Wednesday January 23, 2013
Cherished memories of the cherry tree
By LEE TAI WAH
Left to their own devices, children learn a lot from the lessons that Nature has to offer.
THE Malaysian cherry tree can grow to about 6m tall and has numerous lateral branches which grow horizontally. As such, from afar, it resembles an umbrella. It has small white flowers which bloom throughout the year and give rise to the small cherry fruits. The unripe fruit is hard and green but turns soft and succulent with a thin red skin on ripening. Some birds love the ripe fruit.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time up in the cherry tree which grew beside our house. It was my sanctuary. Up there, I could lie down on a bed of branches with the foliage providing ample shade and I could watch when the bees, butterflies and birds dropped by.
The bird that I liked the most was small, fluffy, apple-green in colour and had a long, curved beak. It would hover and dart around the flowers and cherries with its wings flapping rapidly. I think it was a hummingbird.
Sometimes I could spot a fellow “watcher” amongst the leaves. It was the tree lizard. It was green and about 30cm long with a fine, long tail. It had ridges along its back and a red patch on its cheek. The lizard was waiting to feast on my precious bees and butterflies, and I would chase it away.
At times I would day-dream about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their adventures along the banks of the Mississippi, the fairies, elves and leprechauns of Ireland, fishing in the South Sea Islands ... Sometimes I would doze off.
Whenever I had a fight with my elder brother, I would seek refuge in the tree, while he stomped around, fuming. Sometimes he would pretend to head home but I was not that easily fooled. Soon, he would be furtively peeping from behind our neighbour’s house.
In case you are wondering why my brother did not climb up the tree after me, well, let me explain. The wood of the cherry tree is hard and elastic; as such, the branches do not break easily and are quite flexible. If one were to climb towards the end of the branch, it would just bend downward and if the branch were long enough, it would touch the ground. Hence, climbing down one of its long branches is very much like climbing down a ladder.
The one time that my brother climbed up the tree after me, I waited until he had almost reached me before quickly climbing down via a branch. When I stepped off the branch on reaching the ground, it sprang back and the whole tree shook. I could see my brother clinging to the tree for dear life, his face as white as a sheet and his eyes filled with terror, as I scooted off.
My brother is a year older than me and my grandpa named him after our town, Tai Ping, which in Chinese means everlasting peace. He was always prim and proper and neatly dressed with his shiny hair plastered down with Brylcreem, while I preferred the natural look. The only time I combed my hair was when I had to go to school. My brother was everything I never was; he was the class monitor, school prefect, librarian and badminton captain. And, being the first-born, he was my father’s favourite.
Although Tai Ping and I had our differences, we had great times together, too. I remember during one Lantern Festival, our parents could not afford to buy lanterns for us, so we made our own. It was just candles stuck onto half a coconut shell. They were nothing like the pretty and colourful lanterns that the other kids had, but we were happy.
There was also the time when our father bought us a battered old bicycle. It was too big for us but that did not prevent us from learning how to ride it, although we fell many times. Despite the scrapes and bruises, we enjoyed ourselves. I remember well an occasion when Tai Ping was carrying me on the bicycle; we crashed into someone’s garden and sent the flower pots flying. We “groaned in pain” when the startled house owner came out and when he hurried into the house for the first aid box, we quickly made our escape.
Then there were the times when we secretly went swimming at Austin Pool located at the foothills near Klian Pauh. To reach the pool, we had to walk about a kilometre along a sandy deserted path lined with Simpoh Ayer and Monkey Apple trees. (The Simpoh Ayer tree is short with bright yellow cup-shaped flowers, similar to the Buttercup, and large leaves which are often used for wrapping meat, fish and char koay teow. The Monkey Apple tree is short with large, broad leaves and small, green, apple-shaped fruits which turn yellow when ripe. The ripe fruit has a soft, reddish flesh with numerous seeds).
Mother had forbidden us to go swimming, so we had to wait until our shorts were dry before going home. Sometimes, when no one was around, we would swim in the nude.
Tai Ping also taught me how to make kites from bamboo strips and light kite paper. On windy days, we would fly our kites high up in the sky. Those were such fun times.
Then, one day, he changed. He only wanted to be with his new “grown-up” friends. When I wanted to tag along, he would not allow it and I was left to play by myself. Even though I had made some terrific new kites, he did not want to fly them with me anymore. Flying kites alone was no fun.
It was then that I met Ah Heng who was from a nearby rubber estate. His whole family were rubber tappers. Though Ah Heng was around my age, he was a rubber tapper, too. The family lived in a green longhouse built on stilts inside the estate.
On a few occasions, I followed them when they went to work early in the morning when it was still dark. Every one of them had a lamp on his or her head and they headed up the hill in groups, singing Chinese love songs at the top of their voices, before splitting up to tap rubber in a certain area, still singing.
I think the loud singing was to frighten off wild animals such as wild boars and leopards which may have stolen into the estate from the neighbouring hills during the night and to let each other know that they were safe.
In the dark and chilly morning, I could see the light of their lamps bobbing around like fireflies and hear their songs resounding through the hill. I don’t think I can ever forget that spectacle.
Later, our family shifted to Kamunting Village which was about a mile away. I soon found new friends who taught me how to play basketball, catch fighting fish and play billiards. I was lonely no more.