The first semester’s winter break, I took public transit home from college to find out Papa got his cold hard evidence of my mom’s affair. He told my sister and me to our faces. After following the mail trail to the small yacht our mom was living on part-time with her boyfriend, he bought a gun. He was going to drive to the waterfront, shoot her, the boyfriend, then himself, and hope his daughters could collect the $100,000 life insurance to survive the rest of our lives without them. He deemed that kind of tragedy a better life than the alternative of enduring our family’s dissolution. Papa couldn’t wait for justice to leak its slow antidote. The poison of heartbreak was leached into his veins. With every breath, he was pumped full of lead.
On the way to the boat, he drove past St. Vincent’s, the prettiest and oldest-looking parish in our town. It was my dad’s church on holidays (he was a Holiday Inn Catholic).
He walked in to pray one last time to ask forgiveness for what he was about to do (Does one light votives for this premeditated sin?) An obedient, colonized convert from the Philippines, he could have done enough penance to be absolved for the double murder. But, I’m pretty sure he knew that suicide was unforgivable—it crossed all Christian religions, Catholic and Protestant—how could he not? He walked in to relinquish all rights to any part of heaven he might have ‘earned’ at the end of his life. Then, he said, sitting there, Something happened he can’t—or won’t—explain. Just Something else. He walked out of the parish, got back in his brick red Audi, drove to the gun store, and returned it. Went home.
Instead of making peace with God at what he thought was his only answer to the unraveled American Dream, he re-enlisted into the Merchant Marines, moved his home base 7,000 miles away from our Northern California cul-de-sac back to the Philippines, and remarried a shy, lonely, unambitious “old maid” (her most endearing quality: “She never aspires to come to the United States”). He buried 24 years of life with mom in leftover war trenches in the “land of milk and honey.” He made a new covenant when he let go of his right to swift justice and set sail in turbulent seas: never peace, never rest, never resolve.
As for the two of us: My sister found terra firma, setting her sights on the closest paradise in Hawai’i, while I gallivanted back on campus, dropped and then withdrew from my classes. Eventually, I orphaned myself from family and faith.
I know. Papa didn’t do it, he didn’t commit murder. He didn’t pull the literal trigger anyway. But my mom and that man—rotten corpses to my dad. From what my sister and I could detect after that nuclear conversation and the meager, surface-to-air letters he sent from overseas, he was a ghost, too.
Give me any dessert made from ube, Filipino purple yam. OO bay. Dirt-grown, sliced, edible amethyst geodes. Peeled and pounded, sweetened into purply shapes. Tastes of vanilla, nutty notes. Ube ice cream, ube cake rolls, puto bumbong—steamed fingers of sticky rice. Oh pleasing peasant plant with heart-shaped leaves, aubergine veins. Ube ube oooh
Bay. In English, a “water yam,” a “winged yam.” It swims, it flies. It stows in Balikbayan boxes, homecoming packages. Now pastry chefs swirl this child-bright violet revelation, into hundred-dollar gold-flaked donuts, New York cheesecake. Ube, baby, my bae. I demand mine purest, my crowning love,
ube halaya: a boiled jam sticky on my spoon, thickly spread on pandesal, our warmed bread rolls. Paper bags balance on handlebars down Philippine streets, minutes-fresh pandesal sold by the armful. Smeared and stuffed with creams, meats, cheese, by every Filipino, poor and rich. Dough logs cut into ovals, singkits, “narrow eyes.” Once baked in dirty floor ovens, pan de suelos. Manna for the masses. Eyes as big as blinking fists. Or, as a poet said, “bread of salt,” the size of a human heart. Here,
here it is: the yeast of memory
rising. Our rushed visit to Papa in the Philippines, 2010. Expedited passports for my ateh Elise and me, skipped Halloween with our kids. Doctor prophesies, “two weeks to three months.” He’s only 71 but too weak to fly back to the States for cutting-edge “blood washing” that healed our cousin. Red to blue, blue to red.
