My daughter Wendy was having lunch with Pia Lim and I thought, what an old old name.
“Pia” is. It means “pious,” “devout,” mild,” “merciful,” which I wonder if all of them were/are. It is also the name of the 2016 Miss Universe.
The earliest Pia I knew was in the ’30s in Pagsanjan, Laguna. Pagsanjan is my father’s hometown. The “Lola” Pia I knew lived in a big white house by the plaza at the end of the main street (all main streets then were called either Calle Real or Calle Rizal). Each of the windows of Lola Pia’s house, including those that faced the indoor patio, were extended to become an animal cage. It was the town’s virtual zoo (and you could smell it). Caged were a big cobra, an orangutan, macaws, cockatoos, a kalaw or hornbill, a bleeding heart pigeon, a couple of owls, and more that I can’t recall.
It was the fashion then to keep pet peacocks wandering about in the yard, free, even as late as ’30s. Pavo Real, as the peacocks were called, were showoffs, they have a distinctive iridescent tail which is more than half of the bird’s body length and it has markings of blue, gold and red “eyes.” Perhaps peacocks were slow-moving because their tails were so huge when spread out that the big bird could topple over. Peahens are drab.
Like a real mom
Aside from Lola Pia, I had a real Lola Pisa (for Felisa). She was my father’s stepmother whom he loved like a real mom. (Papa lost his mother at a tender age to the cholera epidemic of 1904.) Whenever we vacationed in Pagsanjan, our first stop was Lola Pisa’s house, before we settled down in his father’s house that my father inherited.
Lola Pisa was my father’s stepmother but she had never lived in my grandfather’s house. Instead she stayed in her own white bahay-na-bato in the plaza, much bigger than my lolo’s, though not as beautiful.
In the spacious ground floor was Lola Pisa’s shop. It was devoted to the embroidery or painting of the butterfly sleeves of special saya that women wore to Mass and social gatherings.
The baro, or upper part, which was made of fine handwoven piña, sinamay or jusi, was unstitched, washed, and the sleeves fixed on bastidor (frames) to be reembroidered or hand-painted. The more fashionable wanted a different painting after every washing. I would see at least a dozen of those stand-up frames in the shop in various stages of being painted or embroidered.
A diminutive woman with a pleasant disposition, my father’s stepmother would sometimes play a few bars on her harp in their sala just to show me. Lola Pisa would coax my mother to play on the piano, which was so old it sounded like a harpsichord. The yellowed ivory keys had a long protective cover of pink silk embroidered with musical notes in metallic thread.
Lola Pisa fed us a merienda of maruya (bananas fried in batter), sinukmani (biko) or bikang-bikang (fried camote patties) and of course the obligatory fruit bowl of lanzones. She herself just sipped a glass of water with a square of caramelo (solid sugar) dissolving in it.
Lola Pisa was a veritable pillar of the church. It was her vow (panata) to single-handedly underwrite and manage the yearly Flores de Mayo in Pagsanjan at tremendous expense. During the whole of May she prepared the daily floral offerings of kalachuchi, santan, rosal and cocks’ combs that we girls (from five to 12 years old), in white veils, dresses and shoes, deposited every afternoon on the altar. She herself led the daily prayers to the Virgin.
Horde of ‘sagala’
On the last day of May, Lola Pisa decorated the entire church. The special décor for the altar included flowers, electric bulbs, and a whole religious tableau below it. She took care of the High Mass from participating priests to high chairs and new vestments. She hired a brass band. She served breakfast and lunch to all the participants in the procession. There was a horde of sagala and several “reyna” in the procession, the last of whom was the Reyna de las Flores, the star of the show. (I have a picture of me once as this reyna, standing on tiled stairs under a kalachuchi tree.)
The Flores de Mayo procession of the Romanos was held in such high regard by the town that the Aglipayan Flores never took to the street ahead of it. Lola Pisa’s Flores de Mayo was, after all, the extravaganza of the town.
The inhabitants of Pagsanjan speculated that such a difficult vow as the yearly flores had been undertaken by Lola Pisa so that my lolo, Dr. Ciso Cordero Sr., would be persuaded to marry her. For more than 20 years they had been carrying on a discreet affair. The widower would visit her at 10 a.m. and conspicuously walk home every night at seven. Although she was the spinster daughter of a wealthy Chinese merchant, I suspect the snobs of Pagsanjan did not quite approve of her.
Lola Pisa had always been close to the rich and powerful, especially the friars. During the revolution she was suspected of being pro-Spanish and was wanted by the insurgents.
Once, it is said, they almost got her, but she allegedly hid inside a rolled mat.
My father loved his stepmother unconditionally. The two older sisters, after the initial shock of being entrusted as little children to Lola Pisa (who must have been his long-time mistress) immediately after their mother’s death, soon grew fond of her, too. It was the three children who virtually forced Lolo Ciso Sr., in his old age, to marry Lola Pisa. She loved and served Lolo well. When his bad foot developed an infection and had to be amputated, he began to sleep in her house at last. He died of nephritis in 1934, at 76.