Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Our Dead

When I was a kid, November 1 was a sacred family holiday. I lived with my grandmother and Uncle Edwin and we unfailingly went to the Chinese Cemetery, to the mausoleum housing my Chinese grandfather who died in 1961.  We would be up early in the morning, bringing different viands contained in kaserolas (casseroles) placed inside bayongs (hand-woven bags). There was escabecheng isda, adobong manok, and at least one other dish.

The cemetery lies on the boundary of Caloocan City and the City of Manila, but because of the occasion, the jeepneys plying the route would cut their trips so that all passengers had to alight on Second Avenue.  We would then walk the distance (perhaps a kilometer) to the gate of the cemetery and into the niche (many twists and turns there).  We would stop to buy incense, colorful flags made of Japanese paper, paste, and rough brown paper we would use for some rituals when we got to our destination.

Remember that we were carrying food and other items. And remember that there were thousands of others doing the exact same thing.  It wasn’t the most gratifying experience.  

Arriving at the mausoleum (my Lolo was an immigrant from Amoy, China who had worked hard to set up a plastic container factory in Valenzuela. Alas, he had a heart attack and made my Lola a widow at age 31, with four small children to raise), we would start getting to work. My task was to put the flags around the niche.  The rectangular papers were in red, green, yellow, blue – all bright colors you can think of. I used a paste – the kind we used in elementary school.  The combination of paste and the paper on my fingers always gave them a pinkish hue that would take several washings to get rid of. 

The dishes were put on top of the niche, with a plateful of food and a burning candle set beside the image of my grandfather.

By that time, my two other uncles (Eddie and Edgar) and their families, and my mom and my stepfather with my three half-sisters, would also have arrived at the place, bringing with them their own dishes.  My aunts and cousins and I then busied ourselves rolling the rough brown paper and putting them on a pile beside a small hearth on the ground.  We would be burning them – to ensure, I suppose, that the dead would not run out of money in the afterlife.

Sometimes, my cousins and I would go around the cemetery in search of soft drink vendors, or just to look around. Some of the other mausoleums were decidedly bigger and grander. There were abandoned niches, too. We wondered where the families were.

At around eleven, we would start packing up our things, uttering a few words to the Lolo we had never met.
We would trek to the gate, and then thankfully there would be jeepneys to take us home. 

The lunch was the highlight of the occasion. We would partake of the food that we had earlier put on top of my grandfather’s tomb. The men would have drinks, the children would take their afternoon nap, and the television stations (no cable yet those days) would show horror/ fantasy movies.

The reunion ended in the afternoon, and by the evening, it would only be my Uncle Edwin, my grandmother and me left in the house, lighting candles by the entrance to our house.

I haven’t even been to the cemetery since December, when Uncle Edgar died.  Prior to that, my last visit was September 2008. I visited my Lola (died 2004), my mother (died 1992), and Uncle Edwin (died 1997).

It is odd to realize that the people who figured in your earliest memories are now, all, gone. And that your reality is now peopled by entirely new characters, in my case, the four kids.  

Suffice it to say that visiting the dead isn’t a habit that I have tried hard introducing to the children. What we did during the holidays? Two days ago, on November 1, I went to the public market, cooked adobong manok, had lunch with everybody and then went to work.

Yesterday, All Souls’ Day, wasn’t much different. The two younger ones were in their father’s house and Josh had to go out with his lady friend, and so Bea and I had fun eating grilled tilapia while watching some reruns of The Big Bang Theory. I went to work again while she went to sleep.

Today, the younger kids Sophie and Elmo, still on vacation at the other house, went with their father to visit their grandmother, uncle and great grandparents at the Holy Cross Memorial Park. Meanwhile, even though it was my “Day Off” from the office, I wrote the editorial, edited a column and picked out a filler for tomorrow’s issue.  I did it online, while watching the BBC in my living room, reveling in the quiet. For lunch, we ordered in. I decided against going out to see Skyfall with Bea, ditched my craving for popcorn, and instead had a beer and Tortillos and then went to sleep.

As I write, there is a bunch of teenagers in my living room -- Josh's high school classmates are having their post-Halloween reunion. They are now college freshmen.

Now I am in my room writing and I don’t have to be anywhere and it’s enough. I love days off!  J

Forgetting my roots? Not really.  Even though our time together seems to me like a hundred years ago, I will always remember how it was with my grandmother, mom and uncle.  But whether I show that I cherish those memories by going to the cemetery, or by writing about them, or by making sure I speak and act in a manner they would have wanted me to do, is my own business.

Truth to tell, there is something a bit creepy about a place with a high density of dead people. I am tempted to posit, too, that the living make the trek to cemeteries not for their dead but for themselves -- to have that feeling of compliance with tradition, to not be guilty of abandonment, to remain connected to the ones most familiar to them as they grow older and as their problems become more complicated.

I don’t even worry that my kids won’t come visit my grave (or my ashes) when it’s my turn to kick the bucket.  Death does not make one distant; it makes one always there, ever present.  

I can’t claim to speak for others, and I don't intend to undermine others' tradition or devotion to their loved ones.  But I prefer to honor my dead in my head, in my heart, and through how I live, not during Undas but every day.

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