Filipineses


My first Glorious Fourth (for One Shoot Sunday)

fireworks, courtesy of wikicommons

The heat of the merciless Manhattan sun: this is the first thing I remember of that morning eleven years ago at a July 4th celebration, my first, in New York. The earnestness in the rush on the streets leading to Penn Station is the second thing which struck me as I huffed breathlessly through that mile and a half from downtown where I was staying with a Filipino friend.

Where was everybody going?

Inside the cavernous station, I felt even more lost as moving walls of people seemed to heave, instead of step, into their trains. Like hundreds of New Yorkers on a holiday, my friend and I boarded one of those coaches to Long Island’s north shore. I learned that Independence Day in most of America is celebrated in homes – among families.

Right off Westbury Station, our stop, I gleaned the Stars and Stripes planted on yards and home fronts. But didn’t I notice them flapping on Manhattan building facades? Maybe my focus was fuzzy in between the towers that slice the sky in the city, but sharper on the Long Island landscape of pretty houses with peaked roofs and latticed balconies.

On dappled sidewalks, passing through trimmed lawns, I felt the air enriched with holiday sounds such as shrieks of children, parents’ firm voices, and music from parties in progress. The air too, was textured with the scent of food – most sharply of meat being barbecued in backyards, some by the swimming pool and others under terraces, or shades of conifers.

waiting for the fireworks, image by Gay Cannon

My friend’s niece decked her terrace with Stars and Stripes buntings; even the table cover and napkins bore the colors. But the laid-out feast revealed the history of the household’s family, a narrative so common in families of America. There was pancit canton guisado (Chineses noodles) cooked by the niece’s Filipino mom, pasta from the Italian mother-in-law, hipon (shrimp) and alimasag (crab), from a Filipino aunt, sausage and peppers the Italian husband laid out on platters, rice and, of course, barbecued hotdogs and burgers.

Talk among family members were to me, slivers of life I had only imagined. An uncle of the host, a recent senior citizen ID carrier, spoke of his age with a new tune – it puts him first in any line like a boarding queue on a plane or in Disneyland; and it gives him 50 percent off bus fares and hotel rates, allows him time for more tennis and carpentry and Social Security perks.

The Italian grandmother in a motorized wheelchair showed off a cap with matching belt bag she got at a discount store that carries production overruns and sells everything for 99 cents. She had shopped on 6th Avenue from 24th to 32nd a week before, rolling up and down the sidewalks where there are defined ramps at every curb. She had taken the bus too, that ‘kneels’ as the door opens and the motorized steps flatten out turned into a ramp, and then raised to the level of the bus floor where on a designated row, the wheelchair locks into place.

There was talk about a Chinese in-law wrapping up work in Connecticut before she moves to Texas to a job with a fatter paycheck. A nephew who got his Med Tech degree at UST but who finished grade and middle school in New York had just returned, landing a job as a night lab technician. He didn’t mind the hours, and has taken a day job that gives a higher pay. He is in the Hall of Fame at his Long Island high school where he played tennis and won awards. Some nights, he puts this skill to good use, training petulant daughters of the privileged in an exclusive New York club.

Mere family banter but which, for me, unraveled the heart of democracy – equal rights and equal opportunities. As I listened, my awe dimmed when I thought of home in the Philippines. Isn’t my country ruled by the same principles? I thought, a bit sad.

Lunch over, we rolled up the table cover, crunched the napkins, and tossed these in the trash. As I crossed the lawn to sit on the swing, keeping to the edge fenced by the uniformly growing pines, I glimpsed through adjacent yards where barbecue lunches were winding down, too. Except for sheer markers like trees – a pear serves as a “cornerstone” – no walls topped with barbwire set off properties here.

I thought it was the end of the celebration when we said our goodbyes to catch the train back to Manhattan. The summer sun was yet mid-way its fall on the horizon as we boarded the 7 p.m. train.

We came back to a city jammed to the seams. The morning exodus at Penn Station had reversed; everybody had trained in, headed toward the East River for the fireworks. Blindly moving with the horde, we finally came to one of those parks opened to the public by private owners. This was at Kips Bay behind one of the many branches of New York University Hospital. Standing on the plant boxes, we scanned the sky. The fireworks were launched that year from four barges afloat the East River. This year, according to my friend, these were set on seven barges, a double whammy from South Street Seaport and the East River.

At 9:30, as in past years, the night sky started to breathe a quiet fire, exploding minute blossoms, and then raining splinters of the rainbow, swarming with shards of moonbeams or pompoms that heaved into giant chandeliers later falling on our faces. The display held us in what seemed a beatific moment. Around me, I saw faces lit by the shower of stars. With each variation – and not one seemed alike – our “ohs” and “ahs” swelled and ebbed.

That was all the sound I heard because we were too far to catch the symphony to which the pyrotechnics danced. No ear-splitting bawang or gunpowder smoke choked the air. Again, I thought of home and wished for a New Year’s Eve like the Fourth of July, and its promises I woke up to in New York.

Copyright © by Alegria Imperial as published in the Times Journal, 7/11/99, Manila

Posted for One Shoot Sunday at One Stop Poetry, the inimitable gathering place for artists and poets. Come check us out!

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Iliw (The Trudge: A memoir on my growing up in Bacarra)

the South China Sea in Natba beach, Bacarra, Ilocos Norte: sand dunes and silver sand, a rough roiling sea photo borrowed from Raymond Ramos

Iliw, Iluko for longing or nostalgia

Where I was born, a town the shape of a mallet in the Ilocos provinces that hug the northernmost edge of the Philippine archipelago, sky, landscape and things that breathe appeared lush, wild and poignant all at once. Wedged between a ferocious river, which ate up chunks of earth when it swelled, and a pastoral spread, which yielded rice, garlic, onions and tobacco, Bacarra—after a fish—that is its uncanny name, seemed charmed.

