Filipineses


Like a heap of sand

Santa-lucia-gate-intramuros

Built or erected in marble or stone, though some cast in metal, as landmarks in a country’s history or reminders of heroic deeds, monuments are so aimed at permanence or impregnability that for it to crumble one day hardly sound possible.

From what I learned from a restoration architect, my late husband Felix N. Imperial II, who studied the art at Escuela Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, and came home with quixotic dreams to apply what he had learned in Intramuros, keeping monuments intact requires more than stone masons, brick layers and other such hands (because it is as much a handiwork as building them), it asks of governments a political will—monuments belong to a nation, after all.

Indeed, a great number of such buildings or structures have defied decay from both centuries of natural and manmade disasters like tropical weather and wars such as San Agustin Church but especially elsewhere, those well-kept palaces and temples we often dream of walking into, if only to experience a moment of greatness or a glorious past that for many of us exists only in ether. Virtually a young city of 140 years, I see no such buildings here in Vancouver the likes of Philippine colonial structures most of them sadly left for time to eat away.

But why must a country like the Philippines struggling to stave poverty feed its past of non-living things? Answers to this all too common question with what seems obvious can drag into either despair or acrimony those who belong to the many sides of upholding or not patrimony. Such complex imbalance of forces to Felix had first, scaled down then later, hazed his dream: Intramuros would have given the Philippines a niche with the only medieval walled city in Asia among nations who showcase an inimitable past.

Except for the four gates, major parts of the walls, and the esplanade at Parian, a few of which he restored from the ground like Puerta Santa Lucia, most of his dream—if but one of the palaces, the Ayuntamiento, would have risen again—like moth wings slowly powdered and blown away. He died though, realizing how tiny a vessel man’s body to bear his dreams.

I think Felix was luckier in that he found closure and acceptance, in contrast to my paternal great grandfather who had built not a national monument but a personal one, which I suppose most families would recognize, “for his heirs”. Of these, there are several in Vancouver, most of them exquisitely cared for as living museums—one of them, the Colbourne House still breathing right across our gate.

My great grandfather’s house was of brick and mortar townsfolk of Bacarra called, kabite; its frame had been all I grew up with, a hulking shadow right across from our then fragile wood and bamboo house; apparently its interior was burnt. While almost a myth to Santiago, a nephew my age, and me, as adults we dwelt on snippets of what sounded like tall tales about it. Such as: a short bridge spanning a narrow moat, circling the house, washing the base of a fat rectangle of what we heard were stables, and dark wooden doors and windows that would open at midmorning to the camino real.

As Santiago and I sometimes sat on ruined steps of what we thought must be a grand staircase, we imagined a giant chandelier flooding a hall. Long dining tables like those stacked up under the creaky house we lived in must have been set on those monogrammed linens I once found in my grandmother’s trunk. Guests must have taken their liqueur from those Depression shot glasses, which we thought were toys in the buffet shelf of Santiago’s mom.

He and I hardly met during our university years in Manila. Not even when a court case stirred enmity in our families in a fight over yet another property, the land where our house stood—we had since lost the one where the kabite stood through another heir. Two decades later, poring over a heritage book about our town, we closed the pages miffed at nary a word about it.

During a rare visit to town after yet another decade, I missed seeing the landmark. As I later retraced my way with an aunt, I learned why: it was gone. Where it had loomed solid as a small mountain, there sprawled a thick growth of poison berries and cactuses.  “Why, didn’t you know,” my aunt had said. “It crumbled like a heap of sand in the last earthquake.”

I would have to tell Santiago about it, I had vowed. But I decided to keep to myself a realization that no matter how massive some structures are like what my great grandfather built to defy impermanence, these could vanish. On the other hand, Felix’s view of Intramuros may yet be fulfilled: “it had lived through three centuries without me it would stay for others to dream of more.”

In photo: Puerta Santa Lucia facing the bay was totally ruined in WWII when a tank rammed into it; it was restored from the ground up by restoration architect Felix N. Imperial II, using traditional techniques of merely fitting the stones and without any reinforcing bars. He restored all four gates of the Walls.

