By Marivir R. Montebon
When I think of Lola Epang, I remember the deliciously hypnotic smell of pure hot chocolate (we call it tsokolate in the vernacular) emanating from the kitchen of the impeccably clean old house in Larena.
Editor’s Note: This is a chapter from my memoir, Biting the Big Apple: Memoirs of a Journalist Turned Immigrant. In honor of my maternal great grandmother, Felipa Pasco. I will always hold my breath remembering her. Her gracious subservience to family tradition and authority is something I find hard to do. Well, it was her time. Not my time. Cheers to you, Lola, in heaven.
I spent many years demystifying Felipa Pasco, the matriarch on the maternal side of the family. Three generations ahead of me, what I remember my great grandmother were her old age, and serenity. She hardly talked, unlike her daughters Lola Nara and Lola Berta, the well-known school teacher who was frightfully strict. Lola Epang had the sweetest of smiles and was the center of the lives of her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
We would easily gather around her and she would give us our favorite home-made cookies, in ration. She was known as frugal, or tihik in our language. All foods are abundant in the old kitchen, but all had to be rationed.
Lola Epang is the mother of six children, by three different men. In her conservative time, I thought she must have received the flak from family and neighbors. But my mom and aunts said she has remained respected for all her desperation at relationships. She was not in command of her life.
Felipa Pasco was uneducated, like all the women in her time, and was the most impeccable creature of cleanliness at home and on her person. In history books my stomach revolted against the Maria Clara character; I found myself pitying her. But then I reckoned Felipa Pasco was definitively one of the last of the Maria Claras, and I thought, they certainly were as docile and passive as history books portrayed them.
Lola Epang was married at the age of 16, following the common practice of arranged marriage. My mom told me that the wedding banquet of her grandparents lasted for two days, which again was customary.
My lineage in the maternal side of the family follows through the union of Lola Epang and Raymundo Hinaut, a man who is really just a name to me, and to most of us in the clan. Neither his picture, death certificate nor his grave could be found.
When I first came to the US in 2005, the first thing I did with my mother in California was to visit at least three old cemeteries to look for death records and the stone inscribing the memory of Raymundo Hinaut’s remains. Nothing.
I felt like a frustrated Indiana Jones.
Raymundo Hinaut is my great grandfather, a sacada living in the dangerous fields of asparagus in Stockton. He, together with my Lola Epang boarded the ship that sailed across the depths of the Pacific for two months to work, like the thousands of Filipinos, as a farm worker in California and Hawaii. Their destination was Stockton.
Lola Epang’s stay in the US was short lived, for she could not bear the rigorous farm labor. Raymundo sired four children (Zacarias, Rosalia, Nemesio and Genara) in his marriage with her and later on went back to the US to work as a sacada.
When my grandmother, Genara Rubi—their youngest child—was one year old, Raymundo died of pneumonia or cholera, most likely at the age of 25, at the Sacramento General Hospital.
It was from her brother-in-law that Lola Epang learned about the death of her husband in Stockton who read to her a letter recounting his death.
Horrible enough for a young wife and mother, Lola Epang could only cry and move on with her life and take care of her children. She continued to live in the tutelage of her parents-in-law who provided her brood with the basic necessities.
Widowed at such a young age in her early 20s, Lola Epang had a rigodon of suitors who wanted to marry her. But her in-laws kept them all away. Lovely and kind, Lola Epang easily attracted men.
She had a relationship with Jose Magpiong, a native Siquijodnon who served the US navy and brought them a daughter, Alberta. The in-laws refused to marry them and instead discourteously spilt all the coconut wine being offered to the family when Lolo Jose asked for Lola Epang’s hands for marriage.
Disheartened, Lolo Jose left Siquijor with a heavy heart and went back to the US navy.
In his absence, Lola Epang developed another relationship with Santiago Bonalos, who sired a son with her, Uldarico. Lolo Decong was the youngest of Lola Epang’s children, all from three men.
Santiago, like Lolo Jose, was not accepted by Lola Epang’s in-laws. He was unable to marry her.
The in-laws warmly welcomed the two new additions to Lola Epang’s brood, Lola Berta and Lolo Decong. They helped her raise the children in the customary manner: strict discipline, highly religious, and obedient to the rules and authority of parents.
The life of my great grandmother intrigues me no end. She was the center of the family. All her children gather around her on weekends, until the family grew into its third and fourth generations.
When I came into the questioning age of teens, I was wondering if at all she was frowned upon or looked down by the predominantly conservative community as someone having too many men in her life.
I didn’t care that she had so many men. All I wanted to know was how the community looked at her. I suspected they maligned her and regarded her as a flirt or disgraciada.
To me, Lola Epang was simply attractive and desirable. And because she had no education, a young girl bride, and was being controlled by her in-laws who held her land and its resources upon the death of her husband. They decided for her, and being inherently an obedient and uneducated woman, she lived such a dictated life.
I grew up inquiring from my mom and aunties how Lola Epang was regarded in the community. They told me they never heard of people looking down on my great grandmother. The neighbors did not take it against her. I remain skeptical, of course. But then again, why should I care?
