0570 – a sketchy outline of childhood

A friend asked, “tell me a vivid childhood memory”.

I have a bunch of memories, I think (duh, doesn’t everyone), but I wonder which is so interesting that I’d be able to write a thousand words about it without having to think too deeply about it. I don’t think it would be from my early childhood, because those memories were fairly simple and not all that interesting. There’s also some complicated stuff involving other people, and I don’t want to have to deal with that right now. So I have to pick a memory that’s fairly straightforward, and yet something I find compelling anyway. (It’s interesting at this point to realize that there ARE memories of things that I have never written about and should probably write about for myself for my own sake. Thanks for asking the question, N.)

Okay, what sort of memory– a happy memory? Sad memory? Wistful? Excited? Music? Girls? School? I think I’ve written too much about school already. And cigarettes, I’ve written a bunch about that. I guess I could write about my mother. Ma. Mum. Amma.

I don’t know how to talk about my relationship with my parents. Part of it is the fact that they’re still alive, and there’s a chance that they’d read anything that I write, especially if it’s something about them. I think I’ve had a pretty good childhood and a pretty good relationship with my parents, but still, choosing to write something about a living person that’s anything less than perfectly flattering is always something that’s a little scary to do, because you don’t know how they’re going to receive it.

My parents were never really super-hands-on type parents, and I think that’s common for a lot of Singaporeans. “Family time” as a family was never a huge deal for us because we all lived in the same home, there was a family business, so people were almost always at home all the time. Dad would have to head out but he’d be back home for lunch, and sometimes here and there in between. So we never really needed any particular strong rituals, like family lunch or family dinner. We’d do those things for birthdays and deepavali and stuff like that. But for the most part we just coexisted. There was a steady hum to all of it. Dad would typically be watching the news, or reading newspapers, smoking his cigarettes. Mum would typically be in the office doing paperwork. Every so often there would be calls on the office phone.

My mum would often have errands to run– she’d have to go to the bank, or go to the post office, and she’d go to the temple every week– and she’d bring me along. I guess those are some vivid memories. We’d take the bus together. I didn’t have a smartphone at the time, so I think I’d often be reading a book. I don’t remember if we talked much. I’m sure we did, it would’ve been weird if it was totally silent. But I don’t really remember the details of our conversations. We’d often go to McDonald’s afterwards– she was a fan of pineapple pies and sweet and sour sauce. After we were done at the Post Office, she’d typically head off to buy groceries or something and leave me to read books in Popular book store. I enjoyed that very much.

My dad would drive me around in his rickety old pickup truck, always smoking, tamil radio on. It would rumble and the brakes would be kinda crappy. Again, as with mum, I don’t really remember our conversations, though it would still be weird if we didn’t talk much. I guess he’d ask me about school, tell me to study hard, stuff like that. He drove me to school every morning from P4 till halfway through Sec 1. I guess I’d pick that for my most vivid memory. I never really liked or appreciated that he did that while he was doing it– as a kid I much preferred the idea of being independent, of taking the bus to school myself, maybe meeting friends along the way, that sort of thing. His logic was– he was being a good dad, sacrificing some of his sleep so his son could get as much sleep as possible and get to school and not have to worry about anything except studying. At the time I felt it was maybe a bit passive-aggressive– like, he’s sacrificing so much for me, why aren’t I doing better in school? But as the years go by, I’ve learnt to also see it as a way of showing love.

That was a common theme in my parents’ parenting doctrine– to remove as much stress and responsibility from my life so that I’d never have to worry about anything except school. I won’t be doing the same as a parent if I have kids, but I do appreciate what they were trying to do. I was thinking earlier about how my dad got married and had 2 kids by the time he was my age– 3 next year. I got married fairly young too– not as young as he did, but I’m also married– but I can’t imagine having kids yet. I suppose we live in different times with different expectations. It’s interesting how different we are. I wonder what it would be like to be friends with my father as a young man- that is, if I could meet him now as a 26 year old father of two. Would I enjoy his company? I hope I would, but I’m not all that sure. But maybe that’s just a function of the folks I hang out with today, and that is a sort of privilege. Maybe he’d have been a totally different man if he were my age today. That’s a definitely, not a maybe.

I don’t know how to think about my childhood anymore. It seems like my ideas and memories of it have changed over the years while I wasn’t looking. And it feels like it might be a good idea to find some time and space to sit down and process all of it. Or is that a wild fantasy, and do we never fully process all of anything?

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