Monday, September 19, 2011

22: Belonging

I had a working mum all my life. Well, not all. All but the two months after she gave birth to me and the slightly over one month before she died. And I guess I could add the weeks she had to take off each month from work (under heavy suspicion from amazingly uncaring employers who accused of her abusing her paid medical leave privileges) to travel to Singapore for chemo and recovery. While I maintain that I missed out on a lot from not having a mother who was more practically and emotionally available, I know I'll also always have reason to be thankful that this is the way our lives played out: if she hadn't needed a daily babysitter for me, I wouldn't have had a ketchup family.

(The name was coined when I was about 6, adapted from an episode of Punky Brewster, and once my "siblings" [also my real, blood sibling] and I got used to it we found we couldn't replace it with something more sensible-sounding. And we never really wanted to.)

They were the family who looked after me while my mother was at work five days a week, all through the year except when we went on holiday, for 10 years. They were the ones who kept tape recordings of my earliest attempts at speech, who mediated early fights (of the fist, nail and foot kind -- we were pretty badass) between my brother and me, who hold the negatives to that most embarrassing of all baby photos: the potty shot. But I don't just want to be nice to them because they possess incriminating pictures of me. I don't just want to be nice to them. I'm simply steeped, for the rest of my life, in gratitude for all they've been to me.

The babysitting arrangement was informal, unwritten as things were in those days before the nightmare of abuse in child care was widely reported. (But it existed; an older girl who later came into the same family's daytime care had previously been looked after by a woman who would lock her in a small store room without ventilation, food or water until her parents picked her up.)

Anyone would agree that all that was expected of this family was: in exchange for what my mother paid, they'd feed me, change me, bathe me and otherwise see to it that I was well in body.

But being with them did so much for my heart as well. Every child should be so blessed to have just one person love them as completely, unconditionally and irrevocably as Ah Poh (grandma to the non-Hainanese) loved me. Not only her; I grew up feeling so very precious to the entire family. And not, I can tell you, because I deserved it. I was the typical child. (The typical younger/youngest child, even, so you can add the requisite number of Insufferable Points for that.) I fought, loudly and often violently, with my brother and talked back to older members of the family. I screamed when I didn't get what I wanted, and then screamed louder when discipline arrived. I took for granted all that they, with the utmost tender patience, did. I was, in general, a Lot Of Work. Yet they've never made me feel like a lot of work.

Amazingly, 20 years after I stopped being under their daily care, this family is still my family. My ketchup sisters and brother are still my ketchup sisters and brother. They still love me way more than I deserve. Auntie still offers to cook chicken rice for me on the rare occasion I'm back in town. She still clucks anxiously and asks if I need medicine if I so much as sneeze in her presence, even if it's nothing more than a reaction to the chopped chili on the dining table. They helped keep food on my table when I went from self-supporting development sector worker to unemployed postgrad student. They chipped in, everyone in the family, to give me a large Christmas cash gift that first year I spent the season away from home.

It's impossible to reflect on the nearly 31 years I've lived without acknowledging all that this family has been in that time. They've demonstrated to me that you don't love something just because it's yours; it becomes yours in response to how you've loved it.

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