Nostalgia that is Christmas – bringing ourselves closer to our parents and home

(SunStar file photo)
(SunStar file photo)

By Nimrod L. Delante

It’s my first evening of my arrival in my hometown in Bool, Culaba, Biliran. I could not resist that aromatic smoke from the burning coconut husk and sawdust penetrating my olfactory nerves. I watch my mother blaze those coconut husks and sawdust using matchsticks, along with dried acacia wood and charcoal made from coconut shells. She fulfills her promise of cooking my favorite ginataang langka with dried bolinao, all the necessary sibuyas, luya and bawang from her vegetable garden, and young leaves of kalabasa and ampalaya.

She is squatting in our outdoor kitchen using her decades-long kaldero placed carefully on top of her kalan (three rounded stones facing each other). She is blowing the ashes from the kaldero’s cover while she sprinkles the rest of her exquisite abuhan with water. She wears her favorite traditional hat made from tikog while her favorite Christmas song is blasting over an old radio she received as a gift from her deceased aunt. She looks as if she is going to war with her kitchen as the battlefield. Too many plates, some old ceramic, some plastic. Ladles, pans, pots and woks are scattered everywhere mostly hanging freely on the bamboo beams below the roof together with her dried acacia wood. Her glasses, bowls and plates are compressed inside a small china cabinet.

I hear the chirping of the crickets and the clicking of the bats in the background while I listen to the crackling sound of fire which soothes my senses. The glow of fire illuminates the dark corners of our farm. But nothing beats her melodious hums to the song of Jose Marie Chan while she is briskly stirring the slices of young jackfruit creating a delectable broth inside that huge boiling kaldero with just the right amount of water, salt and coconut milk. I could not stop my taste buds from erupting because the fragrant aroma of ginataang langka gently cooked in firewood is truly irresistible. “It’s Christmas all over the world tonight,” belts out a singer over the radio while my mother, father and I are savoring our sumptuous dinner. “Indeed, it’s Christmas once again,” I whispered.

Dinner is over. I volunteered to wash the dishes while my father unboxes the Christmas tree I bought from Robinsons mall in Tacloban. In a dim corner of our tree house, I salvaged some time prudently observing my parents. I realized how they have aged in time. The once youthful look has been replaced by darkened, wrinkled skin. The once thick and black hair has now turned thin and grey. The once straight and commanding posture now looks bent and delicate. My once agile and hardworking parents have become slow and weak. Without their notice, I would steal time to observe them carefully at a distance even in their afternoon naps – from the strands of their hair to the shapes of their eyes, nose, ears and mouth, to the way they sit and the way they walk and talk. And I would wait for their vociferous laughs and cacophonous banters to explode, along with their thundering yells whose echoes reverberate the mountains of Biliran. “God, my parents are old and frail” I murmured to myself. Fear envelopes my senses. Pain escorts the rhythm of my heartbeat.

My father has somehow managed to follow the manual of installing the Christmas tree in our tree house. He unfolds the metal base, attaches the four sections of the Christmas tree, fluffs the branches for them to spread widely, and wraps the blinking lights around the tree. “It’s Christmas! Look!” he tells Jacob, our pet dog, who is wagging his tail and licking my father’s arms as a gesture of excitement and joy. Despite such a happy moment, I could not stop worrying. Despite the lightness of the evening, I could not stop recognizing the heavy weight of fear inside me. Relishing the silence of the evening made brighter by the moonlight, the idea of nostalgia struck a chord in my brain. In that very space and place, I feel like I have traveled back in time to capture those distant memories we shared in our small nipa hut enjoying the simplicity of life despite utter poverty. Every Christmas when I’m back home, I feel like time is ticking backwards. Why does Christmas invigorate this feeling of nostalgia? And why are we so drawn to engulf ourselves in the distant past while the rest of us are irrefutably carefree with the tides of time?

Clay Routledge (2016) and Thomas Dodman (2023) argue that this intense yearning for the remote past has a scientific explanation, and this explanation has evolved with the passage of time. In 1688, in Basel northwest of Switzerland, a young medical student somehow bumped into this emotional affliction when he was examining farmers who were sick. He diagnosed this emotional affliction as a dangerous disease, therefore, any sound, symbol or ritual that triggered an enormous fervor for the past was prohibited among farmers in Switzerland. In the same era, a neologism of this deep yearning for the homeland emerged through the work of Johannes Hofer who coined nostalgia from the Greek word nostos (homecoming) and algos (longing or pain) (Routledge, 2016). With the rapid development of technology and travel, migration became widespread and those people who were separated from their native land were viewed as highly vulnerable to nostalgia. Such feeling of general unease and worry had been exacerbated by dramatic historical events in the past centuries, i.e., political turmoil, religious strife, and wars (Dodman, 2023). We had experienced this once again in early 2000s when we witnessed the uncertainties of postmodernism, global economic downturns, and the looming prospects of environmental collapse evidenced by global warming (Dodman, 2023). As a multifaceted and vacillating emotion, nostalgia came back strong during COVID-19 pandemic when we watched how fragile life and the world is with a deadly virus. Panic and fear perforated every single household around the world.

