Thursday, October 21

Ruminations on the festive seasons of long past

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THE 15 days of the Chinese New Year celebrations have finally come to an end. There is one less excuse to indulge in gluttony, which was a part of the festivities that I used to look forward to, not that I am able to appreciate them fully now since I am on a low-protein diet.

In many ways, I miss the hustle and bustle leading up to the day when my parents were alive and the family was larger. Preparations would begin one month earlier when the larder was slowly filled to the brim with groceries for the several feasts that would be served during that period.

The entire house was then symbolically rid of its stale aura with a broom made from bamboo twigs during spring cleaning. Regular curtains and cushion covers were replaced with those reserved for auspicious occasions. The crisp air after all the cleaning made the sense of anticipation even more exciting.

Before the crack of dawn on new year’s day, the womenfolk were already busy cooking up a scrumptious spread of vegetarian lunch for about 50 relatives who would be visiting us later in the morning. That was my favourite meal of the entire year as it was the only time I got to savour those dishes.

My father, being the eldest in the family, had the privilege of having his siblings and relatives dropping in to pay their respects to him. For some, that was the only opportunity for us to get together as we were busy with our own lives and living in different parts of the country.

It was a tradition in the family to pay our respects to my maternal grandmother on the second day. She lived with my uncle and his family in the house that my grandfather built amidst the verdant hills of Balik Pulau in Penang. These hills are famous for durians, nutmegs and cloves.

Never mind that we normally pop in to see my grandmother once every few weeks, those visits during the festive season were keenly anticipated as I got to meet the cousins from my mother’s side and savour some very delicious authentic Hakka cooking that would only be served during the Chinese New Year. It was too much work to prepare them at other times.

Apart from rekindling of family ties, the cousins, nieces, nephews and even uncles and aunts would always end up playing black jack behind closed doors, mindful that gambling was against the law no matter how small the wagers were. My only excuse for this infraction is that we did it only once a year. Besides, gambling is a very Chinese thing.

After my accident, my parents stopped visiting my grandmother on Chinese New Year. The house was nestled on the hill and could only be reached by gingerly hiking down about 100 steps or more from the road. We figured that carrying me down was an arduous and dangerous task. A slip of the foot could send one tumbling down all the way to the bottom.

When my father passed away, we stopped hosting the vegetarian lunch for three years as a sign of mourning. We never continued with that tradition afterwards. Still, my mother’s siblings would visit us every year for many doses of merrymaking and ‘recreational’ card games.

After my mother passed on, the Chinese New Year traditions that I came to know all my life disappeared along with her. The relatives wanted to drop in but I declined due to the period of profound grieving I experienced after that. I thought I could never get to enjoy the occasion any more because each time it came around I would be overcome by sadness.

It has been a decade since. I have a family of my own now. As much as I tried to downplay the significance of the new year, I could not avoid the longing to celebrate it with my relatives again. The mood during those few hours when we got together could not simply be reproduced on other occasions.

My uprooting to 400km away from my hometown also made it difficult to meet up with them due to the crazy traffic during the long holiday season that caused the expressways to be jammed up. And we have not found a reliable cattery to board the three cats for us to be away from home for an extended time as they need to be fed and the kitty litter needs to be cleaned twice a day.

At my age (I was born in the year of the Fire Horse) and considering the condition of my declining health, I somehow feel the need to re-establish the long neglected kinships, not so much for the mouthwatering dishes or card games but to go back to my roots and be among the people I love and grew up with, although it may be just for a while only.

I may never get to experience the hustle and bustle of the early mornings again but being able to reconnect with my past among my relatives is more than I can ever ask for. Now is as good as any time for me to get organised so that I can make it for next year’s celebrations.

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