Jambu to be shared between mother, child and dog
We had so many plans for 2020. After one year of being new parents, we couldn’t wait for our daughter to explore the world outside. We wanted to visit her grandparents in Sarawak, and to explore the beaches on the peninsular east coast. We saved up for her aunt’s summer graduation ceremony in the US. We looked forward to seeing the world through her eyes, discovering new things together and experiencing familiar things as new again. But as the whole world knows, these became laughably unimportant as COVID-19 took over our reality. We retreated into our sheltered lives, grateful that we held onto our health and livelihoods, and helping out where we could as friends started donation drives or new careers as home bakers.
And so the world around us receded to a single neighborhood, the one where my husband grew up in and back where we moved, to live with his 94-year-old grandmother, after we got married. And this old, nondescript neighborhood became our new world as we navigated it with a toddler, for whom we realized everything was new and interesting and downright fascinating. We got down on our hands and knees in our own house, finding out for the very first time what these tiny, fuzzy, oval-shaped things that crawled on our floors and walls were: moth larvae! No need to set up activities to train her fine-motor skills – our little girl painstakingly collected moth larvae, big and small, and watched entranced as they inched around on her palm. An ant became less of a nuisance and more an anticipated visitor: “Big ant!” “Small ant!” “Friendly ant!” “Many many ants!”
We ventured out into the lorong (lane) outside our house. Hot days gave us piles of crunchy leaves to stomp on and shuffle in. Rainy evenings gave us clear puddles that swirled with mud when stirred with the tip of a shoe. A small longkang (drain) afforded hours of pleasure, as we squatted down to observe fishes and tadpoles and the differences between the two. There were dragonflies, like little darts of fire and light among the moss and weeds. She would collect bits and bobs and plop them into the water. Leaves float, pebbles do not.
During these walks we got to know our neighbours. Uncle W was special because there was a little bench outside his house under glorious bunches of ixora, star-shaped flowers that she would pull off and hold tightly in her chubby fingers. Uncle W would pop out and warn us that the bench was unstable, and pull out his phone to show us videos of his own grandson in Singapore. Further down the road was a sprightly white-haired woman with a lovingly-tended flower garden that overflowed onto the lorong. We would greet her, “Hi, popo (grandmother)!” and she would ask, “How is auntie’s health?” (It was initially disconcerting to hear of our nonagenarian grandmother referred to as an “auntie”, but it reminded me to look past her frail state and recognize that she was once a lively force around the neighborhood.)
Other young families would stop by outside our gate too. C, his wife and his little boy loved saying hello to our pet dachshund. He told me once that his childhood dog was the same breed and seeing ours always brought back happy memories. Teenagers from the first house around the corner cycled past, making me internally puff up with pride when they spotted my curly-haired toddler and shouted, “So cute!”
We travelled further afield. The neighborhood park became a Sunday morning treat, and we would head there early before the rest of the world woke up. It would fill up quickly enough though, with children and adults thirsty for fresh air and a chance to stretch their legs. Everyone’s world had shrunk due to COVID-19, but there were still pockets of richness and life to be had for those who knew where to look. We learnt how to time ourselves right to get a chance at the swings, and also how to graciously make way for other children to have their turn. Watching the older ones play badminton, my little girl developed a passion for our national pastime, recreating “min-ton” games at home with some sticks to hit wooden toys around. As always, we would pick up fallen leaves and seed pods and pebbles, half of which would go to the “longkang tax”, some to crumble in her hands and the rest to bring home, and once washed and dried, would be added to her nature collection. These would usually find their way into various drawers, the laundry basket, and mummy and daddy’s bed.
On the walk home we would check out what was new. The house opposite the playground planted sweetcorn and managed to harvest some last week, but this week they’d uprooted the sweetcorn and planted something new. Someone cleared the empty land next to the pink house. We used to mourn the loss of bushy greens and animal habitats, but now we would curiously watch out for what someone would plant next – anyway, nature grows back, and it has been heartening to see people turn to gardening and urban farming when MCO started. Planter containers made out of mineral water bottles and old tyres sprouted like mushrooms, themselves sprouting with various herbs, fruits, and vegetables. We observed that chillies grow like tiny red candles pointing upwards towards the sky. We rubbed various leaves and sniffed our fingers, discovering mint (heart-shaped and hairy), basil (smooth and shiny), mugwort (fern-like and aromatic). We made sure to pass by the jambu air tree with rosy pink fruit scattered underneath, taking a few minutes to look for an unblemished specimen that we could bring home to wash clean and share between mother, child, and dog.
Various plants shot up on cleared plots of land. Once I took a Grab home from work, and the Grab uncle was astounded as his car wove through my neighborhood. “Eh, ada pisang, ada betik, ada ubi kayu… Siapa yang tanam semua ni? (Bananas, papayas, tapioca… Who planted all these?)” I shrugged and told him, anyone who sees an empty plot and decides to find some use for it. “Bes-nyer! Macam kampung ni! (Amazing! It’s like a village!)” he said. I like to think that it reminds him of his kampung, which must have seemed quite far away during those lonely, alienating months of MCO. It was nice to feel that this humble corner of Cheras brought some comfort to visitors as it has to its residents.
Speaking of residents, we became more conscious of the nonhuman residents of the neighborhood. There was no need for safari or jungle retreats when, just this morning, we saw a fat squirrel bound across the road in front of us. My husband upgraded from his smartphone to a secondhand camera, all the better to photograph the eagles that perched on the higher branches of trees. “For such majestic creatures, eagles have an effeminate cry,” my husband would school us, having taken it upon himself to identify the various bird calls around the neighborhood. Our toddler’s enjoyment was more straightforward. “Look! Eagle!” she would shout, pointing at the sky. We also looked out for the kingfisher’s laugh (“Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee” – always seven in quick succession) although it might not do to mention kingfishers in my husband’s hearing at the moment – he had the perfect angle to photograph the cerulean blue bird, only to realise his memory card wasn’t in the camera.
I admit we were relatively sheltered from COVID-19. We had to be, living with a young child and an elderly grandmother, and we were grateful to be able to shelter in place. We felt, keenly, the lack of physical fellowship with friends and family, and sometimes overwhelmed by the precautions we had to take. But even when our world shrank into a 1-kilometre radius, that very microscopic sense of scale made that small world grow in size and depth. Maybe this is how an ant feels. Or maybe this is how a young child feels, when everything and the littlest thing is fresh and exciting. The year 2020 and COVID-19 stopped us in our tracks, but like that ant, and that little child, we found our way around.