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From the Heart October 29, 2012

Posted by Alex Sawit in Stuff in General.

By Alex Sawit

29 October 2012



Yaya Julie, fourth from the left, surrounded by my sisters and mom.


I like to believe that in a mother’s kitchen, cooking is really about love. Growing up in my family, I learned that good food is that which is always cooked with pride and love by those who have lots of pride and lots of love. Because when someone cooks for her family, food becomes more than just food. It is a gift. There are many ways to express love, I know, but none perhaps are as tangible to a family’s everyday life as the tireless act of devotion that is a mother’s cooking.

That was the gift that our “Yaya Julie” always gave us.

Not many of you ever got to meet Julie Gaylon. If you did, you must have met her during one of my family-arranged events at the wine shop – when my mom, dad, sisters, brothers-in-law and niece and nephews would choose my establishment as the most fitting place to celebrate my birthday. And in my family, no birthday was ever complete without Julie. Indeed, it wouldn’t have been family without her.

My siblings and I affectionately knew her as “Yaya Julie.” She raised us like we were her own children and even after she had a daughter of her own – Criselda, who grew up with us as our “kid sister” and who was my fellow barkeep at the shop for years before she got married – she never stopped being a second mother to us. To this day we have all the mementos of our childhood spent with her, which she refused for us to part with and which she insistently stored in her safekeeping, from baby teeth and kiddie artwork to favorite toys and report cards.

But I was the one she spoiled the most. My mom used to say it’s because I was just a little newborn boy when Yaya Julie joined the household to take care of me and my toddler sisters. From that moment on, she always called me her “baby.”

When my siblings and I turned into bigger kids and the need for a nanny became superfluous, Yaya Julie simply changed hats. She became the family’s mayordomo and, under my mom’s tutelage, took over the kitchen. Adobo, pinakbet, sinigang and other favorites became her new expression of love for us. And she learned to express herself exceptionally well. To this day, her home cooking is the standard by which I measure the Filipino classics of all others. Her crowning achievement was her binagoongan, a dish that has such little room for error that even accomplished chefs rarely do it properly but which Yaya Julie was always able to craft into the most perfect balance of flavors.

She could also be quite stubborn and grumbling. She always insisted on doing things her way, resulting in many a clash of egos between her and the rest of the household staff. Put her in a disagreeable mood and you wouldn’t hear the end of it as she would rant in monologue long after you had left the kitchen.

To me, however, it just shows the kind of uncompromising conviction that Yaya Julie had about doing things right – she always wanted to cook things right, always keep the house in order right, always care for the family’s multitude of cats and dogs right, always conduct every garage sale right, always make sure the Christmas decorations were set up right. Yaya Julie never did anything halfway. She either put her heart into it or she didn’t do it at all.

Yet it wasn’t until after that final night at the hospital that I truly understood this.

For nearly two weeks, Yaya Julie had been in the ICU due to complications with an illness. She was always a fighter, having already battled through cancer to stay in remission, all on top of her coping with diabetes for many years. But this time, though the doctors said she fought hard, her decline was inevitable. So that Sunday evening a few days short of her 67th birthday, our family gathered by her glass-sealed ICU room, where she was constantly sedated, so that we could let her sense that it was okay now, that she didn’t have to suffer fighting anymore.

I sat at her bedside holding her hand, with her daughter, Criselda, next to me. As Yaya Julie lay unconscious, I asked something of my kid sister. “Is it okay,” I asked Criselda, “if I sang something to your mama?”

The song I wanted to sing, “Granada,” was special to my Yaya Julie. Some time ago while chatting with her after dinner, the song came through the living room speakers in its original Spanish lyrics and she quickly became animated. This, she told me, was one of her mother’s favorite tunes and she began to hum it with fondness. “Granada will live again,” she said enthusiastically, reciting from the English version of the song.

I had meant to sing it for her birthday in a few days but…

With Criselda’s permission and mindful to keep my voice down in the ICU, I sang to my Yaya Julie as softly as I could:


“Granada, tierra soñada por mí
mi cantar se vuelve gitano
cuando es para ti.
Mi cantar, hecho de fantasía,
mi cantar, flor de melancolía,
que yo te vengo a dar…”


If you’ve never heard “Granada” before, you need to know that it’s a very passionate song. You can’t sing it if you’re neither here nor there. You either put your heart into it or you don’t sing it at all. You can’t sing it halfway.


