Penman No. 438: The Girl from Guinbirayan

Penman for Sunday, May 8, 2022

THIS MOTHER’S Day is historic enough for happening on the eve of what’s certain to be the most important election we will be holding in generations. For my mother Emy, she won’t only be trooping to the polling station, with her three-footed cane in hand and her caregiver Jaja at her elbow; she’ll be celebrating her 94thbirthday as well, by casting her vote for the president she will be following on the news for the last six years of her first century. 

She’s hard of hearing and her eyesight is failing, and she might forget where she last left her glasses, but don’t make the mistake of calling her “senile” or some such word suggesting a softness in the brain. She’s up to date on the news, and will even call our attention to what this tinpot politician said and what happened yesterday in Ukraine; her opinions can be sharp and scathing, especially when it comes to Vladimir Putin and his fellow despots, and immodest fashions.

But everything else about her is grandmotherly in the usual way we know—white-haired, with streaks of the original black, freckled with age spots, slow-footed, and happy to be with little children. Her four-year-old great-granddaughter Ollie’s visits are the highlights of her weeks. Even our five-year-old apu-apuhan Buboy, our housekeeper’s son and my sidekick, feels relaxed enough with her to play with the soft folds of skin under her arm, with neither of them noticing. Our daughter Demi’s Facetime calls from California are sure to make her Chinese eyes disappear in a crinkled smile. Demi, the first grandchild and the one who grew up with her, has inherited her UP class ring.

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This was the mother who raised the five of us on her meager salary, with my father’s earnest but inconstant contributions. Born bright but poor, he never finished college. The daughter of a merchant with some landholdings, she did—at the University of the Philippines at that, far away from the coconuts and carabaos of Guinbirayan in Romblon, the only one in their brood of twelve to do so. The youngest girl, she grew up her father’s favorite, accompanying him on his trips to the big city (he had a sailboat that capsized in a storm). She could ride a horse, and thought nothing of venturing into Kalatong, the enchanted mountain near her village, where fair-haired people were said to have been seen in chariots, where the rocks glittered, and where the unsuspecting vanished. Even without the fairies, she had a magical childhood, waiting in the afternoons at the water’s edge for the fishing boats to come in with their catch, teeming and leaping in silver arcs, or peering at the fat snakes sleeping on top of the tall rice bins. 

(Kalatong, left)

One day, she recalls, she was walking in Manila when she saw a sign saying that the UP High School was accepting students; so she walked in, applied, and was accepted, graduating the year before UP moved to Diliman, where she studied to be a teacher. But her college graduation would be delayed, because in the meanwhile, she had met and married my father Joe—the smartest guy in town, tall and deep-voiced. I think they met at the pier, waiting for other loved ones (Joe had a girlfriend then, whom I would meet much later, a pretty woman with sad eyes). 

One of my earliest pictures is that of me as a two-year-old, tugging unhappily at a stalk of grass outside the school where my mother was teaching. I must have been wondering why I had to share her attention with other children. Soon there would be other children right at home—my siblings Jess, Rowie, Elaine, and Joey, all born two years apart in Manila, to where we had moved. For a while, life was good; I went to a private boys’ school and learned English. My mother played “UP Beloved” and its flipside “Push On, UP” endlessly, to make sure I would go there and get a UP diploma myself (it took me 14 years, but it worked). 

And then my father lost his job, and the long hard years came. We must have moved around Manila a dozen times in three decades, with the household items on the moving truck getting older and fewer. Emy took a minimum-wage job as a postal clerk, and later as an employee at the Manila CFI and the Sandiganbayan. Plaintiffs and defendants would leave envelopes on her table, which she invariably returned, despite our constant need. When I dropped out of college to become an activist, it must have pained her deeply, but she and Joe supported me, even when I went to martial-law prison. When I married Beng, we shared what was basically a lean-to in Tandang Sora with my parents, my siblings, and a pig in the bathroom—and later, Demi, whom Beng was horrified to discover one morning, beset by a swarm of bedbugs. We were still hard up but happy. Joe had to work in Romblon, writing speeches for the governor; Beng and I found jobs, and one Christmas we gifted Emy with a new set of cheap plastic dinner plates to replace the ones that had warped or been scarred by cigarette burns, and I think she wept for joy, as did we.

Things got a bit better, and we moved to San Mateo, in two small but adjacent subdivision houses. And then my father—whom I had hero-worshipped despite his troubles—died from smoking, and for a while it seemed Emy would follow suit, coughing up blood from late-stage tuberculosis. Miraculously, thanks to care and medication, she survived, and soon discovered that she liked to travel—to America, where my sister Elaine lived, and where Emy even got a green card, to Europe, around Asia, and wherever her feet could take her. She was aging well.

One day I was surprised to find a thin book of poetry from the 1950s titled Diliman Echoes, a compilation of poems written by students—one of which was by “Emilia A. Yap,” a poem on “My Nipa Hut.” My mother was a poet, and I didn’t even know. I felt incredibly proud, but she just smiled at my discovery.

Today she occupies herself playing word games and puzzles on her iPad and iPhone, watching K-dramas on Netflix, following the news and hearing Mass on TV, and walking around the yard in the morning sun. Over meals, she tells us stories about the Guinbirayan of her youth; I had her write her memoirs in a notebook, so others can hear those stories.

