by Laguna Lupie
My father, a Batangueño*, actually grew up in a sleepy town called Tagkawayan in Quezon province near the Bicol region. He never tired of saying that his best and happiest memories were made in that small, insignificant town on the tip of Camarines Sur.
Every year, around September or October, we went home to Tagkawayan and went on pilgrimage to the Miraculous Virgin of Penafrancia in Naga City, Bicol. I grew up with memories of our annual trip home, riding our old Volkswagen Brazilia through mountains and seaside towns. Me and my Kuya* would sing “yellow bird” in the backseat of the car and Nanay* and Tatay* would sing along with us. When we got to Tagkawayan, we would stay at the house of my father’s high school best friend, Tito Jun. The rest of my tatay’s old gang would converge when we arrived and the seemingly endless drinking and cooking and eating would commence. I remember reciting poems and singing kindergarten songs on top of tables for these old drunkards, I’d be so happy when they all clapped after my “performances” and I look back remembering how proud my Tatay was of me as a kid.
After the Tagkawayan visit, we would go for another two hour trip to the pilgrimage City of Naga and visit the Virgin of Penafrancia in her Basilica, attending mass and praying to the mahal na ina*.
There is a back story to our family’s devotion to this particular incarnation of the Mother of God. As the story goes, by the time my mother was pregnant with me, they really wanted to have a baby girl after having two sons. With that wish in mind, they resolved to go on a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Penafrancia on her feast day (which is held every third week of September), promising the miraculous virgin that if she granted their wish, they will go on pilgrimage to her Basilica in Naga City every year for the rest of their lives. Well, I was born a week after that pilgrimage, on the 29th of September, and so I grew up going to the Virgin of Penafrancia every year to thank her for making me a girl.
I won’t get into a discussion of whether or not it was even right to make such a wish or if it were indeed a wish granted considering I was conceived a nine months prior to the pilgrimage so my sex was already decided long before they even thought of praying to the Virgin of Penafrancia. A lot of you would actually say why I should even thank anybody for making me a girl since being a woman in a conservative Catholic third world country was so hard. Since being the youngest and only girl in the family made me the most powerless member of the group. But being a woman deserves an altogether different post, and this story isn’t about logic or reason or correct decisions – it’s about my family’s idiosyncratic traditions and myths and this is the most compelling one of all.
Anyway, to get back to my story, because of the wish that came true, our family visited the Lady of Penafrancia every year. But really, I think that deep down, my Tatay not being very religious to begin with (this was after all a former activist who lived in Moscow at the height of the cold war to study and be among “real” Marxist Leninists), probably thought it was a poetic way of giving reason to his need to go home and touch base with his roots. My mother, on the other hand, is a deeply Catholic woman and she took this pilgrimage seriously, even saying later on that missed years were bound to be a source of bad luck for the family.
Despite how dysfunctional our family was, my childhood was shaped by these yearly visits home.
I mean we were as bad as the worst of them (alcoholic intellectual husband, poorly educated conservative Catholic wife, with a fractured and combative extended family that added to the stress of it all), but these trips home served as a way for us to consolidate. My parents may be fighting each other for the rest of the year, but on these trips they were both on their best behavior and we were happy, if only for a few days every September.
As the years passed, as we grew up and went to college and later on started our own separate lives, the trips happened less and less and there were years when my Tatay and Nanay took them alone, there were years when there were no trips home at all. This seems to be a sad fact for all families, traditions let go and family members growing apart. But when I started my own family, the concept of family traditions started to resonate with me once more, and I wanted to share my own childhood experiences with my husband and son. When I moved back home and took care of my parents, that’s when we resumed the trips to Tagkawayan and Naga City.
Our last trip with Tatay happened on October of 2009. He was already diagnosed with liver cancer by then and it was a bittersweet event because we all knew it was to be his last trip home. I remember on the morning we left Tagkawayan en route to Naga City, he had us stop in front of the old railroad station. He got out of the car and looked at the station with the word “Tagkawayan” written in stone, it was a few minutes before he decided to finally leave, saying wistfully, “I will never see this place again.”
When we arrived at Naga that same day, Tatay was quiet and sad. He kept to their hotel room and didn’t say much. We all understood the mood he was in and left him alone. When we went to the Basilica that night for the mass and the visit to the mahal na ina, he walked around the church, not saying much but looking intently at everything, as if memorizing the place.
We were all silent on the long ten hour ride home the next day. A few months later tatay died and although I promised to visit Tagkawayan and Naga soon after he died, I never got around to doing it. It took lupus and me contemplating my own mortality for us to finally decide to make the trip back home.
It has been four years since that last trip, and almost four years since Tatay died. We went there a couple of weeks ago with my husband, Ruel, driving my brother’s cramped SUV , our two boys in tow, the yaya* Ambal, mom’s manager Jackie and my husband’s assistant, Erwin joining us on that long, winding and bumpy trip to my Tatay’s hometown.
I wasn’t really prepared for this trip but the surprises along the way were all pleasant and the places where we stayed were picturesque and offered a different experience every time. Our first stop was at a beach resort in Tagkawayan called the Villa Aseea (where we saw a giant sea turtle!), we then stayed at a bed and breakfast called the Fishcove Garden Resort and our last night was spent in the luxurious Avenue Plaza Hotel in Naga.
When I uploaded our pictures in facebook, a friend wrote me that he felt the serenity in those pictures and it was true, if there was one thing that described our return — my own return to my family’s tradition — it was that it was a serene and blessed homecoming.
We went to mass at the Basilica to pray to the mahal na ina and we were very lucky to be able to join the procession around the church grounds after the mass. What really amazed me though, was that after the procession, there was also a healing ceremony called the laying of the mantle that was about to take place. This ceremony has the parish priest, nuns and ministers laying the miraculous mantle of the Virgin of Penafrancia to her devotees as they knelt in front of the church’s altar. It was a wondrous and poetic ceremony.
As we lined up, I had tears in my eyes, thinking how fortuitous that I came here after so many years, with an incurable disease, and I had the dumb luck to join and witness such a ceremony. To be filled with all the positive energy and love of that healing ceremony was enough to make any sick person feel better. You need not be a believer to feel good and happy about a ceremony that showed such compassion and kindness.
After that ceremony I felt peaceful. I was grateful to the universe for everything, all the good and the bad and all that was to come. For once after so many months, I lost — even if during just that moment– that nagging sense of dread and fear for what is to come. I had only this conviction that everything will be all right.
The rest of the trip was spent in a typical manner — swimming at a hotel pool, shopping at the market for souvenirs, eating out to taste the local delicacies. We drove back happy and energized, listening to our favorite music on the radio and taking whimsical stops at scenic parts of the road, we bought a lot of fresh (and cheap!) seafood at a market on the way home and ate a hearty lunch at a roadside carinderia facing the pacific ocean.
It was perfect. Just the way I remember every trip home.
* Batangueño- someone who hails from the province of Batangas, Philippines
*Nanay – Filipino/tagalog word for mother
*Tatay – Filipino/tagalong word for father
*Kuya – older brother
* mahal na ina – meaning “beloved mother”
*Yaya – nanny
* carinderia – ubiquitous local Filipino eatery serving rice and viands.