Pedigree

Most of us feel angst about our families, and I am no exception. For all the growls, snaps and nips that have gone on, I have never taken the time to think about my family to the extent of writing about them. I think it’s because I take them for granted. I know I shouldn’t.

I enjoy telling people that I have six grandparents. Both my grandfathers, true to ancient chauvinistic custom, married twice (that I know of). Both my parents were born of second wives. The paternal bunch is Teochew and the maternal is Cantonese. The only grandparent I really know is my paternal granny. She played a large part in raising me when both my parents were bringing home the joint bacon, with the result that Teochew practically became my mother tongue. I could even sing Teochew songs.

While my dialect proficiency has declined calamitously over the years, my granny has remained pretty much the same. Although past ninety, her mind and tongue are razor-sharp. Without the benefit of education, she still manages to read Mandarin subtitles more quickly than I can, which says a lot about the time I spent in school. She also beats my uncles in the art of dissecting dinner chickens. She is my role model in the event I get to grow old like her.

As the second son of this dragon lady, my dad developed a diametrically opposite personality. He was a quiet, sensitive, artistically-inclined boy. It only stood to reason that he chose as his wife another formidable woman, thereby sandwiching himself between two powerhouses who further complicated things by speaking different languages.  

My parents met as engineering students at the Singapore Polytechnic, got married and went to Leeds University for four years. My dad described this as ‘pooling resources’. He is, at heart, a romantic, but is not immune to the use of Singaporean euphemisms. A national classic is the marriage proposal, which goes, “You want to share flat or not?”. Fortunately for me (and him), my husband heroically stuck with, “Will you marry me?”.

Back to my parents. My mum was something of a superwoman. She won a gold medal at the Polytechnic, went on to an illustrious engineering career and took great pains to ensure my education and intelligence. You should have seen the cane marks I received for failing to obtain ninety-five percent on class tests. But I’m sure she loved me very much.

I use the past tense because she died when I was twelve. A blood vessel burst in her brain early one morning, and it was too late by the time she got to hospital.

I’ve always felt that the greatest loss was felt by my little brother. The cremation took place on his fifth birthday, which was absolutely terrible timing. After having left the bulk of my academic and moral upbringing to my mum, my dad didn’t really know what to do with my brother, so we all left it and simply hoped for the best. Although he was unutterably cute and extremely bright, my brother was also a clingy, screaming child, prone to rolling on supermarket floors the moment he was thwarted of some toy or snack, so things were difficult with him for some years. He dropped out of a good school at one point, and I worried about him getting into cigarettes, drugs and gangs.

I can’t say for sure if he ever tried those things, but I am damn proud that they never became an issue. On the contrary, he’s turning out to be a caring, talented young man with a special brand of humour that cracks me up every time. And he’s still cute.

This is the stock from which I come. It’s far from perfect, but it is mine.

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