Family history in a trove of scribbles

Last year, the number of people living in my family home shrank by half.

My youngest sister is studying abroad and is often home for only three months of the year. I got married; my husband and I bought a small flat close by. Then my grandmother, who was in her 90s, died peacefully of old age. Our domestic helper left to work and care for another elderly person, a line of work she had come to enjoy.

My parents decided that it was the right time to downsize. As luck would have it, they found a cosy apartment just a short walk from my block and we began to pack our lives into boxes.

As we emptied our bookcases and cleaned out the cabinets, we found a treasure trove of writings and drawings my parents had dutifully hoarded since we were children, filed away and almost forgotten. My youngest sister and I are obsessive writers and we kept dozens of diaries and journals over the years.

When she was nine, she wrote: "On Friday is my Piano Exzam (sic), the absolute killer for this week. I intend to make my 1st 2 pieces so nice the examinor (sic) will just doze off, so that I can play my worst piece, 'Mimicry', in peace."

"That's a really good strategy," my father remarked in our family's WhatsApp group chat.

"OMG WHY ARE YOU READING THAT," my sister replied. "Stop reading!" She is now getting a degree in film scoring.

When I was 11, my father went on an extended trip to China; he had taken a group of his engineering students there on a field trip. In a little blue notebook I used as a diary, I set out to analyse what I felt was an enormous disparity in the cost of living in China and Singapore, comparing prices of food and stationery.

"You were always a journalist," my mother said, shaking her head.

Because my parents had strict rules on when we could watch TV or use the computer, we often had to find other ways to entertain ourselves.

When she was in primary school, my youngest sister created a weekly newsletter for the marine fish - yes, the fish - that my father kept. These were called The Fishy Marine Weekly, were painstakingly written by hand and even came with detailed TV listings in the style of The Straits Times. The programming included the likes of Batfish & Robin and The Lord Of The Fins, which came with a starred review.

She also wrote mournful obituaries for all the fish that died: "For humans, Rest In Peace. For fish, Rot In Peace. But they probably mean the same thing."

My father was a scribbler too - we found a scrap of paper on which he had carefully drawn an elephant, a shark, a car and Bugs Bunny. In a corner: "If meetings get any longer, I could become an artist."

We couldn't bear to part with any of our juvenilia. We gathered around the dining table as the family home filled up with boxes and bubble wrap, laughing over these fragments of our past, the little creative milestones and checkpoints that somehow added to who we were - and who we have become.

We kept them all - from a morbid crayon drawing I'd created at age 11, depicting a gruesome massacre during the Japanese Occupation, to a handwritten personal dictionary of difficult words collected by my sister, categorised into "words Daddy knows" and "words Daddy doesn't know".

In the larger scheme of things, these artefacts hardly matter in a country's collective history. They won't be recorded in history books or stored in a museum. But I think we keep them close because they are real, tangible anchors to our family's past, beyond a collection of fond but faded memories.

Memory itself can be rather flimsy. Three years ago, a medical research team from Northwestern University discovered something quite startling about the way we remember. When we bring our minds back to a single moment and trace those seemingly sturdy outlines of a scene unfolding in our mind, we are not travelling back to the original event as it occurred. We are remembering a memory of a memory, like an endless series of nested dolls, each one slightly different from the next.

My parents have always had a penchant for archives. They kept detailed journals of each of our lives from the moment we were born to the time we turned 18. Each of us has a book filled with observations: When we learnt to walk. When we started school. How we learnt to cycle. They curated a personal history of our lives, so to speak.

I received my book when I got married last year, but I haven't dared to read it. I couldn't get past the first few paragraphs of its yellowed pages - the story of my birth - without misting up.

Perhaps one day I will, and for that I am thankful, that I have my own personal history book to learn from, and grow. And one day, maybe I, too, will play historian for my own children.

This article was first published on July 12, 2015.
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