Seafood was served only on special occasions – juicy crabs crammed with tasty orange aligue (crab fat), halabos nga pasayan (steamed shrimp) as big as my hand that turned violently pink after cooking, and sweet fat fish stuffed with tomatoes and onions and then grilled. I wondered why we had these savory treats so seldom, since Lola also owned a fishing fleet – surely we could have been plentifully supplied with crustaceans and fish? Perhaps she was avoiding the high cholesterol content of those foods.
She was a great believer in children’s nutrition by supplement, though – she made me drink an entire plastic Tupperware tumbler of Milo every single night. It was brought into her bedroom, where I slept, by a kitchenmaid on a tray along with a tumbler of water. I was supposed to drink both. It resulted in my waking up in the wee hours and going to the bathroom in the dark. To this day I can’t look at a Tupperware tumbler without feeling like I have to pee.
I don’t know why Lola and Lolo insisted I sleep in their room. I had my own room, but it was only where I kept my books and things and spent time during the day, mostly reading. At night, I lay on a mattress placed beside a wall at the foot of their bed, right on the green carpeting. Beside me was a carved wooden commode on which was placed the “over-over” – radio equipment to keep in touch with the fishing vessels – and a ceramic pig.
This ceramic pig was a family heirloom. No one remembers where it was bought or where it came from to begin with. But it was meant to be used as a coin bank – there was a slit on its top. It was about as large as a real pig, made from white ceramic, and encrusted all over with faux pearls, rhinestones, and other glittery bijoux. Its mouth was open in a smile; its tongue was of soft red felt and its teeth were pearl beads. I would wiggle my fingers into its mouth to touch the tongue, which was the only soft part of the pig, and run my hands all over its encrustations.
I didn’t give that pig a name; somehow it seemed beyond that, for I knew it was older than I was. It first belonged to Lola Bennett’s mother, my great-grandmother, who always wrote her name in her books thus: Dña Marciana Ledesma vda. de Lacson – and naming her pig would have been presumptuous on my part. That pig looms large in the family mythos. One creased color photograph from 1968 shows me, less than a year old, pink and chubby all on fours on a bed beside that pig, wearing a toothy grin. People who see that picture comment on the resemblance.
The author as a child, with pig.
The radio squawked a lot in the early evenings, when the captains of the fishing boats would call in to report. I’d be in my pajamas lying on my mattress, dreading the arrival of the housemaid with the tray of Tupperware tumblers of Milo and water, and Lola would speak into the handheld microphone: “Benedicta I, Benedicta I. Come in, over.” Szquaawwk. “Ofelia I, Ofelia I, come in. Pila ka bañera sa inyo? Over.” (How many crates did you catch?) And so on for half-an-hour; sometimes I’d fall asleep listening to their choppy conversations, lulled by the hoarse voices coming in on the dark night over the speakers, punctuated by Lola’s “Come in. Over.” I do not know how she ended those transmissions – with “Over and out?” Something else? I never heard – I was always asleep by then.
When sleep was slow in coming, and I’d stare with wide eyes at the ceiling – or the pig – Yayay Mila would be sent for, and she would turn me onto my side, and pat my hip until I dozed off. It never failed to send me to sleep. To this day I cannot sleep except on my side.