When I think I’ve lost something and start yapping about where it could be, she’ll tell me, in that way only mothers know, “Look with your eyes, not with your mouth.” Even at 68, I will always be her boy, her first-born, her “Toto.” In a plastic bag, she’s left her instructions for the inevitable: no tubes down her throat, her funeral policy, what she’ll be wearing, and so on. She returned her green card after her last flight home. “I want to die here,” she tells us. I want to imagine that when that happens, she will dissolve into a cloud of gold dust, and join the fairies of Kalatong.

Penman No. 132: Return to Romblon

RomblonPenman for Monday, January 19, 2015

 

SOMETIMES THE best-laid plans are those you don’t lay out at all. I’d been meaning to pay another visit to my home province of Romblon, where I was born 61 years ago, but I kept putting it off from one year to the next until that absence became 20 years.

The last time I went home in 1994, I was with my father Jose Sr., who incidentally would have marked his 92nd birthday today; he died in 1996, so that trip was also his last journey home. We were born in the same small seaside town of Alcantara on Tablas island. When I went there to address the graduating class of the local high school, the marching band spelled out my full name and WELCOME TO ALCANTARA under the hot summer sun. I felt bad for the kids but deeply appreciated the gesture. I don’t think most of them had any idea who I was and what I’d done, but why should they? The only writers they knew were probably white and dead.

But Romblon has been good to writers (NVM Gonzalez was born several kilometers and 40 years ahead of me), offering a wealth of material as lustrous as its signature marble. And like marble, sometimes it lies starkly bare on the surface, and sometimes its veins need to be probed and palpated. My first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil, 1992) was set largely in Romblon, based on the events and discoveries of a long summer I spent there as a ten-year-old boy in 1964. Those discoveries included my grandfather’s windowed tomb, an enchanted mountain, and sweet water bubbling out of the mountainside, not to mention a crush or two on an older girl. Ten years later I returned with a wife heavy with child, seeking refuge from one of the many dragnets cast by martial law, and it wasn’t government agents my aunts sought to protect my wife and unborn baby from, but other evil spirits best kept away by a wad of herbs pinned to Beng’s chest called a carmen-carmen.

Two Fridays ago I had and took a sudden chance to return to all that, upon the invitation of my niece Susie and her husband Toto, who had to make a quick weekend run on family business to Bgy. Guinbirayan in Sta. Fe town, about an hour’s dusty drive from Alcantara. My mother had been born in Guinbirayan in 1928 and I myself had many happy memories of the place from 1964 of picking up sea shells at low tide and gorging on duhat as fat as my thumbs. I had a mountain of work set up on my desk for the weekend, but how could I possibly say no? I packed as much of my work as I could into my laptop, and Beng and I joined Susie and her sisters in a Pajero driven by Toto to the Batangas seaport, where we left the jeep and got on board a RORO vessel bound for Odiongan, Romblon’s busiest port.

We left Batangas at sunset and arrived in Odiongan early in the morning, shaken and stirred by tall waves off Mindoro, but eager to board the waiting van driven by another one of my nephews (I would discover that I had a whole village full of them—my Lolo Cosme had a dozen children—and the word “Uncle,” in English, would resonate throughout our brief stay). Guinbirayan was another couple of hours away by a winding mountain road, now thankfully paved for the most part (“It depends on who the mayor is and on his political clout,” explained Toto), and getting there at sunrise, in time for a breakfast of grilled fresh fish, crabs, squid, and nilupak, proved well worth the journey.

We had just one full day in Guinbirayan—Susie and her siblings were getting their lots surveyed—so we spent most of that on the old farm feasting on fresh buko and native chicken, and in the afternoon we took a banca ride to Puro Island, where my mother still owns a small seaside lot, with much of the beach now washed away. The following morning, before boarding another RORO boat for Batangas, we paid a visit to my hometown of Alcantara, just long enough to say hello to a favorite aunt, Manang Adoring, and to note that a Globe cellsite now served that part of Tablas (Smart ruled the other part, so it helps to have two phones in such corners of the archipelago). By sunset, we were steaming out of the harbor for home.

Forty-eight hours after twenty years may not seem long enough, but brevity makes for intensity, and everything that I had seen and felt from my previous visits came swarming back to me with poignancy, making me more aware than ever of time past and time passing.

I went back to Lolo Cosme’s tomb, recalling my peek through its curious window in my novel: “I saw my grandfather’s skull on its macerated pillow, its teeth long and raw, the bone laced with patterns of black and yellow moonscapes and Great Walls of China running into the hollows and into the silver thicket of his hair—fine wiry hair that radiated above and around his brow like an aura, rampant, resplendent, indestructible.” That view was gone, as they had joined his bones with my grandmother’s and two aunts’ in a big concrete box. But the beach on which I had strolled many an afternoon was still there, and across it rose the massif of Kalatong, the enchanted mountain, where, my cousins and nieces swore, fairies and spirits abounded, ever ready to cast their spells on the unwitting visitor. “They can look like beautiful children riding golden chariots,” said one. “But they can also be evil.”

As we crossed fields of mango and cassava, I heard how one schoolgirl was known to have been possessed by these spirits, periodically falling into a trance: “She would faint on the muddy road in her white dress, then rise without a spot of dirt on her!” We were spared the carmen-carmen, but were warned about the kilkig, a slow-acting poison induced into one’s food, causing days of misery. My cellphone caught a signal on a hilltop and I called my mother in Manila, who cautioned me about meeting certain people: “They’re a family of witches,” she whispered.

We were, indeed, bewitched during that weekend, and entranced by the food, so I suppose there was some sorcery at work. The first thing I did when we got back was to book ferry tickets for a longer visit in March.