Remembering the dead
I remember that it would be a two-day vacation, because All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were both holidays. The vacation offered a welcome respite for us grade school pupils from classroom tasks of paper and pencil. Instead, we had to participate in the observance of “Undas” in the small town of Cabangan in Zambales, in the early 1950s.
A fresh scene would also attract me in November—the wide open field across the Cabangan Elementary School and near the foot of the mountain in the east, surging with full-grown rice stalks bearing golden grains that glinted brightly in the sun. It delighted me to see the slender, sharp-pointed leaves swaying in the wind. And the whiff of fresh air would make me anticipate Christmas.
The two-day holiday was not a time for schoolchildren to play their childhood games in the open field; they would have to enjoy them much later, in March until May. A few days before Nov. 1, my school playmates and I would go to the cemetery far from the poblacion, along the narrow dirt road to San Isidro, to pull out the overgrown weeds around the tombs of our beloved dead.
My father died of tuberculosis when I was barely 2 years old. His tomb was made of concrete, his name and the dates of the long years of his life etched on the front. For many years, I helped in sprucing up the tomb for All Saints’ Day.
On Nov. 1, the townsfolk would head for the cemetery. My mother, a young widow, along with Fernando, our eldest brother, Epifania, our sister, Engracio, our youngest, and I would trek to the cemetery to join the crowd. My mother would light a pair of wax candles placed on top of the tomb, and then she would lead in praying the Rosary. After her recitation of the long litany of the saints, we waited for the American missionary Catholic priest to come and utter the Latin prayers, as he sprinkled holy water on the tomb.
The huge crowd at the cemetery never failed to awe my curious eyes. I saw each family either praying or eating together around the grave. A festive mood prevailed.
I learned from my mother that the dead are not really dead. On Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day, my mother would place a tin plate of rice cake and a glass of water before the statue of the Sagrada Familia on top of a low wooden cabinet in the house, while reminding us her children that the food was for our dead father who would be coming.
Once, while she was using the Singer sewing machine—she was a seamstress—my mother heard her 1-year-old son laughing and giggling on the bamboo floor. According to her, it was my father who was tickling the toddler. “Restituto, our youngest child is growing,” she said, talking to her dead husband.
I do not remember having sniffed the sweet scent in the air, or heard the tinkle of spoon and fork on the plate of rice cake, but I do remember seeing the ghost of my father. It must have been my fertile imagination, but what I thought I saw did not scare me at all.
The annual observance of Undas in that far-flung town in Zambales during my childhood was not marked by any public display of frightening figures such as skeletons rising from the underworld, or eerie pictures of the dead with gouged-out eyes and sharp fangs ready to pounce on little children. It was a time for a solemn remembrance of the dead who we believed would come back, like those memorable characters in the ghost fiction of Greg Brillantes—men known to be long dead springing from the grave, their ghosts unseen, mingling with the living, like that grandfather making fun of the playful children who looked like their father …
When my memory fails, do the things in the past disappear?
Mariano F. Carpio, 75, is a retired teacher of the University of Santo Tomas.
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