My childhood and adolescent years were spent in villages in Cebu and Leyte, where our neighbors are our relatives and our relatives are our neighbors.
In Leyte, that meant going to the chapel above the hill every Sunday for the weekly Holy Mass officiated by the lone parish priest of the town or else, you will become the talk of the barrio for not being there when Father gave a moving homily on the importance of respecting your elders.
The entire clan would know when you are absent because after the Mass, there were about eight to 10 “grandmothers” whom you need to approach and show respect to.
These “grandmothers” are the aunts and cousins of my paternal grandmother, Lola Nita. When I was 10 years old, they were between the ages of 55 to 70, and were strategically seated on different areas of the Church. There was no way that you can avoid them because they will call you when you ignore them and then launch on a migraine-inducing litany of tracing your family tree.
So how do you show respect to the Lolas?
You show respect in many ways but where I grew up, you make sure that the Mass is over when you approach the grandmothers before doing one or all of the following:
– flashing a wide smile as you greet them depending on the occasion
– holding their hands and then placing them on your forehead
– hugging them
– giving them a peck on the cheek
– staying with them for a couple of minutes as they reveal everything that they know about you
– allowing them the satisfaction of embarrassing you while they go on on talking about all your accomplishments and ending with a note that Cousin B should just be like you (as Cousin B stands next to the chapel’s donation box looking intently at you, probably planning on how to get rid of you in three easy steps)
At some point in my life, these gestures became a routine. The more I did them, the less happy I became. Several times, as a teenager, I wished to leave the village for the city so I do not have to endure those after-Mass traditions.
But these days, I am starting to miss them especially this Holy Week when pictures of different versions of binignit flooded my newsfeed.
You see, the grandmothers were superb cooks and when they made binignit, they mean it with every fiber of their existence. Coconuts were picked from the tree that stands next to their houses; the root crops were bought on a Thursday at the town center’s weekly market day; the landang was bought from another “grandmother” who successfully harvested them from the buli palm tree in the mountain.
Each bowl of binignit was a testament of their tenacity and strong will as women in charge of cooking meals for their families and of putting order in their respective households. You should see them slice the sweet potatoes; they could command Gordon Ramsay to retire and leave the cooking to the real experts.
Under the category of Holy Week staples, the grandmothers knew that if it were not binignit, then it was biko that should be cooked this season.
When I was 11 years old, Lola Nita let me in on a secret on how to best enjoy biko. She said to wait for the crust that biko formed at the bottom of the pot to cool down. This crusted biko, called dukot in the local language, is best enjoyed when dipped in sweet sauce made of coconut milk and brown or muscovado sugar, called latik. I was not really close to my Lola Nita, who is now in her 80s. But this little secret made me like her.
Growing up in a Catholic home, I learned that Holy Week is often equated to the words “penance and sacrifice.”
Over time, I learned that it is also a time for slowing down, to reflect on what has been, what already is and what will become. Because we are saved by His undying love, I look at the Holy Week as a time for hope and thanksgiving.
Some of the grandmothers that I have the privileged to interact with have left this Earth several years ago.
I remember them today as I heat up what was left of the Good Friday binignit that I cooked for my family.
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