Or so I remember as I trace my childhood in roads laid out in a grid, marking out memories, making landmarks out of them. The horrendous WWII had just ended and the Philippines just gained independence from the US: we were dubbed ‘Liberation Babies’.

Life wove in and around our families, neighbors and schools, in rituals, routines and events set against rambling landscapes. Wildwoods fringed our playgrounds and schools. Nights and moonlights came as they should. We studied in the gas light; we played under full moons.

Such moments have not ceased to haunt me. Fifty years after my family left town, their spell still grips me especially those last years, my high school years. I had just stepped off childhood and in to transitory teenage-hood, those rainbow-bright years. My story is about those years.

The Move West

A kilometer stretch from our house to school posed quite an ordeal for me during my freshman year in Bacarra High, the public secondary school. We had just moved west to live with my maternal grandmother in a house close to the rice fields, leaving my paternal grandfather’s estate central east along the camino real within sight of the school’s eastern boundary.

That summer of 1957, life for me took on a sudden turn. After ten years of my being her only child, my mother had become pregnant; who but her own mother could best take care of her and the baby? My paternal grandmother, had so weakened with age she had to be sent off to a daughter in Manila

Emptied, our house had to be torn down; I watched it as our tenant-farmers took it apart, plank by plank and beam by beam. Mama had to send my grandfather’s tinted crystals to a cousin for safekeeping. The rag dolls I sewed button eyes on I had to box and give up for space.

Rafael Albano, my grandfather

Across our gate under the shadow of her father-in-law’s ruined stone house, my grandmother rocked softly in her wicker chair, waiting for the only bus trip to Manila. Her butterfly sleeves sagged on her white shoulders; her peppered chignon left wisps on her nape that flailed in the breeze. Uprooted from everything she had ever known, Capitana Canra looked forlorn— capitana being a sobriquet she gained, like all others did as wife of the presidente municipal, called capitan, during the Philippine Commonwealth Government of Governor General Leonard Wood’s time.

As Mama and I walked toward the sunset, I too, felt like dying especially when we reached the house of the Aligas—children of a doctor and a nurse, who met at the American-established University of the Philippines. Here, I spent most of my growing up years tussling at play and even eating meals with seven of them, swapping school anecdotes on the dining table.

At times, we went ‘back-riding’ in the doctor’s Oldsmobile when he drove to Laoag (the capital town) ten minutes away to play tennis or made house calls in the barrios. Once, we slipped through the car windows and dipped in a shallow stream, dripping from hair strands to clothes hem when Dr. Aliga rounded us back to the car. We had endless rounds on the Chickering piano or on the swing, and turns tearing off pages from their mom’s Home and Garden, Good Housekeeping and Saturday Evening Post issues. I, too, teetered as a patient in the ground floor clinic where either doctor or his wife treated my bruises, relieved me of allergies, or gave me anti-rabies shots; I was often dog-bitten, picking gardenias.

When I wasn’t with the Aligas, I would have walked to or been fetched by a maid of the Albano-Pilars; their father was town judge, their mother my elderly cousin on my father’s side. We played games of make-believe and staged our own version of Ziegfried Follies on the bed to their mother’s horror: what if we tumbled off throwing a leg, and broke a bone? Some evenings, as if we sat in a music hall, we listened to impromptu Chopin concerts by another cousin when her family came down from Baguio, the American-built summer city in the Cordilleras.

What Could Have Been

If we didn’t move west, going to school would be for me a breezy walk past homes and grounds I knew blindfolded. Right off our creaky gate, I would sashay to the corner looking across Lola Nena’s house. It sprawled amid a fruit yard of mango, star apple, and chico trees—so old they had branches splayed close to the ground; I used to haunt them like a leprechaun. A few paces on and I would be peeking into a granary curious about treasures hidden only to find sacks of un-husked rice that brooded like petulant giants.

Close to the granary would be the house of their grandfather on a lot the Aligas and their other cousins shared. Both houses opened through a driveway that the ‘sour-drop’ tree (karmay) shaded—it bore fruit we coveted like birds, tiny coronet-like clusters with yellow crunchy flesh—and tucked to a corner, a wooden swing over which we tangled for turns.

Once on the other side of the street, I would be peering at the mansanitas (golden lemon minute apples) we hardly let ripen. We would pick them, imagining callow suns in our palms; this wild tree grew sweetly close to the kitchen window of the Vers—yet another playground.

After this first block, I would stride past the Philippine Independent Church, and then come to the imposing two-story house of the chief of police, also an Albano relative. There often sat an old uncle by its wide capiz (shell of the gloria maris) windows—a retired priest who often raised a right hand to bless me. Across from it stood the Protestant Church which a weathered picket fence set off and clumps of bird-of-paradise curtained. I would take the gravel road bounding its western side, passing by a bakery, eye scrunched and nose pinched so I could resist the lure of sugar-topped, margarine-heaped ensaymada buns.

This unpaved stretch ran alongside the fenced-in wild woods at the ruined rear end of the centuries-old Catholic Church. If I could but scramble through a wire fence visible from the windows of the classroom building, I would be seated sooner in class.

Bacarra parish church, St. Andrew's today as repaired, another photo by Raymond

The Kilometer Trudge

But as it happened with our move west, I had to trudge a kilometer span of asphalt road and some gravel four times a day, including going home for lunch, then back again. First, I had to shamble through the dirt road from our house, passing by homes of Mama’s kin. This short span ended in between shades of giant breadfruit and acacia trees and the artesian well in front of the house of Lola Sepa, nurse-midwife, who seemed to cause babies to get born on her routes.

From here, the asphalted main road began: a singed black ribbon that unfurled on my steps. Soon, it would wind past the walls of Lola Loren’s house. I often paused right off its gate by a stream, which was really an irrigation canal, to breathe in some fresh wind or listen to bamboo trees hiss and groan. If she sensed me prowling, Lola Loren would bring me a glass of fresh sugar cane juice or a bowl of peeled pomelo slices.