“Granada, tierra ensangretada
en tardes de toros,
mujer que conserva el embrujo
de los ojos moros.
De sueño, rebelde, gitana
cubierta de flores
y beso tu boca de grana,
jugosa manzana
que me habla de amores…”


Suddenly, my voiced cracked. I stopped singing. As I looked at my Yaya Julie’s silent, unconscious face in the dimmed lighting of the room, in that moment I knew that I wasn’t really singing to her. I was saying goodbye. No one in my family had ever before in my adulthood seen me break down. My kid sister hugged me from behind and wept with me.

“She loved you so much,” she told me in a stream of tears as she kept her arms around the person who was and always will be her mama’s “baby.”

I resumed singing. My voice softened. And I don’t know if I will ever again sing the last lines of this song as tenderly as I did in that room while holding my Yaya Julie’s hand.


“…de rosas de suave fragrancia
que le dieran marco a la Virgen morena.
Granada, tu tierra está llena
de lindas mujeres, de sangre y de sol.”


Yaya Julie passed away at 8:30 p.m. that Sunday, the 16th of September 2012.

It’s been six weeks (our family observed her 40th day last Thursday). I miss her. I think of her every day and, every so often, still see her from memory in all the familiar places where her absence is most present – in the laundry area where she would have been feeding our family’s lovable little pets, on the front steps where she would have been waving goodbye if I was driving out, in the kitchen where she would have been doing what she did best.

Yet even though these last six weeks have been the saddest of my life, I give thanks in remembering. I am thankful that Yaya Julie shared her life with us. I am thankful that we were given as much time together as we were given, thankful to the Good Lord that our time was perhaps even extended for as long as it was.

Not least of all, I am thankful for what Yaya Julie taught me. I witnessed it every day in her kitchen and understood it in all its fullness the night I sang to her goodbye.

Love is a gift. And any gift that comes from the heart is worth giving with everything you’ve got.







Saturday evenings typically start quietly at Cyrano and it was no different that first Saturday after Yaya Julie passed away. That evening, Biba paid me a visit and decided to keep me company. On the surface she did nothing more extraordinary than to be a friendly ear, just wanting to listen.

“It’s a very passionate song,” I told her, explaining how I sang “Granada” at Yaya Julie’s bedside in the hospital. “You can’t sing it if you’re neither here nor there. You either put your heart into it or you don’t sing it at all.”

Biba then requested that I play the song over the shop’s sound system. She wanted us to listen to it together.

“Is this the same one?” she asked as the tenor’s voice of José Carreras soared through the speakers, rendering the song gloriously in Spanish. I answered yes.

It’s funny. On any other night, as many Cyrano friends will attest, Biba and I are sparring partners, entertaining ourselves with useless banter about anything and everything that we care to disagree on. I like to think that we disagree for the amusement of it: she with her patented style of sarcasm and disquieting ebullience and I with my stoic sense of reserve as the perfect foil. That’s how we’ve been stereotyped. What folks don’t realize is that Biba is someone I’ve always been grateful to. Time and again, she has been a real friend to me whenever I needed a real friend.

Eventually, we discreetly shifted topic and moved on when the happy evening crowd finally trickled in. But as we joined these witty, wonderful, like-minded companions in conversation with glasses of wine in hand, I did so feeling better about the little things that say a lot about what true friends are all about.

Thank you, Biba.





1. Rochelle Sawit-Umale - November 2, 2012

Thank you for writing this piece about our dear Yaya Julie. We sisters used to make fun of how doting she was on you, constantly patting your head and back while you ate at the Dining table with the inevitable “Mamoo!” that she called you and the trail of kisses that followed after. I actually miss seeing and hearing her do that to you. Gosh how I ache to see her smile…well, you know, that Yaya Julie smile she tried so hard not to make for lack of a front tooth. Yaya, wherever you are, you are so missed and were so loved by everyone around you whose hearts you’ve filled with love.

2. Erlinda E. Panlilio - November 5, 2012

Wow, what a tribute to your Yaya Julie, Alex! Am impressed. I never knew what she meant to you all; not just a mayordoma and yaya but surrogate mama as well. How blessed you all are to have had her in your lives. Awesome writing, too, Alex. Congrats. Cheers!–Tita Linda Panlilio
Btw, I plan to have my own blog sometime, too; if only I can find the time to do it. Sigh…

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