One day, during a chat with Monica Bhide, my writing teacher I told her a story of how I spent my summers as a child. I told her all I remember from those days was how I helped my mom make mango jam. There was no end to the mangoes that had to be peeled, mashed, squashed into a thick pulp. It was so tedious and took time away from playing. I was a child then. It’s a wonder I did not develop a dislike to mangoes, but instead grew up loving them like no other fruit. Perhaps it was my mom’s guidance and showing me how to enjoy making the jam that taught me to appreciate this marvelous tropical fruit. With that, Monica urged me to write an essay on the process. I took her advice and started to scribble a few lines. Then with much regret I stopped writing and went back to Monica. I told her “There’s something I just realized now. I can’t write the essay. I forgot to do something.”
“I forgot to ask Mom for the recipe,” I said sadly.
Ever the optimist and the inspiring spirit, Monica urged me even more. “Then write about your regret. Write about the experience, how you felt and what you saw.” And like a hand that held me virtually through it all, I followed my writing teacher’s advice.
I finished the essay, 800 words and shoved it in a drawer. The Mango Jam essay stayed in the drawer for a long time. I never told Monica even if she urged me to submit it to major media publications. I was too shy. I felt unsure. Who would want to read about an outdated method of cooking mango jam in a third world country, which had NO recipe to begin with, I thought to myself.
Fast forward to early spring 2012. The Doreen G. Fernandez Food Writing Awards announced a call for submissions. I gasped. Doreen was my hero. She was the doyenne of Philippine food writing. As a child, I used to help my mom clip her newspaper columns “Pot Au Feu” from the ‘Manila Chronicle’ and dutifully pasted them on mom’s recipe scrapbook. I was in elementary then. I could barely whisk a soufflé, but reading recipes and food essays fascinated me. It also brought me closer to mom. We used to pore over Doreen’s writings together, while Mom would give me her own advice on food, family and love. On hindsight, it must have been Mom’s way to prepare me for life’s lessons later on when she could no longer be with us.
When Mom passed away a year before I got married, I carried on her tradition of clipping recipes from magazines, watching cooking shows on TV, collecting cookbooks. When I got married, I was on my own in the kitchen, as a new bride trying to remember all that Mom taught me.
But one thing was elusive all these years. It was the Mango Jam recipe. No matter how many mangoes I had, how sweet they were, how ripe or how plump the fruit, I could never replicate the mango jam the same way mom used to do it. Worse, I felt awful in all those years I never asked her for the recipe.
One day, after a gazillion attempts, hours of stirring, the thick, rich, golden jam finally tasted just like Mom’s. I was in my American kitchen now. I was no longer in Tarlac, the town I grew up in. This time, I did it right. Perhaps it took a million trial and errors. Or maybe I used the right copper bottom pot. Or was it the wooden spoon I used? The right temperature? You know what I think? Mom was right there, in spirit, next to me, showing me how to do it the right way, from memory. I knew she was there. It was the painful longing for her that jabbed at my heart that moment. It happens when thoughts of Mom overcome me and tears engulf me so badly, my eyes blur, glasses get foggy and I have to stop for a moment to catch my breath. Forgive me, I digressed.
But this is what Mother’s Day is all about to me. I never had one with Mom. We never really celebrated Mother’s Day in the Philippines. I never celebrated Mother’s Day with my own mom. It was only a celebration that came around in the later years (after she died), perhaps brought on by the commercialization of the event by greeting card companies and retail stores (with all due respect to these industries). But yes, Mother’s Day is indeed a ‘western concept’ and as a Filipina, it was an event we only read about or saw in the movies. I have no regrets, though. Mother’s Day was celebrated all the time when I was growing up. We didn’t need Mother’s Day, we had summers of making mango jam. Nothing else made me closer to Mom than those memorable days. Nothing ever will.
For the complete recipe of my Mango Jam and my award winning essay “A Hundred Mangoes In A Bottle” head on over to Positively Filipino, an online magazine that celebrates the Philippines and its lovely people. And for the life story of my mom Lulu Reyes Besa, head on to “Lulu’s Fifty-Peso Gift” which I wrote.
Author’s update: My late mom, Lulu Reyes Besa inspired me in everything I did. It is because of her that I wrote this lovely essay “A Hundred Mangoes in a Bottle”, that has won two major awards : the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award (2012) and the ‘Plaridel Award’, First Prize from the Philippine-American Press Club (October 2013). Read the essay again in this feature of PositivelyFilipino.com.