In a few yards, I would be gaping at Lolo Pidel’s gabled attic, looming over giant fronds of China beetle nut palm trees. Once, I spotted two boys picking from a bunch of ripe nuts: I liked those sweetish nuts. Creeping by the fence, I yelled and sent them scrambling down and out through the back fence, leaving only unripe green nuts on the tree. Lolo Pidel could have been napping; he was by then, retired from teaching the long division and addition.

He had allowed the use of fingers to count to the thrill of the numbers-handicapped like me. (Lolo is from the Spanish term for grandfather, abuelo.)

The house of the mayor would be visible shortly and across from it diagonally, Silver Theater (named after the chemical symbol from his initials, AG, Antonio Guillermo)—the town’s movie house. In its fragile darkness, I watched ‘Silver’ of those early Westerns gallop as if coming off screen, trampling on me. Faces turned grotesque at times, when a wind escaped through seams on the walls and caused the screen to heave.

The main road forked a yard later and where it widened, spilled to the public market, going straight again by the town’s only tailoring shop and one of two general stores. I would be walking by now under windows that stayed wide open to the street—those of an uncle, Tata Gil’s house. (Tata, father in the Ilocano dialect, is also used for an elderly male kin. Tata Gil was another second degree cousin of my father.)

Serafin Albano, my father taken when he was in the seminary in Vigan


During most of Papa’s home visits from Manila where he worked, he would be Tata Gil’s frequent guest; sometimes we dined with his family and feasted on a special dish—sliced medium rare beef dressed with minced ginger and onions, ground pepper, and digestive juices, strained and blended with Ilocano black vinegar. About the same time, the Laxamanas from San Fernando, La Union would also be visiting—Tata Irineo was married to an aunt, a cousin of Tata Gil.

A few steps ahead to my left behind hibiscus shrubs and horseradish trees, was Tata Milio’s house, still another Albano uncle and later, my English literature teacher. On the next block would be Dr. Bonifacia Albano’s Bacarra Clinic. I used to be shuffled here quaking from high fevers for quinine shots or some other bronchial infections she had treated me that, as stories about me unraveled, began some days after my birth which she assisted.

And then, the landscape spanned out —a square composed of the plaza, public theater, municipal hall, and the Gabaldon Elementary School, which the fractured tower and baroque church clinched. The tower, once the tallest in the country, fell to its knees by degrees from earthquakes. I always shrank into a dwarf once I slipped into this broad embrace.

Bacarra tower, once the tallest in the Philippine archipelago humbled and battered by earthquakes, its head and two windows crumbled as it looks today from a photo also by Raymond Ramos


By the Tower’s Shadow

School was far from near. I had yet to go past the East Central School, the Puericulture Center and on a clearing under the tower’s shadow, the tienda where three spoonfuls of seeded-plantain or green papaya pickled in black vinegar can be had in a banana-leaf cone for a nickel. The pickles in clear glass tubs lined on a ledge so tempted me always I had to wheeze past.

I had to speed through the shade of what seemed a commonplace tree, holding hard my breath to avoid the stench of its blossoms. This bangar tree between the crumbling walls and base of the tower had a crown said to look like witches’ wings at night, when spirits it harbored were also known to transmogrify. With my back to it, I would be passing by the church gate.
Across the street, banana trees crackled in the heat, their hearts peeling prematurely. Next to them sat the only photo studio in town, which I hardly glanced at, or I would rather dash in and scan old portraits than track the rest of the distance along the vine-humped church wall that ended where the road slid into Bacarra High grounds.

Waylaid by a Prince’s Lamentation

One humid noon on my way back from lunch, I darted for some shade under the acacia tree fronting the public theater. Usually deserted at this time, a small crowd milled about while on stage, figures shuffled reciting lines; I had walked into a comedya rehearsal (a medieval mock battle wherein costumed characters said their lines in sing-song and danced their fights). I stayed through a scene where a listless prince detained in some mysterious kingdom by his rival for the hand of the princess begged his jailer for water, a ruse to escape. Naturally, I lost track of time.

When I came to my senses, I jerked and half-walked half-ran to school, sliding into a hush—class periods had long begun. Up the Home Economics building stairs, I bounded to our classroom just when Lolo Valentin, another cousin of my grandmother, was erasing a quiz in long addition on the blackboard. As I crept to my desk, invoking a veil from the clouds of chalk he had stirred, he turned to me wordless at first, and then, simply asked, easing my trembling, “Naggapgapuamon, apoc?” (Where have you been, child?)

It never got better for me in that class, even after Mama had me noon-board with the Aligas so I could get to this first period on time and more so, to absorb their diligence—all siblings finished top of the class. But nothing it seemed helped; I had to face the inevitable—a final grade of 78.

A President’s Handshake

A twin event to my sister’s birth was the visit of then President Carlos P. Garcia to our town—both happened on October 10, 1957. (He was vice president on the death of President Ramon Magsaysay in a plane crash.)

I wakened to a confused household that morning: the hens cackled so because Inay (Tagalog for mother which is what I called my maternal grandmother), who failed to feed them first was ironing my Girl Scouts uniform; routines had to stop about the time Mama started having labor pains. Inay had squatted on the floor, plunging the iron she packed with live coals on my uniform, which she laid over the lid of a wooden box layers of blankets padded. Where breakfast of rice fried in garlic oil would have been served with fried egg, she told me to eat my egg with pan de sal (salted buns). Inay reminded me to take a peek at my sister before I skipped off.

We, Girl Scouts, assembled in school at the softball field before we marched to the main road. The whole town had almost filled up both sides of the road by the time we took positions. I spotted a fringe of shade from a mango tree by Lola Nena’s gate, my old neighborhood, where I hustled my troop.

