Lola Ging and the Crispa Redmanizers

by Nikki Alfar

During the basketball season when I was young, Lola Ging would ritually invoke divine intervention on behalf of the Crispa Redmanizers. This was a lengthy process which required an assemblage of certain arcane paraphernalia: her hand-high stack of well-thumbed Spanish novena pamphlets, the current favored rosary out of her vast international collection, and two identical used butter cookie tins, one of which was improbably always brim-full with ivory-colored watermelon seeds for mid-game mastication, and the other of which was used as a receptacle for discarded seed shells. She was a masterful multi-tasker, and could watch TV in rapt concentration without once stumbling in her muttered devotions or reaching by mistake into the wrong cookie tin.

On those PBA game nights, she would ensconce herself—seeds and all—on the living room sofa in front of the television, while I read or did homework or otherwise occupied myself at her feet. I was in grade school then, which meant that my homework did not require the same soul-devouring intensity that my high school-aged brothers were obliged to focus on their own assignments, under the watchful eyes of our suspicious parents.

Instead, I was left in the ostensible care of Lola Ging—but even she could only divide her attention in so many ways among so many tasks. More often than not, I found myself with ample time and opportunity to take otherwise unconscionable liberties, such as eating powdered milk straight out of the Klim can, with a spoon and the untrammeled glee of having successfully achieved the forbidden. (In our house, it was generally agreed that cookies came in ‘tins’, whereas all powdered substances, from milk to Tang, were in ‘cans’. Don’t ask me why.)

I was always careful to be very quiet when thus flagrantly flouting the laws of our land, though the reality was that I could probably have gotten away with a great deal more. Lola’s eyes would be glued to the televised hardcourt—her ears, presumably, were heeding the sonorous tones of the announcer while simultaneously engaged in spirited dialogue with God. As far as I could tell, their conversations were conducted in a polyglot admixture of English, Ibanag, a smattering of her faulty Tagalog, and robust Spanish cursing. “Diablo, diablo, diablo!” Lola would cry out suddenly, startling me; and for years I remained convinced that this Spanish word for ‘devil’ literally meant ‘Look, Lord, the ball has been stolen!’ since that was generally what was occurring onscreen at these times.

Lola maintained that her intermediary intercession was invariably efficacious, despite the fact that the Redmanizers seemed to lose nearly as frequently as they won. She explained this to me once (after I had applied my brilliant strategy of standing on two phone books—both Yellow and White Pages—to replace the incriminating can of Klim on its just-out-of-reach shelf). “They win because of the power of prayer,” Lola said—she had once been a Spanish teacher at a convent school, and retained a certain style of elocution. “But sometimes they lose, because they are stupid.”

“If they’re so stupid,” I asked in my most smart-alecky manner, “then how come Crispa is still your favorite?”

Lola looked at me, as if my pre-teen I.Q. had precipitously plummeted down to the calumnied Redmanizer levels. “They are my team,” she said.

#

She was not actually my grandmother—rather, she was a distant cousin of my mother’s late mother, and had come to help my parents out when Mom had unexpectedly given birth to twins, resulting in a household graced or cursed with no less than four rambunctious boys under the age of five. The principal of the school in which Lola then worked had strenuously objected to her abrupt midterm departure, but my mother was her favorite not-quite-niece, and Lola Ging would not be dissuaded. She had not been particularly concerned over the administrator’s ‘You’ll-never-work-in-this-town-again’ wrath, since she and her sister had inherited a flourishing tobacco plantation in their home province, and could thus actually live in perfect comfort without pulling in a salary. (Which Lola Den-den did, unless you counted running mah jong games out of her lanai six nights a week.)

Not long after the twins’ surprising birth, however, some uncouth rebel soldiers (her description, not mine) expanded their territory to quite impolitely include Lola Ging’s ancestral lands. Abruptly bereft of both home and income, Lola nevertheless offered to move in with her sister, once acceptable yayas had been secured for all the boys, but of course my parents would not hear of it. So by the time I was conceived (once again surprising my over-amorous parents, but utterly delighting Lola: “We will have a full team!” she cried), she had firmly established herself as the family authority on all matters spiritual, logistical, and nutritional.

