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The Dining Table

One of my favourite childhood memories must surely be that of the dining table at No 10 Loh Boon Siew Rd– Grandma’s house. Ever so often, mum would visit No 10. After all, her sense of filial piety was extremely strong, and her loyalty to family was what made her life meaningful. We usually visited over the weekends. Two of my aunties would invariably be busy in the kitchen, while my first uncle would be in the living room, reading.

I love that old kitchen. It had a terracotta red cemented stove. There were at least 3 to 4 charcoal stoves. It was fascinating watching my aunts manage so many stoves simultaneously. In order not to get in the way, mum and I would sit at the dining table, gossiping with the aunts. Sometimes we would be helping by cutting up vegetables, peeling shallots or shelling prawns.

When grandma was alive, she too would join us. Grandma, to my young eyes, really looked old. Her skin was paper thin, mottled brown and crinkly. But she had a kindly face. I really wished she would pay more attention to me. Beyond the usual pat on the head, however, she would usually just ignore me. What more could I expect? She had 13 children and countless grandchildren. I doubt if she could remember many of our names! Anyway, the aunts all adored grandma, and amazingly for such a stoic Chinese family, showed their affection openly Grandma on the other hand was reticent. She had kindly eyes and exuded a sort of detached warmth. But she hardly spoke. The one time she did speak was when my senile aunt got her incensed. Senile third aunt was being her usual vicious and caustic self, relentlessly scolding 1st aunt and her daughter. Grandma lost her cool and for the first time – and possibly the last, I saw her fury as she berated third aunt. It was quite a shock for me.

Anyway, back to the dining table. It was a nondescript wooden table. On one side was a blackwood bench. That was where grandma usually sat. Stools were placed on all other sides. It was a large table, and could easily seat 10 people. On festive occasions, a huge wooden table top would be placed on it, and then all my uncles and aunts would be seated there for the family meal. It was quite amazing really. Considering the size of the family, sometimes as many as 18 people or more, if all could make it home, would be seated at that table.

I loved that table because it invoked so many memories. It was at that table that I discovered many family secrets. Of all the sisters, mum was possibly the best one at keeping secrets. She certainly believed that dirty linen should not be exposed, EVER. Hence it was only at that dining table, especially when other aunts or older cousins turned up that I would get to hear the juiciest of stories. Stories like how second uncle ended up with 2 wives, mum’s old suitors and more. If cousins were around, there were even more stories – stories of the decadent world. Cousins from 4th Aunt had seen a bit of the world. I think it was Ah Kuen Jie who told us about tiger shows fromThailand .At that time I really did not understand what she meant – especially the part when she described how this Rose could smoke a cigarette under there. No matter how I tried, I could not picture where she could be smoking from! And what did that have to do with tigers? Through all the conversations, Grandma would either just nod, or kept quiet. Yet, it was that sense of being together as a family that infused me with warmth,

Years later, when I was married and living inSingapore, I appreciated yet another dining table – my mother-in-law’s. Every Saturday, my husband and I would try to make it home for lunch. Dad would have driven toKandahar Streetto buy Nasi Padang from Sabar Menanti. Dad certainly hated to menanti (wait in Malay) and would never have been sabar (patient) about it. So it was a special sacrifice for him to make that pilgrimage for the family lunch. On top of that, he would buy lots of limes and lovingly made the best lime juice in the world. It was a meal that the entire family looked forward to – a time to catch up and to spend time together.

Things changed, and after dad passed on, mum did not quite have the same energy to keep Saturday lunches going. While we were still close as a family, we usually ate out when we did get together. It was no longer as regular as before. Then mum got quite ill. We decided that what made mum happiest was when her entire brood, grandchildren and all, could gather for a meal. Since she found it difficult to leave the house, dinner was served back at her home. That started our Sunday potluck dinners. We were not brilliant cooks, but somehow the meals tasted wonderful, just because we were having it together.

Alas, mum passed on in October last year. Still we decided that the family dinners must continue. So many times, once the elders were gone, the family ties got loosened. We were determined to make an effort to still have our meals together. The venue changed. The family home has been sold, and it was time to move on.

Nowadays, Sunday dinners are held either at my home or at my brother-in-law, Ken’s. As we sit and eat, what is memorable is not the food – though our culinary skills have improved! It is just the easy camaraderie we have. Sometimes we get all het up when we talk about politics. Other times, we will be laughing at some our past boo-boos. Then there are the sharing of memories of mum’s and dad’s exploits, or the escapades of Alan, Ken and Jef.

I wonder if that will have to change in the near future. Currently, Ken and I still have dining tables and homes large enough to host everybody. We are both thinking of downgrading. Our children, when their turn comes to buy homes, will probably buy 4 room flats at best – how to afford anything else? Will we still be able to find that all important “dining table”?

As we get older, people in my generation are likely to, as the Minister of Finance suggested, downgrade to studio apartments or 3 room flats. Will this very integral part of the Chinese family life – the family dinner, be rendered a thing of the past? Restaurant food is expensive, and if the meal could not be had at home, then family dinners may well be reduced to the annual Chinese New Year Reunion dinner only.

That will be a sad day indeed.

Categories: Memories, The Dining Table
  1. March 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Nice story. Full of good old memories. I like that part abt “Tiger show!”
    Compared to your grandmother and your parents I think you are much lucky than me. My grandparents from both sides are rather selfish and unkind. They do not appear intelligent also. Same as my 75 yrs old father. Only my mum really care n concern for us. We never like to talk to our old man. He is “one kind” difficult to get along and can be quite irritating. Sad to admit this fact! Maybe one day I’ll blog on him.
    Govt telling old folks to downgrade to studio flat and our young could only afford the expensive 4 room flat yet they telling us to promote family ties etc. Sometimes they just like to talk nonsense!
    Thks for sharing. Keep writing.

  2. SpeakSpokeWriteWrote
    March 17, 2012 at 12:35 am

    Thanks Gintai. Just FYI, usually i do not respond to comments, so please do not think me rude. Just thinking of a way to keep clear of”fights”. Anyway regards this post, sometimes i blog about memories. We all have happy and tragic memories. I just remember the happy ones better! looking forward to reading about yours too!!

    • March 21, 2012 at 12:08 pm

      Hahahaha! 2 or 3 days’ time I’ll publish a personal letter. Look out for it. U know dotseng.wordpress.com will nvr publish nor answer my comment. Yet he left his comment (Darkness 2012) on my blog and called me his fren. Weird right?
      Anyway, I just accept what he is. We are different from each other.

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