Two hours later, our necks already stiff from gazing east, we still could not make out any sign of the president. We had started soaking in our sweat and our temple flower garlands had turned limp in our hands, when the motorcade rolled in. Mr. Garcia stood on an open jeep as he floated through the throng the sun to his back—a small burnt-skinned man like an Ilocano. I supposed he had noticed my garland because he held out his hand to shake mine.

The Big Event: My Baby Sister

Mama gave birth to my sister at 3 o’clock that morning. After the euphoria of shaking the president’s hand, I should have gone to Bacarra Clinic to see them both. But I passed by it concerned about how I reeked in my uniform. Next morning afraid of being late, I walked past the clinic again merely glancing through lacy clusters of banaba flowers at the second-floor windows.

At our HE class Nana Idad, a sister of Dr. Albano and Senior Class adviser, came to see me as I gathered the apron I was sewing turned rag from a dozen re-dos in my clumsy hands. (Nana, mother in Ilocano, is also used to address elderly women kin.) She told me that my mother had been expecting me; everyone in the family—Doctora Pacing included—had thought that I felt jealous of the baby.

I proved them wrong when on the afternoon of the next day after school I asked to be excused from our cleaning group. I turned over to our leader five red candles, a gin bottle of petroleum gas, and the tin can in which we melted the candles on a stove—three stones we planted on the ground under the main building. Once liquefied and poured over with petroleum gas, the candles became our floor wax.

As I approached the clinic near the yellow bells climbing the walls across the clinic, I broke away from my friends, ran up the stairs my hands cold with anxiety and huffed toward the bed by the window. Mama was sitting up a bundle to her breast. My sister stopped sucking when I stood over her as if she knew who had come. How she met me was a sight I have not forgotten—marble eyes on a robust angel face a full head of fat curls framed.

my sister at 5 mos, her first ever picture a snap shot by an uncle who happened to drop by one morning

Her effect on me surprised my mother the most: one day I came home with a composition about it, which our English teacher gave a grade of 96.

While my piece remained posted for a week on the bulletin board, its worth lightened beside an incident that had started to preoccupy me: someone inserted a love letter signed Lonely Heart in my assignment notebook. Disturbed by its declarations, I vowed to unmask the coward who wrote it and turned into a spy, picking suspects in class everyday. And then one day, someone spotted a comics-like cover among notebooks left on the steps of the HE building. We fussed over the thin volume of love letters—five of us reading the letters we got from five cowards, or was it from the same coward? We never knew.

my sister with Mama

A Magical Moment

Then came the extremely cold year—the Siberian cold front that swept the Ilocos during our sophomore year, and which had sent us to school wrapped in knit sweaters and woolen coats, some too big for our size. It was also the year my seatmate and I witnessed with bare eyes how grass grows—a slight miracle at the softball field during the Monday flag-raising ceremony.

I had quivered in the wind, a light punishment for disobeying Mama who told me not to use the tangerine sweater that looked good on me. She had told me to wear instead the coat of brown plaids which hang a little past my wrists (a hand-me-down from a cousin in Hawaii). It didn’t help that Elena and I, being the tiniest in Section One, stood at the head of the line, facing the morning sun; the administration building would have blocked
its rays by the time we sang the National Anthem.

Everyone seemed sluggish those cold mornings, including me. Still, I kept turning my head for someone to talk to or laugh with. That week’s emcee had just called one of the guys for a declamation piece when I noticed Elena smiling—she always had a serious mien. What puzzled me more was that her eyes were transfixed on the grass.

Inching closer, I asked in a whisper, “Why the smile?”

Without turning her head, she whispered back, “Look at the grass.”

Imitating her, I suddenly saw it! A blade moved: first, a quiver, and then an abrupt flick like the kick of a newborn.

For the next two years, Elena and I those Monday mornings waited for the magical moment, half-minding the class trio’s growing repertoire of songs—a fixture in those morning’s programs—the last of which were “Volare” and “Fools Rush In”. We were seniors by then.

A Silver Medal

Before we graduated, I won reluctantly a Silver Medal in an oratorical contest. Papa had come home for a long vacation shortly after I topped the school-wide competition to represent Bacarra High in the province-wide contest. Tata Milio talked him into writing an original piece for me—something on Jose Rizal’s (our national hero) thoughts on the youth, the contest theme. He did and he also coached me on delivery: I felt like I had been dipped into a crucible. I woke up nauseous from an acidic and nervous stomach everyday.

I also had to give up my afternoon forays in the bushy northern edge of town to Lola Annit’s house—where I could pick as many purple star apple fruits as I wanted—to get home early for supper. After an hour or so, I would stand atop the stairs on our porch, a Coleman lamp flood-lighting our yard or the full moon washing my face to deliver my oration. My voice rang through a neighborhood of maternal cousins, aunts and uncles, grandaunts and granduncles who must have suffered through those evenings that lasted for three months.

Two days before the contest, I practiced before an afternoon assembly in school, receiving a cymbal-applause that only upped my nervousness. Afraid I would disappoint Papa, I threw a tantrum and threatened to quit if he did not leave for Manila the day before the contest.

Inay, who did not understand a word of English, accompanied me to the contest in Laoag because Mama could not leave my sister for the night. Toward the middle of my delivery, a commotion broke out in one corner of the Ilocos Norte High School quadrangle but I finished without a stammer. Was I ecstatic over my medal? I felt simply relieved the pressure on me had been lifted. (Emmanuel Bonoan of Ilocos Norte High won the gold.)

First and Last Dance

Within three months, we faced the final exams but we were more excited about the Seniors Prom. Two rooms of the Main Building, its walls knocked down, became our dance hall. A generator that whirred by the stairs kept the hall lit and the music going. Most of the girls either giggled or sat frozen out of nervousness. I sailed on a cloud as pink as my empress cut dress, silver dust outlining the roses. No one came for me until the third piece.

