Once upon a time, one of my mother’s greatest passions involved marrying off our househelp to the foreign pen pals they were so fond of corresponding with. That must have been in the early ‘80s, that innocent time in my life when little else other than collecting stickers, stamps and stationery was precious. I remember afternoons when, as I did my best to ape the latest dance moves as seen on Eat Bulaga, I would also multi-task and strain my ear to the kitchen where the girls converged, as they squealed over letters and photos from men from faraway places. That being so, Mommy took it upon herself to weed out the bad from the good. Especially because the average age of the helpers was very young, Mommy felt responsible for them as she knew each also had family worrying about them and wishing them every good thing in life. Trusting as she is, she also had this uncanny ability of being able to see through a person by gut feel alone and she could almost accurately tell who was well worth the effort of a few more letters back and forth, and who fell under the fly-by-night category.
In the quiet hours of the afternoon, as I dressed up my dolls and molded shapes using Play-Doh, Mommy would be in a far corner with one or two yayas, as she tutored them in English. She made them read aloud using our storybooks, asked them to practice writing letters, conversed with them in English. It helped that they had ample opportunity to practice the latter on us children, too.
Mommy’s success rate was high. The three that she married off to foreigners lived happily ever after, although two of them became widowed after many years. My sister and I were perpetual flower girls. One of those she carefully mentored was Betty, the daughter of our groovy and well-loved driver Tebong, who also moonlighted as our tutor while she was a college student. Betty was very pretty, with fair skin and nice teeth and sparkling eyes. She was nice and pleasant and her good karma came by way of her pen pal, an Englishman named Jack Goodwin. Jack was a gentleman in every sense of the word, and it was not long before he came knocking at our door. To cut the story short, after loads of letters and phone calls and a few visits to Ormoc, he swept Betty off her feet and carried her off to England where they had two beautiful children. Apparently, Jack was one of the suppliers of Marks & Spencer, he manufactured hosiery for them and through the years that we knew him he never failed to send all of us a steady supply. It has become a sentimental favorite and to this day I get my hosiery, along with my favorite shortbread cookies, from that store.
There was a stretch of time when Jack lived with us in our home in Carlota Hills while Betty and the children stayed on in England. He built a home for Betty’s big family in Ormoc and it was during that period when our family really got to know him beyond the yearly Christmas cards and photos and letters that were sent back and forth. He was this very nice, very tall man, with a kind face and ash blond hair with a gentle demeanor that reminded me of my own grandfather. He was always well groomed, with impeccable manners, and he spoke slowly and clearly in a low voice. If I think of Jack I remember the meals we all shared as a family. I picked up many things from him, not exactly new food but more a new way of enjoying them. If I have a deep appreciation for long meals I think I have Jack to thank for that. I never saw him gobble up his food, the utensils he used barely made a sound on the plate, the way he handled his bread and butter was almost reverent.
Jack ate the same thing for breakfast every day. The heart of the meal would include: sliced bread, toasted, strips of bacon fried to a gentle crisp. Butter would be laid out on a dish and on a little tray right beside it, an assortment of jellies and jam. He always picked the orange marmalade from Smucker’s. On a piece of toast he would slather on both butter and orange marmalade. In the past I would always eat one or the other but since Jack, I declared the two delights best friends forever and felt guilty about not eating them together whenever both were available at the same time. I liked listening to the sound of the table knife as it brushed up against the toast, crumbs falling to the plate like pretend rain.
Oh, and that was another thing about him. Even the wayward crumbs behaved in his presence. They never fell too far from his plate, certainly never on his shirt; nothing ever got stuck on his chin. Neat. He was really neat and tidy.
The cook then (I think it was Yaya Hilda) constantly paraded for lunch and dinner each day a slew of her star dishes that aimed to please Jack. I remember he liked the meatloaf, I think maybe it was because it was also wrapped in bacon, but he adored the fillet mignon, as we knew it. Our homemade version involved tender tips of beef, formed into a fat patty of sorts, with ribbons of bacon around it to hold it all together. A toothpick, that would be removed right after the meat cooked, would be punched into it to ensure none of the rounds unraveled in the cooking process. Fried in butter on a cast iron plate, it would go from the stovetop straight to the Lazy Susan we had at home. Oh, how Jack loved that; he could eat it every day. He was one of those creatures of habit I guess, never tired of the same things for as long as they gave him pleasure. He called them rissols, and from time to time at home, we still call them that.
I was at that age then when I could not wait to drink coffee, but I still was not allowed to. The adults told me it was because coffee would make my hands shake uncontrollably while the yayas said it would stunt my growth. I never quite believed the former but I was too scared the latter would be true, so obediently I stayed away from it. I liked the whole idea of drinking it from a cup, and making it even better with milk and sugar, but the time was not right yet. One day after dinner, Jack asked for tea. And then he did the most fascinating thing in my eyes. He poured milk into it, and after that, sugar. You could do that with tea? I asked him. Of course, he replied. Not just with coffee? Yes, of course! He answered with an amused smile. And that was that. I never quite looked at tea the same way again. It was an “alleluia: moment for me, I who was not allowed to have coffee yet but could already have tea, which I never found appealing until that very moment when Jack showed me milk and sugar could be incorporated into it and turn it from plain to wonderful!
To date, I remember Jack with every cup of milk tea I enjoy in a pretty cup, and I do my best to enjoy it at a pace he would approve of. I am not exactly a breakfast person but the times that I am faced with bread and butter and a selection of jams, I always pick butter and orange jam or jelly, together. It is delicious each time. I never rush through a meal unless I absolutely have to, and I constantly look for new ways to enjoy food I am familiar with. I do all these gratefully, in memory of Jack, the Englishman, who once upon a time lived in Ormoc. He passed away shortly after that visit but he is remembered very fondly by the entire family.
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