by Clinton Palanca
(from The Gullet: Dispatches on Philippine Food, Anvil Publishing, 2016)
A HOUSE IS NOTHING but timber and pilings and tiles, and will only hold as many ghosts or memories that you allow to flourish in that place. Every year on Christmas Day my friends and I would shake off the torpor of the previous night’s revelry and make our way to a late Christmas lunch at a friend’s mother’s house: yet another table groaning with holiday food, with at least a turkey or two (with the leftovers made into soup for merienda), ham and soft white bread, fruit cakes and sweetmeats. It was the ultimate after-party, when the crazy part of the festive season gave way to the actual holiday part.
Tita Lulu Casas Quezon passed away in 2012, and we tried upholding the tradition, but to no avail. The food and sense of feast seemed bound up by her charm and grace, and holding it at her house, from which her spirit had long since moved on, only made us miss her more. She has passed on, along with that wonderful Christmas tradition. Her passing also seemed like the end of an era: when families were large, meals were home cooked and there was a right and proper way of doing things. She was warm and generous but also brooked no nonsense at the luncheon table; her dog, Debussy, received a strict ration of a single ice cube to lick at night to prevent any mess in the bedroom.
The house passed on to another friend, who bought it from the family. The piano (Tita Lulu was an accomplished pianist and piano teacher) and her other belongings had been distributed among the
family, and after some minor renovations the house looked a little more like it must have when it had been first built, before years of clutter and renovations: high-ceilinged, light and airy.
When I first visited it Tita Lulu was still with the Red Cross, to whom she had devoted many years of her life; hers was a generation that still believed in civics, and this was hers. She had long separated from
“Nonong” Quezon, Manuel Quezon Jr., even though she never dropped her married name. Before his death in 1998, their son Manolo had brokered a reconciliation, and they had been on friendly terms before he passed away.
During the time I was away in England I stopped attending the yearly Christmas, and sometimes Easter, gatherings. The last two years I visited with my wife, also a Lourdes (and oftentimes also a Lou or Lulu to her friends at the Collegian), and they got along famously. The beautiful blown glass ornaments on the Christmas tree were fewer now, and many of the bulbs had gone dark; and the last time we visited her she was confined to her room on the lower ground floor, still charming despite her illness.
The house itself has since gone, as well. But Christmas Day is devoted, among other things, to her memory, and of the friends we made around the turkey and trimmings. In smaller spaces, those who remember her attempt to continue a tradition of relaxed, generous hospitality, of making you feel at ease, of making you feel like you’ve always been part of the family. In a party scene that is often too overwrought and grandiose and veneered, it’s nice to slide back in time, as I like to do every year, to Excelente ham from Quiapo on loaf bread and tinned butter cake, and remember afternoons with Tita Lulu and Debussy at the piano.