Aunt Alice, the last of my paternal aunts, passed away last week. I told my cousin I couldn’t make it to the wake. I prefer to remember her happy moments, when she’d demonstrate newly choreographed dances for her grade school pupils. Seeing her in that coffin was out of the question.
As a boy growing up on the island, my first happy glimpse of her was her wedding in the old town church in the late ’50s.
With the eyes of a 9-year-old, I recall her happy face framed by the church facade as she emerged from the church in a white wedding dress.
Aunt Alice was one of four aunts I could easily connect with because of her innate kindness and sense of humor. I believe my fondness for a local delicacy called candinga (bopis in its Manila version) was because of her cooking.
Aunt Nieves (the eldest on my paternal side) married a rice merchant, and I remember my first picture as a child was taken in a Guimba (Nueva Ecija) studio with my cousins. When her husband died, she followed her eldest son to the United States and lived a happy life.
Every time she visited the hometown, she’d be walking along the long stretch of the sea dike every morning and showing off her brand-new clothes, that to me was like what Marilyn Monroe wore. I get unconfirmed stories of how she had a love life before she died. Nevertheless, I only remember her strutting like a model while Connie Francis sang “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’,” from my Uncle Ben’s brand new 1950s radio.
When I heard of her death, I remembered her laughter and her kindness. I believe she sheltered us while my family was forever coping with hard times.
The youngest aunt on my paternal side was dreaded by my cousins. What one remembers of her was her temper, which erupted for reasons only she could fathom. She’d kick cans used for storing rain water in our house by the sea, or wail like a child, telling everyone nobody loved her, even as she thought she deserved more of it as the youngest in the family.
Naturally, her nephews and nieces abhorred her, and she knew it. My one act of unkindness was when she visited me in my old Bliss abode, asking for help. It pained me that I could not even ask her to come in. I told her I could not help her. She didn’t get a glass of water or a piece of bread. I remember watching her walk away, with a heavy guilt weighing on me.
I did not like what I did. My 10-year-old self hated her, and I found it strange that it stayed with me even in her old age.
Coming home every summer, I’d see her tomb virtually devoid of candles and flowers. My cousins didn’t even want to talk about her.
The rest of my aunts, notably Aunt Trining, were kind, and so were their children. Our trademark was our loud, boisterous laughter, which I am associated with today.
When my paternal grandmother died in Manila in the early ’60s, I saw how my other aunts fared later in their lives. One became a public school teacher; another, whose wedding I witnessed, continued her schooling while her husband drove a taxi to support his night studies.
Another aunt with whom I stayed during my early college years had quite a life after her retirement. She had a love child who became a pastor and, like me, was bad with finances. This cousin was forever quoting the Bible, and when he married, he’d visit me in my Pasig abode with his wife, who volunteered to do my laundry for a few pesos. Years later, he became a widower with two sons to support. He continued as a pastor and fared badly as a father. What he went through, I would not wish on anyone. Years later, his mother died a lonely death outside Manila.
When another cousin asked me if I could go to her wake, I said no. That was the moment I realized I was such a bad nephew.
I said, it’s better that I don’t see her. Although she is not hated like her younger sister, I prefer to remember her kindness and laughter.
When I asked another cousin what he saw during the wake, I regretted ever asking.
He said when he went to this battered abode—more like an abandoned hut than a house— he saw our dear aunt in a miserable condition. She was in this makeshift coffin, with no visitors paying respects. My cousin said he was too shocked to make anything of what he saw.
She died alone in that hut, and when my cousin found her, she was in an early stage of decomposition.
The last time I visited my aunt who just died was with my Australia-based cousin and nephew. She was in good health—but she could not remember who I was. I told her I remember her signature candinga. Luckily for her, her kindness was reciprocated by a good son who loved her even with dementia gnawing at her memory.
Trying to make sense of my love-hate relationships with my aunts, I realize love begets love, and hate stays longer than it should.
Every time I hear the song “Do Not Forsake me, Oh My Darlin’,” played on the early morning program of Richard Enriquez, I remember the aunt who strutted like a model, the aunt who died a lonely death, and the one I hated even in her old age.
Yes, life was not fair to some aunts, and nor was I fair to them. I chose a life that made me totally unable to help others.
When I recall them, I see my aunt crooning the theme song from the 1952 Stanley Kramer film, “High Noon”:
Do not forsake me oh my darlin’
On this our wedding day.
Do not forsake me oh my darlin’
Wait, wait along.
I do not know what fate awaits me.
I only know I must be brave.
I must face the man who hates me,
or die a coward in my grave.”
Move over Barbie, I have my own doll