My first memory of Tupi, South Cotabato was of a small room beside the kitchen of the old ancestral house. The kids were not allowed to play or make noises near the room where my grandfather Sotero, lived. The only time we would enter during visits was when we would mano upon arriving in the house and to mano again before we leave for home. Sotero was my mother’s father and the only grandparent I had the chance to touch, talk to, and serve meals for. My other grandparents died before I was born. We call Sotero Mamay because he was from Batangas and that was how grandchildren there called their grandfathers.
After World War 2, Mamay, together with my grandmother’s family, decided to move south to Mindanao where apparently things were safer and progress was more feasible than up in Luzon. Mamay was in his 20’s when they moved south. Back then, accumulation of land properties was easier and needed less legal processes. My grandfather found a land in South Cotabato just beside Dole Philippine’s pineapple plantation. During his time, hectares and hectares of vacant agricultural lands were there for the taking, no one owns them except a handful of huge companies including Dole Philippines.
The land he discovered looked more like a jungle compared to its neighboring pineapple plantation. He decided to clean the entire 18-hectare land with the help of his family. They cultivated the land, cut off unnecessary vines, and planted vegetables with their own bare hands. By simply cleaning the entire area that no one owned, it was implied Mamay was taking possession of it. It was that easy back then. But Dole Philippines saw how much potential the cleaned area had for their business, so they decided to plant pineapples on some specific areas that Mamay cleaned. They did that several times.
When Mamay could no longer take it, he brought a bolo with him one fine afternoon and climbed up the backhoe of the company and threatened the driver.
“’Wag kayong makabalik-balik dito sa lupang nilinisan ko at baka mapatay ko kayo.”
The backhoe drivers, the planters, and anyone from the company didn’t bother Mamay for a while after that. They didn’t cross beyond Mamay’s 18-hectare for a while. He was left in peace to plant his coconuts, make kopra, and tend to his animals.
Mamay and I were never really close just how kids were supposed to be with their grandparents. As how I remember him, he had a stooped posture, eyes a little hazy but seemed to understand a lot. He was never a small guy for me. It could be because of his Spanish descent. He was very intimidating to me. As a little kid, I got intimidated easily by a big old man who didn’t talk a lot. But I knew he was kind. I just didn’t know what to talk about with him.
He used to call me Jimmy and my brother, Karel, he used to call Karen. I knew we corrected him countless times but he had trouble hearing clearly because of his old age. We didn’t insist anymore. Eventually, we all got used to it. It also didn’t matter to me what Mamay called me. As long as I got to mano upon arriving, I would rush out his door and play outside.
His hands were always cold when I touched them. They were bony, showing green veins and were always quivering from arthritis. Sometimes, we would arrive right in the middle of his meal and there would still be rice on his hands when I offered my mano. He rarely talked and if he did, I barely understood what he was mumbling about.
When I was in kinder and early grade school, I used to spend most of my summers in the ancestral house with my playmates Paolo, a cousin, and Karel. We used to play with almost anything around the house. Outside there was a huge pile of sand, about twice or thrice my height, which was supposed to be used for some renovations or repairs in the house. But I didn’t see it that way. For me, it was a hill – a mountain even – that called out to my conqueror-heart. I would climb it with my playmates and pretended I was mountain climbing. We declared that the whole land was our territory – arms raised, ready to conquer more lands. As we were marching towards the top, small portions of our hill eroded. But we didn’t care. We owned everything and we were having too much fun to still think of anything else.
“Oy, magsibaba kayo diyan! Hindi ‘yan laruan. Baba! Baba!” When Mamay was younger and could still walk without someone helping him, he would stay outside the kitchen where he could directly see the mound. He hated it when we climbed his sand. We hated it more when he caught us. It signaled the end of our conquering lands. We stopped right there and thought of coming back some other day. In the afternoon, we would think of conquering lands again.
As we were growing up, my brother and I visited the ancestral house less frequently because we were studying in the city. We’d only visit for weekends and stay longer by summer vacations. Mamay got older and weaker until he could no longer stay by the kitchen and watch his mound of sand. He became bed-ridden and stayed inside his room until the end of the day.
Not long after, we all got tired and bored of playing on the hill. We don’t play conquering land games anymore. Paolo and Karel discovered video games with slot machines that operated with peso coins. I had older cousins sew Barbie clothes for my dolls. Aside from the fact that we were growing up and interests were branching apart, I realized that a part of me was actually waiting for our grandfather to come shouting for us to climb down the sand. We were pirates, bad guys illegally conquering lands and he was the police official. He brought more thrill in the game. But when he became weaker, there was nothing else to fight for. There was no thrill left. Everything was ours anyway.
