Papang did not cook. My father-in-law did. The husband does.
Papa Peking made “inun-unan (dish simmered in vinegar)” I can still taste: the fragrance of sauteed garlic and onion, the tartness of vinegar, the sly spice of ginger, softness of flesh after the scales peel away from the fish, and, overlaying all these, the sinfulness of pork lard, which he added as the finale, never measuring, just knowing by sight and smell how much to pour.
I grew up in a home that woke early to the breakfast smells of fried eggs, “buwad (dried fish),” and inun-unan, mingling with the aroma of Papang’s first cup of coffee, black as the night that still clung to the sky, leavened by a spoon of powdered milk, absentmindedly stirred while the sun suffused the dark and cold.
The staccato of Papang’s two-fingered typing on the heavy Army-issue Underwood typewriter punctuated many mornings when I resisted stirring from my mat. Inun-unan, conspiring with omelet curling at the fringe and “sinangag (stale rice toasted with garlic),” always won.
My father bought the typewriter for a song from a relative. I was in senior high school then, feeling superior that I was learning how to touch-type in class.
When I catch myself pounding away on the laptop keyboard, I hear that Underwood antique, silent now under its plastic cover, never to echo from my father typing exams for his medical students.
Papang and Papa Peking liked to share beer and stories. When Mama Margie talks about my late father-in-law, she often slips into the present tense and refers to him as “Mr. Tabada.” At first, I thought it quaint to refer to someone you were married to for more than four decades in such a schoolmarmish way.
The husband’s parents were public school teachers until they retired. Mama Margie still tears up remembering how she stroked a piece of cloth with longing in one of their outings in Colon. Papa coaxed her away by saying they had to stop for bread to bring home to the children.
“Breadwinner” is a many-layered word that hints of what fathers do for their families. The stories often describe what these men do, leaving unsaid the unlived and unfulfilled worlds they turn their gaze away from to stop by on the way home for bread.
When a friend commented how I refer to “the husband” in my writing, I joked that, thinking of my parents-in-law, I wanted to avoid mixing up the multiple “Mr. Tabada” in my life.
In truth, I smell Papang and Papa Peking when our home is redolent with the scents, flavors, and memories stirred up when the husband cooks inun-unan with “iba (bilimbi or tree sorrel)” and the secret ingredient of a father’s abiding love for family.