LESSONS MY PARENTS TAUGHT ME
Good Times And Bad Times
Parents are our greatest teachers. From the time we are born our parents are by our side to help us take the first baby steps to ensure we grow and develop well. They are there to guide us in our everyday activities and in making important decisions later in life. The lessons learned from our mothers and fathers are invaluable and shape the adults we become. We inherit not only their genes in determining physical characteristics and features but more enduringly, the family values, culture and traditions they inculcate in us.
Unlike teachers who teach us formally in the classroom through books and other teaching materials, parents nurture us informally through advice, persuasion and example. They pass down the teachings from their own upbringing and life’s experiences. Caring parents and a secure home environment go a long way in developing the full potential of children.
As a little girl, I remember following my mother around the house as she cooked and cleaned and found little ways of making our family life more comfortable. Being with her was precious bonding time and I kept busy in the kitchen helping to pound sambal in a lesung batu or to scrape coconut on the old kukur. It was here that I picked up the Malay housewife’s petua or household tips to perfect a recipe and make food taste more delicious – one of which is cooking with firewood or sabut (coconut husk).
Indeed, my mother’s cooking was done over open fire fed with firewood from the rubber estate behind the doctor’s quarters where we lived. I remember how happy we were collecting twigs and branches and helping to saw fallen trees after a storm. The rainy season brought the family good tidings as plenty of edible herbs and mushrooms growing in the clearing were picked and a month’s supply of firewood was cut, dried and stored in the shed behind the kitchen. Thus, in her own resourceful way, my mother contributed a great deal to the smooth-running of our home.
During the weekends, my doctor father was no less enthusiastic about putting food on the table for his seven hungry children and several relatives who stayed with us. The fruit season was an inviting time to drive twenty miles to Kampung Linggi to visit his 80 year old mother and to partake of the wonderful fruits – rambutan, manggis, langsat, durian – from the trees that grew abundantly in the grounds of the Bugis ancestral home. My grandmother, whom my siblings and I called “Tok”, would potter around the kitchen blowing into the embers and cooking my father’s favourite dishes despite being bent double with osteoporosis. Always, hanging above the kitchen fire, there would be rows of lempuk wrapped in pinang bark and left to smoke and mature until her brood descended upon her to devour them. The Malay delicacy made from durian, flour and sugar would then be sliced and served on a bed of freshly grated coconut. My father and brother would return in the early afternoon with their spoils of wild fowl and forest pheasants after a little hunting with their air rifles. They would also have picked up udang galah and pucuk paku from a relative’s stall nearby. Heading back to Seremban after a late lunch cum tea, we would be gluttonously full and the car would be groaning with food to last the family a few wonderful meals. We were frugal then and eating out was a rarity.
A Time And A Place For Everything
Every culture has its own concept of time influenced not only by the physical environment in which the people live but also by their activities and occupations. People who live in a temperate climate and experience the four distinct seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter – organise their lives around them. Summer would be a good time for outdoor sports and activities, while during the cold, winter months bad weather would keep them indoors for more sedentary occupations. The clothes they wear would be very much determined by changes in the weather and climate. In tropical countries where the sun is ablaze throughout the year and temperatures do not vary much, people dress in lighter clothes for day and night. They can indulge in the same outdoor activities throughout the year.
By their very nature, day and night forebode contrasting things especially among primitive societies in remote areas with no access to modern amenities such as electricity which urbanites take for granted. Thus, in some cultures it is believed that night and darkness invite ghosts and spirits that lurk in the shadows waiting to pounce on their human victims. Daytime and bright sunlight would somehow make these fears and superstitions go away.
The family I grew up in was traditional and modern at the same time. Having been mentored by dedicated English teachers, my father was a great believer in a sound English education with the virtues of etiquette and manners thrown into the curriculum, while my mother never ceased to remind us of our roots and the Malay sopan santun, budi bahasa and adab which gave the people their soul. “Without our customs and traditions, who are we?” she would rhetorically ask, But she also understood very well the democratic values of freedom and equality, the very principles that the religion of Islam espouses.
And so we children were allowed to play our outdoor games – guli, gasing, kunda-kandi – with friends of both sexes until sunset, when. she would herd us in to wash up. We would be reminded to be quiet for fear of disturbing the spirits that would now roam the area. A visible and audible sign would be the chirping of a formation of tiny birds which my mother warned were the spirits taking their place in the high heavens till daylight. Dusk would also be the time to prepare ourselves for the maghrib prayers after doing the ablution or cleansing ritual. Once cleaned, cleansed and in supplication to receive blessings from the Almighty we would settle down to have the evening meal and observe some quiet time, reading or doing our homework around the dining table.
Roots of Malay Culture
Indigenous Malay society had its roots in the kampung or village where the main occupation was rice farming on the land and fishing in the river and sea (pic). The traditional Malay concept of time was very much determined by the daily prayers and rituals of Islam and the seasonal cycle of rice farming. There was preparation of the land and allowing it to fallow, followed by planting of the padi seeds and waiting for them to grow to maturity and finally, the harvesting of the ripened grain. An essential component of farming was a sympathetic climate which balanced the wet season of monsoon rains and a short dry season. Accordingly, Allah’s blessings were sought through prayer and doa’. Feasts and celebrations such as weddings and thanksgiving were planned around the good times. When an unusually wet monsoon over-flooded the rice fields or a long season of drought resulted in a poor harvest, celebrations would be postponed until times changed for the better.
I remember accompanying my mother on seemingly endless trips to the remote village of Nyalas in Melaka to see for ourselves the damage caused to the rice fields by the merciless torrential rain or scorching sun. Then the harvest would be poor and the rice grains, inferior. However, the kampung folk were never short of rice as they would have saved some for a rainy day in a huge tempayan. On visits to see my mother’s father, Tok Manan the village penghulu, we would always have the season’s rice with chicken, vegetables and herbs from his own backyard.
Coming from remote villages in Negeri Sembilan and Melaka, my father and mother brought many of the values and practices they grew up with into their marital home. Raised to be disciplined and frugal by his widowed mother assisted by caring uncles who were learned in the Sufi tradition of Islam, my father imbibed these values in his life. My mother’s Minangkabau values instilled by a doting father made her a strong woman who raised her six daughters to be self-reliant and confident members of the weaker sex.
It is amazing how these same family values are transmitted from generation to generation to sustain us in handling the vicissitude of challenges in our lives. It is wonderful how they are ingeniously adapted to modern living to become contemporary and relevant. The lessons learned from our mothers and fathers will be recycled to emerge as values that we ourselves instill in our children and grandchildren.