I LOOKED out silently towards the beaten-down kampung house from inside my car. All at once, an avalanche of both wonderful and painful memories rushed to me.
The old house looked like no one had lived in it for years, with the peeling paint, faded balcony railings, unkempt grass and dusty old car left silent under a worn-down porch.
I was in Pantai, a small village in Negri Sembilan and in front of my grandparents’ house, where my mother spent a big part of her young life. Despite its name, Pantai is nestled in a forest-filled valley in the hilly inner areas northeast of Seremban, with the road to Jelebu splicing the sleepy village in two.
“Mak, Izham sampai kampung Mak dah.”
Beyond the old house is a world filled with natural wonders. And it is these wonders that filled up my imagination as a child.
I remember my elder brother and I would take this small footpath behind the house, which would weave through rubber trees into a large padi field.
The padi field was endless from left to right, but had a width of about 500m or so to the opposite end. We’d walk on the batas, squaring left and right, until we reach the far end.
And this was where the magic was. We’d reach the beginning of a forest and as we’d walk in a little bit, we’d come across the most wonderful little river called Sungai Emi.
Sungai Emi was my favourite place on earth. The small river bubbled peacefully under a shady canopy of trees with protruding branches, perfect to use for jumping into the river. We would wade where it was shallow, swim where it was deep enough, and look for haruan to trap with our bare hands.
At times, we’d hear the sounds of the kongkang (slow loris), and Pak Busu would tell us to be quiet so that the kongkang won’t come and disturb us.
The slow sounds of the river making its way to some far-off destination under the cosy quiet of the leafy trees had an immediate calming effect.
We’d help nenek work the padi fields. We’d move the scarecrow with a primitive rope pulley system, while lazily sitting under a makeshift pondok.
We had to be wary of snakes, but my biggest problem was always leeches at the padi field as they always found a way to latch on my feet.
My brother would always laugh till tears come out of his eyes whenever he recalls the first time a leech bit me. He’d say I ran across the padi fields, screaming like a girl, and that he’d never seen anyone run on water before until that fateful day. That day itself, Pak Busu taught me to use saliva to get rid of those blood-sucking creatures.
At night, after a healthy helping of nenek’s very spicy ikan masak lemak, Minang-style, we would fall asleep listening to jungle noises as Pak Busu tried to scare us with his ghostly tales. To add to the dramatic effect, there was a grave site right next to the old house.
Every year, I’ve always wanted to show my children these amazing places, where it would feel like time has stood still and there was nothing at all to worry about in the world.
But every year, I’m reminded how things are not the same anymore.
The padi fields have dried up and Sungai Emi’s waters aren’t spring-clear anymore. It’s now muddy and brown.
“Izham tak masuk, Mak.”
The house, where once 13 siblings (my mum had a HUGE family) and their children gathered and shared food, company and joy, is now silent, only its creaking wooden windows hinting at its past glory. We don’t gather there anymore. Everyone has grown old and apart.
And especially with arwah Mak no longer around, it just feels too empty inside.
I looked again at the house, and images of a classic game of rounders with aunties and uncles filled the garden, my late grandfather standing on the balcony, presiding over everything with a huge smile on his face.
This was also the house that hosted many wedding receptions, including my parents’ in 1966. And as in my family tradition, a water fight would ensue after each reception, and grudges are forgotten and differences disappear, as laughter and screams and a pailful of water would welcome the new person into the family.
I miss those wonderful days. I wish nothing has changed.
But life will always change.
Life will prod you to always turn over the page and start new chapters. It’s good to reminisce and wish for the old days, but it’s even better to embrace the new phases in life. If we are still living in our previous memories, we will never be able to move on to the next thing life affords us.
Our memories continually shape us. All our experiences — happiness, joy, even grief — adds to that bittersweet foundation of our current self. They become the new normal. And the cycle repeats itself again and again.
My mum never dwelled on old memories. She was always showing me that life is always about looking forward. Not brooding about the past. I know she’d want me to create new and wonderful memories.
With a smile, I turned the car around and went on my way.
“Thank you, Mak. Izham faham sekarang.”
AHMAD IZHAM OMAR works in the production of TV, film and music content and gets panicky trying to figure out his next tweet.