Sunday January 13, 2013
Tough saying goodbye to a house full of memories
By SHEELA K
Sometimes, it takes strength to say goodbye to a house full of memories of a lifetime.
IT WAS a quiet morning when Mum and I said farewell, trying to cope with the anxiety of change and moving forward.
Standing in the empty halls of my parents’ ancestral home, I stare at every nook and corner, and try to picture the activities that were once part of my growing years.
This was where I was born, where both my parents were also born and had settled down as newlyweds, and where my grandfather had retired after acquiring the property. Looking outside the window into the garden, I realised just how intimately connected I was to this place.
My siblings, cousins and I had spent many school holidays with my grandfather (Tata), learning religious hymns, seated crossed-legged on the cement porch at the main entrance to the house.
Tata used to make us sit in a circle and hand-fed all of us rice balls meshed up with curry, vegetables, yoghurt and papadam, every day for lunch.
At night, we each got a mug of fresh cow’s milk and slept under mosquitoes nets. The pitter patter of raindrops during the monsoon season was always accompanied by the harping croaks of water frogs and the acoustic rhythm of the grasshoppers.
Mornings were ever so cold because of the river nearby. But I always looked forward to thick chunks of Bengali roti with butter and jam, accompanied by hot Ovaltine.
I hated the dark bathroom and hot water baths, and resisted going to the squat toilet outside because of the smell and fear of falling into the pit below.
The rest of the day would be spent in the garden, pulling out the weeds amongst the hedges of orange ferns, netting butterflies and looking for spiders to keep in match-boxes.
Tata would normally treat us to twisted sugar candy, from the small retail shop down the dusty road.
On our walk back to the house, herds of cows and goats would be crossing the broken wooden bridge that linked Tata’s home to the main road. I hated the clumps of cow dung we had to pass along the way, which made all of us walk gingerly so as to not skid or smear our shoes.
When my father retired in the 80s, he focused on rebuilding the once dark, depilated bungalow kampung house which was constructed of wood and zinc.
As the sun slowly poured into a crack near Dad’s old workspace, I observed the rusty-coloured coffee stains, still apparent on the edge of the windowsill. This was where Mum had placed mugs of black coffee three times a day. She would call out to Dad to come get it, when it was still piping hot.
Losing track of time
Somehow, my father would lose track of time, since he spent every waking moment improving the home or working in the garden, regardless of the weather.
The garden was big with old trees, lots of greenery from ferns and the lawn, and a mass of flowers and herbs.
The neighbours would always end up on our steps, and my father would hold court – be it politics, landscaping, gardening, carpentry or family affairs.
When it was hot and humid, they would group under his favourite mangosteen tree, slurping sweet coconut juice from the shell, spooning out the silky white flesh with their fingers.
He was always so enthusiastic to show his retired mates his latest rose plants, orchids or different coloured rocks that he had gathered for his pots of cactus.
Mostly, he carried on as if better days were just around the corner. Mum knew that she could never get him to slow down. Routine became a habit. It was the only way they both made it from one day to the next.
My parents had hoped that they could share and spent more family time together with my siblings and grandchildren. Unfortunately, almost everyone had left the nest and was now leading very separate lives.
However, I decided to move nearer to my parents after the delivery of my youngest daughter. The uncertainties in my marriage made it an easy choice.
Spine of life
Every alternate weekend, I would commute by bus with my eldest daughter to get away from the hassle of chasing a new career and trying to cope with depression.
Those 90 minutes of travel time became the spine of my life, a ritual as hard and satisfying as any I had ever known.
Just the same, my own life would also be texturally enriched in a way I could not have conceived. I found optimism and confidence in doing less.
The change of mood and scenery blocked off the blinding urge to compete. I felt that I had the freedom to reflect positively, and shake off any inhibitions that would hinder my progress to grow mentally.
I was able to experience something even bigger under a broader sky at sunrise, when taking meditative walks up the hill to where the view from the top of an old Chinese temple made me feel vibrant and calm. The spiritual energy derived from prayers and the pulse of the century bell nearby, gave faith to those who lived in this kampung.
It made my parents feel that they had made the right decision to live the traditional way of life which had still remained unchanged in our kampung.
During the day, I took on cross-stitch, embroidery and patchwork, using Mum’s old Singer sewing machine. Using my hands made the reflexive mental grousing quiet as I became absorbed in the physical sensation of breathing.
During the lazy light and airy afternoons, I would take to making pickles from the sweet and sour mangoes that grew in our yard. Tata’s old earthen pots kept them marinated to perfection.
In the late evenings, the smell of wood smoke would rise from the glowing embers of dry weed and twigs, which gave a certain familiarity to the environment.
The gentle wind carried the softly blurred ringing of the Hindu temple bells, intermingled with the fragrance of jasmine and camphor incense. It often helped me to refuel and reconnect spiritually.
And by night, the lovely aromatic smell of supper, cooked using a variety of spices and condiments, would warf into our home.
Cuddling up to my children in this peaceful sanctuary, it made me realise that my life was rich with possibility. Yet, I also marvelled at how my parents had subdued themselves to a life of peaceful pauses.
When my father passed away, the last rites were conducted in this house. His grandchildren gathered flowers from our garden to place in his coffin.
Even though his passing was sudden, I believe that he had savoured much of life’s many experiences, expectations and had no use for possessions. He always believed that when you stop renewing, and are no longer open to change and the possibilities that continually unfold, you stop being alive and just try to get through the years.
Our home became dark and lifeless once again as Mum struggled to maintain the transformation. It was all taking a toll on her health.
Filled with memories
As I took a final walk around the outer parameters of my now soul-less home, I noticed the eroded banks of the river that had challenged my father’s spirit.
The grainy peeling walls lay testament to the battle scars against flash floods, white ants, damp and decay. The once admired garden is now deserted and filled with dried lalang, and dead trees lay over a stagnant mushy terrain.
The near total silence gave closure to the kampung house filled with memories.
My worries, concern and despair had reduced immensely, after having made a conscious decision to place the property on sale.
I close my eyes and breathe deeply, realising that I will no longer be haunted by things left undone. It was time for Mum and I to hand over the keys to the new owner.
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