You should know by now that I am an early riser. I love to sit outside the patio and sip coffee while most of the city is still asleep, delighting in the tranquility of an early morning.
Once, in the midst of this silent communion with nature, I was jarred by unanticipated memories of someone who had been a great influence in my life.
At around this time, some years ago, the kitchen would already be abuzz with cooking activities and we would be shaken out of our dreamy sleep by the authoritative voice of our Nanay Tacquing, calling for us to rise and help with breakfast. And with Nanay Tacquing, you don’t want to be the last to get up.
I bet if you were me, you would have been terrified and intimidated by her. She would just stand there, give orders, and we would be scurrying to do what she wants. Lest she stare you down or melt you with her scorching words. Millennials would describe her as a terror. Maybe, even a dictator? Or, perhaps, a Queen?
But what a colorful character Nanay Tacquing was! Growing up in a close-knit, caring (everyone knows what your dinner for tonight is, who you’re dating, etc.) but poor, coastal community, she had, as far as I know, two other extraordinary sisters.
One sister was the gung-ho type – always overly enthusiastic and bursting with energy. She would take my sisters to the beach at night, when the tide was low, to teach them how to catch crabs or to hunt for mussels and clams. She would take them to river beds and teach them how to drill for fresh and potable water. They would even raid an oyster farm armed with shucking knives, big rocks, and rice in banana leaves to foray for lunch. Ah, she was incredibly fun, adventurous, naturally curious, and the word, danger, did not deter her.
Nanay Tacquing’s other sister was an acclaimed cook in their place. She could make you believe that you were having steak while actually serving you frog, shark, or even rice hoppers. The neighbors would be idling around in the hope that she would share with them whatever she was cooking at that moment. My sisters can attest to that. Looking back, my experience growing up was one that I would have loved to share with my own children because it was enjoyable, spontaneous, and so full of unexpected adventures.
But back to our original character. Nanay Tacquing was the epitome of the dalagang Filipina. She was dressed in kimona and patadyong even when western dresses were all the mode. She smartly wore her nice and newer ones when she went to church and to the market toting her rattan basket and her apo, Bebot, tagging along. Her clothes were neatly kept in an ornately decorated baul (I had always wondered who inherited it at the end). And get this! She made her own tobacco, rolling fresh tobacco leaves bought from the market the day before. I can still smell the sweet scent as she smoked her tobacco while humming her favorite song, Dandansoy. If that was not enough, she was a dedicated betel nut chewer, too! I distinctly remembered her taking the hard skin of the nut, dipping it in ash and telling us to clean our teeth with it for the shiniest and cleanest teeth ever, ugggh! Despite these idiosyncrasies, she was a widely respected and well-loved figure in the community.
As I grew up, Nanay Tacquing would stand out as a fierce and demanding presence in our family. My sisters tell of having a lot of admirers hanging out in the house who would unceremoniously be called out to go home whenever she felt they were staying too long. Her usual quip was, “Te, humlaran kita banig kay diri ka na lang matulog?” (So, will I put out a sleeping mat so you can sleep here?) My Nanay Tacquing! I guess the very few ones that she took a liking to were very good ass-kissers (pardon the pun!).
Time was of the essence as well. Siesta after lunch is mandatory and everyone should be in the house by 6 p.m. One of my nieces had to suffer the indignity of being tied to the legs of a table because she kept on going out of the house with friends.
I know she had her favorites. Meal times would be a perfect gauge for this. My brother, Toto Boy, would be served the choicest cut of meat while the rest of us would only have laswa (stewed vegetables) and fried fish. Even with desserts such as ripe mango, my brother would get all the fleshy parts while the seeds would be up for grabs. That was why my other sister, Baby, preferred to eat with Toto Boy because then she could share in the largesse otherwise not available to the others. Nanay Tacquing would also stay up till my big sis came home from her radio work at past midnight explaining that she couldn’t sleep until everyone was safely at home.
She also refused to cook anywhere else but in her beloved “dapog” (makeshift grill), burning wood and charcoal to cook up a meal. Her “banga” (ceramic water container) would always be full with a piece of clean cloth tied over it to filter our drinking water. It was always a mystery to us how our drinking water could stay cold, sweet, and refreshing inside that banga. And yes, there was the ubiquitous “kingki” instead of candles just in case we have a power outage. The downside was, we would all have black noses from the soot afterwards.
Talking of other unlikely oddities. Coffee would quickly turn to soup on rice for breakfast when we don’t have anything to jumpstart our day. Or on days when we have no viand, she would quickly hand us “duldul” (hardened rock of salt) so we can press that over our steaming, freshly cooked rice and viola, lunch is served! My little sister, Pam, remembered stepping on a barbed wire while playing with friends one day and ran home crying. After a brief tongue lashing, Nanay washed her wound with kerosene, placed warm crushed ginger over it and tied it with a clean piece of cloth. She said it was to avoid getting tetanus and heal the wound quickly. Quite an unorthodox way of treating wounds but she got it done. At all times, her word was law. Did we complain? Of course! But we always did so grudgingly and in voices that she couldn’t hear.
I don’t know if other households were similar to ours at that time but with such an extraordinary matriarch leading the family, we felt strangely quaint and extraordinary too.
In our later years, we would understand why she was so strict and so demanding of us. She was teaching us to stand on our own two feet, to be independent, without risking pride and family identity.
Even if she chose to demonstrate her affection to us in a high-handed manner, we all know that she loved every one of us. Thank you, Nanay! Thank you, Lola Tacquing! You will be forever loved. And yeah, yeah, I have to go visit and light a candle for you. – NWI