I am lost in reverie of the thousand songs of summer. The wind through the trees, the crickets and their evening hymns, the tiny insects swarming about the lone orange bulb on the patio. Instantly I am taken back to the house of my childhood, the one where I moved from kid to teen to adult. The one where I lived through 2 Proms, 1 Ball , 2 graduations, 2 boyfriends, and about a million heartaches. I’m sorry but you’ll have to forgive me if I wax poetic with this entry. I’m sure most of you can relate as that usually happens when one remembers the blithe nature of one’s youth.
We moved quite a lot during the 80’s, 4 times if my memory serves me right, in the very same village. But it was that house in Banaba Street that I remember the most. Certainly it was no mansion. But the way I remember it, it went on and on. It was this typically 70’s designed house the façade of which was triangular and the windows were made of jalousies. I know nothing about architecture but that kind of window is a real pain. First, it wasn’t all that pretty and second, if for some reason you had to go in or out of the house (like a fire breaking in the hallway) without going through the front or back door, you’d have to take each jalousie out one by one or you’ll have a grand time trying to do a rock star move by throwing a chair to break the hell of all of them.
Anyway, in front there was a star apple tree that bore so much fruit that every summer we would offer them to neighbors and passers-by. We climbed that tree a couple of times sometimes to gather fruit and others to just to know how it felt up there, not that anyone of us went very high up since the branches also became thinner and therefore weaker as you went higher. One summer, the fruit suddenly went bad. Every ripe one we opened had these filthy, wriggly, white worms in it. Mimi, our nanny-slash-cook-slash-governess, who was with us since forever, said that someone made “lihi” the fruit of our tree and was the reason why there were worms in it. She also said that the worms were okay, and that eating them could actually make your voice sound really good. Now I don't know the validity nor reliability of that particular claim but what I'm sure of is that that was the story behind my not having a singing career. I didn’t have any star fruit that summer or the rest of the summers having developed a permanent aversion to it.
At the back of the house was a jackfruit and camias tree. The camias nobody seemed to care for. The fruit would just grow and dry up into clumps up on the tree every single time. But the jackfruit tree was like this great big mother always pregnant with fruit. She knew nothing about birth control, I tell you. The fruit were so big she looked like she was pregnant with octuplets all the time. They looked like sacks of rice, for crying out loud. During its season, the house would be filled with the heady perfume of jackfruit especially when Mimi had to turn them into preserves. The seeds were then boiled and eaten as they were reminiscent of chestnuts. Cheap chestnuts.
Now, Mimi was no cook when she first came to our employ. But by virtue of default, she had to take on the role of cook, mother, yaya, governess, what have you. But mostly, she did the cooking. Her repertoire consisted of the ubiquitous Adobo, Sinigang, Nilaga, Fried whatever and sautéed vegetables. She also made Pancit Bihon and Spaghetti Bolognese every time anyone celebrated his or her birthday. And she served them with rice! I kid you not, we actually grew up thinking that that was how it was eaten. I'd be over at a friend's house and they would be serving spaghetti and in my head I would be waiting for rice. I would be thinking, who the hell serves spaghetti without rice? I know, i know. All your Italian forefathers would be rolling in their graves but you would be amazed at how many people share this strange bacchanalian abnormality. If you try it though, you might find that it is strangely comforting as is anything carbohydrate laden. I have since stopped eating spaghetti with rice. The Pancit with rice, I still do now and then.
She also made some Vietnamese dishes she learned from our mother before she left. Those were my favorite amongst all she cooked and is to this day, some of my go-to dishes when I have no idea what to make for my kids. One of them was this Teriyaki- like dish only it had fish sauce (nuoc nam) instead of shoyu. It was sweet from the addition of sugar and spicy because of the insane amount of freshly cracked black pepper added into it which earned this dish the name “Maanghang”. As in--What’s for dinner? “Maanghang”.
She was a funny lady, old Mimi. She used to sing in an awful falcetto Lupang Hinirang to lull the little ones to sleep. Of course she didn't mean disrespect or anything like that, but that was truly the only song she knew (that and the Visayan song Matud Nila). Come to think of it, if you listened to the national anthem over and over again, even you would fall asleep. It was either that or she would be also listening to Gabi ng Lagim on the AM radio. Boy was that frightening. I didn't quite decipher properly if she listened to it because she was entertained or because it was the perfect way to keep the kids quiet because of the intensely eerie opening of the show. Something about a woman shrieking in fear, wolves howling and chains being pulled. And the stories would always be about aswangs, kapres, headless ghosts, mangled body parts. It was so scary and real I recall that my prayer before going to sleep included that my Dad would not be devoured by a harem of manananggals in the night. In fact, to this day, I sleep with my hands under my pillow or inside the blanket for fear that someone or someTHING would hold it in the middle of the night.
You couldn't really blame Mimi for her less than orthodox way of raising us. After all, she had never had children of her own and yet found her way in a strange situation where she had to help raise six kids. I have only two and they manage to drive me up the wall most of the time. So I cannot imagine how she was able to last all those years with us . All I can conclude was that she learned to truly love us up until the day she passed away. When she came to us, her hair was darker than the darkest moonless night. Then it turned salt and pepper through the years until finally it became silvery threads that reminded me of moonbeams and angels. She was extremely loyal and loving that anytime any of us were fighting, she would cry. If our Dad scolded anyone of us, and he was pretty good at it, she too would cry. Even when she left for her hometown Leyte because she was much too old and sickly, she would ride a habal-habal (motorcycle public transport) to call us just to greet us during our birthdays. It was in one of those rides that she fell and broke again her already once broken hip. It went downhill from there on.
We lost her the year before my brother got married. She appeared in my dream and in it she was falling in the buffet line about to partake of the wedding dinner I had prepared. She looked happy and content which to me was like her way of saying she approved of my brother's getting hitched. How we all miss Mimi.
In my time, we had Mimis, manangs and yayas that became our second mothers, first confidantes and primary counsellors. They listen to everything we can not tell our mothers or fathers and accepted without judgment. They laughed and cried with us, cooked our food, gave us baths and watched over us when we were sick. When we fell in love they gushed beside us and when we got hurt, they too cursed at all who broke our hearts. Some of them didn't even get married or had children of their own. I think those days are long gone. But it is not necessarily bad because it must mean that the pool for nannies is getting very shallow as there already are relatively better choices for jobs for them. But I am thankful that we had our Mimi. She was truly the angel that helped light the path for us to walk on. While nobody turned out to be some great big rocket scientist in our family, I dare say she would be proud at what we have become. Loving, patient, dedicated, funny, caring, pancit-with-rice eating bunch who will forever keep her in our heart of hearts.
Here is the recipe of "Maanghang" from Mimi's kitchen to yours:
500 grams Chicken Fillet, Pork Tenderloin or Shrimps*
3 Tablespoons Fish Sauce
3 Tablespoons Sugar
1/4 cup Water
Freshly Cracked Black Pepper
Marinate meat of choice in fish sauce and sugar for thirty minutes. Put in a saute pan with water and boil covered until tender. When tender, remove cover and let water evaporate. Add some oil and toss around until golden or caramelized. Add black pepper to taste. As I find that fish sauce have irregular amount of salt in them, you might have to add more sugar so do taste it and add as much as you wish. Also, this dish has very little sauce so if you want it to be saucier, just add a little water in the end.
For shrimps, proceed directly to stir-frying it in oil so as not to overcook the shrimps.