Mamay spent most of his hours inside his room, barely doing anything, just waiting for his next meal. I would help Tiya Lita prepare his meals. She taught me how to make rice balls with my hands wrapped in transparent cellophane. She instructed me to put a spoon or two of rice in my hands and form it into a ball exactly like how I would with molding clay in school. The rice balls were half a size smaller than an average pingpong ball. She said it would make eating easier for my grandfather because he wouldn’t need to scoop rice with a spoon and fork anymore. It would be more convenient for him to chew and swallow with rice balls that small. Later, I would learn that these rice balls were called kipil in the Katagalugan where my Mamay was from. Tiya Lita also taught me how to carefully remove the fish bones from the paksiw so my grandfather wouldn’t hurt himself accidentally.
Mamay’s plate was fashioned like that of the hospital patients’. A fraction of his plate was for the five to six balls of rice, the other for the fish paksiw that my aunt had prepared and re-heated earlier on. Most of the times, we had the same viand as him. If he had paksiw, we had paksiw as well. So the pleasure of eating lechon and pork was also a luxury to us.
It was only later when I realized that his case was getting serious. He was admitted to the hospital several times, though I didn’t know why exactly. I just knew Mamay was getting seriously ill. He talked more infrequently which I didn’t really mind because there was nothing much I would tell him. I thought maybe he would have a hard time hearing me so I decided not to say anything more than, “Kain na ho kayo, ‘May” when I would bring him his meals. He would murmur something perhaps some thank yous or sometimes none at all as if he didn’t hear me.
I remembered the pungent smell of his room – the smell of urine that seemed to have dried and stuck on his walls, on the corners, and on the floor – even after my aunt had removed his arinola and mopped his room. Old people’s rooms, I guess, have their own distinct smell. Mamay’s room didn’t just smell of the urine, it smelled like the sun’s rays hadn’t reached the corners of the room for a while. We called this smell kulob. I didn’t know if Mamay ever noticed it or perhaps he had suffered the smell for a long time without us knowing about it.
Every Sunday, my aunt would bathe my grandfather. A priest was coming over to pray, read the Bible for him, and bless him. This was some sort of a weekly ceremony at the terrace. Mamay seemed to be so glad to see visitors coming over for him. I remembered the certain glow of happiness in his eyes whenever Tiya Lita wheeled him back to his room after the priest had left. He didn’t say anything but I knew he was happy. Like him, I was looking forward to the coming of the priest every Sunday if it meant Mamay being happy once in a while.
His doctor had prohibited him to eat quite a lot of delectable dishes which, on his case, he might also consider luxurious. He was not allowed to eat lechong baboy, let alone any pork meals. I figured perhaps Mamay wasn’t happy anymore with the repetitive fish paksiw or sinabawang isda served to him. Who would be anyway? It was always rice balls and fish for meals. But I never heard him complain. I knew he endured the pain – the longing for something better and newer. But there was nothing else he could do.
On weekends, my mother would come for a visit and bring some pork cut-ups, and some fresh fishes to be cooked for him. How I wished Mamay could have a taste of our adobo or menudo as well. I thought perhaps he could have been happier if only he could eat whatever he wanted to.
Once when I was alone in the kitchen, my aunt came out of Mamay’s room sniffing and trying hard not to cry. She stood beside me by the sink. I was a little kid so I needed to look up to her. I was about to ask what the matter was when she said something in between suppressed sobs, “Naaawa ako kay Tatay. Gustung-gusto niya sana kumain ng ulo ng lechong baboy.” And she started to cry silently, afraid her father might hear her. At first I thought the only reason she was crying was she couldn’t afford to buy him lechon. As a little kid, it was a great deal to see an adult cry in front of you. It felt like she trusted you to peek through the curtain that shrouds her vulnerability, and this is something that kids are not often allowed to see.
The image of my aunt suppressing her tears while I looked up to her never left my memory even until now. It was very vivid. The afternoon sun’s rays coming through the huge kitchen window was resting on her bowed head. I could barely see her face because she was covering it with her hands. But I felt her misery. It was very vivid.
And after years of thinking about it, I realized there was more about her crying. It wasn’t just because she couldn’t afford to buy him lechon. She could just ask some of her brothers and sisters who could afford. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind. But I finally understood that Tiya Lita was crying because no matter how much they loved and pay much care and attention to their father, there were just things he wanted and longed for that they couldn’t give him anymore.
