Roots and Wings: The Reunion
My paternal grandmother passed away this January. With her passing, and with the traditional Chinese observance of not holding any celebrations within 49 days of a loved one’s death, there won’t be any reunion dinner.
My Popo, my paternal grandmother passed away on the 15th of January.
This upcoming Chinese New Year would have been her year, the year of the Horse. She was 96 when she passed, felled by two strokes.
She was born in 1918, married when she was just 16 and became a widow when she was just 51. She was born in the midst of a world raging from its first World War and she lived through the second World War and many more wars after that. The world was changing through industrialization and through technological progress. Yet, she always seemed to be in the eye-of-the-storm, unperturbed and unaffected by it all. At the heart of it, she was a simple woman, a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother.
She took care of my brother and I when we were young, cooking our favourite dishes of Hainanese Pork Chops and my favourite, her buttery scrambled eggs that she made with condensed milk and lots of butter. I would speak to her in my imperfect blend of Hainanese, English and Chinese and she used to scold me in her Cantonese : “Sam Seng Poh!”, meaning ‘tomboy’, because I was always running around, taking the feather dusters that she used to cane us when we were naughty and hiding them behind the piano.
I miss my Popo. I miss the soft skin of her cheeks when I would kiss her, her kindly eyes, the fleshy knob on her ankle that I used to play with as a child, the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled.
She would always bake her mouth-wateringly delicious butter cakes and pineapple tarts for the Chinese New Year and she did that well into her 80’s. She was the centre of every Chinese New Year celebration, for she was the oldest and most senior member of our family. She was the main root of the family.
With her passing, and with the traditional Chinese observance of not holding any celebrations within 49 days of a loved one’s death, it will be the first Chinese New Year that my family will not be celebrating.
There won’t be any reunion dinner.
Which makes me all the more grateful that I was able to fly back from Los Angeles to Singapore to attend her funeral. I got to reunite with all the members of the extended family and to share in the communal grieving. I saw many cousins and aunts and uncles that I had not seen in years. I recognized many of Popo’s old friends.
It was wonderful to see how many lives Popo had touched, to see how many branches had extended out of her giving her life to raise her 4 sons and 3 daughters. The family knitted itself together as we went through traditional ritual Buddhist practices of wearing white, pinning coloured squares to our clothing, depicting our individual status in the family, (I wore a blue coloured square to denote granddaughter) gathering together, lined up by hierarchy, to offer up prayers.
Conversations took place around the many tables surrounding the wake, where relatives caught up with each other and shared stories about Popo. And many meals were shared under that void deck where Popo’s wake was held.
To me, this was our ‘reunion dinner’.
When a great big old tree is felled, the birds scatter, a hole is made in the forest canopy and the forest is never quite the same. But there is much hope still. For the fruit that fell from the branches of that tree will fall into ground softened by the tears that will inevitably be shed at the transition of one generation to the next.
The fruit will in time be shared, and partaken of, shedding itself to give its seed to the earth and thus become trees themselves, with branches spreading wide, interlacing with other trees, sheltering a whole new generation.
Life goes on in its varied colours. New life. And what comes before gives way to that new life.
Such is the essence of any New Year celebration regardless of culture or ethnicity. It is a time to reflect on what has been, what has nurtured us, the blessings we have had, and the hopes that we carry for the future. It is a time to realize what a wonderful blessing it is to be part of something greater than ourselves, to be part of tradition, history and the ever unfolding story of the family.
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Top photo by Corrinne May.