The first time I met my father-in-law in his home was sometime in mid-1990. I remembered chiefly because when he opened the door, he was dressed in his boxers and a white singlet. Well, why wouldn't he on a hot day in his own home? While his wife and son fussed about him putting on "proper clothes", I time stamped in my memory what I felt his comfort around me indicated.
2. Acceptance of me into his family
Those two characteristic traits have been the backbone of my relationship with my husband's family since day one. My father-in-law's name is Wong Choon Ong. He has O's in every word in his name the same way I have E's in mine. He has a few other monikers like Henry and Feiba. I felt it was very wrong to call him Henry because I have friends called that and he wasn't like that at all. But "Feiba" was something all his children called him primarily because he was slightly pyknic. (Feiba literally means "fat dad"). It took me a while (at least a whole *minute* of intense struggling) because well, wasn't that just *rude*? But it never did sound rude when his children called him that. It was a term of deep endearment. That's another one of the remarkable things about Feiba- he was wonderfully endearing.
In the first hour after I had entered Moses' home (and Feiba had put on some "proper clothes"), he had already made me feel at home. There's something very loving about a person who feels breaking the ice early is helpful to make others feel at home. This was how it happened. You'll have to imagine this.
Feiba: "Shirley, Shirley...come, come. I want to tell you something." (I see the others rolling their eyes and looking embarrassed because they know what's coming but there I was, wide eyed and innocently curious...)
I go over there and he whispers in a low voice in both English and Mandarin the story of his going to Vienna as part of a choir and his "retched" reaction to cheese. Well, I show my true colours roaring in raucous, un-ladylike guffaws. Our friendship was sealed. It seemed he had honed his story-telling craft to perfection because he would deliver it with the deadpan face I'd come to expect each time he started with a "Shirley, Shirley...come, come...I want to tell you something..." Mercy.
Another memory I have that is vivid is Feiba's suspenders. It's an old world charm that is very hard to carry off if you didn't have a certain kind of personality. He was not a tie-and-belt man but a bow tie-and-suspenders sort of guy. His past students who used to visit him at his home all loved him for being the down-to-earth easy groomer. I am proud to say that when my own son was four years old, he wanted to wear suspenders like his yeye (paternal grandfather) did. He really had oodles of charm when he wanted to.
In the later years, Feiba would have the knack of telling his growing repertoire of stories and delivering the punchline in Hokkien- a dialect I didn't understand. So you can imagine my same wide eyed and innocently curious look followed by Feiba lawling as I went around the house asking for the explanation.
"A real Christian is an odd number anyway. Feiba feels supreme love for one whom he has never seen, talks familiarly everyday to someone he cannot see, expects to go to Heaven on the virtue of another, empties himself in order to be full, admits he is wrong so he can be declared right, goes down in order to get up, is strongest when he is weakest, richest when he is poorest and happiest when he feels worst. He dies so he can live, forsakes in order to have, gives away so he can keep, sees the invisible, hears the inaudible and knows that which passeth knowledge."
Feiba, I will miss the way you hum and sing when you ironed clothes for the family. I will miss the way you smile and your eyes crinkle the way they do. Thanks for being as jovial and as positive as possible through the heartaches and the storms. My own faith tells me you're too busy being reunited with our loved ones in Heaven to worry about us. That's good because that's what we all want.