What I learned from my Lola Carmen

My Lola Carmen often said that pearls and corals could make a woman look even prettier than she already is/was to begin with.  Alongside that she would also say that a woman is most lovely under a yellow light, so much that many a man has proposed plans of ever after, or at the very least professed true love, as a lady basks in that glow.  Conversely, fluorescent lighting could make him run very far away.  She was a romantic that way.  With Lola Carmen, every story had some random detail — she could wax poetic about how the rain fell while a couple she knew danced the waltz, how emerald green or canary yellow silk looked gorgeous against fair skin, or how lips should be the color of wine. When she would break out into song — like Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, for instance — it was never just about the song.  Always, she would dreamily remember Suyen, as the heroine was named in that iconic movie of the same title, with Hong Kong as the backdrop. She loved Hong Kong, because of that movie, and also because people there are always smartly dressed, she said.

Growing up there was always a manang that made our clothes  — it was Manang Pedam of TitaJeanette’s Dressmaking Etc. as a child, Manang Nating who was the wife of one of Daddy’s farmhands in Ormoc, Manang Talina during college our college days in Cebu. Oh, we had one Manong, too — Nestor, who was a gem.  He hardly spoke, and if and when he did the sentences were short and barely more than a mumble. He was a very good tailor, and made bespoke trousers that rivaled the fit of those made in bigger design houses in Cebu. Daddy, when he would come visit us in Cebu where we were studying for College, would patiently wait hours for my sister and I as we went through bolts and bolts of fabric in what was called White Gold, a big department store. Other times, we would hoard from the selection in Gaisano downtown. We would then show Lola Carmen the telas we bought and ask her how the manang should make it. It was because of her that I first fell in love with the cheongsam, a cut I think I will always be drawn to. The cheongsam is very smart, Suyen looked beautiful in a cheongsam.

Lola Carmen was very refined. She ate well but always chewed her food slowly, perhaps the way every lady should. Even at home she would wear jewelery and lipstick with her muumuu, otherwise known as a duster.  I don’t think she ever wore denims; there is not a single picture of her in denims, even as a child. Maybe back then ladies always wore dresses — cotton during the day, silk and brocade for steak and dancing at night. The women that stare back at me from all these photos pressed into albums — some I know as relatives, others I don’t and never will, do not have the toned bodies that seem to be the goal of most everyone nowadays.  They were full-figured, and shapely, and they were always in frocks with cinched waists. Their hair was coiffed, they always had jewelry and nice little purses, proper shoes. I look at the old photos carefully arranged in albums and there are many of Lola Carmen in different dresses. Mommy says she remembers how Lolo Julio loved to photograph Lola Carmen, usually after Sunday mass. He must have really adored her like that.

Martinez Compound, with the huge calalchuchi tree in the driveway, the flowers of which we would string into leis in the afternoons of the many summer vacations we spent there was the backdrop of so many of Lola Carmen’s musings that, on hindsight, may have seemed random enough then but have succeeded in latching themselves to my memory. From stories that were told, among adults usually but always within hearing distance of the children (me and my many cousins), I think it was in that house that I realized the dynamics of many things — of the help having hierarchies of their own among themselves, of May-December romances between them. It was in that house that I discovered the joyful freedom of eating breakfast food even if it was not breakfast yet or anymore, it was where I learned the absolute pleasure of rice on toyo and pork chops fried unregretfully in cooking oil. Delicious.  A cousin of mine, whenever she was caught up in one of those days that found her in “bad spirits” (her words, by the way) would make orange juice from a powder mix and down a huge bag of chips.  I would eat beside her, just helping her feel sad.  We would dip the chips in Miracle Whip, conveniently forgetting the same would stay on our hips, taking comfort in the fact that the following day we could starve ourselves and all the calories would be evened out. She says she always felt better afterward.

