ASK any self-respecting baby boomer, and they’ll tell you they want to know their family history. In my case, the oral history of my parents; in particular, my dad’s. Because I write for a living, it would seem the easiest thing to just ask my dad to talk about his past; his childhood, his life in the 50s, and so on and so forth. The last time I tried to ask nonchalantly, he clamped up. He didn’t say no, he just didn’t say one word.
My dad is a very articulate, very observant man, a given considering the type of work he did in the past. In unguarded moments, when he’s waxing sentimental, he would speak in that clear voice that has wonderfully escaped the ravages of age. And because he was a lawyer for many years, he gesticulates and talks like someone who knows his legal stuff.
But one thing about my dad and this we’ve noticed, is how animated he is when he is not on his home turf. Though he has never lost his dry humour, he is more relaxed when he is traveling and enjoying a new adventure, or when he is on holiday somewhere. He can then be cajoled to make fun of himself. I like that part of him, because he doesn’t display it very often.
My parents have been in full retirement for some years now. I talk to my mom at least three or more times a week, but I don’t exactly talk to my father when I call their home in Northern Virginia. More often when he gets my call, he will talk innuendo and then pass the phone to mom. My mother jokes that dad will say, “O, it’s a call from Alberta, or from Kansas City or even from Manila,” depending on who is calling her at that time of day.
My mother has become some sort of mother confessor, and she gets calls from her children, or from younger sisters and siblings scattered in California and Las Vegas, and one, a sister and her husband who have recently retired and commute between L.A. and Manila. With my mother, every call she makes or every call I make to her is more than just a mere “hello, how are you doing?” Our phone calls give us a chance to expound on our day-to-day activities.
We’ve spoken about her past before, but now my mom talks more about people who have passed on, and of stories dug from her “baul,” or her repository of stories from as far as the 1940s and 50s. I welcome these stories, because I am able to piece together what she was like in her youth. Though she still talks like my mother, we have also become friends in recent years.
My siblings are in agreement that we should convince our parents to talk about their youth, for they were born during interesting times, a time of turbulence, violence and scarcity. Mom and dad may have been children when the 2nd World War erupted, but they were fully aware of what was happening around them.
Mom would often talk about the “Japones,” (Japanese) during the war years, but what I most remember was her tale of her oldest sister, now deceased, who was a teenager during the war years. Mama Ching (as we called her) was the original beauty in the family, so that their mother, fearing that the Japanese would discover a young woman in their midst, dressed my aunt in long, black, bleak “saya,” outfits that covered her from head to toe to hide her youth. To me this was a remarkable fact of history because of the dilemma of the “comfort women,” of the 2nd World War.
Yes, it would be nice to talk to dad about his youth, but I would be hard-pressed to pull it out of him. I particularly like the story about a sailboat (paraw) his family used as part of their livelihood and the lighthouse that was their home. An oft-repeated theme was how my paternal grandmother hoisted their food supplies up to the ceiling so that the children could not get to it at will. Food was so scarce that she had to ration portions so that everyone would have their fair share. There were so many layers to these stories, that it was clear the only way to find out what was true was to ask dad to clarify each piece of the puzzle. And there lies the difficulty, how to convince dad to give voice to these stories, which we heard second-hand from my mom, or of what she knows about it, or from older cousins who heard these same stories from dad’s older brothers.
Why do I want these stories now? Maybe for myself, maybe for my children, or perhaps to hang on to the precious memories of what my dad and mom stood for. Once I tried to ambush dad to talk about his past, and sneaked in my digital recorder at the ready. I wanted to capture his words naturally, and he would give a nugget or two, but that was all, and we would be back to the present moment.
My dad comes from a large family. His dad (Lolo) was part-Chinese, and you could see this heritage in their features (as well as mine). There were the stories about how my paternal grandfather’s (or Lolo in Tagalog) Chinese father took one of his children back to China, leaving behind my future grandfather and his Filipino wife in the Philippines. After a number of years, my Chinese great-grandfather went back to the Philippine islands so he could take my grandfather back to China. At this his Filipino wife stood her ground, and so my grandfather was left.
When my paternal grandmother (Lola) died in the mid 80s we were surprised to find out that she was older than my grandfather. The story was that my grandfather had seen my grandmother’s heel or at least caught a glimpse of skin and that was grounds to marry. A cousin supplied this new tidbit: Lolo was a student of lola’s, which makes her kind of cougar-y. She said that “after school Lolo would carry Lola’s things brought home from school, but that since he was off limits at her house he climbed up the window to her room and that was how they were caught.” *
I remember my grandfather as a kindly, humorous old man. He was tall and lanky, with very Chinese features and a gruff Visayan accent. An interesting add on to this tale: Lolo was a mayor, and at one point was the caretaker of a lighthouse, so it made sense that they had a boat and lived near the sea. Another interesting tidbit supplied by my cousins, this one told from the view point of Auntie Nini (my dad’s younger sister who was also a dentist), who was a child during the war. What she remembers was how “they would jump off from their kitchen to the sea to go swimming.”* Perhaps that is why dad’s swimming style was all his own.
According to my cousins, Auntie Nita (another of dad’s sisters) also had several stories to tell about the war. She said “they hid inside the banig* rolled against the wall when the Japanese soldiers raided their house looking for their Tatay who was a guerilla.” I remember my older cousins telling me that their dad, who was a guerrilla, rescued my Lolo from the Japanese. There was also the missing Japanese sword.
