My young handsome bridegroom did not say a word but he brought home a tin of Jacobs cream crackers which was polished off in no time – downed or sometimes dunked in kopi-o every morning and afternoon if we felt peckish. He diligently washed the empty tin, dried and sunned it and gave it to me. That was 50 years ago. The start of “our family.”
This was the practice of his parents and also my grandparents and parents. Why the tin? In case of a fire outbreak, the precious tin is grabbed before running. Tins can be buried in the soil where it can be safe from theft, fire and floods. They have always known and treasured documents. Documents which are irreplaceable and which we need throughout our lives such as the all-important birth certificate which proves our citizenship without a doubt.
The first document that went in for safe keeping was our marriage certificate. After that the childrens’ birth certificates followed one by one. With that, the dried and dusted umbilical cords were preciously stored in boxes which the goldsmith gave each time a gold ornament was bought. More and more documents went in. Fixed deposit certificates, title deeds of property bought as the years rolled by.
My most heart-breaking moment was when the Police Headquarters issued me the death certificate of my nine-year-old son after they had been thoroughly satisfied that he had indeed perished in the Dec 4 ,1977 air crash.
I found my maternal grandmother’s cream cracker tins when I was a six-year-old and we had gone to stay in her house. She kept them under her bed. There were three tins filled to the brim with one-cent copper coins. There were round ones and square ones. Another two tins had Japanese banana notes. The denominations said that she was a millionaire but alas these were worthless. My grandmother who hailed from China did not believe in banks. To her, parting with her precious money at the bank’s counter for a piece of paper or little booklet was scary. So, everything went into the cream cracker tins.
There were three of us children living in that house. When the temptation became insurmountable from the ringing of the ice cream man’s bell, we counted out five coins for each of us and we had our lollipop ice creams. We were thieves in cohort and we never breathed a word. Anyway, those copper coins were never missed by grandmother. All her needs were supplied by her daughters and she never ventured out of the door for any shopping, so there was no recourse to use money. Anyway the perpetrators of the crime could never be punished as we were all children.
When I became a trainee nurse in midwifery, the good old cream cracker tin again surfaced for another use. Part of our training was domiciliary midwifery and that was delivering the mother in labour at home. On the very first day that we reported for this three-month stint, we were told to bring old newspapers and a cream cracker tin.
The papers were folded lengthwise into thick 40cm strips and then carefully moulded over the edges of the tin to protect the user from feeling the sharp edge of the tin. We finally understood. This was used as a bedpan in the home.
After the baby was born, the tin minus the protective strips was used again to contain the placenta, membranes, umbilical cord and blood. All the blood loss had to be measured as the amount lost would give an indication as to whether the mother would be in trouble from post-partum haemorrhage. The placenta and membranes had to be immediately checked in a bigger basin of clear water to see whether it was complete or any part of it was still retained in the uterus which could give rise to bleeding and sepsis later on.
The placenta, membranes and umbilical cord were then handed over to the family to perform whatever rites they needed to do but the good old cream cracker tin was carefully washed, dried and put into a bag to make its way to another destination where the skills of the midwife was required.
Nowadays there are clear holders galore. True, but my children’s dried umbilical cords cannot go into a clear holder. I smile now when I think of what I fibbed about when the children had their skirmishes like all children do. When it became too protracted, my threat would be: “Fight some more and I will put your umbilical cords into water and you drink that.” That put an end to the fight. However, fights were few and far between.
Did placing everything – umbilical cords, birth certificates, and other certificates – in a box, bring with it a certain closeness in the family? Compare this with today’s separate files and clear holders which compartmentalise everything into rigid, cold individualism – the “you are you and I am I” syndrome.
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