Love and a pair of slippers

In any family, there are things that are forgiven but not forgotten. In mine, there is a pair of battered blue flip-flops I pointedly slip into whenever my mother and I head out for a short walk.

"These are those slippers," I remind her, determined that one of us will get some use out of the two bits of rubber I paid $20 for five years ago only because she wore uncomfortable shoes for an afternoon's shopping.

When she stopped short in the middle of Ngee Ann City declaring she couldn't move a step further, I raced to a nearby stall, shelled out for the cheapest pair of slippers on offer and then headed back, receipt in hand, to see her paying twice the amount for a pair of sandals that looked "smarter and more comfortable".

My mother has never worn the highly overpriced flip-flops but I do, for a walk around our building, to the swimming pool and to the grocery store in the rain. I might be risking another fracture by slipping on the wet floor, but I am grimly determined to erode the slippers to their component molecules, all $20 worth, rather than throw them, and the money, away.

Far from being contrite, my mother laughs. But then so do I, when she complains that my hair is never tidy and always falls over my eyes, when my father points out the faults in my washing up and tells me to stay far away from his kitchen.

We are all deadly serious about our complaints, but not in any malicious way.

In any family, the lines of communication wear smooth and thin over familiar topics and longstanding arguments. Flip-flops, messy hair and the washing up are comfortable things to fight over, reminding us of our shared history and neatly skirting the actual landmines buried in the heart of our conversation.

One is the fact that our shared history is being knit anew after the 17 years we spent apart because I was studying solo in Singapore. It was my parents who told me to go, but my father is still surprised that I went and that I stayed on, away from the family heart.

We come from a large extended family in India - visiting every home inhabited by my parents' relatives in our native city alone would take the better part of a year - and our nuclear unit has always been close. We get each other's jokes, we can spend hours discussing books and movies, or, in the case of a brownout, reciting the dialogue and singing the songs from our favourite Bollywood hits.

Why then did I leave? Because I wanted adventure, wanted to cut loose from the apron strings. I wanted to be away from comfort and safety and to see who I would grow into, just as my mother before me had travelled the world, just as my father before me had made multiple daredevil motorcycle rides around India on his own.

So I left and because we could afford only one trip home a year, my parents missed seeing me grow. They missed my teenage rebellion and mood swings, but also missed seeing me receive a medal for English or sing in concerts and direct plays.

This was in the days before the Internet was ubiquitous, before Skype and Viber and WhatsApp allowed people in different places to experience each other's lives moment by moment. I sent back photographs and tried to condense days of experience into exorbitant one-minute phone calls, but it wasn't the same.

I gained a lot by leaving so I only realised what had also been lost the year I returned to visit my parents in India, a new graduate with a job and with short hair. My parents walked past me twice at the airport before realising who I was. In a family where buying a single new serving tray is cause for lengthy discussion involving every member, the change of hairstyle was a shocking decision to make alone. It was a stark, visual reminder of where I stood at the time.

Like it or not, at that time, I stood apart from my family. I had missed my parents' 20th wedding anniversary, was absent for the last illness and death of my maternal grandmother, was never there to stand vigil at the hospital with them in other terrible times.

My parents sometimes say they were glad I was insulated from such sorrows, but I wonder how those jagged edges would have shaped me. Smoothed me perhaps into a stronger person today.

Children need to leave the nest and discover who they are. But, in our family, they eventually come home, if only to don the parental mantle in turn and care for the ones who let them go.

I am fortunate to be rediscovering my parents before that time, reforming the relationship with real adults and not forgetful ghosts, as some friends have had to do.

Slippers, flyaway hair and soap residue on supposedly clean crockery are comfortable arguments for us to have. These complaints denote our presence in each other's lives after a long absence, remind us that our relationship might have been battered, might have left us blue, but is still unbroken. And I am glad of it.

Like I am glad I bought those slippers, which I will never admit directly to my mother. Worn smooth by time, they are actually rather comfortable and will one day be worth the price.

akshitan@sph.com.sg