In the old days when the karetela (horse drawn cart) could still be seen on the streets as another mode of transportation, pulot (molasses) could also be bought at the local hardware store across the street from us. The hardware store was originally called 3 Sisters, named because the owners had three daughters, then changed to Marikina Central Hardware. It was really more than just a hardware store, more like a general merchandise store where one could go for just about anything other than clothing. There were the requisite construction supplies of nails, nuts and bolts, electrical supplies, ropes and tools. On top of these the store as well sold many other things: it was a source for household cleaning materials like paste floor wax and bunot (coconut husks used to polish wood floor after a coating of wax is applied), scouring pads and brooms. I also remember native salakot (wide flat conical hats) and a cape made entirely of coconut fronds in layers that repelled rain quite effectively, vegetable seeds for planting and guano for fertilizing, and even guitar strings and picks.
The pulot was stored in great big metal drums with a spigot, and were located in the yard immediately east of the store. Our second floor apartment window was always a great spot to watch the comings and goings of the people below, and I spent many afternoon when I was much younger doing just that. The owners of the hardware store employed two elderly unmarried women: Aling Flora and Aling Manang. They worked as house help, but were also drafted to assist at the store when needed. Although probably of similar age, they were quite different from each other. Aling Manang was short and stout, and looked quite grandmotherly in her everyday baro at saya (native blouse and skirt) usually with an alampay (folded shawl) hanging off one shoulder.
Possibly because she was the more sprightly of the two, Aling Flora was usually the one who fetched the pulot for customers when needed. I would often see her from my vantage point, wearing her salakot in either rain or shine, toting a metal pail and filling it with the thick dark gooey liquid from the metal drums. Sometimes when the breeze is blowing the right way, I could smell the very pungently sweet aroma of the molasses, which is mixed with hay and used as horse feed by the karetela driver.
The sight of Aling Flora wearing that salakot was rather incongruous with what she looked like: she was very thin, and probably thinking she was quite the looker, always dressed, although never immodestly, in brightly coloured dusters a size too big for her: it seemed to be continually sliding off one shoulder. Both she and Aling Manang smoked beha, native cigarettes wrapped in dark tobacco leaf. For some bizarre reason, many old women who smoke them tend to put the lit end of the cigarette inside their mouths. How they all achieved this feat without blistering their tongues I never knew, but it must have been a practiced and precise balancing act on their part. Aling Flora also had the most shocking red lips and mouth from chewing nganga, betel nut. It was almost comical to see such bright red lips on someone so old, and it used to always scare me seeing her spew out on the ground bright red spit.
Both women stayed in the house a very long time, and were considered part of the family. Whatever happened to them I cannot recall now. One thing that always stuck in my mind was that everyone used to tease me saying that Aling Flora was my girlfriend. I would cry every time, cringing at even the thought of getting anywhere near those shockingly red lips.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Aling Sepa, another unmarried old woman, lived with the family next door to us. She was probably the younger sister of the matriarch, Aling Loleng; she was quite well respected by the children in the household to be just another yaya or resident babysitter. She ran part time a tiny small store on the ground floor of the house selling mainly sweets and other types of hard candy in varying sized garapon or glass jars. Occasionally she would have a cardboard box of pabunot: you paid a small amount, usually five centavos, punch out a paper covered slot for a blind chance of winning a small item of perhaps a tube of plastic balloon, a holen or marble, a plastic car or a toy soldier, or if you are unlucky, a rolled up paper slip that said “no win”. A small eskaparate, or glass encased shelf held dusty estampita, religious petition card to various saints, rosaries and devotional items.
What she really did to earn her keep was raise a couple of pigs in the back of the house in a small pigpen. Even with its very close proximity to our house, it hardly ever stank, even in the middle of summer, as she kept the pigpen quite clean. Every morning she would make her round of the neighbourhood to collect food scraps left over from the day before, and our house was always one of her stops. My mother always kept a pail in the back of the house where anything edible and left over went into: old stale pandesal, cuttings and peels from fruit and vegetables, left over cooked rice. Aling Sepa would come by with her large pail and collect them, and in the afternoon boil everything in a large pot and after cooling off, feed the slop to her pigs.
