The roundtable with the Lazy Susan was where it all happened.
The table had made its first debut in 1979 when my father was a boy of seventeen. It had been an early pick because of its functionality and because such tables were common in those days. It was made of wood and could be opened up into a bigger oblong shape for special occasions. It was not fancy or expensive, but it was certainly purposeful. Tok saw it fit for her new home.
Tok, my grandmother, was a thrifty lady with a natural knack for business and a ferocity for survival. She was Cheah Swee Kwan at birth, Faridah Abdullah for the remainder of her life after marriage, but was always known as just Tok to me in the eight years that I knew her. Tok was a strong, exemplary woman who single-handedly raised four children — unabashed laughter and white teeth, soap and medicine, an absolute woman beyond her years.
The roundtable was the centerpiece in the lives of Tok and her children, where everybody gathered around it come Saturday like it was an unspoken yet unconditional rule. The comfort of home-cooked food was integral, simply because it filled everybody up with love, nutrition and happiness. Tok would rotate cooking everybody’s favourites, her dishes a fusion of different cultures, traditions and ideas. Ikan cencaru pedas for Dad, porridge with minced meat for Auntie Yin, popiah for Pak Bet, otak-otak, Cantonese Char Kuey Teow… the list went on and on.
The celebrations that revolved around the table were arbitrary — joy wasn’t dictated by the idea of commercial celebrations or by sheer digits. Any moment that had rhyme or reason for laughter meant that it would be a shared moment, and sharing was most important of all. After all, the Lazy Susan itself was designed to share.
There were many card games and intense Scrabble sessions that the adults would take part in competitively till the late hours of the night on that table. These sessions were often accompanied by the steady whirring of the fan, the backdrop of faint 90s cartoon sounds from the television, along with endless coffee and snacks. I like to think that all these components combined made for great conversations.
Amongst the comical occasions that colored the roundtable was when Tok would brew the herbs she brought home from the local sinseh. A foul-smelling stench would overpower the air and a suspicious-looking pot would make a feature in the middle of the Lazy Susan. “Drink it to clear up your eyes,” Tok would say. Nothing cleared up the house faster as everybody would suddenly announce their leave with hasty excuses and shifty-eyed glances and yet nobody could escape from their fate of having to drink up their share of the dreaded medicine.
Another memory would be when my mother had walked in on me eating chicken feet from a bowl once. Uncommon to her culture and way of living, she had screamed her head off at the sight of her two year-old chewing gnarly bits of feet. I still faintly recall enjoying the taste although I never took to trying it again.
“It seems like all of you are always laughing and eating and then talking about the next meal.”
There were many meals that stretched the span of numerous happy belly laughs. The family members that came from other lands found the culture, the sheer obsession around food and the (in)activity of sitting around a table for hours, perplexing. Not everybody necessarily understood the beauty of the tradition that surrounded the roundtable, perhaps because it is so typically Malaysian to draw health from an obsession with food and good company. Nobody knew how to best articulate the experience to foreigners because like love, it was simply an experience that was simply felt or not felt, and it has often been wondered if the experience is a happy inheritance exclusive to every Malaysian.
It was the roundtable with the Lazy Susan that brought Tok’s family together. Things regularly shapeshifted to different forms there – spats, tears, discussion, surprises, reconciliations, but almost always ultimately into a form of joy and familial acceptance. After her passing, it became close to impossible to get everybody together again in one place.
Nobody is certain of the fate of the roundtable with the Lazy Susan. Perhaps it is still at the old house, bringing together other families. I’d like to think so although I am not so sure. Sometimes I dream about retracing or tiptoeing back in time to experience a taste of what it was like to have a familiar favourite dish waiting for me every Saturday and to have a Scrabble game to look forward to.
In my family, that table made history. That table is history.