I can’t quite understand what drives me suddenly to write about an uncle I’ve known for the whole of my 17 years of life, but really know nothing about. And maybe I’ll ask myself: why him, out of the many uncles I have? But the sad thing is that our minds are limited: there are only that many people we can wonder about and that many people we put pen to paper (or keyboard to screen) for. Maybe you want to for them, or maybe the rest are just not worth it. And maybe I’m just a being incredibly propelled by feelings and I feel like writing about him: so I will.
My mother comes from a huge family even though I barely see some of them. It comes to a situation where I have so many uncles and I call all of them by the universal title of ‘uncle’ that it becomes confusing for them who I am greeting when they are congregated in the same area. (Sometimes I end up calling ‘uncle’, ‘uncle’, ‘uncle’ which I always find amusing.)
My 7th uncle lives with my grandmother, so I see him every time we visit her. When I try to retrieve past memories of him I realise I can’t remember him ever looking different: always shirtless at home like so many uncles in our sunny island, sometimes with a bulky pouch strapped around his waist, hairline receding slightly. He is quiet, in his reclining chair by the computer, eyes scanning the TV screen. He is most comfortable speaking in Hokkien but he speaks to me and my sister in Chinese because we don’t understand much of dialect. My mother’s side of the family has this uncanny ability of defying age and he looks much younger than a man of over 50.
The thing is, when someone resides in the corners of your life, a presence not quite rooted but never absent as well, your mind always remembers them in the same way. I forget that age catches up to all of us. Over lunch today as he worked the chopsticks in his usual expert manner, lifting the rice bowl close to his face, I noticed silver bristles in his moustache standing out amid the black. It isn’t any massive discovery, but I never noticed it until today.
It’s clear to them that I’m growing up: in five years I’ve probably shot up a head or two. But in adulthood the effects of age become the faint shadow of a cloud, creeping inconspicuously upon features and changing them with the excruciatingly patient hand of an artist: a deepened wrinkle, another white hair or two, so invisible in the mad rush of our young lives that I forget they are still growing too.
I’ll always remember him for his kindness: filled red packets during chinese new year regardless of business success, unexpected christmas gifts handed to us without words, in his characteristic manner of not making a fuss out of generosity, downplaying his actions, a reassuring quietness and gentleness that you know expects nothing back.