Friday, Dec. 12. Born in the 1950s to four branches of our family tree, my cousins and I are now in our early 60s. Some insist they’re just 50-something. Sure. No problem.
We’ve had good and bad days. We’ve often stumbled. We’ve kept getting up and running the race, anyway. We’ve witnessed births, sicknesses, and deaths. We know that our remaining days are precious. Make time we must for one another.
Cora comes home from Qatar. Orlan flies in from Canada. Dida waltzes in from New Jersey.
When Dida, Orlan, and Cora call to announce an instant family reunion, everybody says yes. Why have we never done it? Yes, yes, yes!
“Where?” asks Ateng Cita, the reigning queen in view of seniority.
“In your place,” says Dida. It means Talavera, Nueva Ecija.
“When?” asks the queen.
“Friday, December 12,” replies Dida, the queen-in-waiting.
Dida, Orlan, and Cora belong to the Roberto branch and they call Nasugbu, Batangas their hometown. Ateng Cita, everybody’s Ateng, belongs to the Primo branch which has remained rooted in Talavera, Nueva Ecija. The distance between the two points is about 250 kilometers plus hours and hours wasted on traffic jams.
My sister Carol and I who come from the Fernando branch hitch a ride with the crazy bunch from Batangas. They pick us up in Metro Manila. We shriek and giggle with childlike excitement.
Cora calls Gigi, one of Ateng Cita’s many sisters.
“Tell Caloy to prepare a card table,” Cora says. Caloy is Gigi’s husband. “We’re going to play tong-its. Nonstop!” Then she giggles until she chokes.
“Reserve a seat for me,” Carol grabs the phone from Cora.
We lose our way about a dozen times. Alex, youngest brother of Dida, Orlan, and Cora, is on the wheels. He’s never driven around Metro Manila, never driven to Nueva Ecija. But he’s too macho to relinquish the wheels. Cora, Carol, and Dida serve as back-seat drivers whose conflicting instructions complicate matters.
Crazy, but hilarious. Keep going. No, stop. Turn back. Reverse. Why? Nanay needs to go. Go where? To a CR (rest room)!
We find the entrance to the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). Ahh, we’ll be in Talavera soon. We eat breakfast in a pit stop.
Ateng Cita calls, “Where are you?”
“Eating breakfast. In the middle of NLEX,” says Dida.
“Take SCTEX (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway). It’s a new highway. It’s faster to Talavera. You’ll skip Cabanatuan City. You don’t want to go there. It’s the tricycle capital of the Philippines and traffic is monstrous,” advises Ateng Cita.
“Okay,” says Dida, “thanks for the tip.”
Driving through NLEX and SCTEX is a walk in the park. Alex brims with pride as king of road warriors. As we exit SCTEX, our back-seat drivers argue. Left. No, right. Straight ahead.
Stop. Ask the old man for directions. He tells us to go back. Stop again. Ask the young woman how to go to Talavera without passing through Cabanatuan City. She tells us to keep going.
Hey, look at that! A bahay-kubo on the road! Are you lost, too?
“Where are you?” calls Ateng Cita. It’s almost 12 noon.
“Somewhere,” says Dida.
Finally, Orlan has had enough. “Pull over,” he tells Alex in a firm voice. He gets off the van, approaches a smart-looking man in a sari-sari (convenience) store, and asks for directions.
Orlan gets in the van, tells Alex to turn around and take no more instructions from the trio of back-seat drivers. Or else!
We keep quiet, then we realize that we have skirted around Cabanatuan City as well as Talavera. How has that happened?! When we pass through Santo Domingo in silence, we know that Talavera’s just around the corner. And it is!
Ateng Cita runs to the big, blue gate, flings it open and shrieks squeals of welcome in her signature soprano.
“Lunch is served!” announces Auntie Gloria, the 86-year old queen mother of the Primo branch to which Ateng Cita, Gigi, and their 11 other living siblings belong.
Auntie Nery, 78-year old mother of the Batangas bunch, and Auntie Gloria hug each other fondly, tightly. The two of them are the only living parents of our generation.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” Auntie Nery says plaintively.
“It’s been so long,” says Auntie Gloria with a faint hint of a muffled sob.
“No tears,” Dida warns.
“The table’s waiting,” Ateng Cita declaims.
After lunch, Gigi and husband Caloy arrive and the card game begins. Some take a nap. Some take pictures. Some huddle in intimate family conversations about joy and sorrow, grief and gratitude, health and sickness, wealth and want, doubt and faith.
Some of us decide to go to the cemetery and visit our dear departed kin. Then it’s dinner time.
Lita from the Genoveva branch arrives from Baguio with her husband Marcial and one of their pretty daughters. They come in time for dinner which becomes a riot of roaring jokes and laughter, cheerful clinking of glasses and silverware, and the merry mischiefs of Chito’s young kids. Chito, one of Ateng Cita’s brothers, married late. His children look like his grandkids.
We seal the day by driving to Tarlac City to see the Christmas display of various renditions of the Nativity Scene. After feasting on puto-bumbong, bibingka, and balut, we head home to Talavera and finally call it a day.
We sleep on borrowed beds. Some sleep on the floor. We don’t mind. Jesus, the King of Kings, lies in a discarded animal feed box lined with hay.
Thank you, Jesus, for Christmas. Thank you for our extended family. Thank you for the home we have in each other’s heart!