Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’


LolaMercy6crestaThis morning in this quiet house, I had a message from my cousin from Marinduque that was a time travel ship. He mentioned in passing that his ancestral house on the island of Marinduque, in the town of Gasan was THE house that kept the santos for the annual Lenten celebration. Santos are the large Catholic statues that are carried in procession during Holy Week, a custom that is enacted all over the old Spanish empire.

He said that in the procession, the santos, which took two days to decorate, would go first, then the flagellantes (the penitents who beat themselves until they bleed – another custom that is found across the old empire), then the Moriones, people dressed as Romans with large painted masks.

I think about Marinduque, the sunny island that helped produced me, and how I ache to go and visit.

I have a large collection of books by Catholic author, Isabel Clarke. I thought I had discovered her myself poking around old Catholic college libraries that were closing. After I had them for years, my mother told me that she read all of them too! Right after the war, the gold mines in Baguio were closed. My grandfather was a mining engineer and was jobless. Baguio was in shambles. So my war-weary grandparents packed the family up and moved to Marinduque and lived in my great-grandmother’s house. My mother and aunt were sent to board at the Catholic girl’s school during the week, and would go home on weekends. Mama said she would sit on the sea wall overlooking the ocean and eat mangoes and read Isabel Clarke. I can imagine her sitting and reading and eating, as she does today. I learned to read from her, my children learned from me.

I called my grandmother Lola Mercy, as Lola means grandmother in the Philippines

I think about how rich life is, and how all these epics are hidden just under the veil called time. Right under the veil is my grandmother as Miss Marinduque in Manila in 1927. Look at this picture. What was she thinking as she sat very still for her photographs? Did she know that her sweet and persuasive personality would one day sway Japanese officers bent on murder? Did she know that her love of jewelry would feed her children as they ran for their lives from the Japanese Imperial Army? She thought in Spanish and Tagalog. Her English was charmingly interspersed with Spanish words and she would often mix up he and she. She was good at giving orders. She always thought about her children, and was constantly thinking up plans to assure the security of the family for the next hundred years.

When she was my age, she had her house in Baguio, Casa Blanca, her beach resort in La Union- Cresta Ola, and a farm, Hacienda Mercedes, at the base of the road to Baguio. Oh, she had plans for her farm, a house to build, cacao, and mangoes, and so many things. She wanted to take all of us to Europe to see the shrines. She really believed in God.

Alas, the stress of life cut her short and she succumbed probably to cancer when she was 53. At the time she died, she had twelve grandchildren who loved her. She died too young. There were still more grandchildren to be born. When she died, the lights went out of the family. My poor grandfather just coped until he died three years later. What a time we would have had all together as cousins and families had they lived.

Her house and farm are long gone, and her beach place sits like a wounded sentinel on the South China Sea.

Lola Mercy’s mother was Gavina Verdote, the daughter of a Spaniard, Angel de Verdote, and Catalina Sevilla. Her mother would sweep into a room like a queen. Lola Gavina, who was so fastidious and refined, who commanded a legion of servants would die with only her youngest daughter, Millie, next to her.

She sank into a diabetic coma during the house to house fighting of the Battle for Manila. Ermita, an old part of Manila with mansions and gardens became a holocaust of blood and mayhem. Who could have imagined the terror of those days? What things did Lola Gavina hear and see in her last lucid hours? What did Auntie Millie witness? All these things are lost, concealed by time and silence. Auntie Millie, was found screaming from a window calling to the American soldiers to come and help her. With kindness, it is said, the American soldiers gently pulled her away from her mother’s cold body, covered with ants because of her sweet sweat, and took her with them. Lola Gavina who had a coffin made of sandalwood before the war, was buried in a mass grave.

On the day her mother died, my grandmother lay tossing and turning with a high fever. Her children took turns sitting in the bedroom with her. My aunt, still a girl, sat watching in the room and Lola Mercy screamed “Mama!” and pointed to quickly fading vapor in the corner of the room. It was Lola Gavina’s last visit.

Lola Mercy lost a premature baby while they were on the run from the Japanese Army. The baby was a tiny little girl, a namesake – Merceditas. My grandparents’ sorrow was so great that the child was changed to a boy when the story was written down. All this waited in the future of this beautiful girl in the picture.

Riches of good things lay in wait too. There would be a miracle. On a dark and stormy night, a path of fireflies would materialize, an answer to a prayer, and light the family’s path to safety. My grandfather would be knighted by the Pope, for building bomb shelters that saved lives during carpet bombing of Baguio

There would be grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Smart,healthy, vibrant little people who sat waiting for the future to ripen so they could be born.

My work is stringing together the memories so that my children will know who they are made of. Lola Mercy died when I was nine years old. Yet, for my whole life, she has been a mythic figure.

One day I will go and see her island. Until then, I will keep the conversation going and keep writing it down.

This is what I think about, when I look out the window. All this, while green gold light floods the park across the street, and my dear husband pulls up in front of the house.

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Writing and Baking and Life

Today’s blog entry takes place in a noisy house. My husband is out all day at meetings, and very cheerfully so, because as you know we are in a tanked economy. The cheerful will prevail, as they seek every opportunity with thankfulness, and in the case of my husband, armed with faith and joyful hope. God Bless everyone who has to bring home the bacon.