There were all these fun prescriptions, too, for a whole list of ails. I say fun because if you have a critical mind they obviously have no logical basis, but we followed them blindly anyway.  To this day they do not fail to bring a measure of comfort. One would be that orange soda could perk you up, or that poached eggs with salt on rice can help tide over the flu, or that guava leaves will keep skin flawless after a mosquito attack or when knees are skinned after a fall.  We were never allowed to take a bath beyond the one we took after playing under the afternoon sun in preparation for dinner because the same would make us pasmado, or would give us the chill, or would make our ugat come out. Lola was very religious, too and if anyone fell ill haplas (liniment kneaded on our limbs and back) would be in order, together withstampitas and religious items that we would touch to the ailing body part.  For most everything, Lola’s prescription always was faith and medicine.

Oh, that was a fun, and full, house. Lola Carmen was this figure of propriety, and when it came to anything worldly (think disco, nights out, courtships, boys) she was worse than a mother superior.  Even her own children and their cousins, our aunts and uncles, tiptoed around her.  When nighttime fell, she was convinced that the world’s many sins surfaced and she was like this guardian-warrior that really felt it was a bad and unsafe place. If it were up to her she would lock us up if only to ensure we were safe. She did not care much about academics, what was more important to her was that we knew how to pray.  She was very strict about socializing  and as such, we witnessed many takas moves.  Just like the movies, we saw many a tito or tita sneaking out, crouching down the driveway dressed in black so as to blend into the night, jumping over fences.  Until it was our generation’s turn and history repeated itself.  My cousin Johanna was he undefeated champion — she had very special disappearing powers, she was like a stealth ninja, very smooth in her escape.

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Mommy says Lola Carmen was always the life of the party. She and Lolo Julio always threw such grand parties but when Lolo Julio died very suddenly when he was barely 50, Lola Carmen sort of retreated into herself.  She was a very young and beautiful widow, with eight children at that, and she devoted the rest of her life to making sure her children were provided for.  She totally discouraged any potential suitors.  My mom says she stopped painting her nails red, and she started wearing dresses that did not celebrate her shape at all.

When I smell Sunflower (the scent by Elizabeth Arden, if I am not mistaken) and Tribu by Benetton, or when I hear Fra Lippo Lippi and Everything But The Girl I remember such fun and happy times with my cousins and uncles and aunts in that big house.  I close my eyes and I remember sights and sounds very clearly.  I know how the afternoons smelled like, as we gathered in the sala to watch Santa Barbara andThe Bold and The Beautiful (I was so in love with Ridge Forrester back then). I can still hear the sounds of the mahjong cubes as Lola and her siblings Lola Bering, Lola Dulce and Gloria, the kesong puti suki, pushed them around with their hands.  I remember her red lips and the bracelets on her wrists.  I remember the taste of kesong puti and the way she would ceremoniously butter freshly toasted bread.

I do not recall ever seeing Lola Carmen huff and puff, or rush through anything.  I saw her cry a couple of times, but always her head was held high, her shoulders back, her faith in God very solid, almost palpable.

In hindsight, she may have been my earliest teacher on the matter of delighting in details.  Not because she paid attention to them; I can’t really say she did because she was cowboy about many things, but more because she carried herself in such a way that made me notice, and remember, everything.  I think of Lola Carmen and I am gently reminded to be thankful for not just life as I know it, but the details that make it the way it is — the sunlight that makes mornings more beautiful, the way a Pearl necklace dresses up even just a plain white cotton t-shirt, for the hint of mustard in a perfect egg sandwich, for the fact that banana and peanut butter is always good together, in a soy milk shake, for cake, coffee and conversation and how all three join forces to come beautifully together and render a day perfect.

I do not know why we remember what we remember.  Who chooses what we retain in our memories?  But dear Lola Carmen, it might make you happy to know that when I think of you I don’t just remember you.  I have all these many details that I remember of and about you, details that make me miss you and your stories and all the circumstantial musings that you inject in and out of them as they are told.  I so wish that somehow you were still around to share with us even more of those.

 

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