Snacks My Yaya Fed Me
The first person who broke my heart wasn’t David Mariano (not his real name) in my first year of high school, behind the gym bleachers, after giving me a giant plastic box of Tic-Tacs, and telling me he preferred my prettier friend, Joanna.
The first person who broke my heart was my Yaya Rose, when I was nine years old, and she decided to go back to her native Iloilo with her husband and her two children. I was nine and cool with it—or so I told myself; I had a neighborhood barkada, and we spent our time reading Encyclopedia Brown books, our legs pretzelled around each other’s, or riding our bikes around the neighborhood, trying to understand what the pain in our calves meant or why they were beginning to bulge.
Whenever my barkada ended up at our place, Rose would give us hotdog sandwiches (not the ketchup-red kind because they were banned from our house), and bottles of Pepsi (which we were given sparingly and for good behavior, like communion wafers).
When my friends left the house, my real merienda began. I’d knock on my yaya’s door, the room smelling faintly of mothballs and Vicks; I’d curl up on her bed and she would bring out the goodies—there was always the endless pail of M.Y. San Happy Time biscuits and Gardenia Buttered Toast. The Happy Time Biscuits came in a pail, and the assortment was like a chocolate box straight out of Forrest Gump. My favorite was the mock oreo cookie, and you could always see the dwindling stash amid the small towers of fita, wafers, crackers, and what looked to be digestive cookies. When other people leeched from the stash, Rose brought out the Gardenia buttered toasts that were crunchy and yellow, sugar sprinkled immodestly on top—these I didn’t care for, but they kept my mock oreos safe from greedy hands. These were alternated with the Egg Cracklets, which I marginally preferred to the buttered toasts.
M.Y. San Happy Time biscuits
Rose was also my older sister’s yaya, but I was the clear favorite. When I refused to sleep, she’d tap my thigh gently, the motion coming from her wrist and not her hand—or she’d sing a variation of I Don’t Know How To Love Him, since Jesus Christ Superstar was played on loop during Holy Week, and she’d picked up pieces here and there over the years. When my sister fought off sleep with a flashlight and a book, Rose would lightly smear her eyelids with Vicks and threaten to call our mother—which was always my sister’s cue to toss the book over the bed and draw the comforter above her head. I was the messy kid, the one who’d pull random shirts under the neat stacks in my closet, leaving the ones that came before them in scattered knots on the floor. To Yaya Rose, I was evangelical, a gift from God, more precious than even her own offspring.
When members of my barkada started wearing trainer bras, and I was the odd kid out, being only nine to their tens and elevens, my yaya brought out the Curly Tops. These were special—they were reserved for hard tears, not casual meriendas. These were brandished after fights with my older sister, or knockdown filial feuds after I’d misbehaved. They came in individually-wrapped yellow papers and resembled baby cupcakes. The chocolate was sweeter than the Hershey’s bar we’d filch off my dad’s snack counter. It was crinkly, and bits always flaked off, but to me, they were all sugar and milk, cure-all and balm.
In the days leading up to her departure, I spent all my time in my friends’ houses, barely nodding in acknowledgment when my yaya entered my room or called me for meals. Childhood always tends toward hyperbole. I suppose I took her leaving as a kind of rejection—by the time the larger heartbreaks arrived, it seemed as if there was nothing there to break. I’d built a wall between myself and disaster, and my yaya laid the first brick.
On the day she left, she took me to my closet to teach me how to gingerly pluck a shirt from underneath a long stack—“like this,” she began, but I never caught the end of the tutorial—I remember running long and hard to my parents’ room and keeping the door locked until I heard the car pull out of the driveway, where it would take my yaya to the pier.
Brushing off my nine-year-old’s tears, I walked back to the bedroom I shared with my sister, my heart clinking in my chest like coins in a tin can.
On my bed, Yaya Rose had left a note and a stash of Nissin’s wafers—not Curly Tops—as if to tell me that whatever I felt about her leaving wasn’t anything serious, it was not a special pain, and it did not merit chocolate. She’d never been more wrong.
Collage by Deiniel Cuvin