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My grandmother’s hug was worth that 20-hour flight


I recall many Christmases spent over the North Pacific Ocean.

For many families, Christmas is characterized by communal gatherings and yuletide cheer. For my parents and me, it’s all that — plus the cheap airfares.

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So while my friends were preparing cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve, I was sitting in a metal tube hurtling toward Asia. It sort of became my own childhood Christmas tradition: flying with my parents to visit family back in Singapore over the winter break.

If you were lucky, some airlines would serve a special Christmas meal, complete with turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. It was a festive touch, though the meat was almost always dry as sandpaper. When it was time to sleep, you could sometimes find empty rows of seats you could convert into a makeshift bed by folding up the armrests. On those long-haul flights, securing one of those rows for yourself was a pretty sweet Christmas present.

But I could never shut my eyes. Chalk it up to the excitement — probably sugar, too — that coursed through me. So I wasted away those 20-hour journeys from Toronto to Singapore watching movies on the grainy seatback screens while the rest of the plane was fast asleep. I would toggle between films and the in-flight map, monitoring as the International Date Line drew ever closer. We’d typically depart Pearson Airport on Christmas Eve and crossing those black dashes on the map marked a new day.

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When the date on the in-flight map leaped ahead to Dec. 25, I would always poke — annoyingly, in hindsight — my half-asleep parents in the shoulder, bouncing with energy as Christmas Day dawned.

“It’s Christmas!” I’d energetically whisper, to which my parents, in a jet-lagged daze, would respond with a somewhat confused “Merry Christmas” before falling back into dreamland.

At the time, I was jealous of my friends who got to experience a “real Christmas,” or at least how I, as a young kid, would have imagined a real Christmas, much of it likely drawn from those cheesy Hallmark movies: decorating the tree; a complete turkey dinner; lazing around and opening presents on Christmas Day.

But those trips to Singapore are some of the happiest memories of my childhood.

I grew up in that tropical country. I was five years old when my parents packed up to start a new life in Canada. Much of my family, however, still lived in Singapore, including my maternal grandmother, whom I simply called Mamma.

When Mamma and I were together, any attempt to separate us would prove futile. We spent almost every minute of those jam-packed, two-week holidays together.

She died more than a decade ago. Yet some of my memories of her feel just like yesterday. I remember her holding my hand with a firm grip of assurance and how she would count to three in a cheerful voice each time I was afraid to step on an escalator. I remember how she always had a sleeping bag and a pillow tucked away in her office, so I could take an afternoon nap under her desk when I accompanied her to work.

I remember the tight, warm embrace she’d give me at the Singapore airport each holiday season. She was the most excellent hugger. Those first five minutes at the arrivals hall on Christmas Day were always the best gift I could ask for.

At its simplest, it demonstrated that even halfway around the world, someone was there for me at Christmas. It made the continent-crossing journey all the more worthwhile.

You, too, can be there for a child this Christmas by donating to the Toronto Star’s Santa Claus Fund, which is giving gift boxes to 50,000 underprivileged children this Christmas season. Through your support, the children will receive toys, books, warm clothing, treats and other holiday essentials.

Most of all, these children and their families will receive the gift of knowing there was someone out there who supported them.

GOAL: $1.5 million

TO DATE: $1,018,984

How to donate

With your gift, you can help provide holiday gift boxes that inspire hope and joy to 50,000 underprivileged children.

Online: To donate by Visa, Mastercard or Amex, scan this QR code or use our secure form at thestar.com/santaclausfund

By cheque: Mail to The Toronto Star Santa Claus Fund, One Yonge St., Toronto, ON M5E 1E6

By phone: Call 416-869-4847

To volunteer: scfvolunteer@thestar.ca

The Star does not authorize anyone to solicit on its behalf. Tax receipts will be issued.


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