The room seemed so large back then. Huge. Even now, as I sit here trying to recall the details of it, what strikes me is its vastness, bathed in fluorescent white light, whiting out at the edges. It is bright, spacious, and cool, since we always had the air conditioning on for the night. Of course, it only looked as big as it did because I’d been so little.
I remember strange little things, like lying on a mattress flushed against the wooden door of the wardrobe, tracing my finger through the swirling mahogany patterns on its surface for what felt like hours. My parents took the bed, of course, their bed. My sister and I were just guests for the night. Our own bedroom was right next door. I remember standing on my tiptoes to watch the quiet of night sit peacefully in the storm drain and the void decks. I remember my sister asleep at my feet.
I remember us kids bounding into the room, dressed in matching cotton pyjamas, vigorously diving under the sheets to wait expectantly for our mother, who would crawl in between us.
Then my mother would read us a story, and magical things would happen.
The children’s stories came packaged in thin hardcovers, with large, swirling title fonts, and exquisite illustrations. They smelled really good, too, and each time my mother flipped a page I got a whiff of that woody aroma that makes books especially alluring.
From under those flower-printed sheets, snug and cosy and eager, I travelled the world. More accurately, I travelled between worlds as well. My mother would read aloud, treating each word gently and with the utmost care, and they would come alive, dancing and lilting, or cautious and grave. Magic, glinting between the lines, an alchemy in the rustling sound of the turning of a page. These precious moments before bed were a chance to leave behind the boring rationality of this real world, where, if you leapt out the window of the seventh floor, you would plummet, instead of rising through the air like Peter Pan, towards the second star to the right. Here was a glimpse of an alternate universe, where skeptical fish talked to cats in hats, and battles were fought over butter and toast (Thank you, Dr. Seuss).
My mother was extremely diligent in her quest to keep new books coming, and in keeping up this nightly tradition of reading to us before bed. At least once a week, she took each of our hands in hers and we walked together to the local library, a hole-in-the-wall type at the base of a block of flats. My mother would sift through the shelves, picking out books with interesting titles and/or beautiful art. My sister and I would gallivant to and fro, rolling around on the carpet or listening to the Can-Can on repeat on the library’s primitive jukebox (who allowed a jukebox in a library, I’ll never know). We would head home with our haul, where my sister and I would once again snuggle up beside our mother and explore what new treasure she had picked out.
The American author Bill Peet set fireworks going in my head with his hilarious compendium of impossible creatures in No Such Thing; I laughed and I snorted and I gasped and I marvelled. Peet also introduced me to a lion named Eli, and a Whingdinggilly too, which, if you didn’t know, is part rhino, giraffe, elephant, camel, zebra, reindeer, and dog. Then there were the slightly more grounded adventures. Patricia Polacco, an American author of Jewish and Irish descent, opened our eyes to the Western world, and showed us places where people dressed, ate, and spoke differently. Every time my mother read us a Polacco story, it was like hopping on a plane, catching a glimpse of what life looked like on the opposite side of the world, if only from way above. Polacco’s stories were heartfelt and full of warmth, simple tales of a land where people of diverse colours and cultures embraced and appreciated each other. It was a very different picture of America from the one that is painted today.
Lying up against my mother, enthralled by these stories, she always emanated a comforting warmth, and her voice was soothing and sweet. The overwhelming sense of contentment in this experience is comparable to a steaming mug of Milo (the Singaporean child’s cocoa) on a cool night.
My mother grew up poor, and had a simple education. As a child, she didn’t even have a proper bedroom or bed, and would lay cardboard out on the kitchen floor to sleep. Books, or any kind of reading material, were a luxury the family simply could not afford. From a young age she began working odd jobs to contribute to the meagre family income—giving tuition to younger children, selling odds and ends, babysitting.
My mother is tough, resilient, vibrant and kind, but she is not scholarly. Not literary. She speaks english well, but often struggles to find the right vocabulary to describe the depth of an emotion or the breadth of an experience. At fancier restaurants, she sometimes feels embarrassed to order, afraid that her perceived lack of eloquence would betray the dearth of refinement in her upbringing.
Yet, the reader and writer I am today is something I owe almost entirely to her. This woman, whose only claim to ever completing an entire novel was Roald Dahl’s The BFG (even that quite nearly became a Sisyphean task), built, through tremendous dedication and effort, the bedrock upon which stands my appetite for stories, and my flair for writing. She taught me, through storytelling, that a creative mind is about first being able to invest in the improbable, to believe that there is wonder and magic and strangeness out there that we can choose to chase. She gave her children everything she never had, unlocking the doors to a hundred worlds behind a hundred colorful book covers. She was curious, is curious, and she made me curious as well.
That is not to discount the role of my father—as I grew into a more mature reader, chewing my way through novels of increasing thickness and complexities, it was my dad who fostered and fed my appetite for fiction. Till today, he continues to contribute enthusiastically to the expansion of my little library, with additions from bookstores all over the world.
When I make toast, I still think of The Butter Battle. When my entire high school class watched two lions getting intimate at the zoo—us in awe, our teacher in horror—I’m ashamed to say that I involuntarily thought of Eli the lion. When I went to the U.S. for the first time, cruised the endless highways and marvelled at the feet of New York’s skyscrapers, Patricia Polacco’s stories weren’t far from my mind, and I wondered at the everchanging creature that was America.
When one of my Art History professors pointed me out as a strong writer, I was flattered, but mainly, I thought of my mother, and the children’s books through which I’d been taught both eloquence and creativity, in the best way possible. Back then, I’d been separated from my parents by land and ocean and a full eight time zones, but I thought of them still, and I thought of how much they’d given me, the tenderness with which they’d shaped and formed and moulded me.
By way of introduction, meet me, an aspiring writer, but also, meet my mum and dad. They are the reason I love reading, and writing, and telling stories. My life is the story of theirs, as well.
Heather Teo is an aspiring Singaporean writer. She studied Fine Art & History of Art at Goldsmiths College, London, and absolutely loved every minute of it. She is interested in psychologies of home and interior spaces, and explores these themes through evocative objects, relics of existences, and moments of intimacy in everyday life. Her short story ‘Gently Burns the Crescent Moon’ was published this year in ‘In This Desert, There Were Seeds’, an anthology by Ethos Books and Margaret River Press. She has also composed the screenplay for an animated short film titled ‘Danger Pain Harm’ (2019). Besides writing, Heather enjoys dabbling in film photography, and was the director of ‘Old of Things’ (2017), a documentary short film and the winner of the 2017 Heritage Short Film Competition in Singapore. Heather currently teaches art in Singapore. She spends nights typing stories, and weekends exploring with her camera.