As the "Feast of the Dead" approaches, a sense of excitement filled the air. The people in my village were busy preparing for the feast. We just had a plentiful harvest and we must share it with our departed loved ones, who hold our place in the "other" side until we make that final journey.
The day before the feast, the younger people would have to tidy up the cemetery. The wooden crosses had to be straightened upright, faded, painted headstones had to be touched up, and the weeds needed to be pulled out. Dried leaves and twigs were placed in a pile to make into a bonfire. The whole surroundings must be swept with a broom to clear the spirits path who would be attending the feast. Some of the younger women had to plant flowers and herbs, and others needed to set up the altar on the round, flat rock in the cemetery which had been dedicated for this event. Pictures of the departed, fruits, flowers and candles were carefully placed around the altar while a big cross of Jesus Christ stood at the center.
Back in their kitchens, the women were busy baking "bibingka", "puto", and "suman". These were all made from rice into different kinds of cakes and sweets. They were the usual favorites of our loved ones. And, as everyone understood, "suman", which my mom usually volunteered to make, signified the union of the living people and the ones who had passed on before us. It was made of both black and white rice of equal proportion; black was sweet, symbolizing the departed, and white was somewhat salty, symbolizing the living. They would be combined and rolled in a sheet of steamed banana leaf to make into a roll. The mens task, on the other hand, was to pretaste their "tuba", a coconut wine, to see whose wine would be best to offer to the ancestors.
The long awaited evening finally came. Around the bonfire, we formed into a circle. An empty glass bowl was rung with a spoon three times. The rite had begun! Godfather Ulpiano, the "spirit caller" called out. Everyone felt tensed and apprehensive, but no one would dare say a word. Facing in each direction, starting from the north, he called out the names of the grandmothers and grandfathers, then west, the names of the mothers and fathers, then south, the names of the brothers and sisters, and east, the names of the daughters and sons. He invited their spirits to come and feast with us.
Repeatedly, we called their names, sung their names, clapped on their names, danced with their names, and finally, a sudden silence! We stood still. A rush of misty, cool wind was upon us, blowing out some of the candles on the altar. Godfather Ulpiano, with a torch in one hand, acknowledged their presence one by one. A cup of "tuba" was raised in the names of the present guests and then passed around, followed by the "suman" on a platter. The fun and laughter had now begun. This was our time, the younger ones.
A young man had picked up his guitar and started playing. A couple of young ladies started singing, then joined with the others in harmony. It was a "Harana", a serenade, to the departed. Stories and jokes about the beloved dead uncles and aunts were usually commented on by the spirits through Godfather Ulpiano. As the evening passed on, the elders spoke in riddles that the younger ones had to answer. We respected their wisdom! (We couldnt answer most of them.)
Meanwhile during this time, Aunt Apolonia, who lived in the next village, had her own tasks. She was frail, lived alone, and could not walk for far distances. On the evening of the feast, in the safety of her home, she prepared herself to be comfortable in her sleep. An oil lamp was lit above her head, a bowl of salted water below her feet, and tobacco smoke filled the room. She was ready. She was to deliver messages to the departed ones. Families of those who had questions and concerns were anxious. In our minds eye, during the ceremony in the cemetery, she was seen cut off from the waist down, looking like a bird, flying into the "other" world to meet our ancestors. My father had warned everyone never to touch her body in her "sleep time". She must come back to bring the messages we needed for healing. We must learn, through her, the names of the roots, flowers, and seeds, and the correct mixtures for certain illnesses, and warnings regarding challenging weather that could damage the crops for the next harvest were pertinent. All of these anxieties finally ended on the third day, when once again, she was seen working in her garden, picking up where she left off three days ago. Aunt Apolonia never spoke much of anything, or to anyone. Her counsel was sought by families who had nowhere else to go. Her task was respected by many, and feared by a few.