“There’s a story behind everything.
How a picture got on a wall.
How a scar got on your face.
Sometimes stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking.
But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story,
because hers is where yours begins”
- Mitch Albom
I’ve always believed that memories are never completely faded from our minds. I believe that they are suppressed; lie dormant inside our head, waiting for the moment for an event to trigger it out again into consciousness. My belief was justified. In early 2009, I went for a student’s conference in Boston. Between sessions, I went for coffee. I saw a signboard across the street that reads a very familiar name: Commonwealth Avenue. I had time. I wandered around, and without my realization, I already wandered far.
Walking through the blistering winter cold, I found this familiar place. As I walk closer, flashes of memories came into my mind. This is where I used to live, I thought. So many things in life have changed, but as if frozen in the winter cold, this place stays the same. I know I would return here someday. But I’ve never thought it would be this soon. I went closer, and stood still at the entrance. For a moment, it was 1994 again…
“Bye mak, I love you” I used to say, almost every morning of every weekday, right there where I stood. My mother would kiss me in both cheeks, hand me my lunchbox, and finally slip in my pocket a tissue paper, neatly folded to fit the small pocket of a six year old. “Bye Opie, jangan nakal-nakal, okay? I love you too”. I would nod and head towards the school bus, and when I look back she would wave at me, with my baby sister in her arms, and she would head back into the apartment the same moment I got on the bus. Having picked a seat (most often at the back), I would unfold the tissue paper my mother gave me. It wasn’t just any tissue. On it, written using the black ink ball pen my mother carry in her handbag most of the time, is a note. So, instead of wiping my nose with it (as I guess most people would do), I start memorizing the words written.
This whole tissue-note-memorizing began on my first day of kindergarten. It was mid-year, and there I was, a foreign child who suddenly stepped into the class with his mother. The kids had already gathered around the teacher. They just stared at me in wonder. I must have started crying when my mother introduced me to the teacher. There were not many Asian families around at that time. Not quite Chinese, definitely not Indian, people would never stop wondering where I’m from. I didn’t mind that I couldn’t speak much, but I was devastated for not being able to write, because the teacher had asked me to write a journal. The first day, I handed a blank journal. As soon as I got home, I cried to my mother about it. The second day, my mother wrote a note on a tissue paper. “For you to copy onto your journal” she said. It may seem like cheating, but I didn’t know how to write. What was she supposed to do?
Maybe it didn’t occur to her, that it was just my second day of school. Not only I didn’t know how to write, I also didn’t know how to read! But well, that’s my loving mother. It’s the thought that counts. I copied letter by letter from the tissue paper to my journal, without ever knowing what I’ve written down. This goes on until the last day of kindergarten, well after I’m able to read and even write on my own. I never understood this, but I’ve always been told what to do by my mother. Any day she forgot to write me a note, I would invent my own words and write in hilarious entries (such as the eating of Fruit Loops along with my sister). So basically, I need my mother.
That was 15 years ago. Today, I still need my mother, and I guess I always will. She has recently turned 50 (although she doesn’t look like it, and she loved it when people tell her this). I’ve went through primary and high school, boarding school and college. Each and every time my mother drops me off to these places for the first time, she would shed tears. I wasn’t sure if it was tears of joy for seeing me furthering education or tears of sadness for me moving further away from home. Maybe both. The first time I went away from home, how old was I, nine? I was in primary school and went for a camp for the first time. Being a boy scout, I had this false impression that boy scouts should be tough and wholly independent, surviving on their own, without ever needing their mother. “Scouts must play it rough”, I thought, and for that, I purposely left my blanket at home. "Who needs a blanket? I'm tough, night cold and mosquitoes won't shake me!".
It was just the first night, an announcement came. My mother came, along with my sisters to see how I’m doing and brought me my blanket and some biscuits. When I got back to my group, with blankets and biscuits in hand, I can see some of them giggling, once in a while looking at me, and then turn to whisper at each other. Maybe I was paranoid, but later they start teasing me for being such a baby and called me ‘anak manja’. Out of my embarrassment, I became angry at my mother. I was never proud of what I felt. But well, I was just a kid back then. I would laugh every time I remember this. As I grow up, I realize there’s no use of acting tough. My mother’s loving thoughts brought me a blanket, and I stayed warm out in the night cold. What does acting tough get me?
For everything I’ve told, you must have thought that my mother was easy on me. Don’t get me wrong. She smacked, scolded and punished me. I got smacked for picking on my sister, losing my homework, and even for not memorizing multiplication tables (in fact, I got smacked the worst for that!). I remembered one day I couldn’t answer a mathematics question she asked. She was furious and I got a terrible smack. But well, she still loved me. The next day, she bought me a whole lot of shirts! She loves me through my childhood, through my teenage years, and even through the early adulthood I am in. She loves all of her children despite our different personalities, and we all love her as much!
After (spot the difference!)