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Perfect attendance

My aunt on the far left, on a family trip to Malaysia.

Tay Beng Hay.
I wouldn't say that she had no option but to live with us. Anything would have been better than taking up the role of permanent caretaker of a house crammed with 3 families and their brood of 9. Even if she were the spinstress aunt with little social experience other than the terrorizing first (and last) day of primary school, I'm sure there were options.

I can picture it though, how she would have shrugged her shoulders in that resigned way of hers, and bowed her head to a life she was familiar with. Laundry, home-cooked meals, quiet hours spent staring into space.

Till now, I couldn't say if we brought her more joy or pain. There are vague memories of her quiet presence during spontaneous performances by the organ or the piano, and then the subsequent low humming that signaled her appreciation for our music. A wan smile or two sent our way as we clustered around birthday cakes or the odd, random occasions where she went around distributing candy bought from her meager savings. I don't remember if she ever accompanied those gifts with words. No - not even an admonishment to listen to our parents, be good and all that jazz. With a whisk of her skirt, she was gone to the next cousin.

A majority of the time though, she was a present but minor feature in the chaos of my childhood memories. We certainly went out of our way to make it so. My elder brother and his partner-in-crime kept us entertained with their pranks: ants in the ice cubes, watermelon seeds in the kettle, monitor lizards dangling by their tails and then dead in the garden (to be dug up periodically for our weekly bio lesson on decomposition)... Then there was my particularly troublesome younger cousin who upended the lunch she cooked on the floor in a tantrum. War games in the living room. Quarrels, any variation of gangs and turf wars, tears. Heads stuck between stair banisters (that was memorable). A plastic snake in the garden during a family barbeque...

These episodes were often followed by the dreaded caning sessions (except the rare occasions where the adults remembered their sense of humor). I knew of one time where she tried to shield a cousin from such a beating. I only heard of it though - we were all too terrified to find any humor in watching it played out. Till today, I figure her as the faithful witness to the drama of our memories as children. I guess we all needed someone to perform to, and someone who would shed the tears and wring their hands when we paid for our mistakes.

The only time where she played a focal role in any of my childhood memories, was the time when she got back from the hospital. Cancer, third stage. She'd hidden the fact from us - but she must have known. I still don't understand why or how she could do that - embrace the fact of impending death so determinedly. But it seemed to be the only way she ever faced life. If there was one thing that could be said of her, she showed up for life and took all that life ever dealt her uncomplainingly.

Today is her 11th year death anniversary and I hope that this will be a fitting, though long-delayed eulogy. She taught me through her life, in this age where we are constantly recreating ourselves, that it is often enough to just be yourself and just be present 100%. That is her legacy, and I know she loved us because she did that. And I am thankful for the childhood she helped make.


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