An excerpt from Sinigang
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 brother and I lived on the third floor of the building, while my grandparents inhabited the second, and my uncle’s family with my two cousins 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 couldn’t look away 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 made a motion with her slightly bent arm 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 came 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 suerte naman kami.”
Beneath the sun I press my feet into the sandy path by the river, trying to remember how it feels to be in my body, to be a body within a body. I study the movements of a blackbird circling the stream, its weightless shadow hopping from the water to the bridge’s center, then along a swaying branch of the sycamore tree. The blackbird flies closer, its orange beak agape. I place one hand on my navel, a budding arch between my breast and hip. Each passing day the altitude increases, building pressure inside me. I stare into the bird’s shining eyes and whisper, come closer. It dips into the water and shakes obsidian spears into the air before it soars away from me, ascending into the morning sky.
The Red Comb
The door creaks open and Lola Nita is hunching over with a half-smile and her eyebrows curved in slight amusement. This morning my school discovered I had kuto and my mom had to pick me up from school and take me to my grandparent’s house while she went back to work.
My mom nudges me to give Lola Nita a proper greeting as a show of respect. This practice applies to all relatives, real or inherited, and usually entails giving a kiss on the cheek. Any time I am forced to engage in this skin to skin gesture, everything in my body tenses up and my head shrinks into my shoulders. Whoever it is bends over to get closer to my face; I lean in and touch my cheek swiftly against theirs, barely brushing the surface of their cheek, the whole time praying this effort passes.
Though I would have preferred a wave hello, a high-five, the comfort of my invisible shell, or the least uncomfortable—but still respectable touch—bringing the back of their hand to my forehead to mano. Like me, highly sensitive and often described as cold because of it, Lola Nita prefers the mano but I am always expected to start with the grandest gesture. Sensing my discomfort, Lola Nita sticks her hand out and I raise her loose, wrinkly knuckles to my forehead. The sandy, uneven curves hitting right between my eyebrows as I bow and say, “Hi, Lola.” My mom places the wrinkled paper bag with the medicated anti-lice shampoo on the table and leaves for work.
I roam into the living room and sit atop the large covers draped over the sofa. The big screen TV is set to the Filipino channel and a commercial for Eskinol, a skin-whitening toner, features a light brown skinned Filipina lady with an orchid in her hair rubbing the toner into her bright, clear glowing skin. Her hair splatters across her shoulders like black striations as she moves her chin left to right showing off her milky skin.
In tall black shelves next to the TV, there is a display of porcelain dolls and little trinkets, all covered behind clear plastic so that dust doesn’t get in. On the wall next to the other doorway, is a collage of photos—an old wedding photo of her and Lolo Hermie, a group shot of her eight sons standing in order by age, and a large family photo that includes the grandchildren. In all of these photos, Lola Nita stares fiercely into the camera.
Above the couch hangs a large Egyptian tapestry of ancient peoples, dressed in bright fabrics, holding spears, carrying gifts. Lola Nita is wearing her usual duster, a mid-length cotton gown woven in dark, intricate red and brown floral patterns. With golden beaded maroon tsinelas covering her tube socks, she walks toward me. Cradled in her arm is a crisp white linen sheet and a red double-sided suyod. The comb has delicate black Chinese painted characters on its spine and thin, sharp, red teeth. She sits down on the corner of the sofa, her ribcage flush against the exposed armrest, and places the cloth over her lap. She says, “Come here, Heather,” and I move toward her, while asking, “What’s all of that for, Lola?”
“For the lice.”
She pushes my head down onto her lap sideways so I can still watch TV. Hovering over me, she directs me not to move by placing one hand firmly against my forehead—the comb’s prickly edges dig into my scalp, pulling forcefully at each follicle. After the first stroke, I look up and spot a sesame seed crawling across the kumot. She uses her thumbnail to slice the kuto in half and a speck of blood stains the cloth. “That’s how you know they are dead,” she says with a hint of satisfaction and continues to search section by section while humming. My attention fades in and out with every rake across, my strands of hair like branches being shaken for their fruit.
Along the crown of my head, every stroke is exacted with careful precision; a nest severs from the hair shaft. Time and again she pauses to kill one, a firm snap beneath her bent thumb. Tears skid down my cheek into my ear, muffling the sound of scraping and the pain of my exposed, burning roots. The distant sound of her humming echoes as I repeat to myself, they are dead, they are alive, they are dead.
It’s so bright out I’m squinting to see up ahead. Their bodies, bright shadows weaving among the orange, hazy glow of summer and floating white dandelion puffs. My brother and cousins are running, I yell, “Wait up!” and chase after the giggling echo. The humid air weighs down my lungs as I struggle to catch up. I make out their cotton t-shirts ballooning at their backs like small capes propelling them forward.
I’m close. I reach my arm out, inches from my cousin’s shoulder. “Hang on,” I say while gasping for air. I launch my leg onto the back step of his training bicycle, and he goes faster, I quicken my pace and launch half of my right foot onto the metal base. The worn rubber sole of my rainbow sandal slips off, and I extend my arms like wings to fly at my sides, for a moment, feeling the distant heat of summer blow across my skin, leaving goosebumps in its wake. Butterflies flutter parallel to me, spirits invoke my voice before my chin crashes into the crusty, porous cement. Blood fills the gray pumice holes—a crimson river bubbling into the earth’s empty parts.
With the cold sidewalk pressed against my face, fading laughter blends with the chirping robins. No one saw me fall, the grown-ups were busy with tsismis, smoking, tending to their sacrifices, comparing the summer heat in Chicago to the tropical humidity back home in the Philippines. I walk the half block up to my mom, my bloody chin dripping onto the floral pattern of my shirt, a loose flap of skin curdled to the side.
She demands to know what happened without waiting to hear a response, and quickly places a rough napkin on my chin. I’m instructed to hold it there until she returns with a band aid and ice.
My father approaches, checks the damage with his calloused thumb and index finger, grease beneath his fingernails. He tilts my head upward, says, “Stop being a knucklehead.” As he walks away, a thick cloud of smoke trails behind him. I clench my teeth, press the cloth deep into the wound until it burns. My mother returns with a cotton ball dipped in peroxide, spreads it across the rupture. I focus my eyes on the misshapen dandelion fuzz encircling us, tiny parachutes that could carry me away.
She hands me the clear sandwich bag of ice, the cold film sticking to my fingertips, my knuckles redden while gripping it against my upturned chin. She shakes her head, “Ay jusko! I hope this doesn’t leave a scar. That would be so ugly.”