Spaghetti on broth


I used to live with my grandparents. It’s rarer now but common back then for three generations to live together. Since both my parents worked, my grandparents took care of my sister and me when we were kids.

Grandma passed away when I was 11 or 12, but Grandpa was going strong well into my adulthood. He’d always been retired for as long as I could remember but he was no couch potato. An early riser, he’d go for his morning walk, have two breakfasts, buy groceries, and sometimes go to the movies and visit his friends or his brother who lived 1-2 hours away. I’m sure there were other stuff. I never asked what he did but he was active and liked to go out. He’d always been like this.

It occurred to me only recently that this outgoing grandpa spent at least two years cooking lunch for me every weekday when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. My school was only 10 minutes’ walk from home so I started going home for lunch, once I was old enough to be allowed to leave during lunch hour. Every noon I went home to a ready meal he prepared. It was simple but even so he was stuck at home in the middle of the day everyday because I needed to eat. Because of him I could escape bad school food, and take a midday nap before going back to class. I don’t remember a time when he told me to get my lunch at school because he had to go somewhere.

Grandpa’s specialty was spaghetti on broth. He could’ve used any traditional noodles but liked spaghetti better. Preferred al dente even with his dentures. It became his signature dish, along with soggy French toast, that my sister and I associate with Grandpa, to this day.

You can get spaghetti on broth in some eateries here. Not ubiquitous but not uncommon. It’s not something I normally have but one day, a few years after Grandpa passed, I saw it on a menu. I ordered it. As I began to eat, my tastebuds opened a floodgate. I was sitting in a crowded, noisy eatery famous for its rude waiters, and tears came streaming down uncontrollably. I wonder what those rude waiters said after I left.

That was the second time I sat crying alone for Grandpa in a restaurant. The first time was the day he passed. I was in the middle of a serial business trip–Bangkok, Taipei, Tokyo–when I got the call while having breakfast. I had a slight fever but I went about my day. There is a record of what that day was about because I was working on a photoshoot and there are photos from that day published in a magazine.

I’m an insomniac. Sometimes when I lie awake in the dark at night, I think of death. Sometimes I get fearful. When I do, I like to think that when the time comes, Grandpa would be there to pick me up. I wonder what he would look like. I don’t think he’d look as old as I remember him? But I should recognise him anyway. Speculating about the technicalities of the afterlife would then keep me awake some more.

It’s now fast approaching the 13th anniversary of Grandpa’s passing. He would’ve been 113 now. But that’s not exactly why I am writing this. The other night I was suddenly overcome with grief… about Outlander. Out of nowhere I was grieving over what could’ve been. The passionate love between my favourite couple becoming transcendental, and scenes that I was yearning to see but now I’d never get to. There was no going back and I was crushed. 

And then slowly my brain decided this wasn’t something worth getting sad over and flitted over to something else. The feeling that grief could be sneaky, overpowering and triggered by the unexpected brought up memories of me crying over spaghetti. So I’m writing this down instead, the memory that deserves more virtual ink than the silliness that is that TV show.

As for spaghetti on broth, it’s as straightforward as it sounds! Cook your spaghetti in a boiling broth together with any condiments you like, veggies, ham, meat, etc. Unfortunately Grandpa’s recipe is lost. He wrote me a letter in his shaky handwriting teaching me how while I was away in university. I hope it will reappear one day. 

I went all teary at office this morning my friend. I was also raised by my grandparents like you and many other kids of our generation in our city. In many families, kids are even closer to their grandparents than their parents because they are the ones spoiling and taking care of us everyday.

Having left the city for a few years, reading this I miss the food served in local canteens “ChaCaanTeng” and all the melancholic feelings of homecoming fill my head. But at the same time, our city has changed so much, like Outlander from S1 to S4 that Time Magazine said our city is dying. Is what I miss still existing? What is the difference between death and life? How substantial the changes have taken place that warrants the statement that it is dying?

The core values are being stepped on. The essence of the city life, which used to define us, the people, the way of life, the game rules, the language, are being given up to give way to their successors.  We are living in the shadow of our past self who doesn’t feel belonged to where we are anymore. What’s sadder is, many fellow people asked why we are sad. Why we don’t let go of the past. Why we are indulgent in emotions and nostalgia.

How can you tell them your home is lost and you have nowhere to go back to? The emotional space where you have learnt to attach to, where you shed tears and laugh out loud, where you share intimacy with the souls who speak to your heart, where you fight against the new players and successors with comrades of same beliefs. The emotional space that can be a book, a poem, a film, a person, a dog, a dance floor, a city. In Buddhism, they belong to the material world that should be let go of, but they are also the only things that mean bigger than death to us during our life of transience and fragility.

My friend, we are experiencing the parallel of disillusionment and yet ready to say goodbye to both our favourite city and Outlander.

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