"Ma, I'm coming home this week-end. Anything you want me to buy for you for "pasalubong"? Kit, my youngest daughter working in Manila, called seconds ago to ask what I wanted her to bring home to me. It is her usual way of checking if I am feeling all right, if I name one, I am- otherwise, she would believe that I'm not feeling okay.
"Century Bangus Fillet, please. And lots of them"! I had been tracking the only grocery store here in our place that supposedly would sell this commodity. I failed to see any from the shelves many times. Probably this item is still not in demand. Fresh "bangus" or milkfish abounds in this province. So, why must the people buy canned bangus?
After our short exchange, I sat on my grandpa's chair, (no, not really mine, it was my husband's favorite chair). I recalled to mind the reason behind my quick response to request for this commodity.
It happened only last All Saints' Day. Just when I thought that maybe, my brothers and sisters who live from afar couldn't make it for the All Saint's Day, a special holiday we celebrate yearly in honor of our dead Tatay, Nanay, my husband, and other dead family members interred in the province, a call came in the dead of the night on the eve before the holidays.
"I'll get it." Pot, my eldest daughter, was a light sleeper than I am.
"Who could that be?"- I was half- awake, half-asleep. I'm a heavy sleeper, I could sleep like a log especially when I was tired the whole day.
It must have been a long phone conversation, I doze off back to sleep. I was stirred to consciousness again when I heard the faint click of the night lamp near my headboard.
"That was Auntie Edna", Pot said when I turned on my side to face her. Edna is my youngest sister living in Cainta. "She is worried because it will be the first time, that many of your siblings can't come for the family prayer vigil. Now that JP ( her only son) shows a bit of wellness, he is no longer running a fever and his diarrhea controlled, they will hit the road at early dawn tomorrow"(November 1).
Not a bad idea. I just couldn't imagine praying at the cemetery with only the three of us, Pot, Kit, and I. I hadn't heard about the others yet. But definitely, Sisters Lina and Nela couldn't make it. Lina was under traction treatment for her slipped disc and Nela and kids would visit William's grave. She was recently widowed last August.
After a few moments of silence, I thought Pot was already asleep. Suddenly, she blurted out. " By the way, Ma, Auntie Edna, Uncle Pol, and JP are staying for the long week-end vacation".
Well, if that was not a bad joke. "My, oh, my!" I hadn't done my marketing for any eventuality.
I sat up in bed, figured in mind what to do the next day. "Lanie? or Nena? or Vergie?, Lord please make them available for me. I need help".
The incessant crowing of roosters from the nearby farm made me jump out of bed. I practically pried open the doors of these dear ladies before they could even open their eyes. You see? Prayers really work miracles. They were available, yes!
"Pot, prepare breakfast. We've got early visitors. Prepare everything conceivable by you that I would need for my cooking. I'll go to the market", - with that I felt less stressed. Never mind her whining, I could explain later. When Kit would arrive from Manila, she would take over the preparations, anyway.
I didn't carry with me any market list. It would be time- consuming to sit and think about anything. I started playing in mind what to prepare weeks ago, I wished I still could recall on my way to the market. "Brrr, it's cold and dark outside".
In a few hours, I was directing my helpers on what to chop, what to mince, what to marinade and all that stuff. "Our first set of visitors are coming for lunch, seven of them"- I announced as cool as I should be. That was my in-laws' perennial schedule of visit to my parents-in-laws ' graves in another cemetery.
"No problem", my assistants chorused.
I was washing all the food stuff of vegetables, meat, and fish by the sink when I heard a loud "Quabbbb!" My gas range exploded in a ball of fire! Gas leaked! My presence of mind shot me up toward the cabinet where the gas tank was, I turned off the gas valve and regulator with shaking hands. My helpers were all talking, trying to explain, but I had no time for any further delay.
"We have 2 spare earthen stoves in the dirty kitchen, go get them. We have two sacks of charcoal. No problem". Really? I suppressed my growing uneasiness. I just moved about, as a matter of no choice.
