In my memories of sitting in her kitchen, food was the spice and stories, the staple.
She was daughter, sister, wife and mother in an age that had the expectations of and prescriptions for women traced and ready for applying to every woman, no matter what was in her mind and heart, like the cut-out clothes I used to punch out for paper dolls.
She was the last of the siblings that included my maternal grandfather. While watching her debone for chicken à la King or turning inside out a pork hock only to stuff it again and sew it close like a sock for contui, I itched silently with impatience, wondering why we could not just eat without the tedious deconstruction.
Painstaking meals prepared daily was Tita’s overture to telling stories. While cooking, she pulled out and consulted notebooks where she wrote down recipes, jotting on the flour-sprinkled, soy-spotted margins improvisations and tweaked measurements.
The stories, though, were all in her head. Knitting stories invokes the power to animate. She breathed life and soul — “anima” — to relatives I barely remembered except as family ghosts.
The great grandmother whose amputated leg I heard echoing in every creak of the ancestral house was, in Tita’s retelling, a young girl who witnessed her mother give away the land upon the prodding of her sons, who then treated her as a maid to serve their every caprice. The memory drove my great grandmother to be sparing in showering material gifts on her own children.
A family’s personal stories are stitches seeded on the broad canvas of history. Women as actors and narrators of their fate are often embellishments, decorative while being invisible.
Tita’s stories first made me draw nearer to the canvas to examine the elision of lives glimpsed as a small hand placed tentatively from the back on a starched masculine shoulder in a studio portrait.
What are stories if not illuminations and magnifications? In February 1986, I was about to start lunch with Tita and Tito when I absentmindedly refused an offer of Coke. I participated in the nationwide boycott of businesses owned by cronies of Ferdinand Marcos, following the disputed snap presidential election.
Tito, who worked with the company bottling Coke, was silent but Tita was furious. From what seemed to be a far shore, I heard her speak for employees and families suffering from the boycott. Issues split us, her voice buffeted but holding, a tenuous line above the tumult.
Recently, in the online requiem mass, I looked past the white coffin and saw Juanita Solon Villarosa in her kitchen, meat thawed, condiments ready, memory casting for a story. I’m listening, Tita Niting.