Lola Epang was well-liked in the community for her kindness and obedience, they said, and so be it.
I remember Lola Epang as a quiet woman who made pure tsokolate from cacao that made the entire house smell like chocolate. She would ask my uncles to grind the cacao seeds in the manual steel mill (galingan) and I would watch the sticky, sweet smelling chocolate slowly come out from the machine.
She also had the fetish of keeping food (especially cookies and cakes and yes, the pork adobo) for too long and putting them in baskets hanging high above the ceiling so that the grandchildren will not be able to sneak them out.
That hoarding practice, to my mind, was understandable, as a result of extreme poverty especially after the war.
Lola Epang was born on May 12, 1894 in the village called Cantaroc A, in the town of Maria to parents Calalino Pasco and Josefa Talasan. She had a twin sister named Martha, but whose life I unfortunately knew nothing at all. We did not actually know her date of birth, until the day she died, as her daughter Lola Berta had to go out of her way to check her birth records.
My aunt, Nonie Magpiong, told me that my great grandmother was a good, loving and supportive mother to her children and grandchildren
She described her as an overly clean person. She had this rigorous practice of applying pure coconut milk on her hair two hours before she bathes. She would later apply lemon (locally called suwa) into her hair right after rinsing off the coconut milk.
It would take about an hour for my great grandmother to finish her bathing routine.
She keeps the house spanking clean every day. She is the one person who leaves the place cleaner than when she found it. At the kitchen, she would thoroughly clean the abuhan (firepit) after cooking and keep the clay surface free from ashes by applying a good amount of water such that the ashes are absorbed back into the mold.
Tita Nonie also recounted that Lola Epang was the typical obedient daughter in the olden days. She followed her father, who thought that women do not have to go to school and instead stay at home to attend to the needs of their life partners and children.
She had no ambition for herself, Alberta Magpiong (my dear Lola Berta), told me. Her only goal in life was to be a very good, supportive wife and mother to her husband and children.
At one time, Lola Epang told my Aunt Nonie that she was happy to have raised all her children to be God-fearing and law-abiding citizens.
According to my mother Jocelyn Montebon, Lola Epang was religious. She would regularly go to mass on Sundays, wearing her own hand sewn dresses which were always matched with accessories as laced handkerchiefs and veils.
It was Lola Epang who taught my grandmother to sew dresses. In her adult life, Lola Nara was a popular dressmaker in the island.
Lola Epang’s pastime was drinking tuba (coconut wine) and listening to soap operas in her small transistor radio.
I remember she was particularly fond of her grandchild Marichi, my aunt who was only six years my senior, and who I always go out with dancing the night away in benefit dances. Lola Epang would remind her ferociously to be home before midnight and behave like a lady should.
Tita Marichi is one of my successful aunts, both in the personal and professional realm. She is a nurse and a doctor rolled into one, and blessed with a doting husband and four great children who migrated to Canada.
I thought love has come full circle for Lola Epang in her twilight years. Lolo Jose, the father of Lola Berta, began coming home to them, each time he went back to the Philippines, after his divorce and the death of his child. They were living together in my Lola Berta’s house, although not sharing the same bed.
Lola Epang and Lola Berta were in one bedroom, as far as I could remember. Lolo Nonoy (the late Nepumoceno Calibo was one time town mayor of Larena), Lola Berta’s husband, was staying in another bedroom. To my young mind, I thought as one gets old, couples stay in different bedrooms already.
I remember Lolo Jose as tall, and spoke very gently, in a calculated manner, choosing his words carefully to describe his point. I noticed some of his fingers on the right hand were cut as a result of World War II where he served in the navy.
It was one of those afternoon conversations he had with my mother and aunts that I overheard him say, “we will never outgrow our fiesta celebrations. This is the Spanish influence we dearly love, although we are already colonized by America,” he said.
So it was from this old man, with silver hair that I learned about colonized country.
Later, I was told, there was no romantic rekindling for Lolo Jose and Lola Epang. They were just friends and parents of Lola Berta. And when everyone teased and prodded Lola Epang to finally marry Lolo Jose, she would scold all of us. I am too old for that, she would say.
Hence, in her last remaining years, Lola Epang continued to be reserved and chose to simply serve Lolo Jose in the house, preparing his meals, clothes, and medicine.
Lola Epang died on March 6, 1983, at age 89, when I was in high school. She had a massive stroke right after she heard Sunday Mass. Her nightly wake assembles one of the largest gatherings of family and relatives, spanning four generations.
With much respect, Lola Epang was one who sweetly embraced the circumstances around her without resentment or bitterness.
A year after her death, Lolo Jose passed away. He died peacefully in his sleep on February 8, 1984. He was 91 years old. My aunt Marichi told me that there were times when she would hear Lolo Jose sigh and call out Lola Epang in the night soon after she was gone.
I thought they could have matched up with themselves in heaven, without the grandchildren and great grandchildren teasing.