Friday, May 04, 2012

A tribute to my Father-in-law

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.
1. Unpretentiousness
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.

Feiba had the distinct quality of being emotionally attuned to people. His pastoral heart was well suited to his ability to encourage others. He had been an art teacher for all his work life and his ease in self-taught piano playing always turned heads. He was an adroit painter and musician. He had a wonderful sense of humour and often made faces just to prove his point. Perhaps you can't quite see it but this picture showed Moses, Feiba and I all in our PJs having a BBQ and again, Feiba recounting a joke. After I had joined the Wong family, not only was it okay to wear our PJs all day, we can wear it outdoors as well. Win/ Win.

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.

When my husband and I lived in Switzerland,  my parents-in-law came to visit and we gave up our bachelor pad so they can stay in our apartment while we camped out at our good friend Dominique's home in the next village. We had an enormously fun time going to Geneva,  Fribourg, Bern, Lucern and Interlaken. Here Feiba and I pretend to be absorbed in a game at the Musee de Jeux outside Lausanne. I look at this photo and recall many things about that trip, now made even more bittersweet since the last person who could reminisce with me is no longer here.

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.

When my son Myron was born, he looked just like his dad Moses. Moses also looked like his own dad, so it completely took out the mystery as to what Myron would look like in his 30s and in his 60s. Here is a picture taken a dozen years ago. Behind Myron is his cousin Berakah, who being four years older plays the role of the older sister. So much of the legacy of what Feiba leaves for his grandchildren is the tenderness of heart. Both his grandchildren display this in copious amounts. There is this gift of humility that is very quiet, very unassuming and very underplayed. Of course Feiba had his own struggles not being perfect by any means. Something I had read embodies my father-in-law very well. A.W. Tozer put it in this beautiful nutshell which for my own liberal use, am going to insert my father-in-law's moniker in there.

"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.

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