What was suppose to be a way for my sister & I to recreate a dessert from our younger lives became a way to confront my grief & guilt.
Grief over losing someone, guilt about putting too much faith in time.
Dawn Bohulano Mabalon was the northern star in my life. A fixture that would always point me home. Through her history lectures, I learned about why my uncles & aunts, why my father choose the dusty town of Porterville to raise their children. Through her tsismis, I knew the ins and out of the Filipino American Community, who would be down for me, who was just talk. Through her food, I would find my way back to the family gatherings that were so prevalent in my childhood, a tradition that slowly went away as I & my cousins grew up.
It is hard to talk about Manang Dawn in the past tense. It’s hard to talk about Manang Dawn & not to her. So I won’t.
When my family gathered, we were a small town. The Burns clan that settled in Porterville also consisted of the Solomons, the Wongs & the Raccas. Each of the four Burns siblings had at least 4 children, some of those children had children & so on & so forth. My cousin was also my nephew was also a family friend was also… you get it. We were large.
I currently live in a small in-law in San Francisco, that I share with a family of four. We have a micro kitchen that has no counter space. We don’t have a lot of baking things. So preparing to make this recipe also meant a shopping trip to the Safeway three blocks away from my house. I was nervous. I am not a cook. Nor do I ever bake. On the rare occasion that I make Filipino Food, it never comes out right. I have resigned myself to making ham & cheese sandwiches. So as I wandered the aisles of Safeway wondering what the hell the difference was between baking soda & baking powder, my anxiety to fuck this up skyrocketed.
I was with PEP Family when the news broke. Alvin & I were at Skyline College for a separate student leadership retreat, & I had already said no to coming to this PEP alumni teacher panel. I am never good with speaking to crowds of strangers. But Alvin said “just for a little while” & I could never resist his face. What was supposed to be just a few of us turned into a family reunion, as it always did. & as always the agenda was running late. As “a little while” turned into an hour, more & more familiar faces showed up. We laughed & gossiped, talked about what white woman fuckery we witnessed that day. We welcomed each other home. The panel went well, it took thirty minutes for us to introduce ourselves, & while answering questions I saw Ate Allyson crying, & I knew someone was gone. I just didn’t think it was you.
I always loved the array of desserts at these parties, the thick orange jelly-like things, the white buttery bread-like things, the purple spread-like things, the banana lumpia-like things, the sweet stew with yams & mochi-like things (my family never cooked these desserts, so I never knew their names & to this day I’m still unsure what to call them), but there was one dessert that would only be there if my Aunty Emmy was there. These large doughnut hole-like things, that were covered in sesame seeds & they had deep cracks that I would shove my thumbs into, allowing me to tear into the soft white interior. These were my favorite.
Of course, not everything would go according to plan as I baked. “Don’t be mad if it doesn’t taste good,” my partner Jack told me. “Promise you won’t be mad.” But I knew I would be. I couldn’t fuck up this recipe, I had to get it right, but my mixing bowls were not big enough. I didn’t have enough flower, so I just put an extra cup of Bisquick. Combining the wet ingredients & the dry ingredients was a herculean task gently juggling bowls. Mixing became an olympic sport with me & Jack, taking turns every few minutes as our biceps & forearms burned. It hadn’t occurred to me the recipe proportions were to feed several dozen people. I didn’t bat an eye at the 10 cups of powder mix, didn’t flinch at the 6 eggs or a whole can of evaporated milk. It didn’t sink in until the one pound of brown sugar that I thought “uh oh, this is going to be a lot.” Why did I think that this was going to be a small recipe that only produced a dozen balls or so? You feed people.
I didn’t cry right away. Mourning you felt wrong. We didn’t know what to do. We lingered. Spoke in hushed tones. Called people. Lots of people. I called, Jack, who was at happy hour & didn’t know how to respond to me. I called my roommate, Romi, who just kept saying “Damn.” I called my beach wife, Janice, who said “I don’t know how to process this.” I called others who didn’t pick up, I left urgent messages: “Call me the second you get this.” I talked to Janice again, long after everyone left. She asked me questions I didn’t know the answer to. “Are you okay?” “What are you doing now?” “Where are you going to go?" I finally settled on Bindlestiff, I wanted to go to the Stiff. “Go,” she said. “Be with family.”
