Mommy claimed I was determined to be born. She seemed to have trusted more my audacity than Sta. Clara’s benevolence. Actually from my birth to adulthood, it was that trait that she associated me with and which she couldn’t reconcile herself with. It must have threatened her rule, especially over my father.
Mommy had had three miscarriages, then I was born. That was what she construed as a fetus’ determination. In truth, she merely followed a custom in her hometown, Obando. She danced during the town fiesta in honor of Sta. Clara, as many women unable to bear a child did. On that day in May—the fiesta ran for three days, 17th to 19th—she just stepped out of my lola’s house which was on the main street called Pag-asa, then fell in line with the moving procession of barren women, and swayed with them, their arms jiggling from side to side—“Sta. Clarang pinung-pino…”(do I even remember it correctly?). I don’t even think she bothered to put on the customary baro’t saya like other dancing women desperate to have a child did. That small detail apparently didn’t matter, for a year after that, I was born—the one who broke the string of miscarriages in the two families of Obando and Malabon joined in marriage.
Sta. Clara listened, so now it was but fair that the girl, a firstborn, should be named Clarita, in honor of the saint who lent an ear to my mother who didn’t follow the fiesta garb. I came first in everything where the two Obando and Malabon families were concerned, mainly because I was the first grandchild to both.
My father’s family was among the homegrown families who lived in Concepcion, as the main neighborhood in Malabon was known, alongside the Bautistas, the Marcelos, the Gozons. My father was an only boy, the second of four siblings, an obedient son who could have gone deeper in the guerilla movement during the Japanese Occupation, except that he’d rather not do it behind my lolo’s back. That obedient.
Daddy’s sisters doted on me even before I could walk because they said I was beginning to look like the youngest sister they lost right after the war. Tita Alicia, her name, fell ill and died before she could turn five. Her portrait in a special corner of the living room showed her with round marble eyes that bore through full bangs. Those alert eyes and a perfect round face—the household, especially an “espiritista” grandaunt, believed I was tita Alicia’s reincarnation, an unspoken family conviction that I had nothing against, not even when I was already a grownup and was clearly not a reincarnation of any entity.
But my Lolo really didn’t care about my reincarnation. He was an astute businessman who became a councilor, established the Boy Scouts chapter of Malabon, almost won his bid for vice mayor but lost by three votes after Daddy, then in his teens, who was assigned to watch the ballot count, got hungry and went home to eat. His funeral procession—he died shortly after his friend, President Magsaysay, did in the ‘50s—was said to have been the longest and grandest the town had seen, which was taken as proof of how the community owed him a debt of gratitude and held him in high esteem. In grade school, on a weekend visit to Malabon, I was shown the street named after my lolo. It was an alley, from here to…. here. That was my first lesson on the cruel fleeting nature of political power.
But—no matter the token alley legacy, Daddy and his sisters remained thankful to a town that turned out for their father’s funeral, so that they would visit each and every wake of a mourner who paid his last respects to my lolo. This self-inflicted social duty went on for two generations, at least. Already a mom myself, I would still overhear them remind each other to go to so-and-so’s wake, like they were ticking an item off a debt list. It didn’t hurt that in Malabon, attending wakes was a favorite past time.
Lolo, who was a friend to everyone, even the non-voters, wanted his first grandchild to be by his side always, or at least be in the center of things, so that when my tita, a concert pianist who became the town’s in-demand piano teacher, held a piano recital of her students, Lolo insisted that I be in the program—the front act. It is the design of an All-knowing God that three-year-olds know no shame or embarrassment. So I didn’t.
MAN ABOUT TOWN
In my lacy dress with puff sleeves and inner layer of stiffener (must have been tulle), I stood at the stage wing. I must have been told that the raising of the curtain was my cue to walk to centerstage, for how else did I find myself already seated on the piano and poking on the keys? This—before the emcee could introduce me. The keyboard play must have been over in less than a minute, and the audience’s laughter in two minutes. The scene must have seemed like a dwende’s fleeting apparition on the respectable stage of St. James Academy, the school that produced many bold-type-faced alumni, from Juan Ponce Enrile to Gilda Cordero Fernando.
Indeed, for me, Lolo broke simple rules, such as my bedtime. A widower—Lola died shortly after giving birth to tita Alicia—he must have been a man about town, and sometimes, apparently, he did the town with me. He’d plop me on the back seat of his Buick, with him behind the wheel. I stood—not sit—on the back seat (this was decades before car safety restrictions), my arms stretched out, a four-year-old’s mini Oblation. Standing, I could see the street scenes rolling by; it was a four-year-old’s night life.
From those evening joy rides with Lolo, I would remember the heady intoxicating scent of perfume (Shalimar)? I’d try to figure out later as Lifestyle editor) that made me sneeze and which stayed in my mind for days, and the cheery sight of ornately beaded slippers, glinting in the light, hanging on row upon row in the store we went to. Long after Lolo was gone, in my teens, I would have the curious intelligence to conclude what the perfume and the slippers were all about: Lolo’s mistress. In truth the word shouldn’t carry a social stigma because Lolo was a widower who had every right to have a girlfriend—a woman his children needed not know about, but one whom his apo could have a sensual memory of.
