Pic: My hubby and me with my uncle and aunt
I didn’t expect spending the weekend in L.A. with my mom’s brother and his family to put Mom’s memory front and center in my mind and heart.
55. That’s how many years my uncle and his wife have been married. So when their daughter Eileen invited us to their wedding anniversary celebration on an April weekend, my hubby and I decided to fly out and go. Who knew when we could ever visit again? Traveling over other holidays with our married kids and growing family has increasingly been getting difficult, if not impossible.
Arriving at LAX brought back memories from 35 years before, when I arrived from the Philippines with Mom. As a starry-eyed newcomer to America, I thought the terminal was glitzy. Fast forward three decades later, LAX seemed ordinary; pedestrian almost. Though I have seen glitzier airports, arriving there filled me with excitement as though I were a fifteen year old traveling to another country with my mother.
Tito Hermie is my mom’s older brother, the one she attended college with. She used to tell me about their dance parties, listening to records, and his strictness and protectiveness.
When Mom and I came to the States I stayed two weeks at Tito Hermie’s place in the Catalina area of Los Angeles. It was an unforgettable summer meeting cute guys and hanging out with my cousins, who were in their teens like me. The experience further cemented our bond. After I moved to go to college with Mom at Utah State University, our families stayed in touch and we even flew over a Christmas or two.
At my wedding in Utah five years from when I first arrived, Tito Hermie stood in for my dad who could not join us from the Philippines and gave me away.
He was, and always will be, in essence, my second father.
Tito Hermie’s backyard, landscaped with a swimming pool and waterfall he designed, a grotto, fire pit, outdoor kitchen and a circular stage, reflects his flair for entertaining. As Drew and I arrived for the party a little after five p.m., the team of helpers including his children and their spouses bustled around to finish the decorations. Someone lit the sterno under chafing dishes.
“Dad fixed pinakbet,” Tito Hermie’s wife, Tita Elinor, said. Age and a deteriorating hip condition that necessitates her to use to a walker could not dim her bubbly personality. “Everyone requests him to do it.”
Which got me thinking of Mom and her pinakbet. If I could pick one comfort dish from my childhood, it would be the dish of okra, pork belly, bitter gourd, eggplant, and squash, simmered into a comforting stew. I’d always request her to make it, and she did, even though I was the only one who usually ate it.
I took a bite of Tito Hermie’s pinakbet, and I was transported back to meals prepared by Mom. The stew was a lot like her recipe, rich and satisfying, even down to the bitter gourd that I always picked out (shhh).
As I mingled at my uncle and aunt’s anniversary celebration, invariably someone would say, “You look so much like your mom.” Or I’d run into one of her cousins who reminisced about their days growing up. With the former, I thanked them for their compliment. With the latter, I cocked my ear so I could hear over the blaring dance music, and listened intently to their stories.
It was over this music when I was, once again, reminded of Mom. A song with a cha-cha beat came on and I ended up being Tito Hermie’s partner on the designated dance floor. I’d learned Latin dances at college and loved cha-cha along with all the other dance styles. I followed Tito Hermie’s lead, just improvising as we went along. Tito Hermie, in his early eighties, was still light on his feet and graceful.
I imagined a former time when Mom, in her slim pants and winged eyeglasses, danced with her older brother to a long-playing record spinning on a turntable in their living room.
The morning of the party, my cousin Sheila hosted the family for breakfast to welcome us. Sitting across from me, my cousin Eileen’s husband asked, “So, how’s your mother?”
There was a stunned silence. Eileen turned and elbowed him. “I told you about her,” she hissed, referring to Mom’s passing two years ago.
He groaned, covering his face with his hands. “I can’t believe I just did that. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. And then I admitted, “I actually almost said, ‘She’s fine.’”
Everyone’s laughter dispelled the awkwardness, but then I considered this for a moment. “And you know what,” I said, “It’s true. She’s fine.”
During a weekend spent with her older brother and his family, I felt like she had never left us.