A couple of weeks ago, The Mrs surprised me when she out of the blue invited a Malaysian couple to our ruby anniversary. It was immediately after we had reacquainted with them during lunch at Wolf Blass Winery in the Barossa Valley. I met Wolf Blass a few times in the late 1980s. He was a very important customer of the cardboard box factory I worked for. A wine mogul whose wines were as big and bold as his personality, he was never seen in public without one of his signature bow ties. They made him so cool and dapper I was tempted to copy him. But, why spend money when I had all those old ties I brought from Penang in 1977? You know, those left in my parents’ dry-cleaning shop that their customers forgot to pick up?
I pulled The Mrs to one side and with my hand on her arm, I whispered, “Why invite them? We hardly know them!” Since the pandemic, the couple have been stuck here, unable to return to Penang, whilst their very close friends who like them are also new Australian permanent residents, are stuck in Penang. So, I imagined we were like extras in a movie set, invited to spend the afternoon with them to make up the numbers. The Mrs screwed up her nose and snarled. “What do you want me to do now? Pretend they didn’t hear me?” She still wore that quizzical look on her face as she walked back to chat with her newfound friends. Her chortles were the loudest, almost booming. She possesses a rather low laughter threshold – my definition of a lucky person. Before we got married, we watched an episode of Mork and Mindy together in her rented house on Royal Street in Maroubra. After that experience, I decided it was too dangerous for me to ever sit through another comedy with her. My left arm and back were bruised black and blue from her wallops that she felt necessary to impart when she laughed heartily at every punchline. It made me jealous to observe how easily she cracked up at jokes that I didn’t find funny at all. How blessed, I thought, to be able to see the funny side of anything and everything. Laughter is the best medicine, as they say, and no matter what bitterness life throws at us, it is laughter and positivity that will get us through the darkest days. Whenever she was about to tell me a joke, she would tell me she had a really funny joke to share. She was clueless that it was this “mental preparation” that made me nervous. “Will I find it funny? Do I laugh now? If not, when?” I asked myself. My soft and restrained “ha-ha’s” were often unconvincing – without sufficient conviction – but, if I didn’t laugh at all, she would be sure to say I was made of cold stone. Pebbles do not laugh even in the most unspoilt turquoise-blue creek.
On Sunday, we will be married 40 years. Despite the heavy air of familiarity and the dullness of mundane routine that occupies most of our days, I recalled that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing why she was the one for me all those years ago. It was her infectious warmth, her genuine friendly nature that dazzled. That was what made her special. I mean, she was not the type who would go out of her way to make another person feel important. That would be unnatural and actions such as those could be seen to be deliberately conceived. Her impulse to reach out and make someone feel included was innate, I think. There was nothing fake about her when she offered her friendship. There was neither an ulterior motive nor an advantage that she sought. “Curb your enthusiasm!” I warned her. “Don’t be gullible! There are wicked ones out there who will disappoint you and hurt you.” “Best not to trust strangers,” I added. She had a natural tendency to treat everyone right. It did not matter to her if that person was someone she had just met or a mere acquaintance.
It is not just her inclusiveness and her natural inclination to welcome a stranger that still makes her an attractive woman today. It is also her kindness and beneficence that radiate that familiar and comforting warm glow when she is not weighed down by my antics or by my saturnine predisposition. Just earlier this week, I witnessed exactly this beautiful character of hers whilst feeding the hens. Is it not quite typical that we need animals to remind us of what is beautiful and kind? Dottie the old chook was enjoying her breakfast alone when two crested pigeons swooped down from the tree above and after a fleeting survey of the surroundings, jauntily enjoyed her breakfast without asking or waiting for her permission. You know, Dottie did not even flinch or look up at them. She treated them as her own and not as outsiders. She shared her food with them as she would with her family. Her agreeableness was there for me to witness, much like what The Mrs has shown me, right through our long marriage. Yet, I have not really embraced this way of life. The caring, honest readiness to accept and welcome others. It is also her preparedness to believe there is good in everyone that makes her charming – more than that, actually. It is her natural flair to assume the best about others that is so disarming. She would be the one in our travelling party to venture away from the group and make new friends. That has always been her quality – her natural curiosity and interest in other peoples and cultures explains her readiness to converse with anyone. Her openness is, by any measure, a healthy and positive trait. Upon reflection, I was the one to dampen her enthusiasm for life. In the early years, I poured doubt into her open and trusting mind, and warned her about the risks of opening herself up to new ideas, new people, and new experiences. The boundaries I imposed on her were too restricting to someone whose spirit reminds me of the eagle’s. A bold spirit that soars freely and effortlessly should not be contained by someone as dour and grey like me. I can see now why her immediate surroundings were emotionally suffocating. The disparaging attitudes from my ugly cynicisms and wayward opinions have largely damaged the esteem The Mrs once had for me. We were as incompatible as an ice-skating rink in a desert.
