I am thinking of Yaya Juling today, who was perhaps one of Mommy’s favorites of all the yayas my siblings and I had among us, maybe because she always found humor in everything. Yaya Juling was my brother Matt’s yaya, and there was nothing she could not do. There was also nothing she would not say! She would not stop talking; one of my titos used to say Yaya Juling was quiet only when she was asleep. She was always a happy person, guffawed like a man every chance she got, and she made some of the best food I remember eating as a growing child in Bonifacio Street where our old home is. And we all loved her to pieces. She was part of the family; she still is. To this day she and Mommy call each other up over the phone long distance just to laugh together and chat and catch up.
I have not seen Yaya Juling in years. She left when Matt was a little boy to start a life with her pen pal Chris (in those days meeting that way was uso) and they now live happily ever after in Australia with their two children, Stella and Stanley, who are all grown up by now. Yaya Juling had a real gift for cooking. Mommy would send her off to cooking classes and she would come home brimming with as much stories as she did recipes. And she would show off every new learning with gusto and pride. Of course, we were all very effusive in our thanks, which in turn inspired her to just be more and more of what she already was.
Yaya Juling used to make dishes called Greaseless Fried Chicken, Chicken Spectacular, and Stuffed Shrimps and Embotido that tasted so special because they were wrapped in caul fat. Oh my. I have not had those in years and I miss them. Chicken Spectacular is actually deboned chicken, flattened and then layered with ham and cheese and then rolled up and maybe baked or steamed, I’m really not sure. But it was good, pale and beautiful as it was cut up in thick discs, with a heavy white sauce generally ladled on top. We would eat it with lots of rice. Caul fat is what we called laya-laya in our Bisaya dialect, and it is this white sheet that looks like lace. It serves as a pocket for the ground meat so that it does not fall apart as it cooks. The caul fat adds flavor, too, the kind that is sinful and relatively bad for the health, but it tastes so good you make a go for it anyway. As long as it does not happen every day it should be okay. Naturally, it called for lots of rice again.
We would go home in the afternoons and Yaya Juling would be curing ham. Like a doctor of sorts, I remember her using an injection to infuse her special marinade into the chunk of meat. She also made our own tocino and tapa, something I remember with such clarity. We would be playing Mario and Luigi by the TV after school and from the kitchen we would smell the tapa or the tocino cooking. She also made the best apple pie, her secret being that she would work the dough through her fingers — “Kumot-kumota gyud,” she would say.
Mommy says that whenever she had problems Yaya Juling would double up in her efforts to make Mommy laugh. She was almost theatrical that way and would not think twice about exaggerating if that would mean she would be rewarded with laughter from all of us. Because she knew she was part of the family she had no qualms about poking fun at any of the suitors my sister and I had, especially those she did not particularly approve of. Once, for a summer that we were away, she even turned off a suitor by pretending to be me on the phone! He eventually found out he was talking to the yaya all along and Yaya Juling reported proudly to us the moment we got home that if he was stupid enough to be duped once, then he must really be stupid to begin with. I guess no one could argue with that. Mommy says once when she was nursing the flu and had to stay in bed, Yaya Juling rolled a cart and made jelly roll from scratch. She wanted to entertain Mommy, a skill she knew was right up her alley. It must have been like watching a funny cooking show. On random days I make a jelly roll with Juliana and each time, I tell her about Yaya Juling who was alegre and tabi-an (funny and talkative) and who loved each one of us like we were family, too. One day soon I hope they meet and laugh together as much as we all did with her before.
I miss Yaya Juling today because her daughter Stella tweeted me a message. They sent us their love and regards and I tweeted back to say I was sending it right back to all of them. Before she left for Australia to start a new life there, she mastered how to make siopao. From a recipe that was taught to her she improved on it until she perfected it. She has a steady stream of orders from the local community there and has in fact bought round-trip tickets to Manila from siopao sales alone.
People like Yaya Juling have made my growing-up years beautiful. I hope she visits again very soon.
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