Friday, February 21, 2014

A McDonald's Date

My mom once told me of a disturbing story, about a cousin who would eat with his live-in partner and two kids in full view of his mother. The mother would just look at them, try her best to crease a smile, and hope, even as a kind gesture, for his son to invite her to eat with them. She would never receive any. The mother, my aunt; my dad's sister, would then sob in a corner, sometimes, even walk out the door while wiping her tears at the treatment she gets from my cousin.

Meanwhile, I would shake my head in disgust and tell the storyteller, "Tita Heart brought this to herself."

Such ambivalence, I would never show when I went to my dad's hometown early this month. It was his death anniversary, and I brought flowers to put on his grave. It's been a year since the last time I've been there, and much as I would like to skip the courtesy visit to my cousin's house, I showed up at his doorstep bearing a large bag of Bear Brand milk and sachets of Energen for his children.

My aunt was there too, and it was she who accompanied me to the cemetery.

Prayers have been offered and it was time to return to my cousin's place and leave. But instead of doing a hasty retreat to Manila, I asked my aunt to show me where she used to buy the Sapin-Sapin, a rice cake specialty of a nearby town. Colleagues had asked me to bring back a small bilao, I explained. My aunt gladly volunteered to take me there.

In what had become a nostalgic stroll, we walked a few blocks from her house to get to the ferry station. As a kid, we used to cross the Navotas River in a boat to get to Malabon. The river had become shallower and murkier now, but the familiar sight of ships raised on dry docks remain a presence I sorely missed.

The boat drifted with ease across the waterway. We reached the opposite bank and continued our journey.

The original, two-story house where Malabon's famous Sapin-Sapin was first concocted remains standing. Guarded by a uniformed security officer, his post was rather unusual as it sits across a neighborhood, in a narrow passage serving as a shortcut between two streets. What I was looking for was the stall at the market. Tita Heart said, it had already closed a long time ago. So we lazed around instead. Talked to neighbors who saw how the cottage industry had grown, and when I felt it was time to leave, I confessed to my aunt that I really had no plans of bringing home a Sapin-Sapin.

On our way back to the main street, I dropped the big surprise and asked her to stay for snacks.

"Tara Tita Heart, McDonalds tayo." Her eyes couldn't hide her disbelief.

I would learn from her that she has never set foot at McDonalds. Even when she used to afford it. Ang sinabi ko pa sa kanya, she could order whatever she wants. My treat. We would even buy something to bring home for the kids. In her dignified and dainty chomp of Double Cheeseburger; in her small bites of French Fries, you would know a person is indulging a moment. After all, Tita Heart doesn't even remember the last time she had fast food.

And in the end, I wasn't able to keep my word, I spew so bitterly, I apologized to my aunt for deliberately bringing nothing for my cousin and his wife. Not only did I buy food for my aunt's grandchildren, the couple had cheeseburgers to gobble. The change of heart came when my aunt didn't finish her fries. I caught her discreetly putting the leftovers inside her pocket.

"Hindi mo rin matiis ano?" Tita Heart smiled and said nothing. I handed her the food bag and told her not to worry.

It was a race returning to my cousin's place as the thrill of seeing two children screaming and jumping at the sight of a pasalubong kept my aunt's walking pace faster. When we stopped in front of her house - to see that my aunt got home safe, she said her goodbyes with words, I will keep in heart every time I return to my dad's hometown.

"Salamat sa date ha? Sana maulit ulit."