Droppings ni Lolo — or, Shit my grandpa says

Until the day she died, at the ripe old age of 93, my Lola Anita – God rest her soul – could remember all her family members’ birthdays (day, month, year) and full names (if you are familiar with the Filipino tendency to have three or more given names, you will admit that this was no mean feat).

Her son-in-law, my Lolo D, has a remarkable memory too – remarkable, that is, for its unreliability. He doesn’t forget names and terms – he just mixes them up…often with hilarious consequences.

I remember he used to call our household help by the wrong names. Not each other’s names, but his own made-up approximations of their real names. It was a great source of entertainment for all of us, as we constantly had to guess whom he was referring to.

He calls roast beef drippings “droppings” and describes scantily clad people as “wearing nothing but their heebie-jeebies.” Maybe because the sight of scantily clad people gives him the heebie-jeebies.

Newly settled in Montreal, he was informed he had to obtain a hospital card in addition to the provincial health care card. Accordingly, he and my mother went to have the necessary paperwork filled out and filed. The clerk assisting him asked, “And in which department of the hospital is your doctor practicing?”

“Gynecology,” Lolo D answered.

The clerk gave him the fish eye over the top of her glasses and said, “I don’t think so.” At which point, my mother, red-faced, intervened. “It’s geriatrics. Geriatrics.” And in an aside to my grandfather, “You are embarrassing. I’m never going with you to the hospital again.”

The latest incident occurred at the dinner table just last week. I wasn’t there, but my sister was. She told me all about it over the phone, and we both laughed till we cried.

Lolo D had brought home a box of donut holes, or as we call them in Canada, Timbits. Mom popped them into the fridge. Later, while they were having dinner, someone wondered aloud what to have for dessert. Lolo D turned to Mom and asked, “Where are my balls?”

He blames all of this on a family propensity for malapropisms. My grandmother called it “having senior moments.” Whatever it is, I think I’ve inherited it. I told my sister the other day that I had learned a new word. Guddling. “It’s what you do to a mint leaf to bruise it before adding it to a mojito,” I explained.

Long pause at the other end of the line. “I think you mean muddling,” she said at last.

Oops, okay. Muddling. “But guddling is a word too,” I insisted.

Another long pause. “Uh-huh….” she said. “But it’s definitely not what you do to a mint leaf.”

Wondering why the long pauses, I looked up the word “to guddle.” Of Scottish origin, it has many meanings, some rather less savoury than others. And my sister was right – none of them has any connection to mint leaves whatsoever.

I guess I’ll be thinking twice from now on before laughing at Lolo D’s latest. There’s just no escaping heredity. Or karma.

Remembered roses

Valentine’s Day is approaching, with all the attendant symbols…Cupids, hearts, and bouquets. Perhaps this is why lately I find myself thinking about roses.

There are three roses that stand out in my memory: one was given to me to say thank you, one to say sorry, one to say Happy Birthday. All three were pink, because pink ones are my favourite and the givers knew this. All three came with no tender sentiments or declarations of devotion, but with great affection and respect.

A friend of mine, a father of daughters (and, incidentally, giver of rose #2), observes with some worry that boys nowadays don’t seem to know how to treat girls properly. I would venture to say that perhaps part of the problem is that some girls don’t demand or even expect better behaviour from their male friends.

I count myself blessed that all the men in my life, from my grandfathers down, knew how to treat women right. I grew up knowing I deserved to be treated like a lady, with affection and with respect, and gravitated naturally towards boys – and later, men – who understood this.

It’s a lesson that needs almost no words, because it’s most powerfully imparted by a father’s tangible love for his wife, and his combined gentleness and strength in his dealings with his children.

I wish all girls could be so lucky, and sadly know that a lot of them aren’t, so I have only this advice to give. Girls, please don’t be fooled by the counterfeit that modern society calls love. And don’t think that you need to debase yourself in order to be esteemed.

And during this amorous time of year, when people tend to get a little carried away, remember that romance is like a lightning flash – intense, but pretty short-lived. True love lasts a lifetime, and can even be stronger than death. Until you find a love like that, you’ll want and need real friends to stand by you. And if you never find love here on earth, you’ll still have those friends. Just because friendship isn’t passionate doesn’t mean it’s any less strong, or any less real.

In the end, I won’t be remembering dozens of red roses…just three pink ones.

