While the Kettle Sings

Days in our household start not with the sunrise, but with the whistling of the kettle.

I grew up in the days of rudimentary analog alarm clocks, and even then, we really couldn’t afford them; thus, the adults in my family relied on their trusty circadian rhythm to signal the time to get up. For the kids, however, we had to rely on our senses to tell us it is time to wake: the smell of the previous night’s rice dinner being turned into sinangag, my aunt shaking me from my slumber, or the sound of that morning’s coffee being made. Unlike my brother, who hated being woken up prematurely, I actually found it quite comforting to hear the kettle whistle every morning. The high pitched noise, eventually winding down to a breathless note, was musical to my ears.

My family is addicted to coffee, so there is always a kettle full of water being boiled throughout the day. Thermoses never kept the water hot for that long, so my father in particular would always want a freshly boiled batch for his instant coffee.

I remembered boiling water in the kettle for the first time. My father taught me how to do it. First, you fill the water to a certain point. Don’t overfill it, he always said; It will overflow when it boils and it will take too long to make the water hot enough. Next, I put the kettle on the gas stove, turned the fire to high, then waited for the kettle to sing. When I heard the trill that signaled the water was boiling, I grabbed the pot holder and prepared to pour the water. Before I could even turn off the stove, however, my father stopped me. Don’t turn off the fire yet! Open the cover of the kettle slighty to stop it from whistling; then wait thirty more seconds before pouring it in the thermos.

Apparently, leaving it longer in the kettle makes the water even hotter, which makes for better coffee and saves us gas because it also  means we have to boil water less number of times. These are tiny bits of wisdom that you don’t really learn from research or school, but from experience. I tried to take note of as much as I could from my father growing up.

When I reached high school, my sister went to work abroad and sent us, among other things, an electric kettle. This excited me because aside from being more technologically advanced, it also meant that we can boil water quicker than the traditional kettle. Strangely, my father never took a liking to it. A man of few words, his answer was equally simple when I asked him. It’s not the same, he said.

So we never used the electric kettle and continued boiling water on the stove with the same metal kettle we have used even before I was born. Not only that: we have never used our rice cooker regularly, my father preferring the other ancient item in our house, the rice pot. My father is so good at mending things that we simply never had to replace our commonly used items. That same kettle had been mended once with copper wire. The thermos which leaked was fixed with epoxy. Old pillow fillings were repurposed into new ones by simply changing the cloth cover. Old clothes that I owned that didn’t fit me anymore became hand-me-downs (my father just had my aunt alter them).

There was a time when I thought that my father was overly thrifty. While I understood that this was a response to him growing up in abject poverty, it was not like using new technology was a luxury, especially if it makes our everyday lives easier. I also grew up with mostly nothing, but my response was the direct opposite: I liked things. Now that I can afford them, I buy good food. I buy books, gadgets, and basically whatever is necessary for my hobby at the moment. My father never questioned me on this, even if my room is basically more clutter than space, while he on the other hand can fit all his belongings in a standard sized storage box. While he liked his quiet luxuries like me, he prefers the security of a minimalist lifestyle.

It is true that the wise understand the temporal quality of things. Attachment to objects is not a symptom of rogue sentimentalism, however. For my father, it is understanding that all things have value, especially if he had worked for it. They are almost like extensions to his humanity, no matter how ridiculous that sounds. He had always been self-sufficient, basically raising four kids through construction work and a grade school education, so little things that he bought with cash earned through blood and sweat surely meant more than what they really are.

Like my father, I actually have trouble letting go of things that I worked hard for. I still have my broken PSP and Nintendo DS that I bought with the salary from my first job. I know I can probably still make them work someday. My first classical guitar is still with me. It is no longer as shiny as my new steel-string one with the pick-up, but I know its sound more when I hear it. But more than the perceived value we have for things, it is the memories attached to them that makes them more special. That is why kids get attached to blankets and stuffed animals. Memories attached to things give us emotional security, one thing we sorely need as adults in this unforgiving world.

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