When the five of us kids had exams at school, we were forbidden to eat eggs in any form, as the Holy Spirit had pointed out to her that the oval shape of eggs, when taken into our bodies, would naturally result in a test score of zero across the board. She tyrannically decreed that our beds were never to be arranged pointing toward our bedroom doors, since this would provide a clear path that was certain to be followed by the insatiable Angel of Death, who apparently would have liked nothing better than to populate paradise with the pure souls of more-or-less innocent children. And she sternly compelled me to eat every last spoonful of rice on my plate, as neglecting a single grain would be a sinful excess that might just induce God to punish me by forcing me to endure my next life as a chicken—pathetically scratching at the ground for any stray bit of rice thoughtlessly discarded by wastrel girls like me.

That reincarnation was hardly a tenet of Roman Catholic doctrine bothered neither Lola nor me one iota. She was convinced that her peculiar blend of folk remedies, superstitious dread, and pseudo-Christian dogma was precisely what the Lord Jesus had intended when He set His omnipotent hand upon Saint Peter and declared him the rock of His Church. “We are Christ’s followers,” she often said. “He can walk on water just to show off; why should we not also exercise faith to make our lives better?”

Although my own blind faith in Lola’s inviolability lessened predictably over the years, I was still willing to afford her the benefit of the doubt throughout my adolescence, given the implausible yet overwhelming wealth of repeatedly-occurring supporting evidence.

#

When my eldest brother Tony turned eighteen at last and claimed his driver’s license at the earliest possible opportunity, Lola insisted that his first trip should be to the grocery store, where she claimed that she had to pick up several inestimably crucial household items. This in itself was highly unusual, as Lola Ging usually went to the grocery only on the first of each month, commandeering a veritable fleet of household helpers in order to amass the preferred foods, supplies, and cleaning materials needed to sustain a home of eight family members and sundry. On this occasion, in contrast, not only did she unaccountably run out of Tide detergent in the very middle of the month, she averred that she required no assistance whatsoever to pick up the multitude of things that were so sorely needed from Makati Supermarket (which was then located, appropriately enough, in Makati).

Regardless of Lola’s uncharacteristic behavior, Tony was so exhilarated at the chance to demonstrate his new skill and privilege that he instantly agreed; indeed, he drove several times around the block instead of simply parking to wait for Lola to emerge from the store, with the predictable assortment of bags and bag boys. The pair of them had traveled nearly three-quarters of the way back home when, quite without fanfare, orange-yellow flames erupted from underneath the hood of our once-trusty family station wagon.

With admirable speed and presence of mind, Tony immediately stepped on the brakes, shouted, “Lola, get out of the car!”, and ran for his barely-begun life—only to turn around, several meters away, and discover that Lola Ging was still seated placidly in the passenger’s seat, rolling her most recently-acquired rosary between her fingers with maddeningly methodical calm. Gathering all his resolve, courage, and sense of familial love and duty, Tony gritted his teeth and turned back, with the intent of dragging our recalcitrant grand-aunt out of the potentially-explosive vehicle.

As soon had he taken hold of her obstinate arm, however, the offending hood of the inflammable car promptly blew off and catapulted through the air, landing with an ominous thump in the precise spot where Tony had been standing just seconds prior, thinking himself out of harm’s way. “Lola!” Tony scolded her later, still exasperated, although neither of them had been so much as scratched. “Why didn’t you get out when I told you? You could have been killed!”

“I knew that God would watch over me,” Lola told him. “So I stayed still to remind Him to take care of you also, because it is sin verguenza to address the Lord while running about like a chicken.”

She really didn’t think much of chickens.

#

My second-eldest brother Gene was the wild one in the family. In fact, he had taught himself to drive at the age of twelve, and only we kids and Lola Ging knew that he would sometimes switch seats with the family driver and drive us all home at the end of school days. By the time he was in his senior year of high school, he drank, smoked, habitually cut classes, and had so many girlfriends at the same time that the inner door of his closet was covered with graffiti charts of whom he had dated, how frequently, and whether or not he had already professed to love them.

It was therefore a great surprise to everyone when Gene suddenly opted to take college at the Philippine Military Academy, voluntarily shaving his head, donning the PMA uniform, and subjecting himself to the myriad hardships of cadet life in the far-off Baguio campus.

