Pipo, fifth son to Enchay and Rafael Roces in a line of nine brothers, was born on the feast day of St. Joseph, a patron saint favored by many families.
But the name for the saint—Jose in our culture—having been preempted for son number four, born two years before him, Pipo was christened Francisco, for another but no lesser saint.
At 93, he remains very much around to bask in the fame and favor that comes with being a namesake of the younger Papa Francisco, 77.
Time, indeed, has been a friend to Uncle Pipo, especially considering that, for a long time since early mid-life, he had suffered under a misdiagnosis of “some kind” (back then, apparently, such things were far less definitive) of stomach cancer. Slim as he had always been, he looked quite vulnerable, indeed, if not frail or seriously ill. Naturally, he surprised everybody with miracle after miracle—surviving, recovering, outliving his wife, Nicing.
Tita Nicing was the undisputed chef in our family of many good cooks, among them Tito Pipo himself. They had seven children, all well-taught and raised in their art. All of them live in the US now. About 10 years ago, Tito Pipo moved there as well and took a second wife, Hermie, who passed away only this year with us never meeting.
Recently, he underwent his second cataract surgery in San Francisco, where Ana, his youngest daughter, lives with husband Cesar. Older daughter Maribel flew in from New York to be with him. Here’s her e-mail to me:
“Dad’s surgery went well. Ana and I went with him. In our state of genius, Ana gave her cell phone number to the person who checked Dad in, without realizing she had left her phone at Dad’s apartment in LA, while I gave my landline in New York! We followed Dad at Recovery, where the nurse asked one of us to fill out his medical info sheet and, to everybody’s surprise, he himself rattled off his medical history and the list of his medicines.
Arm in arm
“Ana drove the car to the hospital and had parked in a slot for the handicapped. After the surgery, Ana and I couldn’t remember where we had parked. Mister Handicap knew exactly where. . . .
“We took him to Coco’s for breakfast, walking arm in arm with him. He looked at each one of us and beamed, ‘People will surely think, I’m a rich man, walking with a beautiful young girl on each arm.’
Before the first operation, according to Maribel, her dad, the incorrigible romantic, put on the charm for youngest son Manuel’s attractive, widowed mother-in-law, of Armenian descent, which could explain his three Kardashian-look-alike daughters. He peeled her orange and served it piece by piece. The next day, Maribel took him to visit her at Manuel’s, with whom she lives. Promotor Manuel took them to the lake. After that, he asked Manuel if he might look around for a studio apartment close by.
“He’s still at it!” quipped Maribel.
I was passing San Francisco twice, on my way to and from my son’s wedding in Salt Lake City, in time and in luck for the second pochero lunch at a surprise reunion for him with all six living children (daughter Mayennie had passed away) before he flew back to LA, his home of many years, where he now lives alone, as he has preferred, unless, of course, he changes his mind for Mama Kardashian.
I was to be a surprise guest. Tina and her husband, Seb, who have a home not too far from them, drove me to the reunion. We, older cousins, who grew up with Lolo and Lola, are very close to all our uncles. And Tito Pipo was only too happy to see me, and I him.
He greeted me enthusiastically, in Spanish, saying if he had known I’d be coming, he’d have brought his favorite pianist so we could sing-along with him as we did on his last visit to Manila. He so missed talking with Vergel, who wasn’t with me on this trip. Amazingly, he still remembered their last conversation.
The complete pochero was as authentic as anyone of us could whip up. It had the correct chorizo, the genuine saging na saba, Lola’s pelota, and on the side the Spanish tomato sauce and the garlicky vinegared mashed eggplant, without which the pochero would be bitin.
There was also lechon de leche from Cebu. And as in any Roces get-together, there were lots of desserts, featuring a golden brown-topped leche flan by Ana, exactly like our moms used to make. Everyone in the family concedes Popi to be the best cook of all—he has a restaurant in Boulder, Colorado.
Butch, the now retired firstborn, flew in from Houston. He had in his iPhone a collection of pictures given him by Lola Enchay to keep for posterity. We feasted on those, as well as on lots of memories of our childhood. Manuel, the youngest, who I had not seen for years, had just closed his two successful high-end beauty salons in San Francisco, now looking into another less demanding venture.
It felt good to see Tito Pipo holding up so well, sprightly, his mustache well-trimmed as always, and remaining positive and naughty. Next year, his oldest granddaughter, Margie’s daughter, Simone, Maribel’s granddaughter, Tito Pipo’s great granddaughter, is getting married. When she arrived with her fiancé, Tito Pipo’s eyes lit up. “You know what that means?” Pointing to an upturned foot, he said, “I’ll have an apo sa talampakan!”
Before we left, dutiful daughter Tina was arranging all his medicines, bunching them by hour and day and taking a picture of the groupings so he wouldn’t forget. When Ana and Maribel saw her, patiently and lovingly, instructing him about his meds, they both rolled their eyes.
“There goes our Florence Nightingale!” Ana said. “She may confuse him yet! He knows exactly what to take when!”
As I got ready to leave, Manuel held me back to show me a picture he took of his dad, a motorcycle enthusiast who also loved fancy cars, posing by the yellow Corvette Stingray of Maribel’s son, Rick Ocampo, now judge of the Superior Court of LA County. When Tito Pipo saw it, he said it wasn’t right. “Take it again—I look like an old man.”
He then turned his wardrobe around and, like magic, turned back the hands of his good friend, Time.