The years have flowed swiftly. In a blink, where had all of them gone? I cannot touch nor feel them. All of them are lost in the fortress of my mind’s eye; yet even as its Lord and Master, I cannot enter without its keys. Fortunately, unlike most, I do possess the keys: my diaries, formerly handwritten but nowadays, in electronic form with the capability of storing photos and videos together to aid in triggering the opening of this vault of the eons. Again I can take a nostalgic stroll amidst the dusty corridors and relive the past.
Only once in my childhood did I receive a present from a certain aunt for my birthday. In the end, it was just a farce; in that my cousin and I shared the same blessed day and nothing more. At the same time, deep down in my heart, I knew that it was a gift not out of love. It was just an extra present; a toy car that my cousin didn’t want. When I opened the box, I knew the reason exactly; for I had been hearing him earlier in the week about what a crappy car his birthday present was going to be. As if to verify my suspicion, no longer was there any birthday present came from this particular aunt after this fiasco.
My next round of birthday presents came when I turned twenty-one. Sure, there were many. That was because my mother wanted to make a big fuss for this turned-into-an-adult ritual. However, cynically, once more my deadened heart told me that these were not true gifts for me but as gifts of display for the eyes of my parents throwing this lavish party. It was more of their party than mine; for the majority invited were their friends and cohorts. Only five came; two friends and three sisters of one of them. What I truly wanted, did not materialize. Oh well, it mattered not now, like waters flowing under the bridge, it is far into the mists of time.
My family was never into birthday presents. They claim times were hard and that a birthday cake and a photo of remembrance at the photographer’s shop were good enough. So never did I expect any but was envious to see others with such presents when invited to their parties. I was once invited to a party because a friend took me to this unknown birthday boy. It was at a grand house. To this day, in my mindscape, I see that huge fountain in front of the main entrance. How jealous I felt to see ice cream being served and a cartoon reel being played out for the children even though I was entering my teen years. Though our place was not small at all compared to this one; could be even bigger but its display of wealth was on a grander scale.
To be fair, there were two real presents in my life. Both were Christmas gifts. One was an electric train set that ran on real electricity. On the brochure was a picture of the train engine billowing out real smoke. I knew this was true because inside the set was a bottle of a viscous looking yellow liquid which I had determined to be some kind of oil. I was very excited. However, mother told me that I was too young to play with it because of her concern of the train need the electric mains to operate. She promised that I could play with it when I am older. I understood her concern. She placed the set at the bottom of her large bedroom armoire, safely tucked under other heavy boxes.
Each time, when she was out, I would surreptitiously creep into her room to lift up the red cover of the set with other boxes still on top of it. There I would smuggle out the rails and read the booklet lovingly. Joy and imagined excitement filled my mind as I lambently touched the parts. After playing, I would carefully replace everything back. I knew mother was not a stupid woman. After all, I was her son!
Then one day came, around twelve or so, when I declared that I was old enough to handle my true and secret love of so many years. She acquiesced. Upon opening the box, I was horrified to see where the oil bottle was used to be was now an empty spot! The rails were there but not the train engine nor the boxcars. Even so, as I started to set up the rails, there were parts missing! I had been conned! Now I realized that the set was not just only one box. The booklet had shown a much larger toy. I demanded the truth. Finally she told me that she had given most of the set away. She thought it was too dangerous for me to play with real electricity! Battery ones were okay. I was furious but held my rage; after all she had her own reason and I was her only son. All these years, some lucky kid somewhere in the world was playing with my train set with real smoke billowing out of its chimney.
Needless to say, my world fell apart. I swore that I will get my own real train set with my own money. Of course, this never happened… I grew up and trains no longer fascinated me as it had once. Its magical spell had been broken and I was no longer entranced. This taught me a lesson – never to trust anyone; even one’s own parents. Everything had to be verified. Thus this incident changed me forever; an indelible mark had been engravened upon me to which I would be carrying it into my grave. Never a naïve person I shall be anymore. Thus you can say my very own mother had stolen my innocence.
