Le coffre au trésor

“Straight up, what did you

Hope to learn about here?”

Real World, Matchbox Twenty

Mardi, 30 octobre 2012: 

Today I feel suddenly inspired to write about my childhood home of Regimanuel Gray in Accra, Ghana. I suppose you can say that our Regimanuel Gray home was one of the meccas of my childhood, as it was only up to this point that our family of six remained six; in 2000, my eldest brother was sent to Egypt to study… and then we were down to five, and the shrinking began.

Before moving to Regimanuel Gray, we lived in a house in another residential area called Manet Cottage — but that is a story for another time. Regimanuel Gray was — and still is, I believe — a very decent, slightly upper-class residential area located just off Spintex Road, which apparently was the longest road in Ghana. (I never was aware of this fact the whole time we traveled this road for three continuous years to get to school and back.) If you’re coming from the direction of the city centre on Spintex Road, you’ll have to take a right turn just before you see a large blue (or grey?) warehouse/factory-like structure on your right, which takes you on a short stretch of untarred road that leads straight to the guard house. At night, if I remember correctly, this junction was poorly lit — or perhaps not lit at all. I remember my father always used to almost miss this junction whenever he drove at night.

As soon as you get to other side of the guard house, however, the roads are tarred and the streets are well-lit… except when there’s a power failure, of course. I still remember our address: House number 8, William Road, Regimanuel Gray. Our house was a cosy single-storey bungalow with a high-ceiling living room, four bedrooms, a spacious kitchen with a pantry, a dining area, a separate maid’s quarters at the back, a garage, and a massive outdoor courtyard where my father and brothers used to set up their ping-pong table and have friends over for matches in the afternoon on weekends.

I still remember how my mother arranged her furniture in the living room. My mother used to bring her furniture wherever we moved, something which the other housewives rarely thought of doing. Packing and unpacking our furniture proved to have its merits, despite the effort it took (well, technically, it wasn’t really us who did the packing anyway…). First, the furniture that the company provided have usually been handed down from one generation to another, so that by the time we ‘inherited’ them, they were always in a rather distasteful condition. (Sometimes, the families who came before us would grab the good ones for themselves and leave us with the crappy ones… but that’s how the cookie crumbles.) Second, these furniture were usually butt ugly anyway, that even if they had been brand new, I would still cringe at the sight of them.

I like to think that my mother’s furniture gave a more homey and feminine touch to the space, that even if we moved to ten different houses in ten different countries, they would all still feel like home because of her furniture. Among the furniture pieces that she liked to bring with her whenever we moved overseas were the two Chippendale chairs that my grandfather made, the antique rattan chaise longue that she bought in Sri Lanka, the two-seater red-cushioned love seat, also by my grandfather, and her tiny decorative pieces, like her porcelain flower bouquet, the miniature pyramids of Giza (always arranged according to size), and the collectable Dutch houses we got from KLM. It was always extremely worrying whenever my mother’s friends come over to our house with their young children, especially when they just seemed incapable of keeping their hands to themselves. I think it has actually happened before that my mother received a call from a friend of hers one afternoon, who called to apologize because when she got home after a visit to our house, she discovered that her daughter had (accidentally?) taken one of my mother’s miniature cups that she got in UPenn.

I am not the only one who appreciate having my mother’s furniture in our home — my father’s friends and colleagues, whom my parents frequently invite over for lunches and dinners, also found our house not at all lacking in warmth and welcome. In fact, Rambo, the caretaker of the apartment in Conakry, even told my mother that he was interested in buying my mother’s mirrored corner cabinets — also from my grandfather’s factory — for the price of $50 each. My mother politely declined his offer, not because she felt $50 hardly rose up to their true value, but because their sentimental value simply couldn’t be translated into numbers.

Growing up with a furniture-maker father, I could see that my mother certainly inherited her father’s appreciation for furniture and all things made of wood. In almost every country we’ve lived in, my mother would always hunt the city for furniture pieces she could add to her collection. In fact, my mother is a collector of all things, not just furniture; in Sri Lanka, my mother bought multiple sets of Noritake bone china dinner sets, Queen Anne silverware, and semi-precious stones, in particular rubies, blue sapphires, and emeralds. Sri Lanka’s earth was practically overloaded with these stones, and my mother even took gemology classes to make sure that she was armed with some knowledge of her own to facilitate dealings with the jewelers.

