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Describe how you celebrated an important family occasion. Why will this event always remain in your memory? (O-level English 2014)
By Steven Ooi
All around was green and blue – the grass a blend of darker emerald and bright parakeet green, the sky a magnificent azure. Most people would expect an important family celebration to be in a grand place with carpets, fine silver tableware or at least good catering at home – but all we had around us was grass and sky, the former laid with a picnic mat, on which sat a few containers of humble food from the hawker centre.
We were celebrating the fact that we were not bankrupt any more.
To be precise, Papa was not bankrupt any more. Even though legally it had been his bankruptcy, all of us suffered through it with him. It had been five long and painful years of struggle, tears and occasionally, hunger.
We opened up the little container of rice, and then the little container of stir-fried sambal kangkong, the dark green leafy vegetable seasoned beautifully with spices. Then the fillet fish with lemon sauce, and the clams fried in chili sauce, and we savoured every bite with thankful relish. It may seem a simple meal, but to us, after five years of often getting by on plain rice and a boiled egg, it was a feast. My older brother David pulled out his guitar, and we sang along – David, my younger sister Donela and I – to the moving lyrics and soulful tunes of Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’. Our voices blended in what some people have called a luscious sibling chemistry, as the setting sun scattered its fires passionately across the sky, a flaming encore, conflagration of renewed hope and divine mercy. Mama and Papa applauded with unmistakeable pride in their faces – the fine tributaries incised into my father’s brow over troubled years very visible in the orange light, but his tan face glowing with a hard-earned wisdom.
I will never forget this meal, humble by man’s measure but glorious with the abundance of God, because it marked not only a liberation from financial bondage and misery, but also the redemption of my family. Once my father had cared only about money, when his medical devices company was thriving. We lived like kings in material terms, but were utter paupers in spirit. He never came home for meals on weekdays, and on Saturdays he would have a quick dinner with us before rushing off to meet a client or a business partner. Family life was barren, arid as the desert.
The end for the business came suddenly, like a bullet fired by an overzealous reveller on New Year’s Eve. A competitor invented a revolutionary device that would render my father’s products redundant. Papa was personally liable for his company’s debts as he had signed a guarantee. From our majestic mansion in the swanky Holland Village, we had to move into a humble one-bedroom flat in Khatib.
It was the wake-up call my father had needed for years. He realised how empty, fragile and transient a thing money was, and he awakened to the foolishness with which he had lived his life for many years – neglecting his wife and children. He made great effort to spend more time with us even while working assiduously to pay off his debts. Those years when we had to think hard even before buying a dozen eggs or a new ball-point pen, when erstwhile “friends” vanished and shunned us like the plague, were a redemption for me as well. I had been a spoilt child never able to appreciate the comforts of my life, taking all my blessings for granted and kicking up a fuss over the most trivial caprice. Now even a spoonful of tasty vegetables was something I was grateful for.
As the world around us fell into darkness and the final vestiges of light lingered on the horizon, I felt comforted and blessed. After 16 years of what had seemed a vacuous life devoid of purpose, I finally felt that life had a meaning, one enfolded in the mysterious higher workings of the universe and an earnest journey to always be a better person by the setting of each day’s sun.
Copyright 2016 Steven Ooi. No part of this work is to be reproduced without the express written consent of the writer.
Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to GP and student life.
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