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What are your simple joys?

LOVE LUCY (The Philippine Star) - September 11, 2016 - 12:00am

My Juliana is celebrating her 16th birthday, and she has definite ideas about what she wants when her friends gather over the weekend to celebrate it. By the time this story sees print the party will have happened already. I remember my own 16th birthday. My mother, she who would buy a rock (and by “rock” I mean the kind you find randomly in any garden, no figure of speech, lest you think I may be remotely referring to anything precious and sparkly like a diamond), and especially when it is accompanied with a (sob) story, asked someone she knew who was just starting up a baking business and needed very much for that order to go through to create my birthday cake. I lived in a very small city, yes, but 16 was still considered a special number by any measure and so I made an effort to specify how I wanted my cake to be. I drew it, and wrote notes and instructions specifying this and that and went along my happy way, going to school and church, but counting the days till my birthday. I was excited about the idea of turning 16!

The day of the party came, my many classmates came over, the food was home-cooked (save for the lechon) and everything was delicious. Then my cake came. Oh, dear. It looked like the kindergarten version of everything I wanted it to be. I wanted to cry. It was a cake all right, but everything the baker and cakemaker had said yes to, the same ones she said she could easily execute, did not quite come out as I expected. Or maybe we just were not on the same page, I don’t know. But it sat there, in an honored spot at the buffet table, and throughout the party I would look at it just very quickly, because I did not want to feel sad about anything, especially something like a birthday cake on my birthday, when there are always bigger problems in the world, right? And I would never hear the end of it from Mommy if I complained — she who always sees any form of denying yourself as a sacrifice. Offer it for the souls in purgatory, she would say. Or offer it as a sacrifice for all those who do not have the warmth of home and the pleasure of a home-cooked meal. That is the default statement that would propel us to action, always. 

A little side story: Once when Juliana was still very little we were invited to go to a birthday party. She did not want to attend because some friends unexpectedly came over and she wanted to just stay home and play with them. Mommy was relentless. Their conversation went like this: “No, Juliana, you have to go to that party.”

“But my friends are here, Lola, I just want to stay home.”

“No, Juliana, think of the celebrant, it is her special day and she has already counted you as one of her guests and she is expecting you.”

“But Lolaaaaaaaaaaaaa...”

“No, Juliana, offer it as a sacrifice for the poor souls in purgatory.”

Now, that wasn’t the first time she had heard that, but Juliana came up to me, a bewildered look on her face and all, and threw her little hands up in the air in exasperation: “Mama, how are we related to the poor souls in purgatory? Why must I always sacrifice for them?!”

It was especially funny coming from someone who was just under five years old at the time. We laugh about that story to this day. And that part about sacrifice, it has been a running mantra in our family for years. Anything we do not want to do but must do is accompanied with a “Let’s do this as a sacrifice, for the poor souls in purgatory” mindset. And that is not a joke, even. Although it is said lightly, there is always some seriousness to it, a call to action from Mommy, the speaker of the house. Even Daddy obeys.

Anyway, back to my Sweet 16 birthday cake. There was nothing sweet about it, if looks were the only gauge, because the icing was a dull white and the decor was crude and almost nonexistent. It was the saddest looking birthday cake to date, or so I thought, for when the requisite birthday song was done and a wish had been made and all the candles blown out, we all were rewarded with a moist, delicious and practically perfect concoction of flour, eggs, sugar and butter. I am not even very fond of chocolate cake to begin with but the taste of that cake one was for the books, and has stayed in my memory. It was dense, packed almost like a fruitcake but not quite, and was fudgy and shiny and tasted just oh-so-lovely. I think back to that day and it was perhaps my first real lesson in how not to judge a book — or a cake — by its cover.

The lesson of my 16th birthday cake I have carried with me in many days and many ways, especially now as an adult, something further reinforced once upon a time in Bangkok when Richard and I wandered into a pastry shop and I happened to order a gorgeous but awful-tasting cupcake — it was dry, like cotton, and brittle, and the baker must have forgotten a key ingredient because how can something that made its way to a pastry shop taste the way that one did? I would take my not-so-pretty 16th birthday cake any day over that one! I think of the unexpected surprise of something wonderful potentially hiding behind less sparkly surfaces and I remember how people, places, things, situations can be very much like that. It has taught me to give most things a chance. And that lesson can only be a good thing in a sometimes bad world or bad day.

It is my daughter’s 16th birthday party, her cake will be gorgeous, I know: light blue and with peonies on top, nothing grand but simple and very pretty. Her gathering will be casual and fun, the way she is, and I know the music will be good. Kids now have such great taste in music — sounds good even if the song sometimes lacks thought and words. I think back to when I was 16 and I look at the 16-year-olds of this day and age — sleek, fit, very definite about what they want and don’t want in music, clothes, sneakers, dreams, courses and colleges. I was neneng-nene at 16, wearing shoulder pads and Reeboks, my bangs teased and shaped like a little tidal wave, wishing I would see Menudo perform live, and our parties were nothing more than a gathering of friends and good stories (and cake!) and it was perfect that way, as it was. Always, there would be party spaghetti, red hotdogs which I love to this day, lechon forever, barbecue — the usual “Happy Birthday” fare. Now teenagers have pizza and sliders and mini everythings and as a mom it is also so much fun to plan it with her because I still know what 16 feels like. It is a magical age, or at least the true beginning of some very magical years.

Because it will be outdoors, I need to pray that it does not rain, and Juliana has reminded me and her Lola Julie to please offer eggs for good weather. I will not forget to ask the souls in purgatory to help us pray for that, too. They are, after all, friends of the family.

* * *

The 31st Negros Trade Fair will be held from Sept. 14 to 18 at the Glorietta Activity Center. It promises to be a nice one, with lots of beautiful local products that can get you started on your Christmas list.

 

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