Two burners incapacitated! And we hadn't really started cooking our main dish for lunch yet. I rounded up my neighbor-relatives asking them if they could loan me a burner stove or anything of the sort. I got one! Well, it was messy cooking, but somehow, all went rather smoothly. Kit's early arrival made me hopeful, we could do it.
There was no let-up in our cooking. Finally at lunchtime, while my in-laws enjoyed their lunch, I kept going in and out, supervising the helpers for our menus for diner in the service area of the dirty kitchen. (I wonder why Daddy termed it that way when this alternative kitchen of ours is always clean?) Thank goodness, our first set of visitors didn't have any suspicion that we were caught in a tight dilemma. My in-laws stayed for a while after lunch. When they finally left, I said, " Success! Hahaha!"
Sweating from the heat of the stoves, and aggravated by the grill for the fish roast, we had somehow overcome the difficulties. At 5:00 pm- all was set on the table. I advised my daughters to go to the cemetery ahead because by then, our relatives would be arriving there one-by-one, group by group, or worst- in droves as the usual case every year. As I stood there to size up the quantity of food laid on the table, I asked myself. "What if after all , many are coming to dine with us? ". I really couldn't tell. My helpers left except Lanie to whom I gave instruction that should any visitor come, she knew what to do in my absence.
I looked over the pantry. "Hmmmm, got lots of canned goods for extenders". I let my mind rest in peace. I even hummed an out-of-tune lullaby as I went by my last preparation. That one burner gas stove saved me from puffing my eyes out kindling the messy charcoal. Satisfied at last with my table setting and presentation, I left for the cemetery after leaving proper instruction to Lanie.
Funny, but when I arrived at the cemetery, I would have been happy with all those people visiting our parents' graves, but I was fidgety instead. What if all these people will be invited by Edna or by Mar? It was customary of us to invite relatives since this was one of those few times they could strike conversations for updates in the family. We had our family rosary and prepared for the night vigil. I was somehow awaken from deep reflection when Mon, my Sis Edith's eldest son said, "I'm hungry. Could we eat?"
Before I could say, "Follow me, we're dining at home", Edna said she would prefer to eat at the cemetery, after all, her family wasn't going back to Manila that night. And we could stay longer for the vigil. The Halloween Party will be held at the cemetery with our relatives!
When we reached home, Mon, Jong, and Tet helped themselves with the food with gusto. As usual, I was the best chef ever. It was heart-warming- those appreciations made my hard day seem light and easy. Lino, a cousin, appeared from the kitchen door and informed me that some relatives were already at the service area, eating. They were to return to their homes, too, that night. As our tradition, I would prepare packed midnight food for them. Pot entertained them. I heard her say, "Ate Maggie, "buro"? (fermented fish in cooked rice). It is a delicacy of Bayambang where their Ate Aida lives. So sad Aida didn't arrive. Maggie said, Wow, "buro?"
After diner, I handed them packed food in styro. Maggie pointed at the plate, she called "buro" and asked the little still remaining in the plate to be wrapped. "I like that, I really had my fill, but I want to finish it".
When they left, I found out that the "buro" was untouched! Maggie actually downed the Century Bangus Fillet with Tausi! It must have been a long long time that she hadn't eaten "buro", that she forgot its taste. She enjoyed this new bangus gourmet without knowing it, and she is the choicest among my nieces when it comes to home-prepared food.
When they left, it took me only a little time to heat another can of the magic gourmet- to bring to the cemetery. And there, I enjoyed my first taste of the Century Bangus Fillet with Tausi, with my family and relatives. I understood very well why Maggie asked that her left-over be packed for her take-home. It was soooooo delicious! When we started to eat, I couldn't help but smile. I thought that I would have a long explanation to do to Pot and Kit why it took me sometime to open a can when they had long brought home this extender that became my main dish- at All Saint's Day. Meanwhile, I enjoyed my rather late dinner of the bangus gourmet- at the cemetery.
My anxieties over the long week-end vacation with Edna's family was practically put to rest. I had in my pantry more cans of another flavor- the Century Bangus Spanish Style. Yes, "Never again" would I be caught unprepared for unexpected visitors at any time during any of our family gatherings. For Maggie? She'll surely have her day when we would see each other again. I believe I owe her an explanation, too.