David Suzuki: The Legacy. And of old family homes.

Just finished reading David Suzuki’s The Legacy: An Elder’s vision for a sustainable future (2010).

In this passage, Suzuki speaks of ‘real’ economic value vs intangible property values, and the precious value of Eldership, legacies and old family homes:

Economists tell us that we can’t realign our economic system to incorporate the kind of values that people like me hold, that ‘it’s not realistic” to look to a radically different future, that the economy is the bottom line to which everyone and everything must capitulate.

Let’s consider this. I live in an oceanfront house in Vancouver. I once received a form letter from a real estate agent announcing that “now is a good time to sell your property and buy up.” I began to think about what I would put down as the most valuable parts of the property. Well, my wife’s mother and father have lived with us for thirty years, so my children have had Grandma and Granddad right upstairs their entire lives. That’s what I would list as a huge value.

My father was a cabinetmaker, and when Tara and I were married, he built a set of cupboards for our first apartment. When we bought our current house, I tore out one of those cupboards and installed it in our kitchen. It didn’t fit well, but Dad is with us every time we use it. That went down on my list of values.

My father-in-law is an avid gardener and knowing that I love asparagus and raspberries, he planted them just for me. I put that down on my list.

My best friend, Jim Murray, came out to visit one year and carved a handle for the gate of a fence I was building. Every time I use that gate, I think of Jim. I wrote that down.

My children have brought dead birds, snakes, and squirrels home to bury under the dogwood tree–animal cemetery–and I wrote that down.

I built a tree house in that dogwood tree, and my children spent many happy hours playing in it. That went down as a value.

Looking over that list, I know those are the things that for me transforms a ‘property” into a “home,” and they are priceless. But on the market, they are worthless. And that’s our problem: when we measure everything according to its economic value, those things that matter most to us are worthless.

–David Suzuki, The Legacy

By Suzuki’s standard then, I guess I have failed Mum and Father.

With the above passage in mind, I took a slight detour today to go by where our old family house used to be. In the lots where our house and our neighbour’s house used to sit, now stands a five-storey 40-unit condominium estate with a swimming pool and basement carpark. The estate looks like it had been built to maximize the built-in livable area at the expense of everything else, with the building no more than a couple of metres from the boundary wall. Not a single patch of grass or greenery can be seen – I’m guessing they did not keep the old mango and jackfruit trees which had been in our backyard longer than I’ve been around.
There are many things about the old house I miss; it was a veritable storehouse of memories…maybe too many memories.

My old room with a balcony which gets the morning sun, with a view out onto the backyard where the mango tree stood right in the middle of (this dense old tree produced such sweet juicy mangoes and was a haunt for many many fruit bats; I could always hear their shrieking outside my balcony window at night); the balcony was my favourite lounging and reading area, I would always be there curled up on the plush carpet reading, especially on rainy days – hearing the pitter pattering and smelling the fresh clarifying scent of the rain in the air.

I remember the paintings hanging on the walls, mostly watercolours (though only a few were 山水画/国画 or traditional Chinese landscape paintings) done in the Nanyang Style by the nanyang masters whom Mum studied under. On the walls of the front living hall Mum hung a few paintings of the old Singapore River-scape, with the old sampans and godowns before their cleanup and transformation. These were painted by Mum’s brother-in-law, Uncle LPH, a distinguished local artist with his own unique style, who won a National Day Awards Medal for his contributions to local art (this was before they had the separate Cultural Medallion for meritorious artistic achievements). Mum only hung up one painting which she painted herself, and it was of her favourite animal and subject, horses (Mum loved horses!) and she modestly hung it up only on the wall of the stairway. But the stairway was also where my favourite art-pieces were displayed: on a rosewood corner table sat two smallish sculptures of oxen pulling at ox-carts, with stylized sinews and lines on the oxen straining towards a single direction. I only remember from bits of conversation that it was done by a Taiwanese sculptor during the indigenous Land and People art movement of the 60s/70s.

Under the verandah roof of the back patio was an old-fashioned stone table with a top inlaid with patterned mosaic, surrounded by heavy stone chairs. This was Mum’s and Father’s favourite spot to have breakfast, where they will be tucking into chwee kueh, carrot cake, you tiao, and beancurd from their early morning rounds at the market.

In the backyard along the edge closest to the patio and outside wet-kitchen, Mum planted some chili and lime plants. She always had grand plans to plant a complete herb garden for her own cooking use, but never got beyond the little chilies and limes she would so proudly pluck and cut up, but which actually could not even fill half a small bowl’s worth.

One fine day Father announced he was going to plant fir trees and the very next day, the nursery sent down the trees and gardeners and we suddenly had 5 young fir trees planted in a line along the side wall, just outside the french doors of our dining area. I finally understood Father’s intention later that year, when during a Christmas party we had in the house, while crowded around the dining table laid out with the Christmas feast and food, all the guests were admiring the fir trees with the faux snow Father had decorated them with. Mum and the maid were not so impressed though, with the pines that were always falling off and blanketing the ground all year round.

I remember when I decided I would build my own Japanese rock and moss Zen garden, right beside those fir trees. Mum warned that Father will not be pleased. I replied that’s why I’m doing it now, when he’s out of town on business. I proceeded to remove most of the nice smooth river stones and pebbles from the front lawn and placed them into a satisfyingly zen-like landscape and small rock garden visible from my bedroom balcony upstairs. Father threw a fit when he got back, but the deed was already done – he went and got new stones for the front lawn.
In my defense though, the selling-out was almost inevitable. The old house was already too large and too much for an old man and a domestic maid to manage. And when father suddenly got sick and I had to return to the country on short notice to take care of everything, the initial hospitalization and all the medical stuff, his business and business affairs, his personal affairs, the house…it was a little too much for me. I didn’t want to have to deal with his employees and tenants, with his business associates and his lawyers and accountants; I didn’t even want to have to deal with the gardening everyday…(Father kept reminding me to water and trim his pots and plants, even at the hospital)

I just wanted to lighten my plate and portfolio as much as I could, so when the offer for the house came, I took it.

Sure there are regrets about broken legacies and truncated memories. But sometimes, legacies and memories can be heavy burdens to bear as well.

I don’t have a garden now, and to be within some greenery I have to make my way to it. I don’t have enough wall space now for the art and paintings, so most of them are in storage; but actually, I like my bare walls just fine.


2 thoughts on “David Suzuki: The Legacy. And of old family homes.

  1. D

    What a superbly written, poignant post, which I have read and re-read several times. For some reason. your post evoked in me a sense of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow :=

    I see the lights of the village
    Gleam through the rain and the mist
    And a feeling of sadness comes over me
    That my soul cannot resist
    A feeling of sadness and longing
    That is not akin to pain
    And resembles sorrow only
    As the mist resembles the rain.

    Preservation of the Suzuki “value” of your parents’ home is but just one of your many obligations (even that is questionable in my opinion). You may feel you have fallen short, but I am sure that you have been more than a dutiful son in many other areas of their lives. So – don’t be too hard on yourself.


  2. T,

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Beautiful lines from Longfellow, magical words which whisk me away to another world…
    [I can almost smell the rain and the mist, and the earthy scent of early-morning bracken, moss and dew of the woods and plantations, and spy the faint gleams of father’s old ‘village’ in Johor in the distance through the car windscreen, on our yearly pre-dawn drive back to his hometown…
    Father, being a dutiful son to his own father.

    Thanks again,

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