Whenever I think of my childhood, I remember the carefree and stress free days of youth. If I were asked if I could pick a time in my life I would go back to, I would easily pick the days of my youth spending summers in the province.
There must something in the air that makes you yearn and come back to the province. It must be hearing the rooster crowing at dawn, smelling the freshly baked rolls enticing aroma, enjoying home cooked meals with the freshest ingredients from the market. Growing up in the small town, it seems that eggs and milk tastes fresher, the fruits tastes sweeter. You could almost hear the laughter, giggles children playing across the street. You can see the women donned their fancy hats and umbrellas as they head up to church. I could picture the streets where the whole town is adorned with banners during town fiestas.
My fondest memory was spending the summer at my aunt’s home, playing with my cousins. My aunt, who I fondly called “Ninang” which means godmother, was like a second mother to me. It is a stereotype in the Philippines, that godparents are required to give monetary gifts to their godchildren on special occasions. Known for her generosity, even those who is not her god children called her “Ninang”.
Back in the days Ninang and her husband was running a restaurant business called the “Capitol Luncheonette”. The place is situated near the municipal building, hence the name. The eatery is an extension of her home. Her savory homemade dishes is inviting and reminds you of a warm hug when you need it the most. She doesn’t charge too much for her meals either.
Soon word came out about the new restaurant in town. Middle class, students, poor and the elite flocked to try the new place. The mayor and his crew frequented the place and held several meetings there.
One they I overheard one of the diners asked Ninang
“Why don’t you charge your meals at an upscale price?
Surely the dishes are comparable to the fancy gourmet meal they sell at the inn!” he added.
“Oh no, then it wouldn’t be affordable to everyone!” she said smilingly.
Everyone was welcome to dine, no matter what your status were. Ninang even covered the bill if the family was not able to pay for their meals. She was one of the most generous persons I knew. She employed most of her relatives and friends at the restaurant. Some of them became cooks, waitresses and hired helps. She even helped pay for some of the helper’s school tuition. She helped those especially who are struggling get on their feet. With hard work and perseverance, the restaurant soon became a successful family business.
Ninang’s days started before dusk.. Cooking was always her passion.The kitchen was always busy. Every morning, I would wake up with the aroma of freshly baked rolls and pastries. She wouldn’t let me help her because she tells me I will only get in her way. Of all the dishes she made, my favorite was Chicken lollipop. It is so fun to eat, its shape reminds me of a lollipop.
She had humble beginnings, her parents, our grandparents, died before any of the grandchildren were born. All I knew that as one of the older children, she was in charge to take care of her younger siblings. She put my mother into school while she sold lunches and dinners. For somebody who did not finish high school, she was very good in numbers. She was good in counting money for change. She would also sell ice and snacks to neighbors and friends.
Not too long after, her husband of thirty years died suddenly of a heart attack. She decided it was time to quit the family business. She sold the property and built a house a few blocks next to ours. One day, I remember seeing a salesman going door to door selling books. Some of the neighbors was hesitant to let the salesman in their house. To my amazement, Ninang purchased a set of Colliers Encyclopedia from him!
Everyday, after school, I would excitedly walk to her house and grab a book. Skimming through the pages was like opening a portal of knowledge. Decades before Wikipedia was born, the encyclopedia was one of the main sources of references used in school for researches. To me, the smell is enchanting when you open a new book. I would breath into pages and imagined the pictures as it comes alive. The subjects ranged from astronomy to animals, any thing you can think of is just within your fingertips. From then on, reading sparked a never ending curiousity in me.
“Why did you purchase the books Ninang? I asked. “They are very expensive”
“Even though did not have a proper education when I was young, I still believe that reading is important! She exclaimed. “And having a good education can take you places, ” she added.
Soon after I graduated, Ninang couldn’t be more proud. I went to work abroad and settled there. I would send her money but heard Ninang would spend it on her grand kids. She moved in with her sister in our ancestral home.
Whenever I come home for a visit, I look forward to Ninang’s stories. She would bring out the dusty photo albums and tell her grandchildren how kids used to enjoy playing outdoors back then. Looking at the pictures brought back memories of bruised knees when I first was learning to ride my bike. I can picture Ninang serving refreshing cold drinks after playing outside on a sweltering day. Some things will never change. She can still easily whip a mouthwatering desert even though she has arthritis.
“Ninang , you are not getting any younger,” I joked.
Ninang smiled, “Its not that often we get together, my dear.”
She fought back the tears as we left to go back abroad. She always pack us pastries and delicacies for our trip. Her generosity continue to inspire me. I remember she told me that it is a blessing to help others while you can.
Looking back, the memories that defines my youth, still resonates with me. It may be as simple as enjoying a chicken lollipop dipped in special sauce. It never fails to bring the comfort and warm feeling of nostalgia.