“Excuse me, Cadet,” Lola Ging said, tapping the shoulder of a random sunburned, emaciated, and bald young man in uniform when we were finally permitted to visit. “I am looking for Cadet Eugene Arambulo.”

“Lola, it’s me,” said Gene, smiling with mingled amusement and fondness.

Dios por dios, Eugene, what has happened to you?!” Lola cried out in horror, and proceeded to stuff him with fattening lugaw the instant she managed to get a moment with him in private.

We were all surprised still further when Gene simply disappeared from campus toward the end of his freshman year. Even Lola was mystified as to his whereabouts—although, unlike my panic-stricken mother, she was certain that Gene was fine and simply up to no good, as usual. “Once a rascal, always a rascal,” she pronounced; and took one of his old t-shirts, lit it with a votive candle purloined from our parish church, and proceeded to burn it in our bedroom.

Our shared bedroom was truly an outlandish place of worship—festooned with posters of floppy-haired, come-hither teen idols on one side, and dominated by a massive altar overpopulated with saints, dried everlasting flowers, and dewy-eyed Santo Niños on the other. On the best of days, it was not the most spacious of chambers; and on that evening I awoke from sleep on the verge of imminent asphyxiation from smoke inhalation. Teary-eyed, I stumbled across the room to throw the door open, and accidentally bumped my hip against my little bookshelf, knocking one of my old school yearbooks to the floor.

The book fell open—by what certainly seemed like sheer happenstance—to my brother Gene’s sophomore class photo; and Lola peered at the book through the smoke, nodded sagely, and said with a sniff, “For once, at least, he has gone to the library of his own choosing.” And it turned out that he had in fact been hiding in the ceiling of the PMA library, living on packets of crackers and Cow Label dried beef until he had judged that the search for him had died down enough to allow him to truly effect his escape. (“I guess I’m just not the military type after all,” Gene decided later. For a change, he was the only one surprised by this revelation.)

#

Like Tony, the twins, too, were victims of a vehicular mishap. They had decided to conduct a pulse-pounding bicycle race across the flat roof of our house (“And when did you acquire the delusion that you were circus performers?!” my mother demanded of them) and ended up pedaling their way to the emergency room at Makati Medical Center. Charlie had broken his good right arm, and Manny, his left leg. These had snapped in such an alarmingly innovative way that the doctors warned my apoplectic parents that the boys might never recover the full use of their afflicted limbs.

“Good, it serves you right!” our mother yelled at them, and promptly burst into disconsolate tears.

Lola Ging, of course, did not weep, but instead set to work the following Monday, once my parents had left the house for their respective workplaces. She summoned the helpers to fetch the twisted remains of my brothers’ traitorous conveyances, from which she scraped the dirt on the tires, picked up from the surface of our all-too-slippery rooftop. This she blended with holy water that she had sent me to wheedle out of our befuddled but obliging neighborhood priest, creating a muddy concoction that she then smeared on the twins’ casts (over much protest from them, in stereo) and her own aging but sturdy limbs. Since the culpable dirt was now blessed, she explained, she would compel it to perform atonement by transferring some of the health from her arms and legs to those of the twins.

After many weeks of this sacred spa treatment (coupled with a cleansing ritual involving a solution of mundane water and bleach, just before my parents came home each day), Charlie and Manny recovered completely from their respective injuries, neither significantly worse for wear. But I was not the only one who noticed that, on rainy days thereafter, Lola would sometimes walk with a barely-perceptible limp, and gingerly flex her right arm when she thought no one was looking. She attributed this behavior to increasing age and worsening arthritis, whenever the subject was broached.

Lola Ging was indeed getting older. She had taken to dyeing her hair a light-absorbing shade of absolute black, and I suspected that she would always be indignantly disappointed that the Crispa Redmanizers had ceased to exist as a leading team—whereas their longtime bitter rivals, Toyota, had risen phoenix-like from the ashes of their own temporary disbanding.

#

As for me, never quite as intrepid or consequently accident-prone as my siblings, Lola helped me in a quite different way. I was getting older, too—at fifteen, my adolescent angst manifested in a vague but urgent sense of desperation for a boyfriend or at least some semblance of a notion of what I was going to do with the rest of my life. So Lola Ging taught me to cook—her way, broiling meat and baking pastry with the fire of multi-purpose pagan/shaman/Christian religious conviction.

