01 Feb 2016
Love That Lasts
My mother gave birth to me at 45. The age gap between my eldest sister and me is 22 years. In fact, her daughter is older than me. These unusual numbers are clues to an amazing story of love and faithfulness.
My parents were born in China. Life was hard and got worse after they got married. My paternal grandmother ill-treated my mother and their two children. Things were so bad that my father decided to take drastic action. He got on the slow boat from Swatow, China to go to Indonesia, to look for his grandfather and in search of a better life for his family.
The unfamiliar voyage was too traumatic for my father. When the ship berthed at Singapore, he decided that he couldn’t endure the seasickness anymore, and not knowing its proximity to Indonesia, he disembarked with nothing but the clothes in his trunk.
My father’s plan was to work and save enough money so that he could bring his family to Singapore. It took a long time. Ten years to be exact. In those days, it was fashionable and even legal for Chinese men to practise polygamy, but my father had no space in his heart for anyone else save his beloved wife and children back home.
Finally, the day came when he could afford to pay for their passage to Singapore. The family was joyously reunited after a decade. They had little in the way of possessions, and my father was sole breadwinner, but they went on to have 5 more children, of which I am the last.
I didn’t realise it growing up, but what I had in effect was a front-row seat to observe an anachronism—a marriage that was out of sync with the times. Every time I looked at my parents’ relationship, it was as if I was caught in a time lag. My friends’ great-grandparents or grandparents too had migrated from China, but their parents were all born and bred in Singapore. Though conservative by today’s standards, their parents’ marriages were nevertheless much more ‘progressive’ than my parents’. Because of my unique vantage point, I could see how our culture’s perception of marriage had changed over time, from my parents’ to theirs to my own marriage. And because of that I can appreciate what most people fail to grasp: that as far as marriages go our modern ways are not any better, and in many ways worse, than their old-fashioned ways.
My parents had never set eyes on each other before the wedding day. They never wore an engagement or wedding ring. Their relationship was totally devoid of the kind of romance that we would demand today as a sign of love. I have never seen them hold hands or touch each other, let alone engage in any other public displays of affection. They did not use terms of endearment in addressing each other. When we went out, they each walked at their own pace, meaning my mother was typically 10 steps behind.
For all that, there was never any doubt among their children that they loved each other with an absolute and unbreakable commitment. They dutifully and selflessly performed the rigidly-defined roles their society had assigned to them. They had a deep and mutual understanding, and they forged a strong partnership that worked for half a century, providing a safe and conducive environment for us to grow up in. How many marriages today would survive a ten-year separation with seaborne snail-mail as the only means of communication?
You wouldn’t be reading this if my parents didn’t have the kind of love that lasts. I wouldn’t exist.