This house is noisy, even though I have only three children around. The daily routine of chasing the cats and the cats misbehavior, the dog’s neediness make up the ongoing narrative. Around that there is homeschooling and cooking and drawing and laughing and singing.

Writing comes before the thousand things. I have to sit here and do it, if I didn’t, the thousand things would present themselves. All day long they would call my name. From the time I wake up, to the time I go to sleep, the day is busy with things that need my attention. The house needs to be run. The family needs to be managed. The children, even the college kids need to be listened to. There is a business to assist with. Then, there are endless closets to be organized, and drawers of family archeology. There is a basement and an attic and a garage filled to bursting with things-that-cannot-be-tossed.

There are books that call to be read, and housework that is strangely soothing (I did the kitchen floor yesterday). There are meals to be cooked and groceries to be bought and sorted. There are things to bake and songs to listen to. There are friends to talk to and news to hear. There is a garden to plan.

We are waiting for spring’s warmth. The past two days have been bitterly cold. The sun is bright, but the wind is blasting. It’s nice to be inside the house.

My oldest texts from NYC that she has received my youngest’s chocolate chocolate chip cookies. Hillary Clinton’s famous comment about cookies makes me consider my own path to being a mother of bakers.

When I was a child in Baguio, a famous cake decorator came to live with us. We had a very large house with different levels that could close off with doors. These different parts of the house could be rented for extra income. Yes, the house had many kitchens. Probably seven in all. It was a very interesting dwelling indeed.

In that interesting season, D., the baker came to stay. He was seeking refuge after a terrible family tragedy. His son had committed suicide in a drug induced state. D. was heartbroken and couldn’t think. So he headed to Baguio, to stay with us. At the time we also had Mrs. M, who was an expert seamstress. They both gave lessons in baking and pattern drafting.

As a gesture to help them out, my mother asked us to take lessons too. That way, they wouldn’t feel so beholden. At any rate, it made for really colorful dinner table conversations. It was a unique life.

D taught bread and cake making. His specialty was cake decorating, and he could created towering lit cakes that looked like mini-Versailles. He also taught the art of the cinammon roll and the Philippine ensaimada. There was also sans rival, a nougat and nut torte with layers of sweetened butter. This was the stuff of fatness.

D’s masterpiece, for me, was the cinnamon roll. Oh, how he could roll that dough out and brush it with butter, sugar and cinnamon, all the while keeping up a conversation that entertained my teenage ears. Teens long to live in the world of grownups, and D was full of stories. He had fallen on hard times and had anecdotes about baking for the glitterati in Manila. Against the backdrop of the beautiful mountains and blue sky, the aroma of cinammon would fill the house. It’s a very nice memory, and one I pull out again and again.

In the same era, my mother perfected sardine making with an exotic recipe that had clove in it. There was home made pan de sal to eat with the spicy sardines. Then we would all take a big walk on Camp John Hay, which was across the street.

My older sister was also an expert baker. She kept us supplied with banana cream pies and lemon meringue pies.

Of course I would not be telling the truth if I didn’t mention once again, that this was all played out against the sleeping dragon of my father’s illness, bipolar disorder.

In those days I never thought that I would be blessed with the life I have. I wouldn’t have known how to get to it. Yet, God watched out for me and took care of me, and got me to this place.

When I became a mother, I made a simple cake, called a Busy-Day cake. It’s so easy to make, and my kids were always amazed by it. After that, I used boxed mixes and they were still amazed. Think of it, by this time, the kids had a great positive association with baking and me. It wasn’t D.’s Baguio magic, but it was magic all the same.

My oldest took up baking and my next daughter, AM, took over. She began churning out taste treats from scratch. Undaunted by complexity, she trained herself to become an expert baker. Then came my little girl who stepped up to the mixing bowl at eight. At ten, she’s a cookie master.

I can see the secret. The secret is keeping it happy, keeping it easy . We bake memories into life. I know when they look back, they will remember being happy in the kitchen with me. I’m not a tyrant, and I don’t care really, how things turns out. It’s all good.  Whether Busy Day cake, or Duncan Hines, or Martha Stewart’s scratch recipe, baking with the kids equals love.

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Yesterday, a little package came through the mail slot and landed on the floor. It was the advanced reader’s copy of Anne Rice’s latest book, her memoir entitled, “Called Out of Darkness“.

I heard about this book and went on a hunt for it. I found an advance reader copy on eBay, and that is how I got the book.

To call the book beautiful is inadequate. It is profoundly beautiful, breathtaking. The book is poignant, and makes me deeply wistful for that lost era.

What she describes is an intact Catholic culture in Pre-Vatican II New Orleans. She grew up in a kind family, that had aunts and uncles and cousins. Her parents were gentle people.

She had a wonderful mother, who created a rich home life full of beauty and music and poetry.

Sadness creeps in with the death of her mother, and later on she leaves the faith and becomes an atheist. Her daughter dies. She becomes a famous author. Decades pass. Her husband dies. She leaves New Orleans.

Sometime recently, she has come back to the faith. I’m still reading it, so I don’t know how things shift.

Her young childhood in a happy family where she was deeply loved is a lush banquet.

I can hardly read it without crying for all sorts of lost things. If you are a Catholic of a certain age, it cracks your heart open.

It will be released on the Feast of the Rosary, October 7th. If you are a Catholic of a certain age, or a Catholic who is looking for our lost civilization, or have a love of beauty, or collect memoirs, this a a gift for yourself.

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