Just then, the first strings of “Fascination” floated, easing up the stifling air. I did not see him but before I knew it, he stood before me holding out a hand. His hands were clammy, and he held me rather loosely; it felt strange. I realized only then that it was the first time we touched even if we had known each other as children. That dance was to be our first and last.

Last Visits

I went home only once during my college years on my first semester’s break; I had enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila for journalism. I returned just twice years later—first in 1974, to interview homecoming Hawayanos (town mates who sailed to Hawaii in the 1900s as sugar cane gatherers and pineapple pickers) for a magazine article; and in 1982, to attend the installation of my maternal grandfather’s monument—Ceferino Acosta—for his heroic deeds during WW II.

My sister and I went back in 2002 for what perhaps could be the last time to turn over my paternal grandfather’s lot to the buyers; the family had decided to sell it.

As the new owners and I talked, I would glance at the wild growth where once was a tomato patch I used to stray into, Lola’s hoarse cries stopping me, to pick red globules off the low-lying vines. The sun that morning swept through crowns of mango trees now slouched from age and neglect; I had often watched Ka Iban, who also grew the vegetables, trim its branches before the rains. Across the street where I used to lurk waif-like, nothing but a gaping space remained of my great grandfather’s stone house, the moat surrounding it and the stables he bred horses now mere tales—Don Benito Cab-caballo who traded his horses they say from Vigan to Pangasinan.

The town I knew had so changed by then: most of our kin had died; the Aligas, the Pilars and the Albanos with their complex web of cousins had left for Manila and the Americas and Europe. My sister and I long orphaned, had since migrated to Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Summer in Mission, BC, my sister at right

Copyright © by Alegria ‘Guia’ Albano-Imperial and Kannawidan Foundation, 2007
Published as a slightly edited and expanded version in Ili a Nasudi, The Kannawidan Foundation, Inc., 2007
Published in part in Timeless Spirit Magazine



The Color Red

Shafts of red would spear the mountain peaks at sunrise in the Philippine archipelago I grew up in. Later tinged blue-gray from mist the forests exhale, dawn would seem to bruise the mountainsides, and then, fade in pink as if to heal.

 

dawn from the balcony of Angeles Estates

I would catch that last tint—such tenderness—but always on the rims of sleep. Once awake, I would trudge through the day steeped in the sun. Even in shadow, it wrapped me and things I touched. One day, I discovered the truth about the sun.

Its color is red not gold as most perceive it to be. Its heart is like a man’s, although it flickers not throbs. It takes on an illusion of absence at its zenith but in living things, it lends its flare.

In things, red either seeps in or withdraws. Red blossoms vermillion in camellias, frangipanis, and azaleas, or it metamorphoses into a flower itself, like fuchsia and the rose.

When blossoms shed petals, leaving a litter of brown scraps it is then when the color red deserts the flowers.  Or so it seems because some fruits do blaze like all the berries, persimmons, apples, and even chestnuts, or others when juiced spurt red like what oozes from cherries, grapes and pomegranates.

I had thought growing up and reflecting on red, that I alone possessed this secret: the Sun after coupling with Earth left it with its fire so much so that most things birth smouldering.

This secret interwove with life in my childhood. I often sauntered along church walls on my way to school, crushing chipped off terra cotta bricks. By midyear, my slippers wore a mitt of rust, a tint that looked to me more red than brown. I was awed not surprised.

When a granduncle died, I thought my red organdy dress would lift the shroud my family wore; flitting through drawn faces, I was tossed frowns instead. My granduncle rang the church bells and transcribed Latin prayers. He and the monsignor, I learned from random tales, shared after evening prayers tubs of basi, a brownish-red wine of fermented sugar cane; the monsignor himself not only officiated but also arranged for my granduncle’s burial.

Up close, the monsignor struck me as no more than a man but glancing at the red piping of his black cassock, I had thought he was more than a priest. He told me, eluding my question that red like my dress is but a color special to him.  He also pointed out we both wore socks that matched the red in our clothes and he even lifted the hem of his cassock for me to look.

That shade of red is carmine, the color of fresh blood which symbolizes martyrdom; I learned about this in religion class at the university. But the symbolism has nothing to do with the color of their robes; instead it is in how they ought to empty out their own selves to serve or give their lives for others, my professor explained.

But the lesson unleashed counter images of selfishness. One such image leaped off my childhood catechism pamphlet—a red heart that dies from love of self and turns black, which is the color of blood when it dries up. Soon, the drawing en-fleshed among people I knew.

The color red then began to dance before me as a two-faced Diablo, an apparition that sneaked in at night—one face masquerading as love, the other as death. This haunted me for years.

One such Diablo in my mind incarnated as an art director who trailed me in my job as a writer in the government media office. He sent me a bouquet of red carnations every Friday, which terrified me.  Until one morning in the course of our jobs part of which entailed travels to the islands. We started often before dawn. I begrudged waking to the hour and he, seated beside me. I seethed through those bumpy rides. 

Our trip began an hour earlier that morning. A full moon yet grazed the eastern sky to set. I eased into a groove by my window seat to snooze when the jeep throttled and coughed to a stop—a tire had burst. We had been cruising through the highway that spanned acres of rice fields. In the moonshine, rice paddies glowed like silver pools. But the bamboo groves hissed and groaned. I felt goose pimples growing on me. No one passed by this stretch for hours.

Fretting, I stepped on a stone that in the moonlight looked like a mound of earth by the root of a mango tree. Pain shot up from my twisted ankle and wrenched my body. I fell on my side. The art director leaped off where he was holding a flashlight on the driver replacing the flat tire. He tore off a sleeve of his shirt, broke off a branch and wrapped a splint on the back of my ankle.  Then he took off his shirt, lifted me off the gravel and laid it where my face was bruised by the stones. The pain eased and I must have dozed off. Soon, scarlet spears shot through as in my childhood dreams. My name came to me like a deep breeze—he was waking me up.

