The month of May touches a sensitive place in my heart as it holds the more memorable events of my checkered life as a boy and a young adult.
How can I forget the summer rite of passage that I took so much pride in, having hurdled it so bravely? I remember that early morning many Mays ago as I walked with other boys of my age in our neighborhood toward the riverside of our town. We soaked ourselves in the shallow but icy water and after half an hour or so, we queued to kneel, shivering in all our naked glory, before the manunuli (circumciser). When my turn came, I closed my eyes as I munched on a handful of young guava leaves. He performed the rite with one clean, swift and almost bloodless cut of his knife. I opened my eyes, spat out the guava leaves on the wound, dressed it, and soon I was on my way home, walking bowlegged but proudly and with a smile on my face!
The month of May also meant a vacation in Pulilan, Bulacan, my mother’s hometown, to bond with my first cousins Ate Mely, Guding, Freddie, and Numer. At the tumana (farmland) we picked the fruits in season and brought these to the nearby river where we ate, played, and splashed in the clear waters. On other days we leisurely trekked to the farm to pasture Numer’s damulag (carabao) and, later, wade barefoot in the shallow creek with a contraption to catch fish for our lunch at the bahay kubo (thatched hut). In the afternoon after siesta we flew our kites until the setting sun signaled that it was time to retrace our path to the ancestral house at the tabing ilog (riverside).
Two fiestas defined our Pulilan vacation: the barrio fiesta of Sta. Cruz on May 3 and the town fiesta on May 15. The Sta. Cruz fiesta was significant because it was also the birthday of my Ateng Ena. She was named Elena after St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine who, it is said, found the true cross of the Lord’s crucifixion—which explains the Reyna (Queen) Elena in the Santacruzan (Maytime procession honoring the holy cross).
The town fiesta is held in honor of its patron saint, Isidore the Farmer. During the nine-day novena before the fiesta we braved the dark streets of Pulilan to get to the town plaza for the nightly entertainment consisting of either a variety show from Manila, a basketball game, an amateur contest, or a festival of “combos” (called bands today). Then we hied off to the pondahan (food stalls) at the plaza for a glass of yummy halo-halo or a bowl of hot goto.
On the day of the fiesta itself, we boys would help Numer groom his damulag for the now famous parade of “kneeling” carabaos.
Another scene etched deep in my memory is my departure for the seminary in May 1958 at age 16. My parents saw me off. When it was time to go, my teary-eyed Inang embraced me tightly, as though she did not want to let me go. I could not say anything at that moment; I felt so ambivalent. Maybe I felt truly loved for the first time and did not want to leave anymore, but I had to go. And if Inang was expressive of her emotions, Tatang was not. He was just being his usual self, quiet and unassuming. I wonder now: What was he thinking and feeling then? Was it as difficult for him to let me go as it was for Inang?
Finally, how can I forget the early years of my short priestly life? (I sought a papal dispensation seven years after my ordination.) My first two years as a priest were spent in Kidapawan, North Cotabato, in Mindanao. Kidapawan then covered a very large territory. Some of its barrios then were so remote that it took a priest almost a day’s travel by foot or half a day on horseback to reach them.
I recall arriving in Kidapawan one May day in 1969 and finding myself assigned to celebrate a Mass at a barrio fiesta the next day. I can’t remember the place anymore, but I recall that it was so far out in the mountains that even our 4×4 parish jeep conked out while traversing a river. I went ahead with my sacristan on foot and reached the barrio at past noon. I immediately celebrated a Mass and officiated at a double wedding, followed by a mass baptism of babies.
Then came the late lunch that was a culture shock for me. My hosts served chicken tinola and fried chicken while humbly apologizing that they could “only” offer chicken and not de lata (canned food)! I learned later that for the barrio folk, chicken was ordinary fare while canned sardines obtained from the town market were special treats.
On my way back, my last stop was the cemetery, where I blessed the dead who passed during the year without benefit of a priest’s blessing. I wondered then how these simple barrio folk kept their faith all year long until the next fiesta…
Today, as I age, I reflect on these scenes in my past and connect the dots. And I realize how much they have become precious and meaningful moments in my journey.
Danilo G. Mendiola, 71, was a human resources and administrative executive until his retirement in 1997. He and his wife are now doing volunteer work for the Family Life Ministry in their parish. He says that after his quintuple bypass in 2007, his children encouraged him to start a blog as a form of therapy during his recovery, making him “an accidental writer.”