The Original “Fear Factor”

A few weeks ago I read that putting iodine and alcohol on cuts and scrapes is a home remedy that doesn’t actually work. In fact, these substances can be quite caustic on raw, broken skin and nerves, and therefore shouldn’t be used on wounds at all.

This major scientific discovery has come a few years too late for me. My mother used both alcohol and iodine in equal and copious amounts on my four siblings and me in our time. But I couldn’t resist showing the article to my mother, who sniffed and said, “So? You’re still alive, aren’t you?”

I thought back to the time when I was four years old, playing in the backyard while my pet rooster Charlie pecked busily nearby. Despite repeated warnings from my nanny, I tried to get Charlie to eat grain from my hand. Now I know that roosters can be quite aggressive – another discovery that came too late. But you have to understand: Charlie was my pet. I had watched him grow from a fluffy yellow ball of feathers to a handsome young rooster. We had always had an amicable relationship. So I was totally unprepared for the hissing, angry beast that suddenly flew into my face, clawing and scratching.

I don’t remember the actual attack. I do remember my nanny shrieking curses at Charlie and my mother scolding and dragging me into the house. I had my eyes shut tight, a reflex which had probably saved them, but which also prevented me from seeing my mother brandishing the iodine until I felt her dousing my face with it. I don’t think I started crying until then. At one point I finally opened my eyes and saw myself in the mirror. My face was covered with blood and iodine.

I thought I was going to die.

So, in response to Mom’s question: yes, I’m still alive. So are all my brothers and sisters, but it’s a miracle we’ve lived to tell the tale of our childhood. We all learned how to treat our own cuts and scrapes fairly early in life, how to clean up our own blood quickly and quietly, without fussing, crying, or getting squeamish. We knew that at the first whiff of blood, Mom would appear, vampire-like, with either the dreaded green bottle (alcohol) or the dreaded brown bottle (iodine). What Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and more important, it wouldn’t hurt us. That is, unless we died of gangrene or blood poisoning. But we figured that if infection resulting from our inept first-aid measures didn’t kill us, the pain from Mom’s vigorous scrubbing of the wound with her favourite antiseptics would, and we all agreed that blood poisoning was the easier way to go.

Sometimes when I’m at the pharmacy I find myself looking wistfully at all the fancy first-aid products that have been invented. Kids these days definitely have it easy. The no-sting antiseptics, soothing ointments and multi-coloured bandages that are available today seem to come with the moms to match. You know the type. “Come on honey, take this itty-bitty pill for Mommy,” they coax.

My mother would stand over you and say just two words. “SWALLOW IT.” And you would. You wouldn’t dare gag, either.

She took the same no-nonsense approach when it came to toothpaste. Now that I’m an adult, I rather like the sharp, stinging sensation of minty-fresh toothpaste in my mouth, but it’s not so pleasant when you’re a kid. Candy-flavoured toothpaste had been invented by then, but my mother saw no reason to buy two kinds of toothpaste. In this situation, one word sufficed. “BRUSH.”

 And brush we did.

The truth is, my childhood was the original “Fear Factor.” The only difference was that there was no prize money waiting at the end. If there were, I’d be a millionaire by now, because there were challenges to be met at every turn.

Take dinner for example – for most people, a nice, relaxing meal. But if you’ve ever had a Filipino friend, chances are you know that we eat some pretty weird food. Most foods that I disliked as a child I’ve actually grown to enjoy, but to a little kid, Filipino dishes can be intimidating, to say the least. (You try choking down blood stew, or whole fish with all the bones still in it, or squid cooked in its own ink.)

But even more intimidating was – you guessed it – my mother, looking at you across the table. She didn’t have to say a word in this case, but you knew what she was thinking. “EAT IT OR ELSE.”

Did I eat it? You bet I did.

Just like the contestants on Fear Factor, I also had to deal with gross and slimy animals – and I’m no longer talking about the ones that sometimes ended up on my dinner plate. I’m talking about toads. Live toads. I hate them and they are one thing I have not learned to like. Behind our house was a grassy field where toads abounded. At night they came hopping out onto our street – you could see entire families of them in the pools of light from the street lamps. I never went outside at night –except when we were coming home late from a party or from my grandmother’s, and I was the one who had to get out of the car to open the gate so my dad could drive in. I felt faint and sick every time I did it. If I hadn’t been so scared and disgusted I’d have noticed that the horrible creatures hopped away from and not towards me as I approached. Anyway, my biggest fear – that one would hop onto me – never did materialize. Still, I would rather have gotten out of the car to face a pride of lions than those toads.

