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