Monday, December 26, 2011

Remembrance and thanksgiving

This was my column on December 26, 2011. This post is antedated in the interest of keeping this blog better organized.

I personally get a little emotional during Christmas Eve and upon waking up on Christmas day itself because it’s when the memories of Christmases past come rushing back.

There is something about family gatherings on Christmas Eve that bring a tear to the eye even in the midst of the pandemonium and chaos of ensuring that the dinner table is groaning from the weight of the feast and that the gifts under the tree are all accounted for. These are the moments that make all the aggravations of the season—the traffic, the long lines at the mall, the crazy schedules—all worth it.

No matter how late we stay up on Christmas eve for the traditional Noche Buena and for the merrymaking that usually follows the feast, I have always woken up very early on Christmas morning because that was when my beloved grandmother and I would spend our special time together—just her and me, her favorite grandchild. Yes, I am a certified Lola’s boy who until high school couldn’t sleep without being cuddled in my grandmother’s bony and wrinkly arms. To this day, I still remember her scent—a powerful combination of baby powder, cooking ingredients, candles, and church incense (she went to church every day and sat in the front row).

Christmas morning was when my Lola would wake me up ahead of everyone else so we could open our presents together. I must have been a really dutiful boy because while my sibling and cousins couldn’t wait to open their presents (and would even cheat by tearing parts of the wrapping of their presents) I would usually wait until Christmas morning to open mine. Of course I realize now that the discipline was something my Lola ingrained upon me.

On Christmas morning, I would drag myself to the dining room where Lola would have already prepared a special breakfast just for me. The food were mostly leftovers from the previous night’s feast but she had a way of recycling that would make the ham and the embutido even more appetizing than their original form. The conversation we would have would be mundane but a lot more was unspoken, the morning air thick with genuine affection.

Of course, she also did it that way so she could privately give me my present, which was always much more special that those of my siblings and cousins. I always thought we went through the whole early morning arrangement so that others would not be jealous of the attention and of the special gift she had for me. It was only later on when I realized she really just wanted to have that special moment with me, just with me; she wanted to revel in the surprise and the glow in my face as I opened my special present—they would usually be books or toys that were more expensive (one Christmas she gave me a complete set of Hardy Boys books). Up until I was in high school, we would cuddle up in her rocking chair until everyone would wake up. This was our Christmas morning ritual, something I used to miss, but now look back to with fond affection and gratefulness.

My lola passed away when I was in third year high school. But to this day, I would still wake up very early on Christmas morning to open my presents and just sit in the early morning darkness of the living room deep in thought and reminiscences. It’s when I miss Lola the most.

Lola has passed on but her influence has remained strong in our family. She started many of our Christmas traditions and it is probably a tribute to her that we continue to sustain these traditions. These include the kind of food that you would find in our Noche Buena table— from the way the ham would be cooked (simmered in thick pineapple juice and mascovado sugar for hours and hours until the juices resemble a thick gooey concoction), to the kind of kakanin that we served as dessert. It was from her that I acquired my taste for very dark chocolate—the more bitter it is, the better.

Most of the special kakanin are, sadly, ordered all the way from Leyte because most of us among the younger generation just don’t have the patience and the temperament to prepare them from scratch. Lola slaved in the kitchen for days to produce those delectable treats at a time when everything was done manually; for instance, the grating of dozens of coconuts were done on a kudkuran (a bench with an iron grater).

There’s the special chocolate suman (called muron) that takes at least eight hours to prepare, I kid you not; a brown rice cake (puto) with a distinct taste because all the ingredients that are used are organic such as coconut vinegar instead of yeast, and my Lola’s almost obscenely rich leche flan with lots of lemon rind which melts in the mouth.

Of course, probably due to her strong influence, our clan continues to be ruled by women. My own mother cannot travel anymore so she stays in our home in Leyte but that hasn’t stopped her from trying to run my own household by remote control. And my own two sisters seemed to have inherited the genes in large quantities because they also take turns swooping down on my brothers’ and my own household to “fix” things and put sense where they think there isn’t.

We are a matriarchal society; this has been said more than often enough by many experts. Our families are tied together by strong women who often rule with benevolent dictatorship. This is certainly true of our extended family; to this day, we are ruled by strong-willed women who continue to preside over family matters, sometimes with assertiveness, often through gentle suasion.

Anyway. What got me thinking about the women in my family were the loving tributes given by the children of the late Carolina “Arling” Lapus Gozon Thursday night at her wake at Heritage Park. The four siblings— Benjamin, Carolina, Felipe and Flor —took turns sharing heartwarming personal stories about the courage and tenacity, the unshakeable faith and the overflowing affection, and the many sterling attributes of their Inay who passed away last week. She was 97.

I was personally moved by the many anecdotes about how the Gozon matriarch pretty much took control of everything in the family to ensure that her children would have the best education and the best future. I particularly liked the anecdotes that remind us that mothers truly know best and still manage to be full of wisdom even in situations when they don’t seem to make sense.

Truly, where would we be without our mothers? Or the other women in our lives—grandmothers, aunts, and our respective collection of ate?

***

Christmas is also a season for thanksgiving. There are many people I am grateful to. Family members and professional colleagues I could greet in person or send gifts to. But the people who read this column regularly also deserve my deepest gratitude and appreciation. I would like to thank all of you for continuing to read me. Thank you, George Sison for the vote of confidence regardless of what I write in this space. My appreciation also goes to regular readers who send me feedback every now and then—Grace Abella Zata, Reymyr Guantia, Aldous Viloria, Jonathan Chua, Nenette De Ono Molina, and the many others who go out of their way to pat my back on many occasions and sometimes point out typographical errors. Thank you, everyone.

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