Some of the pieces of the puzzle fell into place when we went home to Manila in 2008 for a visit. We had asked my parents to stay with us at the Astoria, My father invited his remaining siblings to a dinner he presided over. There was Uncle Joe, Uncle Panching, Auntie Nini and Auntie Nita. Uncle Joe, who was younger than dad, supplied some of the pieces to the boat narrative. He said they used the boat to haul goods (not sure if it was fish or veggies) from port to port (have to clarify that) and the boat had everything from cooking utilities, sleeping quarters, that sort of thing. Uncle Joe talked about how they were still able to cook even when there was a storm brewing amidst high waves and the cold spew of seawater lapping against their boat.
I don’t exactly know what their means of livelihood was around the 1960s-70s, but my grandparents’ owned a comfortable home in the “Frisco area in Quezon City, and sometimes, we would manage to sleepover. Where my grandfather was likeable, we couldn’t misbehave when my grandmother was around. She was a disciplinarian, wore her hair neatly tied in a bun, her eyes stern behind her glasses. While we liked staying at my grandparents house, we spun ghost stories about our stay there, mostly of car ghost sightings seen from a window in one of the rooms on the second floor.
My dad is a product of very conservative Visayan background. I never learned to speak Waray (the dialect spoken in Samar), and I guess we were never really encouraged. The fact that I can understand Pampango is a testament to the many summers I spent in my mother’s home province of Sta. Rita. And except for an older brother who was able to visit Samar during one summer, none of my siblings ever stepped foot in dad’s hometown. My brother managed to romanticized the summer he spent in Samar, when he embellished his stories of seeing ghouls amidst dark stormy skies.
In my head I carry pictures of a young version of my father. I remember vividly a picture of him in our home in Quezon City, a small black ID picture that found its way under the glass of his office desk. Dad has always worn glasses, but in this picture he is not wearing eyeglasses and there is a slight squint perhaps against the play of light before the picture was taken. The other day I was looking at older pictures, and even showed my husband some of the pictures taken when my parents were in their late 40s.
My parents met at the Far Eastern University (FEU) in Manila where dad was taking up law and mom, well, I think she was taking Education. I love listening to mom about the romance between her and dad. Before meeting my mom, he had an older girlfriend whose family owned an optical shop. “He always had the newest pair of glasses and it was because of this girl,” she would recall.
My parents married early. At least that’s how I saw it. I would often count how old they were when my older sister was born. By today’s standards, they were mere kids. My mom would recount how dad was trying to study for the bar in Manila and my oldest sister was crying her head off in the background. The kids came one after another, so by the time I was 21 and had graduated from college, there were a dozen children. I don’t know how they managed to have all 12 of us, but clearly they must have done something right.
I always thought of my parents as plain mom and dad. I never would have imagined them as being young, carefree, perfectly capable of passionate love. But they were. In the years when we were living in Quezon City, I chanced upon one of dad’s love letters to my mom. He was always traveling for business, so that there were long stretches when he would be away on trips to Guam or the USA. I had no intention of reading the letter, but it fell to the floor when I opened a drawer in mom’s bedroom. The letter was full of love and passion, the kind of letter you wrote when a couple is newly courting. But it was there, spelled out in dad’s clear prose, speaking of his love, and how he missed her, how he hoped to finish his work so he could fly back home. To think that they had been married for many years at the time.
This past August I got the chance to visit my parents in Wash DC. I had planned on this trip and wanted to spend sometime with my parents. They were older, but the dynamics between them had stayed the same. Dad still doesn’t say much, except when he’s observing and then say something off the cuff, and then follow this with a smirk and a funny kind of smile.
After a quick two-day visit to NYC with my sister and her then boyfriend, my son and I went back to Washington DC just so we could begin a more than eight-hour trip to South Carolina to attend the wedding of my niece. I’ve never been to this southern state, but I can tell you that the drive up to Edisto Island felt exactly like the description from books about the South. After unloading the car and getting the perishables into the refrigerator in our rented 10 bedroom duplex, we went shopping for groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly, which the author of The Help described as the supermarket that catered only to Blacks in that bygone 1960s era.
But I am getting ahead of my story. Dad always had a good appetite. Our stay in South Carolina was non stop eating, an Asian practice that even surprised the non Asians in the family. There was always someone cooking, someone chopping, something simmering on the stove, and dad being constantly fed by mom. Did I get to talk to dad? Not really. I spent some time talking to my mom, and to the sisters and brothers and in-laws. But dad? No, he was either lounging in the living room watching a TV show, the tornado warning flashing constantly in the background. If not that, he was reading old issues of the Washington Post, or taking a nap in their room. He also spent mornings at the beach, so much so that he spent about the same amount of time in the water as the grandkids.
When we went back to Virginia, I thought I would at last have time to talk to him. Of course, that didn’t happen. He was more an observer, while all the women in the family chattered about the latest shopping news. I love the closeness of our large family, and I guess dad basked in the glow of having his large brood all together, in varying stages. And he never complained, not once, when mom and I, together with a younger sister, and my son as driver, spent an afternoon scouting the antique shops in Leesburg. Dad can’t walk long stretches anymore, so unlike the time when we went walking all over NYC in 2005, where he walked faster than everyone in the entourage. But that afternoon in Leesburg, when he would just look at the knickknacks in the antique shops, while my mom, my sister and I, went on for several hours looking at nothing in particular.
Note: My apologies for any inaccuracies in this story, in particular, my dad’s childhood.