Bath Ritual: Digos


Any day of the week when the sun would burst fiercely on our front yard marked my grandmother’s bath rite, the Ilocano digos. A kerosene pail of water would be put out early on the yard for solar heating, and more pails of water had to be hauled from a nearby spring to the earthen jar that stood empty on other days in a kitchen corner.

Ka Paula, one of my grandmother’s live-out maids would then arrive, chirping from the bamboo gate to grandmother’s breakfast nook by the window a lomboy (giant purple berry tree) shaded. They would each share dry cracked smiles, a wordless greeting they had shared for decades. Lola would offer a drink of steaming chocolate to Ka Paula, which she would sip from a porcelain cup her wide knobby hands gripped.

Breakfast taken away, Ka Paula would go down to the yard first dipping her finger into the kerosene pail to test tepidity. Next, she ducked into the barn house for three bunches of  arutang (sun-dried rice straw), and laying them up in a triangle, hairy tips touching, she would scratch a flint underneath. As it burned, Ka Paula would have sat on the flat stone — used to lay the wash for beating when rinsing – soaking, and then wringing into a tub, a cut of shredded bark. Back to the straw by then a heap of black ash like fat strands of combed hair, Ka Paula would scoop the ash into a wooden basin of lightly vinegare-d water, letting it soak beside the tub of bark juice.

The cook would be yelling to her shortly to announce that the coconut cream simmering to oil since dawn has settled. Ka Paula would shout back from the yard to the cook, to kindly pick from the caburao (lime tree), growing straggly under the kitchen window, two of the largest fruits.

Lola robed in a faded muslin kimono – a relic from a generation of daughters their landed parents pampered to helplessness — would have been led by this time from her reclining chair by the window to the bathhouse, a bamboo box under the breadfruit tree. Ka Paula would have taken her frail hands from the laundry woman’s hand that led her, and sat her on a fired rattan chair. The bath and hair wash lasted an hour.

By noon, after Ka Paula had left, and the kitchen would bustle for lunch, my grandmother would be dozing freshened, garbed in embroidered organza, smelling of a bouquet I could now conjure only from memory – musky from the straw shampoo, citrus-y from the bark and lime conditioner, and sweetish from the freshly oiled coconut cream.

I often imagine her as I used to watch her nap after those bath rites, her transparent skin veined in pale blues and pinks, her eyelids like oil-soaked filo as an apparition – a stripped-of-title duchess wearing on her small head laid on carved tendrils framing her chair, a fist-sized faded silver globe tiara, a knot that was all of her gray hair.

Published in its edited version in  “Passager – Pass It On!”

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