My participation in the nocturnal visits ended abruptly the night Lolo stepped on the brakes—literally. The Buick must have been about to hit something. Screech. I came tumbling forward, head first, to the front seat, my mini-Oblation pose turning into a nose dive. That gave me a lump in the head which, Mommy believed, left me with a misshapen brain. In my adult years, Mommy would attribute my life’s bad decisions—meaning, the countless ways I didn’t do as she said—to that somersault in the Buick.
Whether she openly blamed Lolo or not for that evening, I don’t remember. But it wouldn’t have made a difference, for Mommy’s gripes against her in-laws comprised a litany that ran her full lifetime and three-fourths of ours.
Foremost among them and which became her default memory was how one of my titas made me take a big tablespoon of Rufina patis —Malabon was the country’s patis capital—because my tita accidentally mistook patis for vitamins. Patis and vitamins shared a pale golden color, but not the taste and the nutrients.
Again, I don’t think Mommy called my tita to task for giving me the wrong nutrition. Her resentment was never out in the open because as a young couple, Mommy and Daddy had to stay with my father’s family in Malabon and therefore, she had to live with, not against, her in-laws.
Malabon hardly shared me with the Obando folks— except when I had the chickenpox and I was turned over hurriedly to Mommy’s family to spend the weekend in Obando. That was Mommy’s version which I didn’t bother to validate perhaps because I never ascribed bad motives to Malabon.
To me, Malabon was Lolo and my favorite kutsinta delivered every afternoon by Mang Inggo—the same Mang Inggo, I would learn, in Nonoy Marcelo’s “Tisoy” —and Daddy’s favorite adobo cooked by his aunt which had soupy lard and no soy sauce. Daddy put patis on every food, even fresh mangoes. His diet was everything we would be warned against in the ‘90s, yet he lived to 90. He died of pulmonary embolism, not heart attack. Daddy must have had a strong heart, but it was very soft.
Daddy was on a year study grant at Temple University in Philadelphia when Lolo succumbed to throat cancer, a quick bout. Daddy was told to fly home, just hurry, without being warned that he’d make it not to his father’s bedside but to his funeral. On the day of Daddy’s arrival, I was on the watch list of what must have been the entire Malabon; I was told repeatedly to keep my mouth shut about the sad news. Who has sworn a five-year-old to secrecy?
The moment Daddy swept me into his arms at the airport, I reported—reported, not merely broke—the story, down to the description of how Lolo now lay in state at home, surrounded with flowers and the “police” (the military honor guard). That day must have been the first sign of my making as a journalist—I couldn’t be trusted with secrets.
The second story of Lolo’s house was filled with mourners, the offensive smell of wreaths, the cloud of tobacco smoke which not even the wide expanse of fully opened capiz windows and ventanilla could let out. And at the center of this scene set ablaze with funereal lights was Daddy, his body a crumpled image by the coffin. Tears were not enough for the only son. Right there and then he decided he was not returning to America for he missed home, ruled not by guile but by a soft heart.
It scared me that Lolo had a hole in his throat where a tube was attached. I refused to go near our ailing patriarch, not even when he called out my name—a really mute and feeble attempt because hardly any sound came out of that hole. So—one day, to turn my attention away from my toys and to him, he extended his cane and with its handle, hooked my neck to pull me to him. That was the last time I heeded Lolo’s call.
Shortly after his death, my titas warned me incessantly not to go with Lolo in case he paid me a visit and invited me to join him, and certainly not to take the kutsinta if he offered me one. He never did, obviously, but even to this day I never could take any offering of kutsinta without thinking of Lolo’s non-appearance and Malabon’s false warning.
Not even in my grade school years did Lolo appear in my life again. Not even when, after a vicious scolding by Mommy over my failing grade in Arithmetic, I sobbed and whimpered in bed dramatically and begged Lolo to come take me with him to paradise. If I did that today, that would be a mental health issue. As early as then, at 10 years old, I already had an important lesson: the dead don’t come back for the living, certainly not over a grade of 65 in the report card.
The Malabon house had been rebuilt from a post-war bahay na bato style into a typical two-story concrete house of the ‘60s. But even if it hadn’t been rebuilt, I doubt if Lolo would have lingered there, not even in the garage that housed his Buick, nor in the ante-sala where my titas played the piano at night, especially when their suitors came calling.
Contrary to what my cousins like to believe, I doubt that there are overstaying ghosts in Malabon—“mga Aglipay,” Mommy used to label her in-laws. “Mga Romano” (Roman Catholic Church, to distinguish from the church founded by Aglipay), my titas would refer to Mommy’s traditional Catholic folk of Obando.
The “Aglipay” and the “Romano” gave me the early flavors and tensions of life, the former was benign but the latter proved tragic. I will tell that story another day.