By Pablo A. Tariman
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 dance for her grade school pupils.
Seeing her inside that coffin was out of the question.
As a boy growing up in the island, my first happy glimpse of her was her wedding at the old town church in the late 50s.
In the eyes of a nine-year old, I recall her happy face framed by the church facade as she emerged from the church in a white wedding dress.
I believe Aunt Alice is one of four aunts I can easily connect with because of her innate kindness and her sense of humor. I believe my fondness for a local delicacy called candinga (bopis in its Manila version) started from my fondness for 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 USA 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 the legendary actress Marilyn Monroe wore. She contrasted very well with the nearby Minabalay Island. I get unconfirmed stories of how she had a love life before she died. Nevertheless, I only remember her as my aunt strutting like a seasoned model while Connie Francis was singingDo not forsake me oh my darlin’ in 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 family was forever coping with hard times.
The youngest aunt on my paternal side was the dread of 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 and in another setting, she’d 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. Instead I asked her what she wanted – outside the living room. I told her I could not help her. She didn’t get a glass of water from me and not even a piece of bread. I remember seeing her walk away with a heavy guilt weighing on me.
I did not like what I did. My then ten-year old self was full of hate for her 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. Strange that my cousins didn’t even want to talk about her.
The rest of my aunts – notably Aunt Trining –were kind and so did their children. Our trademark was our loud and boisterous laughter which today I am still associated with.
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 her 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 would prefer to remember her kindness and laughter we shared. Seeing her for the last time in a cardboard coffin was out of the question.
When I asked another cousin what he saw during the wake, I regretted ever asking him.
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 make-shift coffin with no visible visitors paying respect. My cousin said he was too shocked to make anything of what he saw.
What I learned later was that she died when she was just 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, looked very well in fact. 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 the sure signs of dementia gnawing at her memory.
Trying to make sense out of my love-hate relationship with my aunts, you realize love begets love and hate stays longer than it should.
As you can see, the life and times of my dear aunts varied.
But every time I hear the song Do Not Forsake me, oh my darlin’ played in the early morning program of Richard Enriquez, I remember an aunt who strutted like an aspiring model and the aunt who died a lonely death and yet another one I hated even in her old age.
Yes, life was not fair to some aunts and I believe nor was I fair to them.
For one, I chose a life that made me totally unable to help others.
When I recall all my aunts on my father side, my favorite scene is my other aunt who used to croon a theme song from a 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.
Or die a coward on my grave.”