First published in March 2016, I wrote this post after visiting my aunt in a Malaysian nursing home. Several years earlier, I had interviewed her for my father’s book, and had recorded her recounting her memories of my father’s childhood. By 2016, my aunt no longer recognized me. I realized then that if we don’t make an effort to preserve our history, some memories will be forever lost, personal histories forever unknown to us and subsequent generations. It is this realisation that makes me eager to document the past, and gives me the impetus keep writing and blogging.

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My aunt, Lim Kum Ying, circa 1950.

The post as it appeared in 2016: My aunt once told me of her older brother, who had loved her dearly. During World War II, he was taken away by the Japanese and never returned. ‘That day,’ she said, ‘I had given him a piece of cake. It was so strange. He was usually the one giving me food.’ She was reluctant to say any more. ‘Surely you don’t need to write of these things?’

I had heard that the Japanese were cruel during the war and truth be told, I had never given much thought to Hiroshima. The atomic bomb did, after all, bring an end to the Japanese military occupation of Malaya.

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But then, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a work of non-fiction that follows the lives of six atomic bomb survivors. The day before the bomb was dropped, for example, Reverend Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Mehodist Church, had just moved the church piano to a home two miles away from the town centre, where he believed it would be safer; the piano didn’t survive. After the explosion, he ran back to the city to check on his church and the twenty families he was responsible for as the head of their Neighbourhood Association. He was held up, however, up by cries of the injured: ‘Mizu, mizu! Water, water!’ For the first time, I started to imagine what it had been like for ordinary Japanese.

When I visited my aunt in December last year, she did recognise me, but said that I was such a pretty girl (Bless her! When was the last time anyone said that?), and who was this? My husband? He is very rich, is he not? My dear aunt has forgotten us. Her memories are slipping away. Many stories are already gone.

Hiroshima ends by referring to Reverend Tanimoto and the proliferation of nuclear weapons: His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.

I guess that’s why we must talk about the past, record the faces and voices of our ancestors and write down their stories.


    2 replies to "Capture memories while you can"

    • Claire Belberg

      So true, May Kuan. It’s hard to grasp the importance of this when you’re young and your life is mostly ahead of you. Unfortunately, by the time many of us realise how important recording family knowledge of past history is, we’ve started losing the family members who hold the knowledge. But not everything can be held onto. I have no way of finding out where my paternal great-grandparents came from because they withheld that even from their son. He tried to find out when he was older but it’s untraceable. C’est la vie :). So I content myself with the traceable histories and recordable stories. Learning even a part of my heritage is enriching.

    • Julia

      My former husband and I visited his aunt and cousin in Queensland. They were looking at a photo album and none of the photos had labels. My then husband sat with his aunt over the next few days and he wrote labels for all the photos as she gave him the information. Six months later she could not have done it, and she was the last of her generation.

      My mother thought all the family information was very important, but it was only after she was gone that I realised her anecdotes didn’t make a comprehensive picture of the past as she knew it, and I wasn’t clear how the people in all the old photos hung on her walls were connected.

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