There was always a bonus for us at the end when the pigs are large enough to sell to one of the meat sellers in the market. We knew there will be a kilo of pork for us at the end of the day when we hear and see one or two very hesitant and extremely agitated pigs being walked, well, actually being pulled or pushed towards the slaughterhouse for their final walk. The racket and cries they made was rather disturbing, which always made me believe that they knew what they were in for.
Aling Sepa was a very religious woman, and when the time was deemed appropriate, organized about a dozen of the neighbourhood kids for catechism to prepare them for first communion, my younger brother and sister and I among them. I remember a whole week one summer of afternoon religious classes taught by nuns in the local church. There was lots of singing accompanied by a nun in an old-fashioned white habit playing a guitar, which reminded me so much of the movie “The Singing Nun”, but instead of the song “Dominique” we sang Tagalog songs like “Tambuli ng Panginoon” (God’s Trumpet). At the end after our first communion the following Sunday, Aling Sepa invited all the children to a large feast at their house featuring, you guessed it: lechong baboy (crispy roast pig).
* * * * * * * * * *
The last matandang dalaga (old maid) on this list was neither a house help nor a small time hog farmer, but a very well-to-do woman who had her own pharmacy next door to Aling Sepa. Aling Naty (always distinguished from the other Aling Naty, who owned the hardware store by being called Naty the parmasyotika, or pharmacist) was one of twins and came from one of the wealthier families in the neighbourhood. The store itself was relatively small, but it always amazed me that despite this it seemed to have anything one needs from a drugstore. The store itself was situated at the back of their house, which opened to our own street. It is evidence to the wealth of the family that the house whose main entrance is on the street west of ours was one of the largest ones in Sta. Elena at the time. An open doorway led from the back of the house to the pharmacy, and looking straight in, I remember being always caught breathless by the opulence and elegance look of the what I could see of the living room.
She opened her store early and always closed for siesta between twelve and three in the afternoon. But that never stopped us from ringing her store doorbell for whatever small things were needed when a retractable iron fence shuttered the store. Most usually, perhaps because she would have been asleep, it was the house help, Ka Isiang, another old unmarried woman from my parents’ hometown who would answer the bell and sell whatever was asked for other than prescription medications.
On occasion in the middle of the afternoon, one could hear a piano being played inside the house, but I doubt that it was Aling Naty, for she had only three fingers and a thumb on the right hand. Or rather there would have been four fingers, but because the two longer ones had fused together at birth, there were only three. Whether it was her or her mother who played I don’t really know, but it was also possible that Aling Naty managed as I am quite sure she loved piano music, for one day after a Van Cliburn recital she had a red rose that was given away at the event and the concert program proudly displayed on her desk at the store.
I cannot be certain of this, but for some reason, I think, within a two-block radius we had the most number of spinsters living in the neighbourhood. Aling Naty would eventually hire as an assistant at the store a younger woman Evelyn, who would stay with her for decades until she herself became an old maid. Although Aling Naty was never really friends with my parents, the day before we left for Canada she came by my mother’s store and gave all five of us who were taking the trip, a St. Christopher medal and wished us a safe journey.
On one of my return trips to Marikina, many years later, I would find Aling Naty still tending her drugstore with Evelyn. Ka Isiang the house help had been gone a long time, and the store and the house that I used to admire so much had all of a sudden seemed shabbier and forlorn. Larger multi-national drugstores like Commander and Mercury Drugs had moved into the neighbourhood and the large-scale competition had impacted so much on the local pharmacy, resulting in a gradual but definite reversal of fortune for the once wealthy pharmacist.
© August 2007