In the moment it took me to blink, it seemed lilac swatches had swirled down as if a violent hand withdrew and with a sleight unfurled pink tulle over the fields. He coaxed me to reach up as he scooped me to carry. I turned in his arms toward the mountainside and was stunned not at the sight but at the recognition of what I had always thought was a recurring childhood dream. In a flick the color red, its varied tones and moods, switched off my fears, smothering with its most tender tinge the Diablo slung in my heart. I was freed.

Copyright © 2010 By Alegria Imperial

Published in Timeless Spirit Magazine, Vol. #7, Issue #6, August 2010 www.timelessspirit.com Also posted in iluko.com



Cartography of the Heart–a letter
July 12, 2010, 4:03 pm
Filed under: essay, history, memoir | Tags: , , , , , ,

all that remains of Bacarra tower that used to 'hold up the sky'. Photo which has been passed on to me was taken by kapidua Raymond Ramos

Dear Lito,

Is the past descending on us like a sudden storm? Recollections, memoirs, archives, monuments and biographies seem to have multiplied by degrees these past years as if people were scrambling to hoard memories. Is it merely a perception or perhaps, indeed, the world is spinning too fast we’re afraid we might just lose our histories soon?

Some are lucky, like you, in that you still can tell your stories as juxtapositions of the past and the present. Or am I luckier because I’m telling my story from a vivid past discounting the changes I’ve noted in my few visits back home in Bacarra, Ilocos Norte? For instance, it was quite painful to see how that imposing fractured tower which loomed like a petrified giant all our lives has been reduced to a stump. But instead of groveling, which I first felt like doing, I wrote and I am still writing about my memories, even asking others to join in for a collective memoir.

In history, Bacarra is apparently one of the most powerful towns in Ilocos as the Spaniards found it and early on in colonial times. Neighboring towns like Vintar and Pasuquin, in fact, were part of it. (I know this for a fact, having read it in frayed documents.) Apparently, there was gold somewhere, as well, and its rivers were teeming.

I once stumbled on a picture of our tower, in a blog and it unleashed images of childhood spent under its shadow. That tower loomed overwhlemingly in our lives in both reality and legend. No Bacarreno is without a treasure box.

This is my favorite: Legend has it that its people reflected their pride in their town by constructing a tower so high it ‘could hold up the heavens’. It is said that a Spanish soldier on horseback, holding a pennant up could ascend the steps in the tower and wave the pennant from the second window. And when the bells were rung, it could be heard as far the edges of Pasuquin and Vintar. That the first earthquake sometime in the 1930s happened on the feast of St. Joseph, the humble patron of all churches, could have been a bold and loud message.

I grew up toward the end of the first half of this century, going on to adulthood when the world began to slowly change. In my childhood, Bacarra was still an idyll—wildwoods still fringed a lot of places, darkness and moonlight still came as they should, not half-lit or half-black. We studied in the gas light, we played under full moons.

My walk to school had since turned into something like a, ‘cartography of the heart’. I had not realized since I began charting my past how each detail, each small turn on the road, each tree and vine that climbed walls, events that were routines, that first love letter and first dance were so vivid it felt like looking at myself in a snow globe.

In your recollection, I feel like I’ve known you though we may never meet: you could very well be one of my playmates who watched out for summer bees—those abal-abal and aruaros whose wings we used to tie with a thin thread like a leash and let fly, listening to the roar of their wings, cruelly without knowing it, tracing how they circle around searching for their freedom.

Childhood, the past—aren’t we rich with a clear globe of innocence and glee? If there was some still-unfound-wind to wash out some of the gray sometimes black cloud hanging over our much-too-troubled days, your recollections and mine as well as a growing mass of others might yet be the magic wind.

All the best,
Alee

also posted in iluko.com



My first Glorious Fourth
July 4, 2010, 5:09 pm
Filed under: essay, memoir, travel | Tags: , , , ,

The heat of the merciless Manhattan sun: this is the first thing I remember of that morning eleven years ago at a July 4th celebration, my first, in New York. The earnestness in the rush on the streets leading to Penn Station is the second thing which struck me as I huffed breathlessly through that mile and a half from downtown where I was staying with a Filipino friend.

Where was everybody going?

Inside the cavernous station, I felt even more lost as moving walls of people seemed to heave, instead of step, into their trains. Like hundreds of New Yorkers on a holiday, my friend and I boarded one of those coaches to Long Island’s north shore. I learned that Independence Day in most of America is celebrated in homes – among families.

Right off Westbury Station, our stop, I gleaned the Stars and Stripes planted on yards and home fronts. But didn’t I notice them flapping on Manhattan building facades? Maybe my focus was fuzzy in between the towers that slice the sky in the city, but sharper on the Long Island landscape of pretty houses with peaked roofs and latticed balconies.

On dappled sidewalks, passing through trimmed lawns, I felt the air enriched with holiday sounds such as shrieks of children, parents’ firm voices, and music from parties in progress. The air too, was textured with the scent of food – most sharply of meat being barbecued in backyards, some by the swimming pool and others under terraces, or shades of conifers.

My friend’s niece decked her terrace with Stars and Stripes buntings; even the table cover and napkins bore the colors. But the laid-out feast revealed the history of the household’s family, a narrative so common in families of America. There was pancit canton guisado cooked by the niece’s Filipino mom, pasta from the Italian mother-in-law, hipon and alimasag from a Filipino aunt, sausage and peppers the Italian husband laid out on platters, rice and, of course, barbecued hotdogs and burgers.

Talk among family members were to me, slivers of life I had only imagined. An uncle of the host, a recent senior citizen ID carrier, spoke of his age with a new tune – it puts him first in any line like a boarding queue on a plane or in Disneyland; and it gives him 50 percent off bus fares and hotel rates, allows him time for more tennis and carpentry and Social Security perks.