But in the middle of the last century until today, the meaning of nostalgia has remarkably changed. To many, nostalgia is perceived to be a poignant and pleasant experience such that a simple local delicacy that we have not tasted for a long time can jolt us into a cascade of vivid images and warm and powerful sensory associations back to our past (Routledge, 2016) giving us an uncanny lightness of being. Nostalgia can be a comforting longing for a lost time (Dodman, 2023). While we allow ourselves to reminisce meaningful and rewarding experiences, we can also manage this sudden surge of sadness and melancholy (Routledge, 2016). Indeed, nostalgia is a double-edged sword (K. G. Jie En, personal communication, October 2023); it brings back pain, but it is also a restorative way of coping with our lost time, and those distant memories we strongly hold on to can be made more sentient in our mental landscape that boosts our emotional well-being and our motivation to face the uncertain future (Routledge, 2016).

Having worked in Singapore for almost 15 years now, I continue to straddle between the Filipino diaspora to chase my dreams and this intention of staying for good in the Philippines because of my ageing parents. I have lost so much time interacting with them back home. I have lost so much time knowing their whereabouts, talking to them about many good things possible, and capturing their whims and caprices. During times of crisis, anxiety swiftly troubles my mind. Will they be okay? Will they be able to manage their health and other personal crisis? What if something goes horribly wrong?

“Intoy, what’s the matter? You’ve been silent for quite a while glaring at that blank space,” said my mother. She just finished preparing my bed in the treehouse. I see my favorite mosquito net hovering above my bed with each end tied to a bamboo wall. How I miss sleeping on a handwoven banig from Basey, Samar with a freshly ironed blanket soaked and dried with almirol. My mother’s front tooth is gone, and her arms and cheeks are drooping. She has also lost enormous weight. “You should make it a habit to wear a jacket in the evening, Nanay. You know how bad the cold weather is to your lungs,” I uttered as I thank her for always preparing my bed when I’m home. My father is lying calmly on his bamboo chair while watching the evening news. His wrinkled face is testament of his hard work as a fisherman and of how time has passed. He crosses and elevates his legs while watching TV. He deserves that respite from a long day of managing workers in harvesting the coconuts. His darkened skin is a testimony of how he braves the scorching sun almost every day just to ensure that our small business and the farm can thrive.

Right at that moment, watching both of them watching television, I realize how liminal and fluid nostalgia is. To me, nostalgia is this vivid rebirth of the distant past that we shared with our loved ones and this constant recreation of an image of an inevitable future. To me, nostalgia is a continuum for which we tread back and forth, yet we can also make that choice to just let the present moment unfold in our eyes, appreciate it, and live the now.

I am here with my parents, in our farm, in this very space and place right now. I am with them in the flesh. I can touch them. I can talk to them. I can ask questions. And I can tell them to keep telling me those stories that my sister and I used to hear when we were young. So, whether I am bothered by the forces of nostalgia, I can actually arrest those moments of now to do things that matter, things that have deep meaning and value to me and my existence, and things that are very simple yet memorable to us such as roasting our cacao seeds, grinding them using our ancient grinder, and making a luscious tablea to be shared in the morning with hot local pandesal cooked inside a huge circular clay pot in an open fire. Simple things such as roasting rice and grinding them into very fine granules ready for the making of a nilupak using our pestle and mortar especially crafted from narra wood. The fragrant aroma of nilupak is magnified by the delicate mixture of desiccated young coconut, brown sugar, and a spoonful of margarine.

My sentiments? We can strike a balance between how much past we can enliven and how much future we can foresee. It is like a helical dance; we move back, we move forward, and it doesn’t stop. Yet it is a choice we make. But right now, as we celebrate the Christmas season in our farm, I can only coax myself to enjoy the present moment, to use all my senses to look closely at my parents’ faces, to record earnestly their voices in my head, to spend time with them by the river or on the beach, to drive them around the island of Biliran to watch the sunset by the bay while sipping a locally grown coffee, and to have meaningful conversations with them about life and living. Right now, I can only seize the moment to thank them for giving me the chance to see this world, and to show them how much I love them through my little acts of kindness and devotion to filial piety.

Yes, nostalgia recurs at any moment, restoring my fears and pain, but I see the strength of the now that offers me tremendous opportunities to experience happiness and show gratitude of having parents who did not give up on me, on us. I can only confront the inexorable future when it comes.

Dodman, T. (2023). Nostalgia, and what it used to be. Current Opinion in Psychology, 49(2023). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2022.101536

Routledge, C. (2016, November). Why do we feel nostalgia? [Video] TED Talks. https://www.ted.com/talks/clay_routledge_why_do_we_feel_nostalgia

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