I may not have won any prize money for facing up to these challenges, but I have realized a few things that will probably go a longer way than any amount of riches.

First, what doesn’t kill you does indeed make you strong. My mom learned her mothering techniques from her mother, and they are the strongest women I know. I don’t know if I’m as strong as they are, but I do know that if I have to do something difficult, all I have to do is imagine my mom saying “DO IT” – and I take a deep breath and go for it.

Second, my mom’s love may be tough at times, but it is real. If she is hard on me it’s only because she loves me and believes in me. I’m sure this is true for all mothers. So the next time your mom pushes you, don’t fight her, because chances are she is pushing you in the right direction.

Third, I’ve learned that all things eventually come full circle. Mom cut her hand while working in the garden the other day, and she asked me to help her clean it up. I went for the no-sting antiseptic – yes, this is what we use now. It lives in the medicine cabinet right beside the bottle of alcohol. Although she hardly uses alcohol anymore, I guess Mom thinks her household wouldn’t be complete without it.

I couldn’t resist saying, “I’ll get the alcohol.”

Mom said, “No! This….isn’t a wound for alcohol.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What exactly is the kind of wound for alcohol?”

She smirked. “Your wounds.”

Today we’re changing her dressings, and I say to her, “You know, if I were really evil, I’d have replaced this no-sting stuff with alcohol.”

“You wouldn’t,” she says, pretending to be horrified. She’s right, I wouldn’t, no matter how sweet the revenge would be.

Then I start grinning. At least I can enjoy the idea for a while.

The way to a person’s heart

Saturday evening is the time I usually get to talk to my sister, who lives in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood in the American Midwest. In the middle of our conversation tonight, my nearly-six-year-old nephew comes on the phone to say goodnight, and I send a noisy kiss down the wire. When he’s gone to bed, my sister tells me that on the way home from school yesterday, she asked him how he had liked the lunch she packed for him that day. “It was really good, Mommy,” he said. There was a pause, then he added in a small voice, “But Jeremy (not his real name) said it was gross. He always asks what I have for lunch, and he always says it’s gross.” My sister twisted around in the driver’s seat to see tears rolling down his cheeks.

When told this story, my mother asked, “What did you give him for lunch anyway?”

Just leftovers, my sister told her. Sliced sirloin steak with a balsamic vinegar reduction, and roasted broccoli with pine nuts and parmesan cheese.

“Well, that explains it,” my mom said. “This Jeremy kid is just jealous.”

There is one thing you have to understand about my family. We are Filipinos, which means we enjoy our food more than most people. Two Japanese friends of mine had lunch at Cucina Manila recently. They arrived at one thirty and lingered over their meal for over two hours, pleasantly surprised that the restaurant did not close down for the afternoon lull, because there was none. Even way past lunch-time, there was still a constant flow of customers, they reported to me with some astonishment. I explained to them that for Filipinos, any time is a good time to eat.

Not only do we enjoy our food…for us Filipinos, and especially in my family, cooking a meal, and consuming it with appreciation, is the highest expression of love. This is why the first question you’re asked when you walk in the door of any Filipino household is, “Kumain ka na?” (Have you eaten yet?) This is why my siblings and I were never packed off to school with nothing more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (“That’s not lunch,” my mother would have said in horrified tones.) And this is why my nephew, bless his dear heart, cries when some kid tells him his lunch is gross. Little as he is, he knows that a lot of love goes into the food his mommy prepares for him.

And besides, he genuinely likes his steak and broccoli. To the Filipino, you truly are what you eat. So if you tell us our food is gross, we’ll take that as a personal insult to ourselves and to the person who made the food in the first place.

But let’s be fair. Maybe Jeremy comes from the kind of family that thinks PBJs are a good enough lunch. Maybe my mom is right and Jeremy is jealous. Which means that maybe the best solution to this conflict would be for my nephew to offer him a bite next time. Filipinos do love to share their food after all. And then maybe Jeremy will learn what my nephew seems to know by instinct: that the way to a person’s heart really does pass through the stomach.