The Italian grandmother in a motorized wheelchair showed off a cap with matching belt bag she got at a discount store that carries production overruns and sells everything for 99 cents. She had shopped on 6th Avenue from 24th to 32nd a week before, rolling up and down the sidewalks where there are defined ramps at every curb. She had taken the bus too, that ‘kneels’ as the door opens and the motorized steps flatten out turned into a ramp, and then raised to the level of the bus floor where on a designated row, the wheelchair locks into place.

There was talk about a Chinese in-law wrapping up work in Connecticut before she moves to Texas to a job with a fatter paycheck. A nephew who got his Med Tech degree at UST but who finished grade and middle school in New York had just returned, landing a job as a night lab technician. He didn’t mind the hours, and has taken a day job that gives a higher pay. He is in the Hall of Fame at his Long Island high school where he played tennis and won awards. Some nights, he puts this skill to good use, training petulant daughters of the privileged in an exclusive New York club.

Mere family banter but which, for me, unraveled the heart of democracy – equal rights and equal opportunities. As I listened, my awe dimmed when I thought of home in the Philippines. Isn’t my country ruled by the same principles? I thought, a bit sad.

Lunch over, we rolled up the table cover, crunched the napkins, and tossed these in the trash. As I crossed the lawn to sit on the swing, keeping to the edge fenced by the uniformly growing pines, I glimpsed through adjacent yards where barbecue lunches were winding down, too. Except for sheer markers like trees – a pear serves as a “cornerstone” – no walls topped with barbwire set off properties here.

I thought it was the end of the celebration when we said our goodbyes to catch the train back to Manhattan. The summer sun was yet mid-way its fall on the horizon as we boarded the 7 p.m. train.

We came back to a city jammed to the seams. The morning exodus at Penn Station had reversed; everybody had trained in, headed toward the East River for the fireworks. Blindly moving with the horde, we finally came to one of those parks opened to the public by private owners. This was at Kips Bay behind one of the many branches of New York University Hospital. Standing on the plant boxes, we scanned the sky. The fireworks were launched that year from four barges afloat the East River. This year, according to my friend, these were set on seven barges, a double whammy from South Street Seaport and the East River.

At 9:30, as in past years, the night sky started to breathe a quiet fire, exploding minute blossoms, and then raining splinters of the rainbow, swarming with shards of moonbeams or pompoms that heaved into giant chandeliers later falling on our faces. The display held us in what seemed a beatific moment. Around me, I saw faces lit by the shower of stars. With each variation – and not one seemed alike – our “ohs” and “ahs” swelled and ebbed.

That was all the sound I heard because we were too far to catch the symphony to which the pyrotechnics danced. No ear-splitting bawang or gunpowder smoke choked the air. Again, I thought of home and wished for a New Year’s Eve like the Fourth of July, and its promises I woke up to in New York.

Copyright © by Alegria Imperial as published in the Times Journal, 7/11/99, Manila

Posted at iluko.com



“Papa,” the last time

His gaze lingers, unblinking, as if he were seeing me for the first time. I wonder if I don’t look grotesque in the closeness of an ambulance cab we have been packed into. And yet his eyes graze every spot I worked at concealing like a bug-shaped mole on my upper left cheek and a shallow dimple he couldn’t possibly find because I, too, am gazing down at him baffled, unsmiling.

His cheeks defined by sharp high bones like mine, now webbed with track lines of the years have been drained of anxiety—some perhaps his own of his younger years and mine of evenings he waited for me to come home. His lips held by a round chin like I have, a bit wide like a woman’s flaked—they always did from some kind of vitamin deficiency like mine—and slacked as if about to say something but stays mute.

The paramedic edges closer and leans towards me. He whispers, “Say something to keep his mind awake. His hearing is still sharp.” But his thoughts like mine could be drowning in the rhythmic rise and fall of the siren as the ambulance hurtles into space that for the first time do not pull us apart like they did when as a child his visits home seemed years away. 

What could I tell him now? “I love you” or words akin to it that we never did exchange? He did sign letters I received as a child, “Love,” answers to letters I scrawled that asked for dolls—he sent books instead, saying these were easier to find: the first ever on my eighth birthday, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper he dedicated with a noble quote beyond a child’s grasp: “Education supplants intelligence but does not supply it.” 

He worked in the city a whole evening away and schooled nights, too. I remember birthdays I waited for him to step off the only bus trip that got to our town—it did stop at our gate for the driver to drop off a parcel of golden delicious apples and walnuts and a greeting card every time all those years that I read only recently: “Darling Baby…” 

“Papa” was a word I could say properly accented in the last syllable the Spanish way my mother taught me. But as it was foreign to my friends who sat on their father’s lap whom they called by the native term not “Papa”, it was a mere idea for me—the absent arms that could have caught me when I fell from the stairs once and scraped my knees or whom I imagined brought home chico, a brown fruit I craved during my malarial delirium, the figure who should have pinned my ribbons in grade school when I attained first honors, and who could have led fans as I rode on the open top of a bedecked convertible being muse of our Senior Class. 

When chosen to represent our school in a regional secondary oratorical contest, he descended like Zeus into my existence—writing my piece, training me in elocution, whipping me with his serious stance as he listened to me recite every evening on our balcony to a phantom crowd. Like a sword dangling in the night sky instead of the moon, a gold medal he had aimed for me haunted the hours—my stomach churned acids that kept me in the bathroom retching every morning. His presence had turned so venomous that I refused to go to the competition if he stayed—in the battle of wills I won; he left on the eve of the contest. I got a silver medal. He wired a note and sent me my first gold wrist watch. 