I remember when that dessert stopped showing up. Maybe it was because they were never the hit of the party, the large silver tray still full hours after the party started. Maybe because my aunty’s hands were tired of gripping the bowl, the whisk. Maybe because relationships change & family changes, maybe because as much as we lived close together we were growing farther and farther apart.
The precooked egg size balls puffed up too big in my small soup pan filled with hot oil. It took an over cooked batch to get the cooking time right. I was already criticizing my cooking, comparing it not to the recipe, but to the sesame balls of my childhood. It’s not right, I thought to myself. I didn’t make them right. “It’s not white, like Aunty Emmy’s. It’s not as chewy.” Jack tried them, “maybe more vanilla next time?” He tossed out other ideas as well; instead of sesame, maybe powdered sugar or white sugar instead of brown. He ate his with blackberry jam & I ate mine with honey. I realized, like with all Filipino recipes I tried before, I would have to change the recipe to fit. Like all Fil Ams, we could never recreate the taste of our childhoods.
I was trying desperately to figure out where to go. Who to talk to. I remembered the last time we saw each other, it was a Thursday night at Lucky Chances, & we talked shit about some creep in the community that had commented on my legs. We laughed. I just talked to you, I kept thinking. I just saw you. You were just here.
I haven’t seen my Aunty Emmy’s family in over a decade. Not really. I hadn’t had her desserts in longer than that. On the same day we buried you in Stockton, my family buried my Uncle Frank, Aunty Emmy’s husband, in Fresno. The central valley holds my family in it’s soil; lolas, uncles, cousins, friends. One day the central valley will hold me too.
You were right about being choosy where to bring this dessert. I shared with my acting troupe later that night, maybe three people ate one. I left full ziplocks with friends. I even brought some to a birthday party, where they stayed in a large metal bowl the whole night.
Bindlestiff was busy with people getting ready for the first fall production, rehearsals were underway. It was strange, this small pocket universe that didn’t know. One by one, I wandered the rooms finding people to tell, the same delivery “You know Dawn, right? She passed away earlier…” The same reaction, wide eyes, a brace against a wall or chair, “She was just here for the punk show.” “We have to call…” We worked quickly to set up a small altar, one that would grow larger & larger.
It wasn’t until later, after everyone knew, after the alter was set, after the shock wore off that I allowed myself to cry. I would cry in the next few weeks, alone & with people. I would also laugh & talk story. I would drink & toast to you. I would remember your cackling, snorting laugh, how you caught me trying to go home early from your wedding reception & made me dance with you, how at every party I would mad rush the dessert table & take all your calamansi squares, how we would talk about Star Wars, baseball, Game of Thrones, how we would argue on the real pronunciation of Delano. You were always there, until you weren’t.
We laughed at your funeral. We sat in the back of the church, & told stories about you. It was standing room only, people spilled into street. We joked about how hungry we were & that if you were there you’d have food in your bag for us, that the body of christ wasn’t filling enough & how you’d show us your favorite food spots in Stockton.
It’s going to be six months soon. Your altar is still up at Bindlestiff. We wear your name on buttons & shirts. The world turns, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast enough to knock me down, but it turns & time still convinces me that there is enough, that there’s always next time—something I always thought with you—I’ll bring you my book to sign (next time), I’ll take a picture with you (next time), I’ll see you (next time).
Until next time, Manang.
mgb, editor of TAYO Literary Magazine, has been a poet since she first learned how to write her name, an educator since 2006, & a wannabe dramaturg since spring 2016. Born on one of the seven thousand islands of the Philippine Arkipelago, she was raised in the dusty town of Porterville CA & now lives in San Francisco, less than a mile away from the beach. Her publications include TAYO, The Operating System, & can be seen on stage at Bindlestiff Studios.