Peregrine Notes, August 26, 2012, Business Mirror Philippines Opinion Page

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The Stone House
April 20, 2010, 10:35 pm
Filed under: essay, memoir | Tags: , , ,

On dawns when Ka Pedro woke us up, his cart rattling at our gate to deliver kindling for the earthen stove, and I crawled to the window to watch shadows, the stone building right across our gate would rise, hulking it had seemed toward me in tender greeting. I would peer through the half-light, hoping as I always did, to make out an old man’s figure who the old folks say, built the structure for his heirs to perpetuate his name. He remained a myth to my mind and my cousin Jack’s, wrought in snippets of what sounded like tales among kin.

On sunny days, Jack and I used to break away from our nannies’ tight grip and sprint toward the tiny bridge of that house, leading to the main door facing the street. The bridge spanned a narrow moat, fed by town canals siphoning off river overflow, circling the house, washing off the base of a fat rectangle of what we heard used to be stables. My greatgrandfather, as the tales spunned, bred horses for which he earned the sobriquet, “Don Benito, cab-caballo”, a fractured Spanish title.

From the foot of the bridge, we would single along the brick-covered walls and climb the low-lying ledge of one of the windows. Like dwarfs, we would sit, legs stretched, backs flat against the iron grill, taking in the sun as it bore down on us and the glances of townsfolk shuffling by the camino real of our town, Bacarra, Ilocos Norte.

By mid-morning, the dark wooden doors would open, one on each of the four walls, clanging on iron bars unlatched, screeching on rusty hinges. The windows too, would be flung wide, two on each side where we sat, snapping in great yawns. If our nannies remained distracted by corner street gossip they would have been engaged in, Jack and I would slink off the ledge and creep inside the stone structure.

Merely half-lit, doused at angles by dappled sunshine, the cave-like interior allowed Jack and I to creep and skitter around unnoticed by the workers of the dried Virginia tobacco leaf packing company, which occupied the building then. Crawling behind stacks of bundled tobacco leaf, unmindful and forgetful of the leaded smell we and our nannies would have to suffer scolding for from our mothers, Jack and I would weave and out of our fantasies.

Our favorite fantasy centered on the ghost of a giant chandelier, cloaked in dust and cobweb, hanging from its chains attached to the ceiling, which to us seemed as high as a night sky, and frozen in grace; its dozen curving arms and upturned tips forever unlit. We would imagine as we sat on the ruined steps of what we thought must be a grand staircase, how it must have flooded a hall we drew as the unbroken space before us.

Long dining tables like those stacked up under the creaky house we lived in across the street must have been set on those yellowing monogrammed linens we once found in my grandmother’s trunk, the scalloped dinner china in which she sometimes served stuffed chicken during the holidays, and the silver in whose handles initials of my grandfather who carried on my great grandfather’s name were engraved, its remaining dessert spoons we used in our playhouse.

Guests must have offered their toast on those gold-rimmed glasses, a pair of which we found in a buffet shelf of Jack’s mom. Wine must have been brought up from a dank and tart-smelling cellar we once slipped into but scampered trembling back up as the mice and house lizards we disturbed screamed and screeched around our toes.

Jack and I hardly met during our university years in Manila. Not even when a court case stirred enmity in our families in a fight over the land on which the structure once rose like a rather stocky giant. We lost our claim.

Two decades later, poring over a heritage book about our town, we closed the pages miffed at the lack of mention of the stone house. It couldn’t have escaped notice of the researchers, we thought, what with its solid thick walls, massive wooden doors, and that moat.

During a rare visit to our town after yet another decade, I missed seeing the landmark as we drove through the camino real. Next morning as we retraced our way with an aunt, I learned why: it was gone. Where it had hulked solid as a small mountain, there sprawled a thick growth of poison berries and cactuses.

“Why, didn’t you know?” my aunt had said. “It crumbled like a heap of sand in the last earthquake. It was good only for a hundred years.”

“And the moat, what happened to it?” I asked.

“Oh, it had long dried up as the river did.”

I would have to tell Jack about it, I vowed. But on my way back to Manila, I decided against calling him. I had by then realized no matter how massive my great grandfather built a structure to defy impermanence, he failed. It was then when I remembered our childhood fantasies about his monument to which we never did belong  in the end. Like the moving frames on the car window, these folded into thin air as we drove on.

By Alegria Imperial

Published in its edited/shortened version in timelesspirit.com