By the time he could afford to bring my mother and sister over to the city and we lived as a family, I had started working in the publications office of a university. He critiqued any piece I wrote—I faced every blank page terrorized by standards he pointed out in books he shoved at the dinner table. I broke down one evening tossing out the books, raging at his indifference to the child he doesn’t know for whom he wasn’t present ever. He had cried, quivering as he is now. 

“What’s happening?“ I rasp. The paramedic whispers, “a slight convulsion, don’t worry. We have it under control. Hold his hand.” I take his left hand in mine. 

It is the first time our hands clasp—his feels so fragile, so light like butterfly wings. I am tempted to squeeze it, to drain that power he had so held me in rein but the hand fluttered like a fallen wing. 

Is that a blink of one of his eyes? “No,” the paramedic tells me, “just muscle contraction.” The gaze continues to lie on my brow. 

What could be missing that he seems to search beyond me? I realize I don’t have time to ruminate, as he would call indulging in thought. With words, alien words, English words were how he kept me as a child clasped to his without being there, without being present.    

Discombobulate, was another word he loved. When he tore up tangled phrases and sentences I wrote, he hammered the rules of clarity. Work on language that paints pictures, he later added, as he earmarked pages of books on the craft of fiction writing. By then, my writing had turned murky—I had fallen in love and my emotions kept me etherized. But love was a word that he never talked about. 

The sirens wind down to a whine. “Papa,” I hear my voice and it sounds like a child’s. He blinks again and is that an attempt to squeeze my hand? The cab doors fling open. Paramedics push out the gurney and I let go of his hand. His gaze moves to the sky. Out on the hospital lobby, a river of moving legs seems to flow ever away, bringing my father.

It has been two decades since and here I am writing the way he would have loved, present in each moment that I craft words.

Copyright © 2010 by Alegria Imperial

Published in Timeless Spirit Magazine Vol. 7, Issue #4, May 2010



To Mama: Breaking Away
May 8, 2010, 9:40 pm
Filed under: essay, memoir | Tags: , , ,

 

“At the end of the street in the fading summer light as she turned to meet her bus, I felt she was gone, that she had finally broken away from my body, my heart.”

Forty-seven years had stained the lines my mother wrote in this diary I just found that summer I went away to university in Manila, twelve hours away from our hometown. I hadn’t choked on my tears when I would remember her for some years now since she died. But today, these threatened to well up as they did when alone in Manila I would miss her.

I was her only child for eleven years. In my university years, I used to send her tear-stained letters when nights of reviewing for exams drained me and I longed to curl beside her in bed. She would write back in flowing script, coaxing me to rise as if extending a silken crook like she did when as a child I stumbled on a stone, bruised myself and flopped on the ground in pain.

Shortly before I finished post-graduate school in philosophy, my father and I had a tiff about me straying away too far from a writing career he had dreamed for me; he threatened to stop paying for my tuition. When I wrote my mother about it, she had sounded friendly in her reply, telling me about how her life had opened up to the sky when it seemed doors and windows had closed. And then, she described how she picked the first fruits from the mango tree I had planted under my bedroom window, adding, “I hadn’t served your sister the way you like your mango fruit dessert, scooped close to the peeling, the fibers showing.” Those words so reassured me they transformed that night into a most unlikely lullaby. 

I didn’t finish my post-graduate studies and applied for a teaching job instead. An infection my doctor couldn’t name inflamed me with a fever for weeks while I was still teaching. I had gone to live with my family; my mother with my sister had by then moved to Manila. In my illness, my mother slept beside me; she cooled my brow and warmed my freezing palms with her breath. I had wondered then if I hadn’t gone back to her womb in spirit.

Later, a job that took me to the islands, traveling at dawn with strangers but adopting families in whose homes I slept and dined somehow made me feel like a squirming pupae bloating too big for its cocoon. Between my trips and deadlines in a government media office, my mother would be asleep by the time I got home. We had turned into “breakfast friends” by then.

I bared to her my pain only once before I met the man I thought was the soul for which mine pined. I had lifted up my agonizing face to her over that betrayal. She looked at me sadly but did not say a word. She had no tender word for me at my wedding as well, but she never took her eyes off me. Later, when I would cry on the phone begging her to tell me what to do when drugs for my husband’s stroke rendered him distant as if I were no one, my mother would simply repeat like a litany on the phone, “Pray, never cease praying.”

By the time my husband suffered his first heart attack before the last and fatal one I brought my husband to the emergency room, cruising haunted streets past midnight, our take-home dinner still in a bag—so much like my mother who showed no frazzled edge in an earthquake. I called her and my father only the morning after.

But I hadn’t really rooted on my own. That morning my sister called about the tests our mother just had—her stomach had bloated strangely and her indigestion persisted—telling me cancer cells had ravaged her colon to the fourth and fatal stage, I had wobbled to a chair, fearing I would collapse, while still cradling the phone. Younger than me by a decade, my sister braced me up saying, “You can’t break down now. We have a lot to take care of.”

City streets had turned into churning seas that bounced me from work to the hospital bed where she sank farther away each day. Yet, she held on, asking for flowers to spark the room when she lost her sense of color after a chemotherapy session. One morning, I filled up my breast with volumes of breath, sat by her bedside and asked her what she would want to wear for her first morning out to worship, in case she survives this dark night or she goes where she’s being called. She did not reply but asked me instead, “What about you? How then will you manage?”

I bolted out to the corridor and unleashed the dam in me, realizing the moment for both of us to let go had snapped. When my heaving had calmed, I walked back to her side. She gazed at me without tears. In an even voice I knew she would have been proud of I said, “I will be alright. You have given me all that I need, remember?” She smiled.

She left me with her last heartbeat, literally. I had laid my hand on her breast, feeling her sputtering heart as I prayed the litanies she had taught me. In the end, not I, as she felt in that diary entry, broke away first but she, though not in a fractured searing way–with wings like silk that softly flapped away, that’s how.

Copyright © 2009 by Alegria Imperial as published in Timeless Spirit Magazine