A time to reunite

Grandma with younger generation at 154 Jalan Ngee Heng;
Peggy has her hands on cousin Philip's shoulders
A time to reunite with the elderly

YEAR after year I noticed that Bryan, my friend who's half-Chinese, seems to be celebrating Chinese New Year more seriously than the Chinese.  As his wife gave me the dates of the various gatherings planned for this year's celebrations, we agreed it is wise to hold them at his widowed mother's house. 

At age 89, Bryan's mother is still able to travel. Nevertheless, the family decided to gather in her house for her comfort and convenience.  "As long as mum is still around, the show will go on," quipped Bryan in a text message.

This is the sentiment of many families who keep the tradition of the reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year with the senior surviving member of their family.  It got me thinking about what will happen after the family matriarch is gone. Will family reunions then be a thing of the past?

The sentiments attached to the annual reunion dinner reflect the Chinese emphasis on filial piety and family ethics.  When the family gathers for this special feast, it symbolises unity, gratitude and the value of spending important occasions with family.  Families the world over return to their kampung or hometowns for their annual family Hari Raya, Deepavali, Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners with the same sentiment.  For me, it's a special time of family togetherness, feasting on mum's lovingly cooked specialties, reminiscing about our past and creating more memories to cherish together.

Grandma with her grandchildren on her 80th birthday party
Our grandparents' home at 154, Jalan Ngee Heng in Johor Baru was once the "headquarters" where their children, grandchildren, relatives and close friends gathered for the reunion dinner. 

I will never forget the amount of food that grandma used to cook in her large kitchen. The most unforgettable dish must be her signature "lor ark" or Teochew-styled braised duck, which she would personally cook and serve us.  Her duck dish was such a hit that some of her sons-in-law come to savour it every year.

Being home for this annual feast is a special time, especially for those who live apart or abroad, who go to great lengths to ensure they get home in time for this meal.  It is an annual opportunity for siblings, in-laws and cousins to meet and renew their bonds.  Some parents bring their children back to their hometowns to show them their proud "roots" or humble beginnings.  For city folks, visiting their grandfather's house in the village can either be an adventure or a nightmare.

The traditional steamboat meal is a favourite as family members can bond as they prepare the food and later at night as they gather around a bubbling pot of rich broth to cook and eat a hot meal together.  Nowadays, many families choose to enjoy their reunion dinner in restaurants, but because there are usually two time slots, eating out is stressful and rather rushed.  Giving the elderly their due respect, my preferred choice is still a leisurely meal at home. In the comfort of our home, we also have the convenience to chop or blend the food to make it more palatable for the elderly.

Looking back on how our grandma used to organise and cater to huge family reunion dinners every year, it just takes a little effort now for the family to celebrate with her in her twilight years.  With the passing of each year, our elders are getting older.  Festive seasons are therefore opportunities to share quality time with the elderly, as it may be their last celebration with us.  Like Bryan, many families are keeping the tradition of reunion dinners as long as the family patriarch or matriarch is around.

Grandma celebrated her 90th birthday with the
extended family at a local hotel in 2002
Sadly, many families cease to gather for reunions because there is no grandparent's house to go to.  Still, many families continue the tradition in the home of the eldest sibling. 

To reduce the stress of cleaning up after celebrations, some families organise their reunions in hotels or resorts where the family also spends a weekend together.  Our 98-year-old grandma is no longer able to travel, and so she stays put while the family goes to celebrate with her.

After marking grandma's 80th and 90th birthdays with grand celebrations, every new day with her is a bonus now.  At Chinese New Year, the reunion dinner is perfect for letting her know how much she's loved.  So don't let time, distance or expense keep you away from sharing special moments with your parents or grandparents, who probably have been looking forward to this festive season to see you and your family again.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 7 February 2011

Mum [Right] presenting oranges and greetings
to grandma at Chinese New Year 2011
Info Update:

We had a joyous time spending another Chinese New Year with grandma.  While her mind may not be able to grasp all that was happening around her, she graciously acknowledged greetings and accepted gifts of oranges and ang pau.  At least 4 families travelled from Johor Baru to be with grandma in USJ Subang Jaya, Selangor this Chinese New Year. 

Grandma will turn 99 years old on her birthday in 2011. 

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