When we were courting during our uni days in Sydney, I sought to impress The Mrs with my nous in stretching our weekly budget. After I left home in January 1977, I promised myself I would not burden my parents again for my living expenses. The fact that education was free in Australia helped lessen my worries too and I knew a few hours’ work on the weekends would be enough to pay for every day-to-day expenses. Airfares were unaffordable and so, I did not get to visit my parents in the last two years of my uni life. It is only right to have no such sense of entitlement. So, I showed The Mrs how it was done. “You go to Coles and Woolies? No, try no-frills Franklins! They are the place for all basic necessities.” “Fruits and veggies? Get them from Duffy Brothers.” A cabbage there cost 10 cents and a box of stone fruits near closing time will set you back only 80 cents. Seafood meant Silver Biddies, at 20 cents a kg. “Chicken maryland? No – chicken wings and giblets will do. $6 for a side of lamb?” No, that was food for the entitled and never appeared in my shopping list. Steak was never T-bone but chuck. No other cuts would be suitable for rendang, right? But then, I screwed up and revealed the true traits of a Ningbonese. The ones from Penang were renowned for being tight-arsed, extremely thrifty! Sometimes, I think we were worse than thrifty. It is probably more accurate to describe us as frugal back then. Thrifty people waste as little as possible – so they do not leave the tap running or leave the light on when they are the last to leave the room. They don’t ever turn on the air-conditioning whilst the windows are ajar. But, a frugal person is one who veers close to being stingy. You know, the one who never opens his wallet, and on the rare occasion that he did, a moth would fly out from it. Adrian Kibble was chuckling when he said that about me. The grossly obese man thought it was funny, but I took exception to him for saying that about a Penangite. I wasn’t the one who avoided spending on anything. Neither was I the one who avoided turning on the air-cond even during a long angry summer and justified to his family it was as therapeutic as a stint in a sauna. I screwed up much earlier, before we were even married. I taught The Mrs how to select the best fruits and the biggest cabbages. Every fruit had to be the biggest, freshest (with the stalks still green) and perfectly unblemished. Back then I did not understand those are the opposite features of organically grown produce. It was just recently that The Mrs told me her mum taught her differently. “We leave some good ones for the next person.” “If we picked all the best ones, what do we leave for those who arrive after us,” You see what I mean? It never dawned on me to leave some good ones for people we don’t even know. Whereas, The Mrs does not ever forget the next person – they deserve a share of the pie, no matter who they are.
The Mrs didn’t want to be my girlfriend. I thought she harboured an inferiority complex when she told me people would laugh at her. “Don’t worry about what people may say!” I was quick to dismiss her worries about being older than me. Her anxiety did not merit a review by me at the time. More and more, I am now convinced it was not as I assumed. It had nothing to do with her feeling inferior, but her knowing that I was inferior. She feared people would laugh at her because of me. I was the idiot. She could sense the sacrifices she had to make, I think. Sacrifices most women make when they marry but to sacrifice so much more when already alerted to my many faults? Many years after we married, she told me she won’t want to meet me again in the afterlife. She would rather be a pebble. I told her what I thought of pebbles. Pebbles do not laugh even in the most unspoilt turquoise-blue creek. It hurt me, of course to hear that she had had enough of me. Pebbles do not laugh – happiness is not what they seek. But, I could feel the peace and serenity that pebbles enjoy. So, I told The Mrs I will want to be a pebble also in my next life. She will find me right next to her, in the same pond. Happiness is elusive, even to the greatest sages in human history. Let us just settle for peace and harmony, I vowed. As pebbles, we will have peace together.
I suppose being married 40 years is a life sentence that is longer than most criminals have to endure. Mafia bosses and drug lords suffer little by comparison. Al Capone served less than 8 years for all his crimes. Pablo Escobar didn’t want to entertain the idea of just a 5-year jail sentence and escaped from his own purpose-built prison. John A. Gotti, the famous mobster from New York, spent a brief 6 years behind bars for all his crimes. Known as Teflon Junior, he was able to make a mockery of all 4 mistrials for racketeering and murder charges. But, for The Mrs, she has suffered 40 years of me (not with me). Wilson, a good friend, posted a short reminder of what a woman’s sacrifice entails when she marries her husband. I told Wilson not to be naive. Not so long ago, I was as callow, mistaking them as sacrifices made for me. The Mrs was blunt, but there was no other way to show her honesty. She advised me not to be so self-absorbed; not everything she did, she did for me.
