that message thread again, I tried to work out how old Mei is now. As I often do, the next arithmetic I did was to figure out how old my dad was, when Mei was born.
Mei is sort of a nickname my mum gave my youngest sister. Her formal name is Cheng Sim. I wondered if that name reflected my dad’s thoughts at that time or was it my mum’s. I wondered if it was more an aspirational name, than one which reflected the state of my parent’s lives.
He was 34 years old when Mei was born. By today’s measure, that is an age when one is firing on all cylinders, building a career and probably a family. Back in the early 70’s I cannot imagine it was materially different. Dad would have been working hard to build on both his business and his family. My brother, the eldest, was only 8 years old. When you’re 34 and a father of 4 kids with the oldest being 8 years old, your whole life is ahead of you, with loads of hard work to get through. So I wondered if that name – Cheng Sim – was more aspirational, perhaps for Mei.
I don’t know if Mei’s life now is in a state of “equilibristical” equanimity. Goh’s in China for the most part, YY her eldest, is doing his O-levels equivalent this year and she lives with mum, who I gather from my sister in law, sometimes withdraw from daily activities Mei’s involved in where her boys are concerned. I think there’s the simple everyday differences of thoughts and actions in chores like cooking and cleaning and if I remember my mum’s demeanour, the withdrawal is probably to minimise hotspots. You know – conflict resolution by minimising points of contact. More so than a lack of interest in Mei’s life. Whatever the reason, if it doesn’t add to Mei’s state of mind in a way that detracts from her formal name, that in itself is a feat in my books.
Last Sunday Mike McNamara spoke on Ecclesiastes 3. He belted out a line of The Seekers’ famous song at one point. I wonder if the time when Mei’s state of mind is at one with her formal name, will come soon, or she’s already “living the dream”.
I remember saying to Kiddo, we sometimes live in an era of the “7 fat cows” and at other times, the “7 lean cows” reign. The phenomenon which sees our wellbeing and prosperity ebb and flow should have been obvious and givens, yet that is often an over optimistic expectation. Many feel the shock and pain of hard times. It is very difficult, during lean times, to lift up one’s head to look beyond the present drought.
I know that we were never rich, not by any stretch of any imagination. I distinctly remember the house we lived in when Mei was born. It was a rented house. The landlord was a teacher’s association and the house was very small, sparse and austere. That meant low rent. My mum stretched the dollar and my dad partitioned the front living room into two bedrooms. The actual bedrooms became store rooms for the wares my dad was hawking as a self-employed small businessman. He and mum often worked late into the night. One room had toys in large cardboard cartons. They were goods my dad traded in. Another room had re-packaged food stuffs. My dad dealt mainly with “Ve-Tsin” (a front runner of Aji Nomoto, an MSG), and baby formula. He bought large drums of both and repackaged them into smaller packs to be sold by small retailers in “kedai runcit” (sundry/provision shops) of villages across the country. The distributor was Harper Trading and deliveries of large drums of both would arrive intermittently. My dad would cart large drums with Ve-Tsin and/or powdered milk into one of the two rooms, remove the lids, and start divvying up the contents for re-packaging. Sometimes we helped with the latter task.
Tress often poked fun at my tendencies to buy new socks and undies. I believe these tendencies found their roots in that house when we were poor. My undergarments were often old, loose and tattered and I hardly ever had new ones. My “new items” were hand me downs, from either my brother or my uncles (dad and mum’s younger brothers). Loose socks and undies or those with holes, still make me totally uncomfortable, physically and psychologically.
Poor as we were, we were not unhappy as children. We sometimes had road trips, often just day trips but occasionally, we ventured all the way up north to Penang or down south to Singapore. A “Ching Clan Association” provided holiday “villas” at cheap rents and those trips were very memorable. Sleep-overs in grandparents places also burnished wonderful memories. The rickety upstairs rooms of the coffee shop just off the roundabout near the Klang Istana (my maternal grandparents’ home) and the estate manager’s bungalow in the middle of a rubber plantation (my paternal grandparents’) in Kampong Jawa were great cradles to create caches of consciousness. As I grow older, they are the memories which often come to the fore.
My wonderful childhood aside, it doesn’t take away the fact that we were poor. Dad, at 34 years old and with years of toil ahead of him to raise a young family, had the courage to name his youngest child Cheng Sim. Maybe it was aspirational for both him and mum, as well as for Mei. I hope (and believe) his last days were peaceful. Likewise, the days ahead for both mum and Mei.