That hometown feeling
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - May 5, 2018 - 12:00am

Oas is a strange town. It is famous for the number of priests it produces while on the next town sits Polangui, one of Albay’s sources of the best bailarinas (dance hall girls) in the country.

But aside from this, Oas also sports food that can do any small town proud. It has white bagoong which, when mixed with calamansi juice, tastes like no other in the country. They also have binasuso (rice cakes) and balls of cocoa made from madre de cacao that grew in profusion in the land. There was laing, of course, dried taro leaves simmered in coconut milk, pork or shrimp, ginger and bagoong. I was there one Holy Week many years ago.

When we arrived, my grandfather was already there, still tall but thinner than I remember him. He stood by the gate and we waved at him. My parents, aunt and uncle walked over to him and kissed his hand. They were beginning to make small noises about the trip when suddenly, my grandfather burst into tears. 

This was not the stern grandfather of memory – the teacher who asked his stubborn students to kneel on mongo seeds if they could not – would not – slave over the square root of something or other. My grandmother, on the other hand, had gone ahead of him. 

She was a Music teacher and a soprano who taught generations of students how to sing. My eyes roved around the living room of my grandfather’s ancient house: the reproduction of Saint Cecilia playing the harp, and on a niche in the wall was a cross where the image of Jesus Christ was hung. 

It is a tradition among Bicolanos to first visit the dead every time they come to the old hometown. At the edge of town, ringed by rice fields and a river, stood the cemetery. Here it is a custom to honor the beloved dead, to tell them you are back, if only briefly. We lit two tall candles before my grandmother’s tomb.

My relatives prayed for my maternal grandmother, Lola Socerro, who died when I was seven years old and 600 kilometers away. The morning after she died, my other Grandmother Lola Juana (who had stayed behind to keep us company), found me asleep on the floor. This was strange, since before she had turned in for the night, she made sure I was already asleep beside her, on her bed. Then the housemaids said the ghost of my grandmother must have pulled my feet and left me right there on the living room. When you are seven years old, this could strike a terrible fear in your heart.

When we walked home from the old cemetery, the sun was beginning to set, streaking blood on the sky. The last-light left shadows in the rice fields. Later, there would only be the sound of the river flowing from the mountain to the sea, and the chanting of the cicadas with their one-note sonatas.

Morning. The sky in the province is bluer, vaster than the one in the city. And Mayon in there, breathing like a breast.

Holy Week in Oas revolved around the procession of the heirloom images on Good Friday. It was my grandmother’s turn to sponsor the family’s procession, and that was why we all had to go home. It was a tradition, and nobody says “no” to tradition, not even bored city kids who had begun to become smart-ass and “talk back” (actually, reason with) their parents.

Early morning on Good Friday, my cousins and I would brush the cobwebs from my grandfather’s caro (cart in Bikolano). Then we cut vines of morning glory growing in the garden and garlanded the caro with the pink flowers that looked like trumpets. From its niche on the living-room wall, my grandfather would bring down the image of Christ on the Cross, holding it gently, and then placing it atop the cart. One story is that this image has been shrinking with the years. It does look smaller, but perhaps it is because I had grown bigger?

By four o’clock in the afternoon, in the comatose-inducing heat of summer, my grandfather in his well-pressed white polo shirt would ask the children to pull the caro out of the garage. Us older grandchildren in our best clothes would follow the caro; by virtue of age, we had been exempted from the task. Our eyes should be alert: there were a thousand relatives whose hands you had to kiss, there were some good-looking boys and girls from Manila, also here for a brief visit.

Only 30 heirloom images joined that year’s procession. In front stood the image of Saint Peter with a large key in one hand and a rooster in the other. The Virgin Mary was also there, face calm as a lake. Then much later, Jesus Christ reclining inside a glass tomb, frozen in temporary defeat. And at the tail-end of the precession, the Christ of Resurrection, bathed in brilliant light.

Everything ended in the plaza. In the darkness we would head for home, where warm soup and food waited for us.

On Saturday night, we went to the Easter dance, for the dance, the plaza bloomed with light bulbs of many colors. You could see the church from the plaza. First built in 1605 by the Franciscans, the church in Oas was like many other old Philippine churches. My teacher, Professor Eric Torres, called them “earthquake baroque,” the curvilinear design impressed on the massive stone walls. 

After the Mass on Sunday, I accompanied my grandfather to the central elementary school. There was a reunion of Class 1937 (1937!). My grandfather was not in that batch – he was their teacher in Grade VII.

There was much laughter and swapping of stories in that reunion, There was a table laden with food – laing and fried chicken and beef steak and fruit salad. There were also stories about the war: how my grandfather brought his old Olympia from the guerilla hideout to another, writing down words for the resistance movements; how my grandfather’s students survived the war by eating boiled banana stalks, then roasted rats and geckos, and finally, snakes.

And then like wind passing, it was time to go home. It was four o’clock in the morning when my sister knocked on the door of the basement room I shared with my two cousins. I lifted the mosquito net, walked to the door and opened it. The raw air of dawn stole into our room.

After taking our breakfast and loading our bags into the van, we walked to our grandfather to say goodbye. One by one, as if in procession, my aunts, uncles and cousins kissed him. He was bundled up in a brown sweater, a bright blue bonnet on his head. I held his hands. They were full of veins. He leaned forward. I kissed his face rivered with lines.

By the gate he stood. After promising him he would be back next year, we all boarded the van and waved at him. And then our van began to move farther and farther from my grandfather by the gate, until his figure became one with the darkness.

A year later my grandfather would die, I would leave for graduate studies abroad, I would write my books. I would decide whether to live abroad or to come home. The call of home – and love for one’s parents and family – tilted in favor of home, and so I came back. And as it always did, time passed like leaves falling in the night.

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