Finally, there was the chemistry set a family friend had given me for Christmas. There was real fire involved to heat, to boil all those exotic colored looking materials and things my parents don’t even understand due to their lack of higher education. Again mother wanted to have a hand in here. This time, I did not budge at all. All I said accusingly was, “Are you also going to steal my presents and give them away like you did to my train set?” Yes, I had learnt the art of fencing with words. Indeed, this stopped her cold. As an expert sword woman whom she was, there was a dramatic pause and decided aloud to all who could hear – that it is also an educational toy to which my studies would benefit immensely. Mother was a wise woman, knowing when to attack and when to retreat. This gift changed my entire life. With the greatest curiousity, I forayed into this new secret world; being unbeknownst to all my peers – the realm of chemistry. I excelled. My insatiable thirst for its arcane-like magic led me to the real books of knowledge and power. I spent all my pocket money on chemicals and apparatus. In a tiny room built as my laboratory, I would spend many hours of joy and wonderment practising my magical arts in there. Peace reigned. My parents were pleased with my school grades and all those who used the kitchen, meant that there are no more foul smelling stuff and good riddance to my dabbling. I pity all those born after 9/11…
I was especially proud of all my science classes except biology. Practical examinations was a cinch for me, I knew my chemicals well. I fondly remembered that during one such important chemical analysis exam, the lab assistant did not mix the chemicals well. From the pale chalk teal color and texture, I knew what it was – copper sulphate. The rest in the mixture were duds. Knowing the shortcuts (one drop of water will turn it into a deep and intense blue and while drying by a flame will return back into its former color); I performed some non-standard schoolbook text procedures to verify my hunch. My suspicion was confirmed. Of course, giving out such secrets was a no-no. So I wrote in the paper the standard but more laborious procedure of testing. Still I had plenty of time to spare and skipped school for the rest of the day going to a bookstore in search of more clandestine books… Which schoolboy of that age would pass up the chance to look for ways to make “bombs”?
I say, “Learn to work with the system until one gets to the pinnacle of power and then ram one’s way down their throats!” These are my life lessons. Yet those were the days of yore that I sorely missed today. It was a different world then and not beset by suspicion of being a terrorist anytime one is doing something out of the ordinary. I am glad to be part of that time of world innocence.
Whatever “presents” came was demanded by what I wanted. Never were they given freely. I always have to pay for them in one way or another. Another important life lesson. I envied those have such “loving” parents. To be fair again, my tastes tend to be on the rather expensive side. Why settle for less? In my teen years, besides my love affair with chemistry, I too had another love – to be able to learn how to play music. I once asked my mother to let me have piano lessons. To my surprise, she agreed. It was because the in-thing to do and more of a status flouting display of their personal success and what children of culture they have. Then at the age of sixteen, I wanted an electric organ. So not only that I had to pass my GCE ‘O’ Levels but good enough to remain in the prestigious school and to score better than my cousin. In the end, luck smiled upon me. I triumphed to be able to remain in the same school and at the same secured my place in the elite classes of science. My cousin did not make it and had to depart for another less prestigious school. From then onwards, such family rivalry ceased as there was nothing on the same level to be compared and put an end to the bragging rights of the older family members. It was an enormous boulder rock heaved off from my back. Another reason I opted for my further studies in the US rather than in England – the mother country where all my other cousins went. Years later, they all came flocking here. However, the land is large enough for us all. We don’t have to see each other and that the senior members of the family had died out. I regret to state that whatever love we cousins have for each other are solely the fault of the older generation.
Perhaps I have mellowed a bit. Now, I feel like I am jaded and because of hard work and a wise course my parents had charted out for me that I can simply go out and buy things I desired. However, time tempers everyone and changes every mind. Older but hopefully wiser, I feel the emptiness in such kinds of spending spree. Whatever I bought I could not remember except for those three gifts I had in my younger days. If I do remember, it must something for the house and not for my very own. The magic in possessing thing had gone.
However, this year, I felt like a child of yesterday once more, a world of magic had being reopened for which I am eagerly waiting to enter and spend my time there. My magic wand is the pen I now wield. I write at my pleasure alone. This essay is a present for myself for it will speak to me each time as I read it. Since I am at it, why not extend even further and let my keyboard do the notation of wiggly tadpoles on an electronic musical staff? A perfect gift for my ears as well? Yes, this is going to be a unique gift; a gift born of being whom I am; and something once created cannot be destroyed; perhaps forgotten but never its destruction.
This melody, I shall entitled it as Happy Birthday to Me to celebrate all my yesteryears of pain and joy. Hopefully, some day I would be talented enough to provide the lyrics. For those who are interested… Here’s the link:
Friday, April 04, 2014