“Lola,” I said to her, dragged unwillingly into the kitchen after a lifetime of being unable to so much as fry bacon, “this is the twentieth century, you know. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then he’s not the man for me.”

“To make perfect palitaw the way your mommy likes it,” she dictated, blithely ignoring me, “you must sink the pieces in boiling water for no longer than one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be. Then they will float to the surface, and you can take them out to roll in sugar and coconut. Then you are finished, and your soul is saved from Purgatory at the same time.”

I remember staring perplexedly at the stove, trying to determine how to convert this culinary catechism to the seconds or minutes commonly used by the other 98% of the global population. Ancient or not, Lola Ging could have been the world champion at Rapid Rosary Recitation, if they ever held the Olympics at the Vatican. It was almost dizzying, listening to her intone the mysteries at velocities approaching Mach 1: “Hail-Mary-fool-of-grace-the-Lord-is-weeth-you-blessed-are-you-among-weemen-and-blessed-is-the-fruit-of-your-womb-Jeessous…”

I was more than old enough by then to wonder if the Blessed Virgin—who was not, as it turned out, a god herself and therefore not omniscient—could possibly understand what Lola was saying. Certainly there were times when I had trouble myself; it had only been during my confirmation ceremony a few years earlier that I had learned that the Act of Contrition did not, in fact, go: “Oh, my God, I am partly sorry for having offended thee” or “Oh my God, I am hardly sorry for having offended thee.” This resolved a rather troubling issue for me, as I had always considered it rather a disrespectful way to petition my Creator for forgiveness.

But I could not argue that Lola Ging certainly had more experience with such matters than I did, nor with the fact that she had evidently discerned and effectively alleviated my then-growing confusion as to the eventual direction of my life. It was over the course of our curiously Catholic cooking sessions that I discovered, with some astonishment, that I wanted to become a chef. That was how my own personal, rather sedate road to Damascus ended up leading me to London after high school, studying at Le Cordon Bleu to pursue my divinely-revealed dream.

And that was why I wasn’t there, when Lola Ging died peacefully in her sleep in our once-shared bedroom, at the admittedly ripe age of ninety-four years and seven months old.

#

When I returned to Manila for the funeral, I had not shed a single tear. I was elected to speak her eulogy, because no one else in the family trusted themselves not to break down crying, and I was the one who remembered to break the rosary made of dried, condensed flower petals that we had placed in her hands in the coffin. (She had done this herself for Lola Den-den the decade before, roundly scolding the funeral director for attempting to condemn her sister to roam the earth in an endless cycle of mysteries.) Seeing that my mother was still in no condition to tend to practical matters, I efficiently volunteered to be the one to pack Lola’s things away, after the requisite forty days of mourning had passed.

While I had been gone, it seemed that my half of our former bedroom had been engulfed by a riotous melee of stacked antique newspapers (‘Redmanizers win championship!’), crumbling braided palms from a dozen Palm Sundays past, and tin upon tin emblazoned with the label of a long-defunct butter cookie company. I remembered my childhood amazement at always seeing these tins full of watermelon seeds—regardless of how many Lola Ging had already consumed at any given point in time—and decided to open one of them, before storing the lot in one of my pre-assembled balikbayan boxes.

The lid stuck initially, then burst open, when I employed the twisting technique I had learned at cooking school for handling recalcitrant containers—and all of a sudden the room was filled with what seemed to be millions of floating, empty watermelon seed shells. They lingered in the air for far longer than the laws of gravity could conceivably permit, and I found myself standing amid a strangely slow, ivory-colored rain, as I laughed and shook and cried at last, perhaps learning my final lesson from the multi-tasking maestra of my youth.

Like any good coach, she had known when to take charge, and when to leave the floor and simply have faith in her charges.

As for the seed shells, they eventually did drift gently down to my head, my shoulders, and the parquet floor—light as a whispered prayer, as grated coconut flung up toward the sky, as powdered milk out of an illicit can of Klim, from a high shelf somewhere just out of reach.

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