Because of its varying colors and strong perfume, plumeria flowers are used to create elaborate flower arrangements that are displayed at funerals and wakes. And, although practiced less so now, long wakes were typically held at the deceased person’s house.
For days, family, friends and neighbors gather around the open casket to pay their respects. These turn into rather large reunion of sorts, happening at the most unfortunate of circumstances. Of course, there is abundant food and, occasionally, even a photographer. And with houses built so closely together (one toppled candle can potentially raze an entire neighborhood), one could simply not escape the smell and sound of death.
But aside from that, I often wondered whether the spirits that roamed around our grounds and the fervor in which that plumeria blossomed were somehow connected. It always seemed that the house sheltered invisible inhabitants who were always trying to communicate something. Tales of hauntings were told and retold for generations. Our family and friends have had their own unexplainable experiences: a floating pillow, a ball of fire, some unknown presence at the foot of a bed, the sudden rush of cold air, undeniable goose bumps when passing a particular place at the side of the house, and faucet running in a locked but vacant bathroom in the middle of the night, etc. Creepy stories abound.
That leads me to the creepiest holiday of the year–Halloween. Most Filipinos do not trick or treat. For many, the more important date is tied to the Catholic calendar–November 1st, All Saint’s Day. It is the day entire clans commemorate their deceased, visiting various cemeteries, spending much time on the burial grounds of departed loved ones to whom they were particularly close.
In fact, many camp out overnight, laughing and chatting while sitting around the plot (you’re not allowed to step on the grass where the coffin lay beneath). As it is a Filipino tradition after all, food is always packed beforehand. Rice, adobo, spam and cheese sandwiches, chips, soda–ironically and albeit unintentionally, every food group that are sure to clog arteries and accelerate their joining the deceased. In short it’s a picnic on grass, in the dark, with the dead.
Although considered offensive by some, younger crowds tend to bring music, too. Then throughout the evening, people simply roamed the hallowed grounds to check out what cool ideas and gadgets other families came with. You might even spot celebrities. Or better yet, you may find the one.
Candles and flowers are all around. A budding teenager, hardly recognizable in the cover of darkness, might confuse this as a setting for potential romance. No, not the lustful kind, but the kind that is a good story to tell one’s future grandchildren, that is, if lovers didn’t have to see each other in daylight at all.
It’s not the right time or place, you say. But for Filipinos, any time is time for romance…and food. Don’t take my word for it. Tune in to any Flipino channel and you’ll come across melodramatic soap operas with scenes of people eating…and crying. Plus, contests–lots of people singing about love, though the first song many toddlers learn is a song about a bunch of vegetables. Love of love and love of food. That should be the country’s motto.
OUR BELOVED SAINTS
(I did it. I used “best sunset,” didn’t I? Well, I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have verification that it was true. My late stepfather in law, who was in his late 70s by the time I met him, was a navy veteran from Pennsylvania who was stationed in the Philippines in World War II. One of the first things he had mentioned to me almost two decades ago was how he remembered the sunset. Soldiers were bored from living in the bowels of the U.S. navy ship all day and night. But at just about the beginning of sunset, an announcement would be made and the entire crew would rush on deck to behold the sparkling explosion of psychedelic yellows, pinks and reds that the burnt amber sun reflected off the clouds, hovering low over Manila’s baby blue sky. That’s what Harry described, and Harry wasn’t keen on fake compliments. He always said exactly what was on his mind.
Back to town. My grandfather was the engineer who built that historic bridge. In fact, without it I wouldn’t exist. It was during construction of that bridge when he met a beautiful, petite heiress whose spunk mirrors a Jane Austen character, or perhaps in today’s terms, someone from Downton Abbey. Take her fine manners as a sign of weakness or naivété, and you’d be sorry you did.
At the foot of the bridge are houses of relatives whose members get along as well as-–you guessed it–the Crawleys. My family and I got along well enough with most of them, thanks to my grandmother’s and my mother’s expert diplomacy, and so I harbor no ill feelings at all. Well, almost none.
Upon reaching the top of the steps at the foot of the bridge, it hits you. The intoxicating perfume of the Ylang Ylang fills the air; its blossoms hang invisibly from a towering opulent tree, even houses away from my grandaunt’s front yard. And no, it smells nothing like anything that has ever been bottled.
There are simply no adjectives to accurately describe it, just memories and emotion. It smelled like the most delightfully cool, beautiful spring day, after
the rain had stopped, and you were five years old with no care in the world and more money you could ever imagine for the thing you loved the most–chocolate!
You’ve been sick for a while and today was the first day you could breathe and take it all in. In short, it smelled of angelic innocence. Yes, it’s that good. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that garlands of this and the equally alluring sampaguita (local jasmine) are hung on statues of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin and the saints. It’s as close to the smell of heaven as one can ever get.
Hence I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, someone discovers that the enchanted orchard was actually located on our own property. Pass the gate and you will surely get an overwhelming feeling of “presence.” For those of us who live there, it is a welcoming feeling. It was as close to a home manifesting itself as a living being, not just a place. Listen closely enough and you’ll hear faint whispers, too, amidst the noisy chirps of the maya bird.
I remember the air being noticeably cooler on our yard than in any other part of town. Maybe it was the canopy provided by the trees, or, I imagined, a result of the excited exchange from the many conversations between the flora. We had coconut trees, papaya, kaymito (star apple), bayabas (guava), atis (sugar apple), balingbing (star fruit), camias (sorrel tree), malunggay (moringa or benzoil tree) various kinds of orchids, the indestructible yellow morado all around, and what I referred to as the inimitable banana “couple” that were either sadly barren or happily gay.
But nothing, not even the mighty Ylang Ylang or the numerous other blossoms in the neighborhood, dominated the air more than the unassuming kalachuchi (plumeria). Ours was a giant in comparison to many plants I’ve seen. It stood a little less than two stories high with a particularly dense system of branches. When not dropping pods, its blossoms filled the tree; dainty petals of pink gradients–from magenta to fuchsia on the outside, lightening to baby pink and almost white as it reached the spark of yellow at the center. It is both fancifully pretty and potently fragrant, so much so that the duality scared people.
BY LOY BERNAL CARLOS
FROM THE RIVERBANK