The day before my lola’s big bash, my brothers and I, after a hearty breakfast, decided to go for a swim at a nearby river.
This time, my mom permits my dad to join his brood (or is it hers) of five boys (my two sisters stayed behind) if only to scare off the local bullies from bothering or even hurting us city intruders.
Like a duck taking to water, my dad tirelessly swims from end to end of the river, my youngest brother Cesar, age four, riding him piggy back.
We confine our swimming to where the water is waist deep.
On our way home, curiosity getting the better of me, I ask my dad, “Where did a mountain boy like you learn how to swim like that?”
Typical of him, his answer is lengthy but educational.
In my growing up years, and even in my early adult days, there were bodies of water galore within the city, the biggest of which was the Lucban River, with at least four swimming spots – along Lower Brookside, near the bridge where the big boulders were, the third below a hill used as a diving board by the daring and the showoffs, and the last had river sand where the girls built sandcastles and mini-volcanoes.
There were also streams and creeks at Carabao mountain, where we both could swim and fish, and when no one was looking, Burnham Lake was one big swimming pool.
Baguio then wasn’t just a forest of pine trees and one huge flower garden with green hills and slopes, it was also a children’s paradise.
It is my lola’s birthday, and I see two pigs and one dog (sorry) being roasted over charcoal, four goats being slaughtered, a whole tubful of fish and shrimps, and a large basket filled with freshly dressed native chicken.
The girls refuse to eat a single morsel of dog meat, and except for the crispy skin, are also not keen on the lechon.
But they love the goat kilawen and caldareta, the grilled fish and steamed prawns. Us kids attack the fried chicken.
The heat is merciless, and following our big lunch feast, we all gather at my lola’s garden to cool off and do small talk.
My uncle Fidel is feeling nasty, and subtly teases my dad.
Ninay, he says to my mom, did you know that three of your former suitors are doing exactly well in life?
One is a millionaire many times over, another an elected congressman, and the third, a general in the Armed Forces.
My auntie Saling comes to my dad’s defense.
The multi-millionaire, she reveals, was a Chinaman who would come courting at noon wearing pajamas, the congressman was a bag of wind who was always talking about himself, and the general was a junior officer who would visit sans nothing except his snooty military bearing.
On the other hand, bayaw Pete would drive all the way down from Baguio with flowers and strawberries for our mother, chocolate bars for everyone, and colorful bandanas and imported hankies for my ading Nena.
My uncle Juanchito butts in.
“The family conducted the heavens, and all the angels and the saints said Pete was the right one.”
My dad is looking pleased, almost smug. All three didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance, he mutters to himself.
My uncle Fidel angrily glares at my aunt and uncle.
How dare you say that. I am your manong Fidel, the one who always bails you out when you have no money, who attends to you when you get sick, and provides for your needs in times of distress.
The angels and the saints do not make the decisions, I make the decisions you hear me!
My lola vainly tries to defuse the tension.
“Fidel, will you be driving back home with Maria, and your two daughters, or will you stay for dinner?”
It is my aunt Maria who responds.
He will be driving home alone, Mafi, Meldy, and I will be staying for dinner, even spend the night here, if it isn’t too much bother.
My uncle Fidel storms out in a huff.
My cousin Mary jumps up from her chair.
Why sleep? Let’s all play mahjong until we drop.
“Let’s, let’s,” the girls chorus, clapping their hands.
“Lola, can we drink too?”
My lola frowns, and says to our uncle Juanchito, “Go get the bottle of Italian wine that I have been keeping for some time. If that’s not enough, order two cases of beer at Bonito’s store.
It’s my birthday, my apos can get drunk.
And now, I will take my beauty nap.”
“Remind me,” she says to the girls, “to give your pabaon when you go back to Manila for your studies.”
The girls squeal, and go kiss and hug their lola.
My pretty cousins never cease to amaze me. Scholars in their respective schools, they still manage to have a good time and enjoy college life, with boys the last thing on their minds.
But then, the Falgui’s and the Aspilleras have always been known for being upright, hardworking, and brainy.
My manang Marie, together with my cousin Berting, yell from the front door, “Tables, tiles, and cards all set,” and everybody scrambles inside.
And from their bedroom window on second floor, my mom calls out my old man.
“Pete, you are sweating all over. Take a shower first before coming to bed.
How can she tell from this distance, I ask.
My dad grins, “she can’t,” and strides in the direction of the bathroom.
Turning neither body nor head, he raises a hand and flashes me the thumbs up sign.
Seven kids, all in a row, and still going strong. Lucky Ibaloy.
I am an orphan and a widower, and Mother’s Day completely skipped my mind.
But like I always say, “Mothers are God’s gift to mankind, like Mary was to Jesus, like your mom is to you.