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The ‘cemetery’ lifestyle I enjoy year after year

As I do every year, and have done for the last 10 years or so, last Nov. 1, I packed a tote bag full of candles, a match, a face towel, a hat, a P100 bill, my phone and an umbrella for my annual walk to Loyola Memorial Park, to visit my father, two brothers, maternal grandparents and a great-grandmother.

This year was the wettest one in a while; the campo santo, as my mom calls it, had not been this muddy in years.

Chinelas and rain boots were the footwear of choice. (I wore my trusty Crocs—yes, fashionistas, I did.) A burly fellow I saw wasn’t prepared. After maneuvering a big SUV as close to the presumed grave site as possible, he opened his car door, gingerly tiptoed his sandaled foot out—and landed in a puddle. “Poooo-tik!” he yelled. Correct.

Last year, I wrote about what had been our Loyola “night life” for many years after my father died in 1983. It meant camping out on the eve of October 31st, a massive production number that required folding beds and/or mats and mattresses, tarpaulin flooring in case things did get muddy (and boy, did they), a large tent, enough food for the endless throng of relatives, portable lights.

In better weather, throw in sound systems, cribs, mahjong tables, and when I was a tomboy in late grade school, skateboards and bicycles.

It took an aging mother and a minor robbery for us to give up. With advancing age, my mother needed the bathroom more and more—and no matter what management claims, no memorial park in Manila ever has enough well-maintained bathrooms for All Souls’ Day, ever.

Then, one evening, when it was just Mama and I, a thief actually had the nerve to step between our two folding beds and filch my Coleman water jug. Good thing we had our purses under the blankets with us. After that, my kuya declared, no more all-nighters. We’ll set up the tents, clean up the gravestones, deck our dead with flowers—but we will visit for only the day.

Rituals

Blame it on the passage of time, the demands of adulthood and careers, whatever (although it was certainly not for lack of love). The day became an afternoon, and when Mama tired easier, a few hours.

When traffic became more and more hellish, we would bring Mama for a visit the weekend after. Although we hardly ever make it now to the cemetery all together, we have managed to carve out our own rituals.

Even when there is a driver or a car available, or even if somebody else is going, I opt out in favor of my annual walk—my panata, if you believe in those things. I figure, just getting out of your comfort zone for a couple of hours to visit people who have given so much to you is not much at all.

It’s not too far, really—20 minutes at a fast pace, but make that half an hour when you have to jostle with crowds, avoid pickpockets, leapfrog over puddles, and skirt vendors.

Five years ago, with both my hands carrying flowers, another thief filched my iPod from my backpack; a visiting cousin lost her wallet. Hence, the tote and the emergency P100 bill, and a cell phone I keep very close to my person.

This year, with the wet weather came cool air and less crowds than usual by midday of Nov. 1, so I had time to people-watch.

The “Junior Police” of Marikina deserve kudos for standing in the rain, directing pedestrian traffic, and being utterly courteous. Many of my kababayan in Marikina had obeyed the government’s admonitions to leave loud sound systems at home, so the cemetery actually had a quiet, almost tranquil air.

There were no pushy vendors, no priests going around to peddle blessings.

Also, many parents carried out the suggested due diligence of hanging large IDs around their small children’s necks with their cell phone numbers printed on them. One kid had only that—a huge cellphone number, no name, no surname.

‘Ang layo ng gate!’

Speaking of kids, two big guys in their 20s started behaving like schoolboys in the already crowded pedestrian lane I was on, as we had to compete with folks who still insisted on trying to find a parking slot. (Overheard from a well-coifed matron: “Ha? Palalakarin mo ako? Ang layo kaya ng gate!”—yes, all of about 200 meters away. I guess some Filipinos will just die without cars, and air-conditioning.)

Anyway, back to the overgrown schoolboys, who were actually stomping in the mud to splash each other, laughing while other bystanders got splashed as well. “Excuse me,” I said loudly. “Ang laki naman ng daan,” one yelled back as I passed. “At ang laki-laki niyo na para maglaro,” I shot back. “Balik na kay Mommy, bilis.” Embarrassed stares, snickers from onlookers. Me: 1, Mama’s boys: 0.

That irritation was quickly forgotten when I passed a tent where two teenage girls and a gay friend were actually giving an elderly woman a makeover—eyebrows, lipstick and all. I giggled loud enough for them to hear. “Maganda, di ba ho?” the gay fellow in attendance asked me. “Super!” I replied.

An invitation to actually partake of the spaghetti being ladled onto paper plates followed, that lovely Filipino habit of saying “Kain tayo,” even if there may not be enough food, even if they secretly hope you’ll say no. I’ve gotten countless such invitations on my cemetery walks, any time I smile or overhear a joke and connect with family members.

And the food I’ve seen being carted to gravesides! Tupperwares full of salad, rice, chicken, adobo, whole darn lechon. When the weather is nice, I’ve seen full-scale barbecues going on. When enterprising pizza parlors set up mobile kitchens, there would be four or five pizza boxes tied together.

This year, I saw a guy jump out of a car carrying a huge, gorgeous, fluffy white cake in a fancy glass-topped cake tray, topped with strawberries. I made eye contact and hoped to hear “Kain tayo.” Oh, well.

Under each tent is a microcosm of the Filipino family. There were noisy gatherings, people overflowing. There were bigger tents with just one or two people sitting quietly, praying or talking. Not a few wiped away tears, of happy memories, or maybe regret.

I overheard a sullen-faced family walking past, searching for a grave, carrying foldable stools, as I lit candles for my father.

“Huwag siya magpapakita dito,” the lead girl grumbled audibly. “Pagkatapos ng ginawa niya sa magulang namin?” “Tama na,” an elderly woman answered as she trailed behind, sighing. I mean, how could you not wonder about their pain?

Finally, as I walked back home, I spotted a table loaded with bottled water for sale. “Super lamig,” the handwritten sign read. “Mas malamig pa sa shotah mo, lodi! Petmalu!”

For Filipinos, being among their beloved dead on this day remains a true celebration of life.

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