Friday, November 23, 2007

Sacha's Graduation

November 16, 2007 in Toronto.

It was a cold morning, and too early to be getting out of bed, but we were all excited to troop to the Convocation Hall where Sacha will be receiving her diploma – Masters of Applied Science at the University of Toronto.

I wore a long woolen skirt that hid my leggings, and on top of my thermal undershirt, I had my knitted shirt, a sweater, a jacket and a knee-length winter coat, plus a red scarf to either put around my neck or over my head. The black pair of velvet gloves that I bought at a bazaar in Manila came in handy, and helped me to feel warm. I carried a large bag – with “windows” that held photos of our family and scenic spots in the Philippines - to hold the winter clothing accessories that I had to put on and off.

It started to snow, very gently. Sacha said that it was the first snow of the year and season. She pointed at the round convocation building as the place where we should be while she dashed to go to Knox Building to get her toga. We found only one lady who was there ahead of us, waiting for the doors to open. She had a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in another, and we chatted. She assured us that we were at the warmer side of the building, as the wind was blowing on the other side. She turned out to be the Convocation Officer, and offered to take us where Sacha was.

We found Sacha (thanks to cellphones) at Knox in her full regalia. Aida – the Convocation Officer whom we met earlier– taught her how to wear the toga, and gave us tips where to take her pictures –stairs, hallways and courtyard of Knox building. We decided she was truly the expert on graduations at the U of T, and followed all her suggestions.

We had a few minutes to take pictures before Gay and I had to queue to enter the Convocation Hall, while Sacha looked for other graduates from her department.

We got good seats (for Gay, Wayne and myself) – right behind one row of seats reserved for those in wheel chairs. It was warmer inside so I started peeling off some of the warmer clothes that I was wearing – coat, jacket, sweater, gloves, scarf – but had to wear them again when the ushers opened the main doors to let the graduates in.

A man next to me complained of the cold draft, so in a friendly tone, I remarked, “At least you’re accustomed to this cold.” He said – no, he never liked the cold, and everyday, he said, he would imagine himself in a tropical island, sitting under a palm tree. At that point, I brought out my bag that showed pictures of Boracay and Cebu and he exclaimed – “That’s the place where I want to be right now – where is this place?” Beaming with pride, I replied, “The Philippines.” (We learned later that he was at the Convocation Hall with us because his wife was graduating with a Masters in Nursing).

It was not a very long ceremony – since they segregated the graduate students from the undergrads who had a much longer ceremony the night before. The main speaker – who gave a short, sweet and simple speech - was a professor at the University. So, in no time at all (about 2 hours), it was over.

We did a lot more picture taking before proceeding to one of the buildings where they were holding a reception for the new graduates. All alumni were given small gifts (chocolate) and letters exhorting them to be active members of the alumni association. Wayne excused himself to go back to work, while Gay, Sacha and I decided the food there was good enough for lunch.

Sacha then took us to her building and we met her adviser, Marc Chignell, and other colleagues.

After we left her campus, we went back to the inn, and then downtown for a quick visit to IBM where she now works. Sacha had invited her friends to a vegetarian dinner in the evening, but before that, we met up with Scott Ramsay, a friend of the family. Scott helped Sacha get oriented in Toronto and to find winter clothes when she first arrived in Canada a little over two years ago.

We met Scott at World’s Biggest Bookstore (now, no longer world’s biggest bookstore), and walking around the block – we found a nice coffee shop/bar, and chatted there until it was time to go to the vegetarian restaurant.

Scott dropped off Sacha at the restaurant (so she could be there ahead of her guests), and then gave Gay and me a short city tour, on our way to Cabbage Town to fetch his girlfriend, Nathalie. The four of us then went back to the restaurant where we found a large group (from U of T, Toastmasters and other people she met at conventions) of Sacha’s friends. Wayne and his daughter, Jessica, came shortly after. There was a stream of friends – some leaving early, some arriving late – but all toasting, praising and congratulating Sacha on her graduation.

It was fun evening. What a full day!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Remembering the Dead

Today is All Saints Day, and while almost everyone is at the cemetery or memorial parks, for practical reasons – (there will be less traffic tomorrow than today) - I choose to go tomorrow, which is All Souls' Day. Because of horrendous traffic jams on all roads leading to cemeteries and memorial parks, more and more people are choosing to observe the day for remembering our departed loved ones on November 2, while some even spend two full days (November 1 and 2) to honor their dead. I hope that I would meet with relatives and friends when I visit there tomorrow.

These occasions - All Saints Day or All Souls Day - are more than for remembering our beloved departed. These are days for reconnecting with family, relatives and town-mates. We meet at the graves of those with whom we share an affinity - by blood, family or personal history. This explains the annual exodus to the provinces on these dates, and why these occasions take on a festive, rather than solemn, nature in the Philippines.

When we troop to the cemetery, we bring not only candles and flowers to offer to our dead, but also food to share with the living. Lots of food, for what is a Filipino gathering without food? It’s a major picnic, yes, even a fiesta with food and drinks laid out over tombs and gravestones. There are tents to shield us from the sun or rain, and to define our space from those in neighboring plots who are not related to us. There are food stalls selling hotdogs or lumpia, halo-halo or fruit shakes, pizza or palabok. Children are running all over the place, gathering candle droppings, and competing with other children on who can form the biggest candle wax balls. To complete the party atmosphere, some even bring playing cards, scrabble or mah-jong, and we do not think playing them is irreverent. There is lots of storytelling – how life was when we were children, how life is now, and what our plans are for the future. We tell our own stories, but we also inquire about those who did not come. There are conversations about the living and the dead, and as we go home from the cemetery, we bring with us cheery or sad updates on a great number of people in our lives.

For many years, I was out of the loop for these occasions for family reunions. I live in the city, busy with the business and not too concerned with following traditions. However, I am almost 62 and there must be something with being at this age that has made me appreciate being in touch with my past and the people who make up my personal history. On All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day, I look forward to meeting the relatives whom I know – aunts and uncles (the few of them who are still alive), and first, second and third cousins – and the distant relatives I get to recognize and acknowledge only when we trace our common affinity with the dead whose graves we visit.

This is the Filipino way – and now my way - of remembering the dead – by reconnecting and enjoying joyous moments with the living. I am sure the spirits of our dearly departed are also partying in heaven and smiling on these Filipino traditions on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.