Lola Nita used salmon fish heads in her sinigang recipe. One of my earliest memories of Lola Nita cooking sinigang na ulo ng isda was at our old Albany Park apartment on Sawyer Street in the summer of 1988. My Kuya and I lived on the third floor of the building, while my grandparents inhabited the second, and my Tito Jun’s family with my Ninang Belle, two cousins, Vanessa and Christian, and Lola Luz on the first floor.
That summer my cousins, brother, and I played outside in the concrete slab behind the building. We ran up and down the maroon porch stairs while Lola Nita babysat us from the inside of the house. A mother of nine boys, she was unrelenting in her approach to child rearing and if any of us got hurt, we knew there would be consequences.
The screen door flung open and we rushed inside. Lola Nita wore a batik duster imprinted with flowers and faced the stove as we ran behind her. Her chin length black hair was pulled back with a plastic headband that blended into her hair. While cooking, the windows were propped open with a wooden block.
I felt the rush of hot air from the electric fans blow across my sweaty forehead and tangled hair. She never wore makeup and barely any jewelry but she wore bold red and royal blue tsinelas with sparkly beads that decorated her feet and unpainted nails. As we scattered behind her in a flurry like a swarm of flies, she would yell sharply, “I will kill you! Stop running! The langaw!” And she grabbed her tsinelas to swat at the flies and us. We ignored her scolding and continued running about, as the smell of home cooking permeated into our skin and hair, seeped into the fibers of our clothing.
By the time we sat down to eat, we were drenched from the summer heat and hot fumes from the kitchen. The silver iridescent scales of the fish heads sparkled as they floated lifelessly in the broth and their pearl white eyes stared at me. I stared back intently, and my stomach turned. They had a lot of tinik, and I couldn’t understand why she would feed severed heads and bones to children. Coarse, gooey ochre filled with slimy seeds paired with taro were the main vegetables in her sinigang.
In one hand, Lola Nita gripped a fish head over a clean plate; her wrinkled knuckles reddening as she meticulously scraped the meat from the skeleton. With a spoon in the other hand, she gouged the pearl eyes and put them in a saucer with patis. I watched as she mixed the salty dotted pearls with rice and crushed them with her teeth — not saying one word to any of us.
Decades later after Lola Nita broke her hip and moved into an assisted living home, her memories faded and she didn’t use her voice as much. She spoke with her eyes and hands.
We visited her often with a bag of clementines. Her face brightened up as she held the red netted bag on her lap, and then with her slightly bent arm, motioned for me to push her down the hallway. In wheelchairs, residents were dispersed along the corridor and in their doorways. She pointed whenever she wanted to stop and gift a clementine to a special neighbor she saw as her kababayan. Within those walls, she found a community of kindred spirits with which she could do her favorite thing in life, give.
Not too long after Lola Nita moved into the assisted living home, Lolo Hermie — the pioneer of our family who was responsible for the migration of dozens of families to America, champion of homemade party games for kids, builder of streets and roadways, lover of chocolate ice cream and chicken strips, avid Marlboro red smoker, and grandfather of sixteen — refused medical treatment for his fast declining health. I visited him in the hospital after returning from my honeymoon. He sat in the bed with the tray table over his lap, and happily ate his complimentary chocolate ice cream in the styrofoam cup. He died shortly after.
Next to the open casket during Lolo Hermie’s funeral, Lola Nita sat in her wheelchair and wept so loudly, the roar of her pain washed over us like waves. Our family stood around them forming a half circle, like sand along the shore. Lola Nita at the center, began to mutter his name, “Hermie…Hermie…” her first words in over a year.
I listened closely as the gravelly tone in her voice softened, “Ang swerte naman kami.”