MY niece, Aurora, is a force of nature. We waited a long time for her but when she finally came, you could say there was a lot of surprise on both sides.
Just before Rory turned six months old, my sister’s family came home so our youngest member could meet her Cebuano side.
Approaching the airport, our generally nearsighted horde already spotted the wee creature propped against my sister’s belly.
Look at those eyes: hungry and angry. She’s one of us, another appetite, we chorused and closed in.
A few minutes into our home-cooked “salu-salo (meal),” we were horrified, dismayed, shaken to the core. Rory could not take any solid until she was back in Australia. This would be a few weeks later, when she turned exactly six months old.
I don’t know what medical mumbo-jumbo a New South Wales general practitioner spooned into my sister, but she would not budge beyond giving a few drops of boiled mineral water to the wee one we planned to induct at that holiest of holy, the dining table.
Naturally, we stooped at nothing. Bribery: “Why don’t we take care of Rory while you address this 24-egg yolk leche flan?” Watery humor: “It’s not as if we expect a baby (sniff) to gnaw the whole lechon (snort)”. Machiavellian logic: “Don’t tell the doctor. Don’t see him so you won’t lie. Get rid of that quack”. Political correctness: “That culturally insensitive ignoramus does not know what Philippine law says about infant abuse during reunions. How can we culturally indoctrinate someone whose taste buds know only your milk?”
We only desisted from all-out aggression when my sister finally cried while nursing Rory. My poor sister’s fat tears plopped on that innocent, giving probably her first taste of the salty—still, a very pale imitation of the 7 levels of nirvana attainable by way of “pusit (dried squid)” and “danggit (dried fish)”.
By the time they flew back, we conceded but remained hopeful. Rory stuck to her pure diet of mother’s milk, but her eyes followed our hand-to-mouth existence and her pudgy fingers would snap off an imaginary crispy “panit (lechon skin)” to plop this inside her tiny mouth, pretend-chewing.
Long his reach may be, but Dr. Frankenstein cannot deny family.
It’s been four years since Aurora’s first visit and our first brush with reverse First World deprivation-Third Word bounty. Every year, she looks like my sister, who looks like my mother. Or not.
Like battle-scarred veterans, our family can plow through “lechon,” “bam-i,” “lumpia” “kaldereta,” and ”manggang hilaw” and “uyap.” Rory and older sister Nana have a mystifying, mystical attachment to pasta. Spaghetti, that cloying children’s party classic, mere merienda staple, has encroached on our irreproachably pure (okay, Filipino-Chinese-Spanish) meals.
I long to initiate my nieces to the trick of deconstructing an “alpiler (safety pin)” to spear and pull out “aninikad,” “sa-ang” and “bongkawil”—my sister’s favorite shellfish—but I postpone the day I have to convince them that eating these will not turn them into alien life forms. For now, “lukot” is “sea spaghetti “ without the seafood (one day, I might elaborate how these green noodle-like strings come from the “donsol (dolphin),” more specifically, which orifice).
I am content to celebrate our differences. On the phone, Rory can spare only a second to listen to my Filipino English before she switches to her Aussie-accented singing. I’m hopeless at untangling all those brawny vowels but when she does her Karen Carpenter medley, I hum along.
Though Rory is still uncharacteristically tiny, she recently brought “ensaimada” to her class Christmas party. She came as a fairy, wand, wings and all, but dived into those ensaimadas, unrefrigerated, half-melting, snout first. As girls, my sister and I raced to be the first to wipe out an ensaimada, licking clean the dusting of sugar and margarine melting on our nose and chin.
You can take the family out of the country, but you can’t take the eating out of the family.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 19, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column