What do I want to remember about today? It is March 28, I open my journal at the end of the evening and this question stares back at me serenely. I am in Ormoc, a very happy place, and today was a full day. What do I want to remember about today? First, that I opened my eyes to a wet but bright morning, my 10-year-old curled like a shrimp under my chin, her arms and a leg wrapped around me. After lolling around in various states of sleepiness, we finally pick ourselves up from bed to get dressed. We ride a car, a whole bunch of us, that takes us through the city, past the coastal town and up the hills, in this municipality called Merida. I like the way that rolls off the mouth. Merida. It is a pretty place, raw and unpolished, but charming just the same; and in this little pocket this side of the world, life is sweet and simple. Today is Mommy’s birthday and Father Libby will say Mass for us in a quaint little spot on the hill. He has built it almost single-handedly with his bare hands, this character of a priest, who can drive a bulldozer if he has to and who refuses to let sleep catch him. Sometimes I wonder if he ever rests at all. Father Libby is always moving — tilling the land, building a structure (usually a chapel), installing a statue on a pedestal, saying Mass, teaching GMRC, and if he has free time, playing soccer. I think he runs on Divine Energy. I look around the little site and already much has changed from the last time I was there a couple of months back. The statue of Our Lady of Grace looks gently upon us from a pedestal made of stone and there is a simple structure across it that has a roof, posts, and a cemented floor. There are no windows or doors, it is like a cabana of sorts. The house is makeshift almost, using materials that have been donated and saved from here and there. As it is in many spaces in the province, people here make do, and recycling is not a choice; it is the norm. There are tables made of scraps of wood, no two are ever alike and covered with oilcloth in a variety of prints and designs. All are donated by different homes, I presume. Bougainvillas spill out from vases that once upon a time held paint, or peanut butter, or soda. It is all hodge-podge and charming, and warmly inspiring.
He says Mass — there are about a dozen of us, we sing songs together while the sun shines and the wind blows. It is a beautiful, breezy day. A little girl without a mother sings like an angel, the young boy beside her seated on a chair plays the guitar. The two of them, with Father Libby’s two manangs who cook, and the little girl’s older sister make up the impromptu choir. Mass is said simply but meaningfully, voices are raised in song and praise, nothing really extraordinary is happening but it is one of those days when it feels exceptionally so good to be alive. Life is beautiful. People can live up to be a hundred in the province. Seriously. Longevity is almost a birthright here. The sermon hugs the hearet, about family and the blessing that its presence is in a life. It is Mommy’s birthday today and she looks young for her years. We are all here to celebrate her birthday. After Mass, we will sing the happy birthday song, ask her to blow her cake, a mocha cake from Goldilocks that I am dying to eat but can’t because I am still on my 40-day Lenten abstinence from meat and sweets. I make a mental note to myself to get myself some mocha cake and mamon from Goldilocks on Easter Sunday. I like springy sponge cakes, and if sugar did not have to settle on the hips, I would eat sponge cake every day with Royal Tru Orange and be so happy for it. Oh, there is that today also, Royal Tru Orange, the drink of my childhood, and I allow myself a glass or two of that whenever I am in the province. So, back to my story. After Mass, Father Libby busies himself on the makeshift stove where he has cooked pasta, perfectly al dente. He pours the red sauce over it that is soupy and a bit pasty at the same time, with huge blobs of roasted tomatoes. He learned how to make it in Italy. It is perfect. It is delicious. It is simple. Father Libby also makes the best coffee this side of the world. He has one of those metal espresso makers and even if he has shown me time and again how to replicate what he has so graciously done for me and a gazillion others many times over the years, somehow his version tastes more special than mine ever will. Maybe he prays over it, I don’t know. But it is wonderful, and has already gained some sort of local fame. He pours them in tiny cups, crowning each with a splash of milk, adding brown sugar as a final touch. He always uses brown sugar. Sometimes, he will have a big plate of candied camote and banana chips to go with it but not today. During the sermon, he shares with us a story about how he surprised his parents by going home unannounced after being in Italy for a long stretch, during those times when mobile phones were not the norm yet. His mother was doing chores when he arrived, but when she saw him all she could do was embrace him very tightly, without saying a word. While this was happening, his father who was working the field looked up, and upon seeing his son dropped his bolo to run as fast as he could to join the embrace. Is that not beautiful? The gift of life, moments like those to experience, and the memories to share with others. The wind blows and the sun shines brightly in the summer day. I look around and the place sparkles like a diamond in the rough. One day, it will be very pretty. I asked from Senator Jinggoy some funds to help fix up the little place that Father Libby has started, and from his personal funds, he gave me a donation. Thank you, Senator Jinggoy. First, you gave the district I represent classrooms, now you are helping the site of Our Lady of Grace in Merida. One day, when you visit our part of the world, you will see how lovely it all will be. Work will start after Holy Week. What do I want to remember about that day? My heart says I am thankful for the gift of wonderful parents, good coffee, generous donors, and happy places on hilltops, in a very pretty place called Merida. View on PhilStar.com