My mother was up early that Sunday morning cooking food for 30 people. She had celebrated her birthday a few days earlier, so the pastor of the small church she and my father were attending called in a request for her to cook lunch for the post-service fellowship. Apparently, that was the pastor’s idea of a birthday gift—a strange one--but mother did not seem to mind.
When I woke up, she was well into cooking the first of two viands on her menu, giniling, or ground pork, potatoes, carrots, and raisins stewed in a proudly Filipino combination of 1 part tomato sauce, 10 parts ketchup. The pot was already simmering and the sauce was beginning to thicken as I made my way downstairs, still sleepy but determined to offer my mother some help.
I had been strangely anxious about her latest project. For some unexplained reason, I did not feel that my mother was up to the task. Two nights before, I had badgered her about the lack of a menu. I could see in her eyes that she wasn’t bothered by it, and that alarmed me. Cooking for 30 potentially judgmental Baptists wasn’t adding a wrinkle to her remarkably smooth 50-something face. She assured me that she already had a simple menu planned: giniling, which she was going to cook, and chicken lollipops, ordered from her caterer friend.
The fact that she was going to cook only one viand eased my discomfort somewhat. Until the next day when she announced that her friend was out of town. It meant my mother was going to have to wing the chicken wings.
That was why I was up earlier than usual that morning, ready to be the wind beneath her wings. But my mother was already flying high all by herself. She had everything under control; there was no need for wind. The robust, meaty smell that greeted my nose as I went into the kitchen told me the giniling was going to be a hit. The chicken wings were already breaded and waiting for the oil to heat, and the rice was already cooked white and fluffy. All I had to do was make the sawsawan (dipping sauce) for the chicken, which I did with much gladness and no small amount of relief.
An hour later, the wings were fried and arranged on a large serving dish. There was even an extra plateful. My mother had cooked as if a great famine was going to sweep across the land. She had pulled through. Without breaking into much of a sweat, she was able to cook enough food for 30 Baptists, with something extra for her family.
So instead of helping my mother, what I did was become a kid again, sitting in the kitchen, greasing up my mouth and fingers with my mom’s crispy, crunchy chicken lollipops. All the while, I gushed to my sister about what a culinary genius our mom was. “She didn’t need my help,” I crowed. “She did it all by herself.” I sounded not unlike mothers who are seeing their babies walk unaided for the first time.
Later, I would find out from my father that the Baptists also loved the food. All judgments were positive, all comments glowing.
As I sat at the table, licking my chicken-flavored fingers, chicken bones littering the space in front of me, I wondered why I ever doubted my mother’s skill and panache. It’s not like cooking for 30 Baptists was the hardest thing she ever did in her life. Yet, somehow, I had forgotten the various feats of parenting she had performed to raise three willful, independent, slightly smart and, therefore, considerably condescending daughters. This was my mother who, among other things, taught us the difference between the “p” and the “f” sounds (a difficulty for many Filipinos), cooked the best chicken macaroni sopas, and even made ham and tocino (candied pork) herself instead of buying them at the market.
When I was younger, such doubts would never have entered my mind. My heart would have told my mind to believe and my mind would have done so. But I am not as young as I used to be. I carry inside me almost three decades’ worth of questions and the illusion that at least some of these have answers. The thing with asking questions, though, is that it requires an admission of the temporality of suppositions. What we believe today flies in the face of what we held true yesterday. Certainty is a ship with holes trying, nevertheless, to stay afloat in a sea of ambiguity.
It is not that I know more than I did when I was younger. It is that I doubt more and, therefore, believe less. In the case of my mother, it had been a long time since I took her word without checking with other sources. Like all children, I started out believing firmly that there wasn’t much she couldn’t do. Not that I thought she was perfect, but I never thought she was imperfect. Her imperfections existed, yes, but they did so outside of my mind and, therefore, they never crossed it. The end result was the same: my mother, as with all mothers, might as well have been perfect. Her word always seemed final.
But like all children, I got older and started to grow my own mind. The illusion of maternal perfection gradually dissolved to reveal my mother as just another flawed human like myself, and her word as just another hypothesis to be tested.
There are times when I wonder how it must be like to be a mother. (I am not one, and I probably won’t be for a while.) What I imagine is that motherhood is an exercise in heartbreak. Human development proceeds from a state of relative ignorance and innocence to one of (at least, ostensible) knowledge and awareness. It is the gradual replacement of wonder with unbelief, awe with indifference. The heart thrives on people’s ability to be pleased. We begin our lives with this ability but we lose it steadily as we learn more, know more. Knowledge is power, the power to be fastidious. And the fastidious mind breaks hearts.
To be a mother, then, is to be the object of opinions that are bound to change. The evolution of Mother, from the child’s changing perspective, is from one who can do no wrong to one who can do no right. From supreme repository of all worldly knowledge to hack who knows nothing about Me and the Stuff I Am Going Through. Motherhood, I realize, is an inevitable fall from grace.
And yet, watching my mother work her culinary magic that Sunday, I also realize that evolution does not preclude reverting to earlier ways of seeing and believing—at least for a while. Maybe magic exists outside of the natural imperative to grow up and to mature. Maybe the fastidious mind can still open itself up a little—and be pleased, after all.
That Sunday morning, I saw my mother again through younger, easily pleased eyes. That Sunday morning, my mom could do no wrong. She did everything crispy, crunchy perfect. Just like she used to, when I believed more and doubted less, when my knowledge of her was still pure, untainted by my knowledge of anything else.
(Published in the Youngblood Column of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 12 May 2007 issue, with the title "Perfect Mom".)