The ties that bind

AND so we had done Edinburgh, Loch Ness, Covent Garden in London, the Big Bus tour, Borough Market, Tate Britain, Phantom Of The Opera and Mamma Mia!.

Our family vacation in Britain was coming to an end after two action-packed weeks and we were flat-out exhausted.

What else would you like to do, my sister asked her daughter on the evening of our second last day.

Well, said my niece, I haven’t spent much time alone with Auntie Shoes (that’s what she calls me). It’ll be nice to go out together, she said.

We hadn’t expected that reply. My sister and I were thinking she probably would want to squeeze in one more tourist sight.

I was touched.

How nice of you to say that, I told her. Of course, let’s go out tomorrow.

I thought I’d get H to come along, but my sister whispered to me later: She means just you and her, you know.

Which suited me fine too.

I love my niece. She’s been precious to me ever since I laid eyes on her when she was a six-month-old baby in her mother’s arms, waiting for me at the airport of the American city they live in.

Now 18, she’s finding her way in the world. Homeschooled much of her life, she hasn’t decided what college to go to or what degree to take.

She loves make-up and rock music and has been working part-time as a cashier at a burger restaurant and a noodle eatery for less than US$8 (RM31) an hour. (There was one week she worked 52 hours because, she said, other colleagues had called in sick.)

She guards her privacy and, at the two houses we rented, spent much of the time in her room when we weren’t out.

She had insisted on bringing her electric guitar along and had dismantled it so the pieces could fit into her luggage.

But when we got to Edinburgh, she had problems putting the guitar together.

Some screws didn’t fit any more, and despite searching high and low in Edinburgh city and later Hammersmith in London, where we were staying, she couldn’t find the right ones.

Why don’t they have proper hardware stores in Britain like in America, she asked, her thickly pencilled brows furrowed in frustration. I need to play my guitar, she grumbled.

But the moods passed and she could still behave like a little girl, cuddling up to me on the sofa, arms draped around me.

The next afternoon, we set off for some aunt-niece time. We chatted about her work, colleagues and what subjects she could do in college. I took her shopping at H&M.

It was one of the most special moments of my holiday.

This was our first big family vacation – my mother, H and I from Singapore, my sister’s family of four from the United States and H’s daughter from Wales.

I had spent months preparing for it and wanted to make it special for everyone.

Planning a holiday for people from different parts of the world is hard work. Many weeks were devoted to sorting out leave dates and airline tickets and, in H’s daughter’s case, getting permission to skip school.

It’s tough looking for accommodation for so many people, and not cheap either.

But, I concluded, money is something you can always earn back, but memories you can’t buy. This was not a time to stint. It was a once-in-a-lifetime vacation and it had to work.

My mother is already 80 and who knows how many more healthy years she has left. If we waited even a year, my niece would be busy with college and H’s daughter would be in secondary school and unable to skip classes.

We managed to get our acts together and so there we were, our big family of eight playing tourist and soaking in the sights.

We did almost everything together those two weeks. I loved how there were so many of us.

I’ve always wanted to be part of a big family even though I’ve seen many examples of how it isn’t necessarily as pretty as I imagined it to be.

My father had nine siblings and I wouldn’t say theirs was a happy family. It fact, it was at times a quarrelsome family marked by fights, slights, feuds and extended periods of one sibling giving another the silent treatment.

My mother had four siblings, but while ties were very cordial, they led separate lives and two of her siblings died early.

I am the second of three children, but with my brother dying young and my sister away in the United States, it is lonely – and, yes, you can still feel lonely even when you’re an adult and have your own life, career and friends.

It is a loneliness that hits you when you are at a restaurant and see tables packed with big, laughing families, or when you are alone in a hospital tending to a sick parent and streams of relatives are looking in on the patient on the next bed.

One of H’s attractions for me was how he comes from a big, happy family – he’s the youngest of nine siblings. They treat one another with courtesy and consideration, share a WhatsApp group and meet several times a year.

Isn’t it nice to have so many brothers and a sister and to get along with them, I’ve asked him. He shrugged – he doesn’t know any different.

But surely it has shaped you, I persisted. Isn’t it reassuring to know that if you are in trouble, there are so many people you can turn to and who will watch out for you? Doesn’t it make you more confident to face the world? More secure?

For two weeks, I got to experience that. We had a fantastic time on the holiday and – I know it’s corny to say this – there was a lot of love going around.

Of course, we were all aware that we were living in a suspended moment and were on our best behaviour.

We were on holiday and it helped that it was in neutral territory where everything was new and wonderful.

If we were at my sister’s place or she at ours, we would have been distracted by the demands of everyday life. But there in Britain, time was compressed and we had nothing else to do but focus on one another.

We were also conscious that every moment went into making memories, comic misadventures included, like the day we set off too late and missed a tour I had booked.

Two weeks was also just right – another week and we might have started getting on one another’s nerves.

When the last light in the house was switched off at night, it was a wonderful feeling knowing that the people closest and dearest to me were safe and under one roof.

At the back of our minds was how, because we live in different parts of the world, there is no telling if this would be the last time we saw one another. Life is unpredictable and precarious.

There were teary moments when the holiday came to an end and we had to return to our separate lives.

But we went home happier than when we arrived because we were awash with love, and we now carried shared memories that would buoy us for a long time.

The Star, Published: Sunday, 17 July 2016
The ties that bind ;
It's tough planning a vacation for eight people, but I was determined to make memories that would last a lifetime.
By Sumiko Tan

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