We are noisy, we cousins gathered around the long wooden table smack in the middle of the restaurant. Melissa leans over our shoulders to place multiple plates of fresh lumpia down in the center. We clamor over each other, elbows flying, to grab the freshly fried spring rolls between our fingers and dip them into the garlicky vinegar sauce. Stuffing them in our mouths is the only way to silence our voices. It is the first time we have gathered in months. There is too much to say.
In between gulps of kalamansi tea and cramming spoons of tasty pancit noodles into our faces we catch up on family matters.
“Cuz, how are you?”
“How are the kids?”
“Oh, this pancit is so good. Here, try the adobo.” The conversation moves around the table like the bowls of our traditional dishes passed from hand to hand.
Dish after dish Melissa sets down our favorite dishes at my niece’s restaurant in Beacon Hill in the center of Seattle’s international district. Decades ago this street housed a vibrant Filipino community. When the economy turned, so did the neighborhood. The deliberate decision to place this restaurant reflects Melissa’s heart to revive a thriving diverse community in the place she remembers combing as a little girl.
This gathering happens on a drive on the way back from the neighborhood streets of my own childhood, an hour south of this locale. I have just returned from visiting the red brick façade and colored glass windows of Saint Francis Cabrini church down the street from the house of my mother’s best friend.
Auntie Espie passed away last week. Her full name means hope. Esperanza.
During the mass, the priest recounted the milestones of Auntie Espie’s life. The first woman in her family to get a college education. The one who became a teacher, to educate and inspire. The one brave enough to leave her homeland of the Philippines to start a new life in America with her husband who earned a spot in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington. In this new land, she would continue to inspire young students and nurture her own family, the ones gathered on the front pew beside her casket draped with a white linen cloth. I saw the backs of their heads from my place on the pew. Her milestones echo the steps of my own mother, whose funeral was the last place I saw Auntie Espie’s daughters seated on the front row.
This gathering of aunties (everyone is your auntie in Filipino culture) and friends were the same ones who gathered around my family two years ago when mom died. A veil of tears blurred the same faithful faces that surrounded me in the same spot at the mausoleum wall.
Under umbrellas, rain, and teardrops we watched the seal placed around her crypt that happened to be right next to my mother’s. Through the tears, we hugged and laughed at the irony. “Our moms will be laughing and partying tonight,” we joked.
I placed flowers at my mother’s site and embraced the aunties and uncles that surrounded us after the memorial. The Gatbunton, Secretario, and the Bermudez families gathered in the rain were the ones that congregated at our dining room tables five decades ago with lumpia and pancit and steamy bowls of rice.
These dishes are the only part of my heritage my neighborhood friends have shared.
Next time they gather at my own table in the middle of my white suburban neighborhood clamoring over plates of fresh lumpia I want to ask:
Do you see me?
Do you see me beyond the plates of food that I offer?
Do you see the rest of me?
Do you hear the stories that pulse through my veins of survival and persistence and determination to make a better life for ourselves and for our children?
Do you see the flavors of my life?
Do you care that these flavors are the recipe of me?
You step into a Filipino or Chinese or Lebanese restaurant and are satisfied that you have experienced another culture.
“I love Filipino food,” you say.
But do you care about the flavors that flavor me?
“I don’t see color,” you tell me.
That’s like me saying that I don’t see the way your blond hair frames your lovely blue eyes, or hear the lilt in your southern voice, or envy the stature of your long ivory legs.
If you see me, you will see all of me.
My cousins, this time all of them, from all corners of the country, gather at the Filipino Lebanese wedding of my niece and her new husband. We welcome him into the family with a party as crazy and raucous and flavorful as it sounds. Plates of Filipino food line the bar. Crispy lumpia, tangy pancit noodles, and chicken adobo fill tapa-sized plates. We crowd together at the tables, inhaling food in our party clothes, and bringing up old stories of ten-year-old blond-streaked Ritchie and eight-year-old Victor’s first astonishment at snow on the ground when he arrived from the Philippines.
The music begins.
At once we leave the tables and tumble on the dance floor. The bride and groom are lifted onto the shoulders of various second-generation cousins. We circle around them, three generations of family and friends clap and dance in step with the Lebanese sounds that fill the air.
These unusual harmonies strike chords not familiar to my ear, a resonance unusual to me. I follow the lead of the beautiful Lebanese women linked arm in arm in a circle, gracefully stomping out the rhythm to the seven count beat in three-inch stilettos.
It is difficult for me to catch that last step, the click of the heels together on that last syncopated beat. The room is filled with dissonant notes and colors and orientations and rhythms and laughter and singing.
This. All this.
This is the definition of harmony.
One day peoples of all nations and tongues and colors will gather at the wedding of the bride, the church of Christ, and the lamb, Jesus, the savior. Multitudes of people will gather in his name, people of every tongue and nation. The sound of their praises will be notes of harmony and rhythms of heartbeats that float into the air with laughter and singing and joyful notes of song. These multitudes are leaves that sway on the branches of the restored tree of life. For the leaves on the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Cover image by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron.