My molding came in three settings: Barugo, Leyte (where I was born), Manila (where I lived between 5 and 12), and the steamship that carried hosts of my families when they traversed the seas for three days between the two places, until I turned 12, when we left the Philippines and my childhood to live in America (Canada and California).
And when I returned to the Philippines, I would do so as a balikbayan visitor and an adult, as 19 years would have passed. Again and again, I would see my hometowns from consequent visits from different perspectives, and yet discovering that really tugging at my core were the same values: family, place, kapwa.
Barugo, Leyte, a Filipino American poet friend had said to me, was an idyllic, sleepy, seacoast town, when I took him there in the ‘70s. He spent three days there, and slept for three days. I didn’t know which was sleepier, the town or my friend. But that sleepy town holds a thousand stories! People there think that It has the abundance of stories because it has the best tuba (palm wine) in the country, and that makes for good stories and eager storytellers.
We once had a movie house in our hometown, but it burned down sometime in the 1950s during a town fiesta, and ever since then none had been built to replace it. In fact, it burned down twice. There was really only one suspect, but the town could never really prove anything and no evidence was ever dug up to accuse her. But I knew. I knew beyond a doubt who did it. I knew because I was with her just before it happened.
My Mana Gloria, ten years older than me, was really my aunt, not my cousin, but somehow I always knew her as Mana Gloria; though once in a while, elders would correct me and tell me that she was really my Tia Gloria, not Mana Gloria. She was the last-born of my granduncle Itay Usting, who had two wives, the second of which was her mother. She was a bit looney. I thought she was my cousin probably because I was the child who accompanied her the most among all the other children. I was close to her because my mother was close to her, because Mana Gloria had saved her son (me) and everyone else (all five people) around her from the Japanese soldiers marching along the street while Mother was giving birth to me. (That, by the way, inspired a story of mine called “Sebastian’s Fire”). That sense of deep though silent gratitude and shared self and destiny ran deep in the old folks’ minds.
The ticket man in the movie house would not let her in because she had not brought enough money, for I was with her and she wanted to pay for me, too. It was fiesta time, after all. Even though she was related to the owners of the movie house, the ticket man told her no, and said something about her being from a different mother. I saw the shame she tried to hide from me when she was being refused. She quickly ran away, me following right behind her. That night before the fiesta, flames mysteriously engulfed the movie house and burned it to the ground. I heard someone’s intermittent but familiar laughter all throughout the burning.
Her father, my granduncle ‘Tay Usting, was a legend in our town. He was a mayor several times in his younger days and created plays and poems and was quite the storyteller. He was my mother’s uncle on one side of his family and my father’s uncle on the other side. His children, therefore, were first cousins to both my parents. Folks say that he had inherited the gift of story from his grandfather, the super legendary Marcelino Villasin, who had a talisman and fought the pirates and the Moros in days of yore. My uncle Tiyo Busing, Marcelino’s great grandson and ‘Tay Usting’s son, took up this mantle of storyteller and took this role earnestly during my childhood. Tiyo Busing told me that this Marcelino Villasin went on treks and travels with his fleet, and at more than one time, found themselves foraging for food in the forests. It was then that he would use his talisman and point at birds in the sky, saying some mumbo jumbo words. When he did, several birds would immediately drop from the blue, and when his men went to pick them up, they were already cooked! My cousin Noel, Tiyo Busing’s oldest son, would laugh and deride his father (when the latter was not present, of course) saying to us cousins that Tiyo Busing was always exaggerating like that. But he, Noel himself, was already showing signs of this “exaggerating” when he told his own stories to our nieces and nephews.
Itay Usting took a bath once a year (whether he needed it or not, he bragged), and not really a bath, just a quick wipe with cloth, punas, and only on Good Fridays to boot, to defy the Catholic Church (for they forbade bathing on Good Fridays), which he always derided. In fact, to his dying day he was making fun of the Catholic Church.
The new parish priest came to ‘Tay Usting’s deathbed to administer extreme unction, the last rites. The next week, the priest came to check on ‘Tay Usting. Much weaker this time, but still definitely alive. The priest gave him another last rite going over, just in case the last one was too soon. I guess the last one might have worn out its potency a bit? He could barely speak but ‘Tay Usting thanked him. Next week, same thing. Still alive, Itay Usting. As the priest bent over towards him in familiar prayer and with holy water ready to pour, ‘Tay Usting beat him to the punch and whispered in Waray, “Sorry, Father. You just can’t kill me, can you?” To his dying day, one couldn’t get the last word on ‘Tay Usting.
Inter-island Steamship Liner
There was the three-day trip (now only one) between my two hometowns aboard an interisland steamship that traversed the many-mooded waters during school vacations. I remember the flying fish in the early mornings leaping in the ship’s wake. Loads of our families from both sides would travel. At times, I felt the whole town of Barugo was on that ship!
Tia Lola was my father’s younger sister. My father was the oldest; then six sisters followed, then a brother as the youngest. Tia Lola had lost a husband (of only a few months!) to the War and an only son to cancer. Though a woman of a few words, Tia Lola’s silence reached me quicker and sharper than many other authorities’ chatter ever did. She taught me to listen to people’s silences and I heard her own silence, as well. Sometimes, I still do. And in that silence, I see the steam-liner we were on in my childhood, plowing the thick, dark sea; there from our third-class cots and lantern-lit gathering of family, Tia Lola’s stories echoing from horizon to horizon. It’ll be a long time, perhaps a few lifetimes, before I forget those magical nights, when Tia Lola under a canvas canopy sky, unwrapped her freshly baked tortas, the lantern swaying as we huddled on our haunches on the deck of a ship adrift under the stars in the middle of the dark Visayan Sea. And for an imagined minute, the smell of Tia Puying the baker’s giant earthen ovens in the mornings of the fiestas permeated the whole ship.
The foods we get during fiestas and occasions in Barugo were something special and specific. I liked the torta cake the best. Well, I like the roscas cookies, too, and the pastillas, wow! However, more interesting than just the names of the food are the stories behind the customary things that are done with them That becomes part of the culture. That torta was made from masa, flour with butter and sugar and other stuff that my aunts gave me to stir to consistency. According to my oldest first cousin, Mana Inday, our great grandma had the family recipe. They had warned me that if I sneak too many tastes of that batter, I would grow worms in my stomach. I was there stirring the stuff amid the quiet hullabaloo of the kitchen, for it would still be early morning when my aunties would start preparing food. Besides stirring, I remember distinctly that for the first portions of food, sometimes even before the break of dawn, I would also be the delivery boy. And the first errands were always for those who were sick. “Here. Take this, anak. This is for your Tia Loleng. She has been sick lately. This is her favorite and I don’t want it to run out on her. Don’t take a bite, ha!” she would laugh at me. She knew they were my favorite, too. “What an appetite that boy has.” I don’t know why but they loved to see me eat, my elders. Appetite for food was a sign of good health and good attitude. I wasn’t too picky, either. I ate whatever was put in front of me. I still do. Maybe that’s what they liked. Though most times they knew what they were doing, and we did not, those “Taliban” aunts of ours. They looked at us as boys and girls, but saw us as future men and women navigating the ways of the world. Sister Raquel, the healing nun of Southern Tagalog, comes to mind. “If you have kindness in your hearts,” she said, “you can see forever.” All gone now, my Taliban aunts; though at the time going on well into their senior years, they had twenty-twenty vision all the way, for they foresaw the fruition of all the potentials that were in each of us.
Manila, the Pasig River
The Pasig River and I are old friends. I know her, feel her, smell her, and recognize her looks and her shape and where she takes me. To this day. When we first met, it was early in my childhood. Like Jose Garcia Villa, I was not young long; I met the Pasig early.
I learned to swim in the Pasig at about the same time I started kindergarten. We had just moved from Barugo. Later, after I learned to swim, sometimes I would cut school to cavort in this swimming hole that only we had discovered: The Planta, by the Tabacalera, at the edge of the Ayala Bridge, where around the bend was the Hospicio de San Jose. These places were neighbors of my aunt and uncle in whose rented house half our clan first lived as migrants from our provincial and ancestral hometown, Barugo, Leyte. It was the same house from which Tia Lola would espy me in the middle of the river pushing a long bamboo stick, standing on a bamboo raft (borrowed for half a day without the owner’s knowledge), which prompted her to shout my name in rage, standing there on the bank of the Pasig River, shaking her fist at me and threatening punishment awaiting me when I got home. It was hard to get away with anything if you have “Taliban” aunts like we did. (That night, they had to restrain my father, who was usually mild-mannered but had taken a knife, from coming close to me.)
No one taught me how to swim. I learned by myself. We all had to. We were not afraid because there were always a lot of us. I had to learn by myself, but people were watching. The first time I jumped in, I drowned. I went straight down. I thought there was nothing to it. I woke up on a big rock with someone, my friend’s older brother, pumping my chest and arms. Like a fool, what did I do after I came to, after I gained consciousness? Of course, jump right back in and tried to swim again. I remember vividly this incident of my drowning to this day. I jumped in. I started sinking. I started going down and down and down and things started to get darker and darker and colder and colder, murkier and murkier, debris in the dirt brown river floating around me, and I got really scared when things started feeling comfortable and settled. Then, the next thing I knew, my friend’s older brother was pumping my chest and arms. After I came to, like I said, I jumped right back in.
Just last year, pondering my golden years, in Manila visiting, at Max’s Fried Chicken along Roxas Boulevard, I looked out through the window of my youth straight to Manila Bay where in my boyhood, near that very same spot, by what is now the Cultural Center of the Philippines, I swam and frolicked, like a gloating thief in the sun. The halo-halo of Max’s was superb, but it did not cost twenty centavos, like his halo-halo did, those hot afternoons in the end-of-the-day games of his boyhood.
The sea beat with the same Intermittent waves of my youth and splashed against the rock breakers between the sidewalk and the sea, where we would take turns watching our clothes for we all swam naked. One fully clothed boy would watch on the rocks while the others swam out in the bay. Sitting on those rocks one could see the sea on one side and the city on the other, a vantage point between sidewalk and shore. That was the responsibility of Loran, our clothes-watcher on duty that day. Loran the lightweight, the sharp-eyed one. But his and our undoing that day was not his sight but his ears. He heard the bells on the sidewalk calling, the inviting ice cream man and his cart going tingalingaling. He heard it right when the afternoon sun was beating down on his sweaty neck, and instinctively he darted for the cart and the direction from where he thought the sound of the bells were coming. When he returned, (it seemed only a split-second), all the clothes he was supposed to have been watching, our clothes, not his, were gone! I am so glad that my mother, who warned me just about anything, never saw us streaking all the way home, butt-naked, dripping of bay water, quickly evaporating in the sun, as a taxi sped by almost hitting me as we ran across the wide boulevard, the driver cursing, me pissing on my pants but simultaneously and peculiarly relieved to discover that I had no pants to wet.
Years and years later In Manila, during one of those balikbayan visits, when I was already an adult, I was staying at my Tia Icing’s, another sister of my father, at Fuentes. I was told that there were visitors outside from Barugo. If Manila does not go to Barugo, Barugo will go to Manila. That seems to have been the process then. I came out to see a woman with four kids beside her, all in line and descending heights. I looked and smiled at the woman who seemed to be smiling, but her eyes were on the verge of tears.
“Ongkay,” she said to me. I can count with my fingers the people outside Barugo who know my childhood nickname.
“Mana…Tia Gloria…” I approached her and before I could put my arms around her, she broke down. I caught her and tightened my embrace. She broke down the way Tia Lola did when I went down the pier to embrace her in Tacloban the first time I returned.
“My kids,” she said, after a while, gathering herself and touching her cheek lightly. She introduced them all from the smallest to the tallest and when she came to the last who was a boy, “And this,” she said, “is Oscar, my firstborn.” Yet another ancestral and cyclical journey in the making.
Oscar Peñaranda is an educator, writer, and culture-bearer for and from both shores of the Pacific, and is a recipient of the prestigious Gawad Alagad ni Balagtas for lifetime achievement for his writings and endeavors. He currently sits on the board for the San Francisco Filipino Cultural Center.
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