In fact, at this very moment, I am wearing a ring set with five Sri Lankan rubies arranged in a straight line on my left hand that my mother had made when we were in Colombo. Because I wear it on my ring finger, I often give people the impression that I am married, but only when I am directly asked that I actually tell the true story: that this ring was a gift from my mother, and the rubies were dug up from underneath an island where I spent three years of my childhood.

When we were in Sri Lanka, my mother bought an antique Chinese chest that she put at the entrance of our Seremban house, and an antique mirrored cabinet where she showcased her Queen Anne. She also bought two identical rattan chaise longue that are just perfect for slumbers in front of the TV on quiet afternoons. In Ghana, I remember she bought a Gecko-themed lamp table, and what I will never forget, and what I will always remember as our ‘treasure chest’ — a dark brown coffee table with compartments underneath with carvings of African huts on its top surface and sides. I don’t quite remember what wood it was made from, but I still remember the dusty smell of black finishing and raw wood that never went away with time.

This coffee table did not come from a fancy furniture shop; rather, it came from a ‘workshop’ ran by a man (if my memory does not fail me) named Emmanuel. All the wood carvings and assembling of furniture in this workshop were basically conducted in open air, for this workshop basically operated underneath the shade of a big tree on the side of the road. When works on my mother’s coffee table finally finished, my mother was relieved, for it certainly took Emmanuel and the gang a while to get it done. My mother recalls sitting underneath the afore-mentioned tree while overseeing the progress of her coffee table, which required regular visits. As all the work in the workshop was not performed on a smooth pavement, but on the uneven ground, we were hardly surprised when the measurements of the coffee table were practically out of proportions, which made closing the doors of the compartment underneath (and keeping the doors closed) a challenging task in itself.

This coffee table was a treasure in its own right. When we brought it back to Malaysia, the coffee table often left a lasting impression on guests, who are impressed by its edgy, imperfect quality. What I will never forget is that my mother used to keep our photo albums in the coffee table’s compartment below. These photos of us when we were young children from what seems like a completely different lifetime are the ‘treasures’ that I speak of. Sometimes in the afternoon, I would sit on the carpet next to the coffee table and open this treasure chest. I found looking at photos of my pre-teen self particularly painful to see — this child seems almost unrecognizable to me now. But I loved glancing through photos of us as babies and toddlers, especially photos from our time in Colombo. But these photos remain nothing but memories today. Nothing but memories.

One thing I find most remarkable about my mother’s interest in collecting things is her persistence, really. My father appreciated little of the things she collected from across the globe, but when his friends and colleagues drop a compliment or two, he would smile too. I suppose in the same way that my mother collects these furniture and unique pieces from various different places, I too am a collector — that is, a collector of memories.

Of course, you may think this sounds ridiculous, as more often than not, we don’t get to choose what stays in our memory and what doesn’t. But let me tell you: there is a difference between collecting memories and the random act of remembering. When a stamp collector expands his or her stamp collection (as I once did when I was a child), he or her would look through the stamp albums from time to time to appreciate what has gradually been added to the collection. In the same manner, I don’t just remember certain things; I reminisce. I look back at these memories retrospectively, reliving it new each time it gets replayed in my mind. Every time I glance through my collection of memories, something new catches my eye, and I look at it in a brand new light. This most probably occurs because I am not reliving these memories as a child, but as a twenty-one year old adult (if I may indeed refer to myself as such), who has experienced so many ups and downs in between the time of the memory and its relived experience in the present tense.

So this is essentially what I am trying to do in this blog: to sort through the memories that I have collected over the years, and to experience them in new ways. I feel like the further away I move from my childhood, the more I appreciate it. Everyone experiences childhood in some way or another, but my childhood that I share with my brothers is precious because it is something that I continue to treasure until now.

As I always tell myself: money in this life can come and go, but memories and experiences are in the end really what make you rich inside.

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