Holy Week of memory

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

The older I get, the more vivid the past seems to be, as if seen through a glass, clearly. Holy Week is still aflame, in the country of memory.

When we arrived in Oas, Albay, in the summer of 1979, my grandfather was already waiting for us. He was 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.

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 Socorro, who died when I was seven years old and 600 kilometers away. Now my eyes were shifted to the left, beside my grandmother’s tomb. The words spelled the name of a man who had died at the age of 106. Beside it, the tomb of a boy who was dead at 16. Later, my cousin would tell me the boy was his classmate, who had drowned at sea one bright summer day.

When we walked home, the sun was beginning to set. The sky was a conflagration of yellow and red. The last-light left shadows in the rice fields. Later, there would only be the sound of the river and the chanting of the cicadas.

Morning. The sky in the province was bluer, vaster than the one in the city. And Mayon was there, rising gracefully as if drawn by the most perfect hand.

My cousins and I roamed all around town in our bikes. We pedaled past the wooden houses until we reached the marketplace. We stopped in front of a halo-halo stand. Kuskos (halo-halo) in Oas was a wonder: a bowl (not mere glass) brimming with watermelon, beans, gulaman at sago, crushed custard and young coconut meat so tender it literally melts in your mouth. And all for P1.50. After they had husked the floor and fed the chickens, the young boys would hang out in the food stalls. Here they talked about the J-S prom, compared their crushes, poked fun at their teachers, dreamt of college.

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 like us.

Early morning on Good Friday, my cousins and I brushed the cobwebs from my grandfather’s caro (carriage). Then we cut vines of morning glory and garlanded the carriage with the pink flowers. 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 have grown bigger?

By four o’clock, my grandfather, in his well-pressed white polo shirt, would ask the children to pull the carriage out of the garage. We, older grandchildren in our best clothes, would follow the carriage; by virtue of age, we had been exempted from the task.

Only 30 heirloom images joined that year’s procession. In front stood the image of St. Peter with a large key in one hand and a rooster in the other. The Virgin Mary was also there, her 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 light.

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

That night, we went to the Easter dance; the plaza bloomed with bulbs of many colors. You could see the church from the plaza. First built in 1605 by the Franciscans, the church in Oas is like many other old Philippine churches. My teacher called them “earthquake baroque,” the curvilinear design impressed on the massive stone walls. By day, the church looks ugly: a coat of white paint had been slapped on the façade. The old parish priest called it “restoration.”

After the Easter Sunday Mass the next morning, I accompanied my grandfather to the central elementary school. There would be a reunion of Class 1937. My grandfather was not in that batch – he was their teacher in Grade VII.

Lunch was grand: taro leaves simmered in coconut milk, with shreds of pork fat and shrimps; soft, hot rice whose aroma smelled of fragrant pandan; and fats of pork and chicken adobo. Then the stories: one man bragged that he had seen all of his classmates’ knickers because he used to crawl on all fours under the wooden floor to peep at the girls through the slats in the floor. Loud laughter came from the old men and women.

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.

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 and opened the door. The raw air of dawn stole into our room.

After taking our breakfast and loading our bags into the Fiera, we walked to our grandfather to say good-bye. 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 with its many lines.

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

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Email: [email protected] The author’s novel, “Riverrun,” has been published by Penguin Random House.

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