It is true she changed her surname and she changed her address and left her family to live with me. It is also true she changed the shape of her body drastically during her pregnancies and suffered unimaginable pain during childbirth. She also sacrificed her lofty career ambitions. It cannot be said she did it for me even though I voiced my preference to her that it should be our responsibility to take care of our own children and not leave it to childcare. It is also true our children bear my surname and not hers. It is also true she did all the shopping, cooking and laundry for us and she took lovely care of both my parents during their stay with us. There is also no denying that she spent a lot more time looking after the needs of our children than I did. Her total dedication was always to others. Why did I fail to acknowledge it was palpable that she neglected her own needs – she sacrificed her time and energy for everyone else. Wilson’s post added that a woman is a great gift to men from God. He meant well, I am sure. A reminder that I ought to cherish my wife and not take her for granted. But, The Mrs is a strong, modern woman who will not suffer misogyny silently. She will resent being told she is a present to me.
40 years is a long time. Ours is not a romantic story anymore. We carry many scars, not only in our memories but also on my body. The Mrs has been known to lose her temper and therefore, her patience and control as well. I should hasten to qualify that. Everyone loses their patience with me. I do not know of anyone who has not found me annoying. I can be as irritating as an Aussie sheep blowfly at a picnic. No amount of swatting will deter me, but my foolishness in not knowing when to shut up usually ends with me shoving shit up someone’s nose. I have been guilty of causing my wife unbearable sorrow. It is a guilt that won’t wash away. That day, The Mrs squealed like a wounded animal in our car. It was all because I didn’t allow her to be right. Earlier, I confessed she was prone to walloping me. Her wallops may have been unintentional during sitcoms and romantic comedies, but her wallops during fights were definitely intentional. So what? One could say I thoroughly deserved my scars – people who think they are never wrong are pricks. Belatedly, I am awakened to accept that I do not have to be right, let alone prove to anyone that I can be right. The bane for men is that we cannot ever understand women. Whoever said women are from Venus was spot on. They speak a language so alien that their messages often confuse men. The Mrs often chastises me for not speaking up whenever a sibling treats us unfairly. She confuses my aversion to family feuds as pusillanimity. So, when I stood up for myself when hurt by her verbal missiles, it did not please her to observe that I had discarded my pusillanimous shell. You see, I failed to understand that there are certain times when I should be timid, just not all the time.
40 years may be a long time, but sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday. There are moments we shared that will not fade with the passage of time, such as the moment when we first met and her eyes smiled at me like there were no troubles in the world. Or, the moment when we walked down the bus and our hands accidentally touched three times. Or the moment when she said I could stay and she would cook me dinner. Especially vivid is the moment when we taught each other the joy of sex. Or, the moment when she said she would follow me to Singapore as my wife. We did leave for Singapore later that year but we quickly returned to Sydney and married in March 1981. Yeah, 40 years ago. The Mrs and I may have faced the many downs in our life together, or suffered the hard bumps that almost knocked us out but we also have our ups. Someone famously said life wasn’t meant to be easy. But, who wants the easy street when a rich life together is far more memorable? A rich life together has nothing to do with money but it has all to do with enriching our lives meaningfully and lovingly together and as a family. It is the trials and tribulations we faced and the mountains of compromise we made when creating and building a life together that endears us now. And, we created life out of our love. Three sons, in fact. Our sweat and tears (and some of my blood) bond the foundation blocks of our marriage, and the many memories of laughter and joy bear the fruits of our love. Ours is not the perfect union, but you know my views about perfection. It is predictable and therefore boring.
21st of March is a truly special day for me. It is significant that my wedding anniversary is on the day where the night is equal to the day on every place on Earth. How appropriate for my Libra traits – balance, equality, justice, peace. The United Nations celebrate it as the International Day of all forests – a day when we pause to reflect on how trees sustain and protect life. This day is also Harmony Day in Australia, a day to celebrate respect, cohesion, harmony, inclusiveness and belonging. To The Mrs, my beloved, may we continue to love, respect and cherish each other equally and harmoniously, and renew our vow to travel in this life together through all its grand peaks and dark valleys.