There is no chicken adobo like this one - unapologetically fried with no fanfare only bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns, vinegar and soy sauce. The side dishes were a heavenly pairing. Sliced cool cucumbers soaked in rice vinegar tossed with pungent diced red onions. And of course, the simple pleasure of perfectly cooked white rice.
My Ma's cooking was never absent of love. Sadly, I'm only aware of this long after I've been out of the house. Maybe true understanding only happens after the experience.
Nonetheless, the chicken adobo dinner we had on the regular was being served on this day. The aroma danced through the house; strong but not vomitous.
I had finished some algebra two homework that I resentfully trudged through. Sarah, my sister, who was maybe 10 years old at the time, had unbelievably chunky cheeks was already at the table ready to feed her chew hole.
My Pa would usually come home around this time from work. Till this day, I'm still in awe of his endurance to work in the lonely hours of the morning when the street lights are on and others are still asleep.
"C'mon Mowg, let's eat," were the words that would echo through the hall to my bedroom from Ma when dinner was ready. They still call me Mowg today because of my obsession with Jungle Book as a young boy.
I'd walk up to the table, place myself down and wait. My Pa would unrobe himself of the unessential - he'd unwrap his Casio watch, take off his work badge, hang his coat, and for whatever reason, he'd pop his collar to his short sleeve polo. The flare of his collar always signaled shut down mode - it's time to relax and unwind.
We always ate early. In Spain, it would be considered lunch. But, Ma and Pa were accustomed to turning in early each night. I suppose that's something you do when you have to get up at 3:30 A.M.
Most times, our dinnertime was very civil. Sometimes we would talk. Sometimes we would just eat. On the rare occasion, however, my sister and I would be in the middle of a mental fistfight.
You see, my Ma had this thing called a cell phone back in those days. She was the only one in our family at the time who had a mobile device. This mini-computer that fit into her pocket also joined us at dinner. And when it became rowdy, it would let off this obnoxious sound. We soon found out that when people called her on this thing, it rang.
To my sister and I, when the mobile phone went off for dinner, it was a modest interruption. To my Pa however, the ring would set him off. I'd wait in anticipation for him to snap like a stale breadstick. But he never snapped.
With the first ring, his eyes grew wide. With the second ring, his chews became much stronger. By the third ring, his Irish blood was boiling.
The weirdest part was that we all tried to keep the obvious a secret. My sister and I would look across the table with closed lips and alert eyes almost telepathically asking each other, "What do we do?"
And yet, we never did or said anything.
My Ma thought that sneaking a peak at the mobile device at her thigh would deviate its distraction. I always thought "Ma, if you're going to look at the darn thing, just look at it. We all know it's ringing. No need to sneak a peek."
Eventually, the tension would subside and we'd continue to dinner.
Like understanding the value of Ma's cooking, it took years for me to understand why my Pa guarded dinner time with such fierceness.
He wanted that time to be our time. The table was a place where we could come together and eat. After a day's work, he wanted a simple reprieve with his family; one with no distraction.
What looked like mild rage masked as philosophy years ago, now suddenly makes sense to me. My Pa had a reason. He wanted us to do one thing at dinner time: Be present.
This sort of sage wisdom cuts through every decade. In fact, the lesson is one we all need today. It seems as though the world has teamed up to pull us this way and that way, in an attempt to restrict from ever being fully present. The result is an unstable mind; like a horse perpetually ripping itself from its own reins wanting to be anywhere but where it is.
It reminds me of an old story from Ramakrishna:
Two friends meet up and realize they have two very different plans for the night. "I will go in the company of two beautiful women for the night," says one.
I will go into the temple to pray," says the other one.
After they go their own ways, each of them executes their plans. However, the one who decided to spend the night with women thinks, "Maybe I would have been better off going into the temple."
And then the one who decided to go the temple to pray thinks, "Maybe I would have been better off spending the night with women."
This story encapsulates the war on our minds today; a battle without bullets. Our blessing of the human mind - the most beautifully designed organ - is also vulnerable to massive distraction and is susceptible to leech-like invasions.
When possible, I avoid heating up my tortillas in the microwave. Doing so delivers a food item that taste like a recycled napkin. It's possible that this act is a misdemeanor in some countries.
Just the other day, I threw my tortilla on an open flame. It was the last leg of my breakfast preparation. Then, I went away because I felt like I needed to unsettle myself with a mindless distraction. And for no good reason, I reached for my phone. This symbolized the human condition today: Restless and scattered.
It was a costly move. My tortilla went up in a small flame. It was a burnt mess. The attempt to salvage the thing was no good. I had to do it all over again. It took me twice as long to make breakfast.
This small act of interruption reminded me of my Pa at the dinner table. Because I let myself be distracted, I lost my capacity to be present.
His fierce guard around our attention at supper was not based on bullying.
Rather, it was a passion for presence.
And maybe this hardiness of my Pa is a posture we need to adopt today. Perhaps we need to stop being so casual with our awareness dishing it out like a cheap trick.
Because who knows, the lack of attentiveness might get us burned.