When one morning my mother told me my brother and I did not grow up poor, a paradigm shift took place right there at our dining table in Gulod.
Over a simple yet sumptuous breakfast of garlicky sinangag and tomato-onion omelet seasoned with soy sauce that my mother prepared last Monday, she told me that we were, in fact, “rich.” Oh, how she counted the ways.
“We would always run short of money but we had the best of so many things,” she said in the vernacular.
“We served you the best varieties of rice,” she continued. Plus we never bought the rice that landed on our table because my parents were farmers. C-4, Sinandomeng, Wagwag and the likes. We had the best rice from the land that my parents tilled and toiled over. They were farm tenants so they always got their fair share of yields from their landlords after every harvest season. The aroma of rice being cooked in a pot was enough to get us hungry. That’s why to this day, my brothers and I are fussy with the kind of rice we eat. “You’re used to eating the best kind at home,” my mother said.
“From our backyard were the vegetables we needed,” she continued. Okra, paayap, eggplants, camote tops, ampalaya, ginger. And even if we did not plant upo, kalabasa, tomatoes and garlic, we always had kindhearted neighbors who just delivered those fresh produce to our house. For free. If we needed sili or its leaves, all we had to do was to go to the neighbor’s plot and pick them. No barter was exchanged. Gratitude was the only currency.
We only got to eat plenty of pork or beef on special occasions like fiesta, Christmas and New Year. But we had a lot of tinola or sinampalukang manok because we had chickens running freely in our backyard. Even the tamarind or talbos ng sampalok was just gathered from our tree. The green papaya, too. We had papaya trees all over our small property. When we got hungry in the afternoon, we picked the manibalang (slightly ripe papayas), peeled and sliced them, and dipped them in vinegar with ground pepper and sili. That was our merienda, which many times my youngest brother Rod would share with his playmates.
Because we raised chickens, we did not have to buy eggs from the sari-sari store. I was asked many times by my mother to buy cooking oil, salt, coffee, sugar and tuyo (dried herring) from a store but never eggs. In fact, it was already a delight for me to eat freshly cooked rice with pandan slathered with an egg straight from the nest. Dazzled with a dash of salt, it was already a meal for me. Or piping hot rice mashed with banana was already a treat. Mind you, the banana came from our backyard. Not hinog sa pilit. No kalburo.
We also snacked on the juice and meat of young coconut. I used to climb coconut trees and know which of the fruits was malauhog or malakanin or makapuno by simply knocking on the fruit. My father taught me that “science.”
My father also brought us the best melons and watermelons. Summer fields yielded to those fruits. He farmed them, too. I always wondered why the first fruits in the vine were pruned. “To give way to the best ones,” he said. Indeed, the sweetest melons and watermelons were the ones I tasted at home. The biggest watermelon that landed on our table was as big as a tire of a jeep. I kid you not. It was sugary, crispy, juicy. And we feasted on it from day to night. My elder brothers know to this day which among the watermelons in the lot is the best by simply tip-tapping on the fruits. Yes, that knowledge was courtesy of our late father, too.
We did not have a car, not even an owner-type jeepney. But we had three carabaos that we rode to the fields, even to the shores of Laguna de Bay. From these carabaos we got our supply of thick and warm fresh milk.
The lake was not yet polluted then. It is a repository of many a beautiful childhood memory. We swam in the lake and fished there, too. In the afternoon of many summer days, we would gather tulya (shellfish) and bring them home. The shellfish would be our dinner. Every house in the neighborhood knew how to serve tulya in different ways: sinuam, sinubok, menudo. The ingredients added to the shellfish were gathered from our backyard. Or from the neighbor’s garden.
There was a time when fish came a plenty from the lake. Biya, ayungin, tilapia, kanduli, hito and bangus. There was martiniko but it never had a chance to be served on our table. We treated it like duhol (a black-and-white stripe non-venomous snake from the lake) — not palatable.
On rainy days, there would be appearances of dalag (mudfish) in the rice field. My parents would have the biggest smile on their faces as they treaded the paddies on their way home with a big catch of dalag. Pesang dalag for dinner would always send us with a smile to dreamland. Even in our dreams we burp.
My Kuya Gadie and younger brother Odick were the champions in catching frogs in the shore every afternoon. They found these four-legged delicacies under a mound of dried water lilies. Each catch, through its mouth, was skewered in a kawad. Like a bouquet, they would present their catch to our mother who would skin them using ash from our makeshift stove. Skinning a frog is an art. Turning frog legs into a delicious meal of tinola is a labor and flavor of love.
Because Gulod was once a thriving duck-raising community, there were fishermen who gathered suso (little snails) in the lake long before the crack of dawn. (Ducks feed on suso so they will lay eggs.) The fishermen loaded the suso in a banca. By the shore, a few people, including my brother Ronnie, would wait for the banca to moor. Long before the engine of the banca was turned off, my brother had swam up to the boat. There, he would pick shrimps in the mound of suso. For free. By 6 a.m., he would be back home. We were assured that we would have a fresh catch for lunch that day.
We did not have a refrigerator growing up so my mother knew how to cook enough to be consumed for the day. That way, we were guaranteed we ate fresh food only. No toaster, no microwave, no coffeemaker. I did not know they existed when I was a kid. If we wanted to heat a day-old pandesal, which we bought from a “napoy-popo” vendor who plied every nook and cranny of Gulod at 5 a.m. every day, we did so by cutting the bread in a parilla and putting it on top of the embers of the firewood that my mother used for cooking our breakfast. Yes, we also did not have a gas stove but we were rich in firewood because we also had ipil-ipil trees growing in our backyard. There were also chesa trees, atis, guyabano and avocado whose dried branches fell to the ground at the whim of the breeze.
We did not have plastic toys when we were growing up but the trees around us were great sources for the materials used for the tops that my father fashioned for us. My father made me several tops but my favorite was the one I painted red and blue with my crayons. I don’t have my tops anymore but my memory of them is still twirling in my heart.
And when I wanted to conquer the world, all I had to do was to go to the rice field to watch the sunset. There I learned to dream to better my life. Beyond me, my juvenile heart did not realize that my life was already better that time in Gulod. I thought we were poor.
And thanks to my mother who pointed it out to me over breakfast last Monday: We were already rich when we were growing up.