The earliest I recall of Camarines was from a picture of me, before I was one, on Ate Luz’s lap, beside the garden planted in the small plot outside the front door. I recall another garden in the patio beside the kitchen. There were lots of water jars, one of which was a kind of aquarium with tiny colorful fish. I used to--how old was I? fast forward to four or three--scoop out the fish and flush them in the sink so they could reach the ocean. A lot of plants bloomed in the small patio, more than in the plot outside: several kinds and colors of gumamela, one with wide open petals, another drooping unopened; a rosal, sampaguita and kampupot. I don’t remember the others by name. On wash days, laundry was hung on lines nailed to the walls topped by shards of glass. Every morning, the sun stunned colors out of them.
I remember there was an open field across Camarines. Dragonflies darted among the tall grass. At night there were fireflies and frogs calling to each other. I knew only the neighbors next to us. Mr. Fox worked in the Harbor area, Navy or something; and brought us gifts from the commissary. He had two daughters, younger than me. On the other side was a writer for Liwayway who named his son Araw. I practiced on their piano when I was taking lessons. Mr. Dionisio, I learned later, was a nationalist. During the War, his wife asked Tia Fidela to hide his typewriter and papers behind our aparador, in case the Japanese searched their apartment. Nanay read the weekly Liwayway. Sometimes, instead of watching my sister inside the kolongkolong, she would get in inside after letting my sister out, and read undisturbed. Nanay did not go to school in Manila like her older sister, but stayed in San Isidro, Nueva Ecija. Yet she had the entire pasion and litanies committed to memory, and with the parroco’s blessing, prepared servants for First Communion.
Right next to Mr. Fox and Aling Imang was the store run by Impo, an old woman who was always barefoot. If she liked you she gave you 11 lemon drops, instead of 10 for a centavo. Her son was supposedly a child of the accessoria owner. On the other side of the store were some more accessorias, but we never turned the corner, unless accompanied by Tia Pinang or a katulong.
Nanay was happy to have moved from her brother’s house, for the big houses on Felix Huertas were soon razed to make way for the Manila Jockey Club. Instead of open fields there was now an iron fence atop cement foundation. Handholds for someone trying to avoid the dogs. I was sometimes allowed to climb the fence; or else I did when no one was looking. Pictures show me on the fence, hanging on to the iron bars. I don’t recall my younger sister, Baby, climbing up with me.
Until the Manila Jockey Club was built, Camarines was a quiet street. We could walk to Avenida Rizal on Camarines, crossing three or four streets. Traffic was only calesas, or taxis, or cars. On the Avenida stood the Church of the Holy Ghost. Nearby was the Catholic Trade where you bought holy cards. I don’t recall the exact name. A tranvia went North to Blumentritt. There, on Friday afternoons, we would wait for my father who was line engineer in the Manila Railroad, in charge of extending the railroad to Bicol. Tia Fidela would braid our hair, tie the ends with ribbons, and powder our faces. I hated being powdered but liked the crispness of the newly ironed dress she sewed, the socks and shoes; and walking with my Mother.
Heading south, the tranvia would take us to Santa Cruz and Quiapo. We would pass the Manila Opera House built by owners of Ang Tibay. We could head toward Luneta and the breakwaters where oysters could be pried from the rocks; or, on the way, stop at the Mehan Gardens and the Zoo. I loved to watch the elephant, but was never brave enough to extend a peanut towards it through the fence. Sadly, it died early in the War. Across was the old walled city, Intramuros. I loved walking under the many gates carved into the walls, and on the parapets from where, years and years ago, soldiers defended Manila. On Holy Thursdays, my father brought us to Intramuros to make Visita Iglesia in the many churches inside. In the Quiapo Church outside the walls, he would lift us up behind the altar to kiss the heels of the Nazareno which, every January on its feast day, was carried on the shoulders of hundreds, now thousands of men devotees.
We took the tranvia to shop on the Avenida, and occasionally walked up to Escolta, where my father would take us to Botica Boie.
My mother worked at the Bureau of Education, Curriculum Division, writing textbooks. Early weekday mornings her friend Miss Herminia Ancheta would pass by for her in a calesa. Sometimes it would be my Ninang, Trinidad Sion. Dr. Jose Albert, who was in the first Philippine (Independence) Commission to negotiate with the Americans, also came by calesa when we were sick. He was Nanay’s first cousin; and on arriving would tell Tia Fidela to open the windows. “Air is good for coughs,” he would say; but the minute he left, she would slide the window shut.
When she left San Isidro, Nanay discovered she had many relatives in Manila. After their house in San Isidro burned down twice and her father Blas Viardo and her husband, Juan Velasquez, died. With three children already dead from typhus in her brother’s care, she suddenly decided to leave San Isidro with her remaining daughters, taking a carromata. She had no idea how far away Manila was. Once bandits stopped them. Luckily they must have been close to San Isidro since one of the bandits recognized her from the pockmarks on her nose, and told the others. “Let them go. She’s the daughter of Don Blas Viardo.” When they arrived in Manila, she didn’t say what time, she met a first cousin who helped her get an entresuelo in Intramuros and introduced her to the owner of a gambling house. I don’t recall the card game they played, but you could only play in those places if the owner knew you.
By her account, Nanay started to play cards. She was always welcome since the owner knew her cousins would make good her losses. However, she always won, and was able to send her youngest, my mother, to the Philippine Normal School, besides supporting the family. Tia Mameng soon started teaching in Nueva Ecija. In those days, one could teach after Grade Six. She had married Tomas Ramos, second in chief at the Internal Revenue. Before her second daughter, Remy, was born, Tio Tomas, whom I never knew, died instantly when his car collided with the car of Don Epifanio de los Santos (Lolo Panyong), also a relative. I remember black wreaths of silk flowers. Tio Pepe, a son of Lolo Panyong, brought his father’ papers to us for safekeeping during the War. Tia Fidela had them stored safely upstairs. Unfortunately, when Tio Pepe returned for them after the War, they discovered that termites had nested in the box of Lolo Panyong’s writings.
Tia Fidela was a good seamstress, so there were always clients waiting to be fitted in the sala. From the left-over material she sewed beautiful dresses for me and my sister. She and Tia Pinang never married. Tia Pinang was a jeweler (alajera): nothing written, transactions all on the word on honor. She sold alahas for women who did not want it known they were in need. So just by word of mouth, transactions were sealed. A friend of hers, Naty, also provided her with jewels to sell. Aling Naty lived in Quiapo, on one of the callejons, so narrow no calesas could go in; so we would walk to her house, stand below the window to allow the katulongs to recognize us. On seeing Tia Pinang, the maid would quickly pull up the rope to unlock the heavy door. It was a dark house with many large aparadors, large seats. I would look down the roofs of houses while they conducted business.
We did not see my mother much during the day, so we were practically “raised” by Nanay and our two aunts. My mother also wrote textbooks for Ginn and Co. of Boston. Mr. Miller’s chauffeur, Felix, would pick her up on Saturday for a consultation in the company office near Luneta. I was usually along, and while they conferred, Mr. Miller allowed me to stay in the library, choosing books to take with me. These were usually about civics and right conduct--beginning readers. I Iiked the pictures of children. When during the Japanese Occupation, Americans were incarcerated in the University of Santo Tomas, older than Harvard, my mother tried to send Mr. Miller packages through Felix, but these were always intercepted by the Japanese guards.
Tia Pinang who took me visiting relatives in Malate and Malabon, also took me to the movies. She loved Tagalog movies since she did not speak English. Though my mother forbade me from going to those movies, some afternoons Tia Pinang would take me along. I don’t remember the films, only that we brought cushions to sit on because the movie seats were infested with bedbugs. And I remember corn being roasted on coals fanned by the women, the slices of singkamas and the butong pakwan. We dropped the shells on the floor, so my tsinelas sometimes slipped whe I walked out.
Either Tia Pinang or a maid walked us to school. We turned left on Felix Huertas, another left then a right to George Washington Elementary School. I was supposed to be only saling pusa, so my mother was surprised to learn the following year that I was enrolled in Grade Two. Then, in fourth Grade I was accelerated; so, by the time World War II reached Manila, I was in Grade Six.
I remember the stage at the corner of the school’s front yard where we had special commemorations of Heroes Day, and some American historical events because I recall students dressed as Uncle Sam, and the American flag flew above the Philippine flag. On Mondays, we also had flag ceremonies. The gates were closed after classes started and opened during recess so students could go across to the stores selling slices of green mango with the black bagoong called heko. Now and then a classmate would give me a bite because my mother told me not to buy those. Instead, I would use my baon of one centavo, at the school canteen for a pan de sal smeared with salmon guinisa Until Tia Pinang came to fetch us, we waited by the gat and watched the teachers leaving, females and males walking separately until they crossed the street alongside the University of Santo Tomas and walked on together. Is that street Dimasalang? I have forgotten locations.
After the Manila Jockey Club was built, Camarines Street was filled on Sundays with the horserace aficionados. On one such Sunday, Eusebio de Vera, who would later marry Ate Luz, won the Sweepstakes race on the mola Semiramis. Sundays there would be vendors by the gate, which was on Camarines. Sometimes, Lola Salud would bring kaings of lanzones to sell from our doorstep. We helped her by drawing people’s attention. After everything was sold, we got the small fruits at the bottom of the baskets. Weekends and holidays there would be cars and calesas, and pedestrians on Camarines. On other occasions, like graduations for universities like FEU, we would watch people streaming by in gowns and suits. Otherwise, Camarines was a quiet street, with the regular vendors offering kakanin from baskets, taho, ice drops, boiled peanuts; sometimes tiny flat snails which Ate Luz bought to fish out the meat with a pin. I didn’t like those.
Outside the gate of the Jockey Club, on our side of Camarines, there was a line of stables. Mang Terio, who ran them, didn’t want children running in and out. But I remember going in by myself to look into the stalls and being surprised when a horse suddenly stuck its head through the small window above the pail of sacate grass, trying to nibble at my hair. I don’t recall returning to the stables ever, or telling anyone about going in.
When World War II started, the Manila Jockey Club became our shelter during air raids. Relatives also came to join us in the space under one of the staircases, feeling safe under the heavy cement foundation. They came with beddings and cavans of rice, and their children and grandchildren. It was like a vacation. I remember vacations in Samar and Nueva Ecija and Pangasinan. We could ride on the train for free. Once, Tia Nene and Tio Uling sent their car for us, and the headlight failed on the way to San Jose where there was a dam; so the driver held a flashlight beside the steering wheel. I don’t recall the return, so it must have been uneventful. Another time Tio Osong won the sweepstakes and surprised us by coming in a black car to give us a ride. He and Tia Mons also gave me a doll as tall as me.
Early in the War, before Manila was occupied after being declared an Open City so it would not be bombed--it was bombed anyway--Philippine Scouts on their way to Bataan were quartered at the Manila Jockey Club. Because it was almost Christmas a cousin, Ate Rosario from Masbate, waiting for a boat home, put together small bags of gifts, including, I recall, boxes of toothpicks. I asked why and she said, “In case they can’t brush their teeth during the fighting.” One morning, the soldiers were suddenly no longer there. Much later, we heard Bataan fell. One night not long after, Tio Piling knocked at our accessoria, a bullet lodged in his chin. A Japanese officer had shot him in the face and left him for dead. No one hesitated about taking him in, though Japanese sentries patrolled the streets. Lolo Jose Albert must have come to treat him; but there was no way of taking the bullet out.
Camarines became a dangerous place once the Japanese entered the city. I recall, Tia Pinang and I walking toward Malate to get news of relatives and, on Taft Avenue, met a Japanese officer on a mola coming directly toward us, so tall against the sky. Tia Pinang whispered, holding my hand, “Huwag kang matakot, patuloy tayo (Don’t be afraid. We’ll just keep going).”
With the Manila Jockey Club as their barracks on Camarines, there soon appeared Japanese soldiers demanding people to bow to them. Our aunts closed the windows tight, and we could only see partly through tiny cracks in the capiz; so we never saw anyone beheaded for not bowing to the sentries. But we could hear the sentries marching to and from their stations day and night. We hung black curtains or sheets at the window, so our lights would not be visible from the street, and kept looking for V signs to appear spontaneously on the walls, signaling that the War would soon be over.
Sometime after Bataan fell, we moved out of Camarines Street to Northern Hills in Caloocan. My father had started building there before the war began. I don’t recall the move; but I quickly realized we no longer had the escribana where I had hidden, among santol fruits, the check I received for a short poem about an ant. It was for one peso.
I recall also that when we got to the new house, we could see, from the veranda, no more than ten houses in the whole subdivision. At the end of Araneta Avenue, heading towards Malabon, was the Japanese camp. Later, we would wave secretly to captured American soldiers being transported there on trucks.
I remember the beautiful sunsets across from the golf course and sunrise behind the house. The large spaces between the houses were rice fields where fish leaped in the paddies. From the house, which had more windows than walls, we could see clear to the Bonifacio Monument that Guillermo Tolentino sculpted. Further eastward was the other monument at Balintawak. From the same windows, we watched Manila burning during Liberation and waited for Ate Luz, Tia Mameng and Dick to escape to us; and we watched American soldiers, who had landed in Lingayen, walking on the Avenida Rizal Extension, toward the Bonifacio Monument, heading beyond.
It was a quiet street.
With 17 books to her name, many of them historical novels, Linda Ty-Casper is considered one of the best Filipino writers in English.