My children are fanatical about mealtimes. I’d like to think it’s because of my food , but I am not as deluded as that. They love mealtimes because they get to listen to stories.
“What’ll it be today mom?” demands my six year old.
“Tell us about Peter, the Giant and the Poopy Puppeteer!” my toddler squeals.
“Not again… I want to hear about Cho Cho and the Japanese..”
“Once upon a time… ” I begin.
And our adventure takes off.
I make up fairytales which chiefly revolve around brave princesses on rescue missions, resourceful children outsmarting wicked stepfathers and wonderful creatures that kill, laugh and weep.
When I am more sober, I tell them stories my mother told me. I tell them of Cho Cho who cropped her hair short like a man’s, and donned men’s trousers. This was during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. I tell them of the time when she clutched her three month old to her breast and together with four other little ones, took refuge in Cho Kong’s rice mill. I do not tell them of how Ji Ku peed on the rice sacks because he could not cry.
I tell them of Cho Yah whose mother fell ill. He was only nine and there were only he and his mother in their wooden hut. What could he do in the dead of the night? The sinseh’s house lay across the river, and didn’t Seng and the boys say the lembaga sungai loved the juicy flesh of little boys? But mother was dying and he must wake the sampan man to take him across. I tell my girls that Cho Yah was brave and afraid both at the same time. Afraid his mother would die and afraid he would fall off the sampan. But I do not tell them of the wailing and the chanting and the incense and if only he could make her get off that bed.
My maternal grandparents and paternal grandfather have passed on. I wish I had asked them for more stories, but my command of Hokkien is truncated. What is this thing about your mother tongue tasting foreign and uneasy in your mouth?
After all, we cannot leave it to the textbooks to tell us what our history is. For our stories are our own, just as our grandparents’ stories were their own. Our children will not find strength in those heavily edited pages. They will not find perspective nor wisdom in the facts and information laid out neatly in rows and rows of prosaic print.
We must seek out history that lives.
My father’s mother is very old and frail and she speaks only Hokkien and Cantonese. I must find her and talk and listen. I will gently ask her questions that will be hers alone to answer, hers alone to dismiss.
“Mom, tell me a story about you.” My six year old doesn’t miss a thing.
That is not an easy thing to do. I bathe them, wash their clothes, spank them and cook their food. And now I am to offer myself to them. I find myself choking with silence.
But I must tell them. Tell them of those days of cycling across paddy fields with a flock of school friends. Tell them of that dance in the snow as a new student in a foreign land. Tell them of the first moment when I looked into their eyes and thanked God there was no war here and there was food and shelter and lots more to share besides.
We look for important stories to tell; tales of some great achievement or of some great battle. But the significant lies in the ordinary, thus hallowing the daily acts of courage in waking, working, believing, loving and risking oneself for others.
My story matters, as your story matters. They matter because we are all part of a larger narrative, hard to believe though that may be. That this greater narrative is God’s, makes the living in life worth fighting for, worth trying for.