The grand old man, Prof. Carmelo Astilla, went on ahead Monday evening, at or about midnight, at his home in Kenner, La. not far from NOLA and the Father of Waters. He was 78.
Melo went peaceful into the Good Night, sort of. He caught cancer a few years ago which tried a few times to take him and basically he just said no. He fought it on his terms, which was a mixture of acceptance and forbearance – an outlook that reflected the Man Himself.
Several times over the last several years the med pros threw the white flag and put him on his final bed. Melo would lie there a day or two then get up and tell the pros to put the flag back in their pockets. He did it with a gracious smile.
Someone even with Melo’s inner strength can hold such things in abeyance only so long. He’d still get up but the stretches shortened until, with family around him, he went on.
The professor – for years he taught history at Southern U. – was a perfect representation of his Philippine heritage and culture.
He could be tough, gruff and kind as a teddy bear, and he had a sense of humor wider than the stretch of sea that separates his native South Pacific Island to his home in America’s deep South.
The Astilla family with Melo and his siblings moved here shortly after WWII, at the behest of the Father, a stern and distinguished gentleman who was convinced correctly that the key to life is education, education, education. He set up a Filipino Consulate in NOLA, but different from representatives for many countries he wasn’t rich when he took up the job and didn’t get rich from it.
He’d spent enough time in the U.S. just after the war to recognize that America is, as advertised, a land of opportunity for those willing to earn a profession.
Ultimately he brought the rest of the family to the N’Awlins area: Fernando, Fenita, Carmelo, Sonia, Manuel, Marling and Ernie. Ernie I never met. He got here only to be claimed as a young man by Louisiana waters.
Here they struggled. And they studied. And they worked. And they married. After marriage, they worked and studied harder.
The families and their tradition now includes doctors, a dentist, a lawyer, nurses and pros in the medical field across the country, a computer expert and top level business execs. There are pharmaceutical folks. There’s a classical pianist and also a professional opera singer. And another teacher of history, with straightline DNA. These people are wildly talented, merry and bright.
This is important to me and therefore perhaps to those intelligent, clever, insightful people who read my stuff – important I say, due to the fact that the lawyer and I married. Furthering the family tradition, she earned degrees from LSU, Duke and Notre Dame.
Sometimes I ask her to use small words so I can sort of catch on to what she’s saying.
The first time I went to the West Bank to meet the family, I was struck by the inherent family intellect and brainpower. It’s easy for one like me to wonder in such situations what one like me is bringing to the table.
It turns out that some of them feel my added value is the fact that I’m a writer, one who has had a novel published with two more on the waiting list. They didn’t have any of those yet.
I knew the Family, though, soon as I met it.
Maybe it’s something about the South, whether it’s South Seas or The Heart of Dixie, but traditions are similar. They have extended families like I did growing up. They made my first visit feel as if I’d been wrapped in a warm blanket.
The food, even, is similar though differently prepared. Every holiday features lechon, the Filipino word for the piglet the men roast on a spit. We did much the same where I was when I was a kid. They like to cook roots and vegetables, different from what came from our family garden but similar in preparation.
Aha. I had also the secret century-old recipe for Cajun red beans from my Auntie Kate, who lived an hour away in Houma, La. They had taken to redbeans and rice, but it was to them sort of a recent thing. So I thought I might be one up.
Until they handed me a glassful of Halo-Halo, which I have come to know literally means “mix-mix.”
As its name implies it’s a mixture of boiled sweet beans, gelatin, preserved or slightly glazed sweet fruits, tapioca, and other sweet ingredients topped off with shaved ice, and evaporated milk. It is usually served in a tall glass or bowl. It is helpful for one’s eyes to be slightly glazed when first encountering this dessert. I think it might have been a rite of passage, but there is the fact that I don’t know of anything consumable I don’t like. Down it went, to smiles all around.
In the main, I felt at home because in the main I was at home. Both cultures value personal traits like family and God, first and foremost, and things like bravery and honor and determination and grit. And, of course, Saints football. Not liking Saints football is at least a venial sin, if not a mortal one. Confession to being a fan of the Atlanta Falcons will get a family member shunned and those outside the family consigned to purgatory for a longer period of time than just some.
Too, there is the love of country – both countries – and respect within the family. Always there is the pure, unalloyed love and pursuit of education.
Oh, and as for Tito Melo. You can bet safely and assuredly that he is awake again, in a different plane of existence. He won’t be going back to sleep.
Reunited with his loved ones who moved on before, he’s dancing with the angels and playing football with the Saints.
(Next week: SEC. SEC. SEC. Starring Cotton Clark.)