I am not a festival man and would try hard to get away from the celebrations, especially the traditional ones. I guess most of the younger generation only concern about the non-religious Christmas, Halloween and the Valentine’s Day. I approached this year’s Mid-autumn Festival as those before it – joining the family dinner at my parents’ place on the nearest Saturday before it. So, we celebrated the festival five days before the actual day. It was like a routine of the family, people came, ate, said “Happy Mid-autumn Festival!” and left. This year, the old man did something unusual as we were preparing to leave. He gave me two lie-sees and said, “They’re for your birthday; wish everything goes alright for you. This one’s from me and the other one your mum.” Then, he gave two to my sister and said, “These are for your birthday.”
“But mine is in November…”
“It’s OK, just a bit earlier and it’s close,” he replied.
“Take them,” I said. My sister took them with a bit of hesitation. “Thank Ah Ba; thank Ah Ma.”
The next afternoon, Sunday, I was travelling in the train, trying to recover the missed sleep hours and reassuring myself for declining to join a goodwill festival presents delivery to the poor and old organized by the church when I saw the big signboard of an elderly home through the train window. “That’s the one Uncle Nine told you on the phone two months ago!” - A thought gave me a sharp kick in my mind. I recalled Uncle Nine, a casual old friend I met years ago, called me through a social worker to tell me that he had moved to another elderly home because the last one went busted. I told him I would visit him soon.
I got off the train in the next stop, feeling that I owed him an apology for forgetting the promise. Just when I hit the main road and was welcomed by the crowds in different directions, I wondered if I had made a right decision. The heat and the humidity further fueled my uneasiness. Nonetheless, I convinced myself that I should keep the promise I made. So, I did some shopping before looking for the elderly home. I got him a box of individually wrapped mini moon-cakes, some bananas, a box of instant 3-in-one Nescafé, two packs of savory biscuits, two vanilla rolls and a takeaway of steamed rice with minced pork and salted fish.
I was hopeless in looking for places but finally found the elderly home after searching the whole area for 30 minutes. It was in an old and quiet section of the town, just a 3-minute walk from the busiest area and was surrounded by several big and small elderly homes. Actually, I passed the elderly home a couple of times before I finally spotted it. I could see Uncle Nine sitting on a stool outside the elderly home by the road. I walked to him and waved my hand but he did not seem to recognize me or he might not see anything at all though his eyes were wide open.
I stopped beside him and said, “Uncle Nine, you don’t recognize me?”
He was startled and lost for a couple of seconds. A smile returned to his face and he replied, “No, Mr. X! How nice of you to come visit me!”
“Not at all! Do you live here now? It looks better than the one before. Do you like living here?”
“I’m just waiting here to die. Useless! Old is useless!” he said solemnly. My heart sank.
We started chatting at the entrance of the elderly home, me standing and him sitting on the stool as the other chairs were occupied by other old folks. I passed him the box of moon-cakes and saw gleams of light at the corners of his eyes when he pulled it out of the bag. We went up to his bed room as it started drizzling. The elderly home had four floors and the inside was like a maze lined with small open cubicles of beds. As Uncle Nine led on, most old folks ignored me, but some stared at me from their beds where their hands were tied to and some seemed trying to speak to me but could not make a sound with a tube dangling from their noses. We talked about anything I could think of, sitting on his bed and in front of an old man who seemed to have frozen in his sitting position for ever. A thunderstorm suddenly came and the lightning filled the ceiling with eerie shadows.The thunderstorm passed quickly as it came and the rain stopped. I made my excuse to leave and Uncle Nine replied, “I won’t walk you down.”
“No, don’t. Have the steamed rice this evening. It will go off tomorrow.”
“I’ll save it for later this evening. I like it. Has it got soy sauce in it?”
“Bye. I’ll visit you later after you move to the new elderly home.” He told me he was going to move to another elderly home by the end of October.
The streets were wet from the rain and the sky was grey. I looked back to the elderly home and saw that all the chairs and stools were not occupied anymore, leaving that one-way road cool and quiet. “Maybe, there’re people who still want and enjoy the Mid-autumn Festival and I may want it more when I walk further down that road,” I said to myself.
On the Mid-autumn Festival day, my supervisor suddenly turned up at work in the morning. She always works on another site on Thursdays so her presence surprised me. She came into my office and reassured me, “Oh, nothing to worry! It’s the Mid-autumn Festival today and I forgot to bring you and others something yesterday. Take two!” She opened a big box of moon-cakes and gestured me to take two out. “It’s a special moon-cake, Chinese custard filling and it’s nice.”
“I’ll give one to my parents,” I answered spontaneously. She left to deliver the moon-cakes and other gifts to my colleagues. “What a supervisor!” I thought. “She must like the spirit of this festival.”
Maybe because of this special festival mood, I called my father later in the afternoon, “I’m coming home to have dinner with you and mum this evening. Can I make a request to have fried luncheon meat and no BBQ pork, no duck, no others?”
“I’ll prepare two tins of the meat.” I could feel his surprise.
“No, one is enough!”
“OK!” he answered enthusiastically.
“I’ll see you.”
I left office punctually at 5:45pm (actually 15 minutes late) but was caught up in the festival traffic. It was already 7:35pm when I arrived at my parents’. They were waiting for me and my mum had not had hers yet. She was pleased with my appearance and she seemed well. I did not want to waste any time and start the meal. These days, she only has very brief periods of time during the day when she can eat properly, meaning chewing chopped food with her dentures and swallowing food down without getting choked. Passing 7 o’clock in the evening often means she cannot eat anything until the next morning.
The luncheon meat was exceptionally delicious that evening and I finished more than half of the plate. It was excellent to go with the sweet and sour sauce. They both had some too. They do not have luncheon meat very often now because all their children keep telling them it is bad for their health. I was expecting the extra chicken but I enjoyed it too. Still, we ended up leaving most of the chicken untouched. We had a great time over the dinner table and the old man talked about the Mid-autumn Festivals when I was much younger. I was grateful that my mum had a good appetite and managed to finish the dinner herself. She was in a good mood and spooned some of the food to her cheeks instead. My father yelled, “Take your time, you’re spilling everything on to the floor. Eat and don’t talk. Are you going to sweep it up yourself?” He laughed.
It was a great simple unplanned festival dinner. I believed we all enjoyed it. “How lovely to see her finishing the dinner herself and spilling some to the floor!” I kept ruminating the scene on the bus back home. I gather Mid-autumn Festival is still wanted by many people. We just have to learn their presence.