I haven’t realized how much difficult it was for them, especially for my grandfather. I mostly remembered Mamay as someone old and restless, always in his room. And there are only a few memories of him sitting at the living room on his own, scolding us. I couldn’t imagine him when he was younger, when he could do all his stuff without the help of anyone. If it hadn’t been to the stories of my mother about Mamay and the pictures I saw in the ancestral house, I would really think he came to the world as an old man.
There were sepia-colored pictures of him in the ancestral house. A few of them with notes on the back dated during the 1980’s, 1970’s, and even as late as 1960’s. He was such a tall, thin man. Probably a heartthrob during his younger age. He still stooped a little in his picture but it somehow added to the charisma, just how Fernando Poe, Jr stooped a little when he stood.
When Mamay celebrated his 89th and last birthday, there were a lot of people inside the ancestral house – his sisters-in-law, children, grandchildren, even the neighbors were there. Everyone was having fun and was so noisy even if the birthday celebrant couldn’t entertain them. As usual, he was stuck inside his room.
“Hala tay, saan po kayo pupunta?,” we heard one of his children asked from the kitchen. Some of us hurried to where they were. Mamay, who couldn’t even stand on his own, was halfway past the kitchen and on his way to the dining area to join his visitors. We were surprised how he managed to get up from his bed and walk out his room towards the kitchen without anyone’s help but of a loyal rattan cane. He was smiling mischievously as if he did something naughty and that everyone already caught him. It was the first time I saw Mamay the happiest. Somehow I was happy myself, too. Everyone was laughing. Everyone was talking about how his excitement miraculously made him limp towards the kitchen. He didn’t want to miss the fun. I felt proud and happy for my grandfather. His happiness defied whatever illness he felt in his body. I thought he would be well from that point on. I thought we wouldn’t need to bring him kipil and paksiw anymore because he was strong enough to eat normally like how we all did.
But just five months after, we received a text message from my Aunt that Mamay finally left us. I was in our house in Marbel then. I remembered it was a school day. My sister came home late from school and she was puzzled with the weird silence in the house. “Yen, wala na si Mamay niyo.” We were in the living room and we saw how her face changed. She went to the dining area where no one could see her cry. Her crying was so full of pain and resistance that I wished I felt that pain, too. I knew I would never see Mamay ever again. I knew I would never be able to make kipil and to remove fish bones for him again.
I was in Grade 5. I knew how painful death was even if it was the first death in the family since I was born. I wanted to cry, I wanted to share with their agonies. I wanted to feel their pain. But I just couldn’t cry. I hated myself for that. I thought not crying meant I wasn’t sad.
During the requiem, Tiya Azon, Paolo’s mother, came home from Kuwait. All of Mamay’s children, grandchildren, and neighbors were there just like during his last birthday party, but everyone was more sullen.
Tiya Lita spoke in front. She told every one of the hardships she had taking care of her father but that she would forever miss him. And she broke down, trying her best not to cry in front of everyone. But it was too late. She wiped her tears but they continued to roll down unstoppable.
Seeing my aunt break down, I remembered her crying by the kitchen sink on that specific afternoon when her father’s request for a special food pained her so much.
I felt my aunt’s pain – the pain of letting go of someone who had been part of her life 24/7 for several years, someone who had been the reason she was not able to marry earlier. But in that crying I sensed no regret, only the gripping pain of a little child inside her heart who would never see her father in flesh ever again.
I felt everyone’s pain. I looked around and noticed people wiping the edges of their eyes, quietly blowing off their noses, and some looking down their feet. Does the heart temporarily stop its normal pace when the father dies? Do we forgive in our hearts the sibling we had not been talking with for years just because the father dies? I remember Tiyo Dado announcing to us during the wake that he would stop smoking. I wiped away the tears in my own eyes and fixed my gaze back to my aunt talking at the altar.
It was Mamay who taught me without words how happiness was actually with the people we are with. He taught me that it didn’t matter how simple or grand the food served was. Perhaps it did matter but I didn’t see it that way with him. He endured the repetitive kipil and paksiw. He never complained. I wish I could have done something to make him feel better.
On the 40th day after Mamay’s death, there were people from the church who came to the ancestral house to pray. There were food served for the visitors. On the small makeshift altar at the sala where Mamay’s picture frame was propped, some lighted candles, and a small crucifix, Tiya Lita placed a small portion of paksiw and a few rice balls for him. But this time, a small portion of menudo stood out beside his usual meal.
Jennie Arado was born and raised in Koronadal, South Cotabato. She graduated with a Creative Writing degree from the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She was a fellow for creative non-fiction during the 2016 University of Santo Tomas National Writers Workshop. She now works as a journalist in Davao City.