Face mask pulled from his mouth, he sits bedside, sips Ensure, matches my sister’s and my swollen stares. Leukemia, or as he translates, “bitterness that is no longer worth it.” Learn from me, his bloodshot eyes entreat. “Forgive
sooner, for yourself,” he says. His (new-to-us) wife hands him pandesal, pancit noodles pressed inside, as if to say, Eat, kain na, “Don’t give up.” Two very small bites. He chokes, bile spills. She wipes,
weeping. All eyes narrowing, we hover, spread our arms over him. Our guts distend with the rot of lost years. Our spirits bloom like yeast. My tongue is an uprooted ube, ready for mashing. Fingers pulse, knotting us—this bruised organ—together.
Prelude: rearranged driveway protects parking
closest to the front door. I married into proud Romanian
gypsies. Grandma Hyacinthe’s walker scratches, marks
our amnesty. Lola, my Filipina Mama’s Sabbaths of hymns
and have to’s revised decades later into impassioned,
unpredictable Shabbat dinners. A lifetime of Fridays,
ordained rest—pulsing mundane
Today’s dinner, a texted errand for Chris, not the cuisine-themed
menus I sometimes sweat on my weekly To Do’s.
“Can u pick up food?”
“Whatever looks good.”
Once home, I prep, heat, cook what shopping bags
offer—a literal mixed bag—Caesar salad, Salvadoran
pupusas, paleo sausage, scalloped potatoes. Dessert?
Kids had just picked peaches from the May Pride tree.
Everyone congregates, drawn to the table.
I plucked two tealights from the Emergency Supplies bin,
Stand-ins for traditional white Shabbos candles.
The log lighter flicked, one hand covering eyes, fingers loose
(a ceremonial cheat—I have to aim flame at the wicks).
As woman of the house, I chant in a single exhale.
|“Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”||“Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of time and space, You hallow us with Your mitzvoth and command us to kindle the lights of Shabbat.”|
I take my seat. Our $20 rummage sale treasure: mid-century
modern, worn oak table, water-stained welcome,
diaspora interlude. Chris lifts his glass of red.
|Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, borei p’ri hagafen.||“Praise to You…Creator of the fruit of the vine.”|
Kids tap together cups of diluted grape juice, brother-in-law Steve sips
sweetened coffee, a ritual boost towards his 10 p.m. AA meeting.
Today, I skipped kneading and punching dough, no towel-covered
challah rescued from the sunny backyard, all-day first rising
before the second, before the oven. In the rush [or resolve] to rest,
leftover Hawaiian rolls hang loose in a bowl. Kids smile, sing.
|Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Hamotzi lechem min haaretz. Amen.||“Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.”|
Forty years ago, we would have eaten with our hands, kamayan,
Mama’s inherited Sabbath, steamed rice as our manna, our braided
loaf. After our family fissured, split atomic, each of us adrift,
wayfinding in wide arcs, down towards the wreck.
The ancient crocodile, buwaya, bumps, brushes
my face against lost ancestors, our time-toughened skin
kin. I am she: I am he: I am we.
Today, Shabbat almost doesn’t happen, again. Mere hours before our annual
County Fair hula performance, there is so much long hair to braid,
costumes to touch-up, extra rehearsal. Or, fill in
the blank. Every weekend, every reason insists
this doesn’t have to happen. Our liberty says we
can choose this, point ourselves at each other. Gather,
swallow and sigh. Whatever we intend,
outside, a mapped contusion of dusk
dilates. Stars blink awake, magnetize
those who arrive.
Ella deCastro Baron is a second generation Filipinx American raised in Northern California. She is an English and Creative Writing professor in San Diego whose first book, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment, is an ironic curriculum vitae of her ethnic upbringing, inherited faith, mixed race family, and chronic illness. Ella works best in community, trying to re-indigenize ways we storytell towards more healing, integration, and kapwa (deep interconnectedness, shared identity).