Make no mistake—it was a pop, snappy and explosive. I heard it no sooner than I had plumped myself down on the seat of the taxi. I knew the scent, pleasantly sharp, as of jasmine but with more muscle, and yet as calming as childhood, of which surely it was a reminder. Which was all very well, except that I could not understand why it should come from my left, from the big, burly taxi driver sitting beside me. And, sure enough, when I looked at him to verify, a pink bubble was sprouting from his mouth, and again I heard a pop.
I was about to ask him, less out of curiosity than for effect (as well as to get across not a little annoyance), if it was bubblegum. But I feared that he might be embarrassed and become violent, and while this could end up with me not paying the fare, it would be because I would be thrown out, unhelmeted head first. Then again, as large as he was, he might become tearful and launch the story of his life, how as a boy he was ignored and unnoticed, until he discovered bubblegum and gained attention by holding the record for the largest hands-free bubblegum bubble, grade school division.
Indecorous and comical though it was, I did not find the taxi driver’s abandon to pop at every stop irrational. Just a week before that, a niece, who was visiting us after a decade in America, to which her family had repaired when she was still in grade school, suddenly went out of sight as we were coming out from Sunday Mass. When she reappeared, she was holding a voluminous, warm-pink cotton candy spun around a stick. I’m sure that they have cotton candy in California, too, better flavoured and styled, but truly she missed the one she was accustomed to in childhood, which, however humble the equipment was that gave it form, would elsewhere never be equalled.
Our sensors are all but completely wired in childhood, and by pubescence our orientation to reality is as fixed as a compass needle. Marcel Proust shuddered when his tongue touched a tea-soaked madeleine. The small cake automatically set off memories of Sunday mornings when, as a boy, he would go inside the bedroom to greet his aunt, who would then give him a piece of madeleine, dipping it first in her cup of tea.
The journey back to childhood is both healing and humbling. Jesus used it as image to remind his disciples of the true nature of greatness. When the disciples asked him—“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”—he called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.’”
This passage came to mind a few days ago when the wife and I attended a novena mass for the Santo Niño. As usual, the basilica was jam-packed. We barely found a place for ourselves, and all that luck offered was a constricted spot on a bleacher, still waterlogged from the previous night’s rain, and which we covered with a plastic sheet to separate our backsides from the dampness.
When the Offertory came, and the traditional hymn to the Santo Niño was sung, I shuddered, hearing something from early days, and in a high state of emotion I joined the crowd in the waving of the hand that usually accompanied the singing of the refrain.
Two seats below us, a man and a woman guided the hand of a little girl—clearly their daughter—and waved it while singing along. They had to aid her because she was holding and waving a small statue of the Child Jesus.
Years from now, wherever that girl will be, and whatever she might become, she will crave the consolations of the faith that her parents were tenderly instilling in her. Just as Proust did when he tasted the madeleine, the taxi driver when he blew the bubblegum, and my niece when she ate the cotton candy, the girl now grown up will shudder when she hears the song, and receive healing from contemplating the past, again encountering him, whose childhood we were celebrating, who is the Lord of time, and is the same, yesterday, today and forever.