Wednesday 18 June 2014

Persimmons and Bread: Remembering Uncle

To you, a persimmon may be just a fruit.

To me, a persimmon is linked to memories of an uncle I dearly miss.

{ his favorite fruit }

He was always a part of my childhood. He was always a part of our photos. 

He was always there. Till one day, he wasn't around anymore.

{ He tends to stay in the background but his love for his nieces is always evident }

My uncle died from nose cancer when I was in primary school. I remember walking up to his bed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and wondering why it was so high. I could not even see what was on the other side of the bed. 

I did see his right hand though. It seemed there were tubes and needles everywhere. As a young child, I was terrified. 

I could not comprehend why my kind uncle lay in bed all day, and no longer brought me out to play...

Every Sunday, after Sunday school, my mother would bring me to my grandmother's house. I could never sit still and always asked if we could go downstairs to the 'mama shop' for an ice-cream or chips, or chase after some of the pigeons in the neighborhood. 

Mom's answer would always be "NO!" but my uncle had a soft spot in his heart for me. 

With my small hand in his seemingly gigantic one, I would hop out the front door, past the rusting iron gate, and he would laugh and tell me to slow down. 

I can no longer recall the days leading up to his death, or what happened at the funeral and after. Perhaps it is my subconscious' way of protecting me since those days were just too confusing for me to comprehend. I had no idea what "cancer" was at that time.

But, thanks to this uncle, I didn't just get snacks from the 'mama shop'. My mother got an education and I got a solid foundation in reading. 

He knew that my mother, an adopted child, would not get equal access to education. So he slipped her some money to take up a typewriting course, which eventually helped her secure a job in civil service. He also told her to bring me to the Toa Payoh Library every Sunday to borrow English books. 

All the 'As' I have ever scored in English, Literature and just about every other subject, I owe them to him. 

And my uncle was a very thrifty man. According to my mother, he would eat only biscuits during lunchtime at work and have his other meals at home. His only guilty pleasure in life seemed to be the persimmons he would relish every Sunday afternoon.

I am eternally grateful to this man, who could not bear to spend money on buying himself lunch, but would let me fritter away his hard-earned money on ice-cream and chips.

{ I know you would love these }

Now I think you have begun to understand why persimmons cause such a stirring of the heart in me.

Each bite into a persimmon is a sweet reminder of my uncle's love.


Back in those days, before BreadTalk was founded, my uncle bought red bean buns that were sold in a pack of 6. I am amazed that these still exist today! 

I guess that was the beginning of my love for red bean treats. 

After my uncle's passing, no one else bought those red bean buns. And only recently did I meet someone (very much like my uncle; thrifty and kind) who offered me one of those red bean buns! His name is Jui Ming.

I was at a loss for words.

I would normally not take food from someone else, especially if we had not washed our hands before having our fingers come into contact with the food. But there is something very communal about 'breaking bread' and sharing it, that my hands just reached out and took the red bean bun he offered. 

Also, Jui Ming's gesture reminded me of my uncle, and there was no way I could refuse that bun.

It is indeed strange. These buns are inexpensive; sold in a pack of 6 for S$1.10 currently. There is very little red bean filling, the bread is rather dry and the miserable sprinkling of sesame seeds on the buns makes you wonder why they even bothered with them in the first place. However, I truly enjoyed that bun!

Jui Ming and I are both volunteers at the National Kidney Foundation (NKF). We visit the dialysis centre in Balestier every month and spend the afternoon with patients, engaging them in mind stimulation activities, but more often, just chit-chatting with them as many of the patients are elderly folks who can't see very well but are always happy to have a friendly listening ear. 

Our volunteer group is a small one. After the NKF saga in the past, many things have changed. But the plight of the patients remains the same. They have many dietary restrictions, and one of the most difficult ones is to take only 500ml of fluid every single day.

What that means is they cannot have, say, more than 2 glasses of water a day. And if you drink a small bowl of soup, you essentially are left with the allowance of only 1 glass of water for the rest of the day. It is akin to torture, especially on hot days like what we have been experiencing recently.

I am thus reminded on a monthly basis of how fortunate I am, in that I can eat just about anything I want.

Most of the time, people try to out-eat each other. We snap pictures of our meals at the most atas restaurants in Singapore, queue for Ladurée macarons and Tim Ho Wan pau, instagram pictures of our fancy brunches, waffles, rainbow cakes and all. But we do not get to enjoy food other than on that most superficial level.

During my first school camp away from home, I cried myself to sleep one night because I missed my mother's home-brewed soup. In my previous job with a salary of S$114,000, I was miserable because I could never make it home for dinner due to work. It was such irony. I could afford just about any expensive cuisine, but I couldn't even get what is free (my mother's homecooked food) and which was what I craved for most.

I would like to challenge you to look at food differently. If you indulge in food you truly enjoy, your heart sings, you feel at peace and happy, and even though it isn't from some Michelin-starred restaurant, it satisfies you on so many levels. That, my friend, is real good food. 

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