Filipineses


What keeps you away from home, Tia?

The three-storey house has risen on soil she once called home. I’ve climbed it to the roof top where I scooped in volumes of sweetish tropical breeze, gazing at a perforated sky—I once read that the Philippines’ latitude crowns it with a concentrated view of the constellations.

Unlike the old bungalow, as if furious for the absolute, my uncle had poured his dreams into this new house: Marble floors and wide ledges, windows from across each other for counter-flow, bathrooms adjacent to the bedroom outfitted with splatter-safe floors, and elevated to bar prying eyes from the street, a free-flowing living-dining kitchen furnished ala America on the first floor.

The old house also sprawls in light-splashed spaces from high ceilings and wide windows that siphon light, but its fewer bedrooms did pose a quandry over a sister’s long-talked about retirement place. And then, horrible Andoy inundated this house almost to the roof top, washed off most of life he had stacked in books and memorabilia, and stayed as trauma dregs, which is why, in the new house, a climb begins at an elevation of tall six steps up the front door. The push for its construction came during his sister’s yet another homecoming; this time, an architect and contractor had been called.

Still, two homecomings later, the sister kept dipping her toes and withdrawing them, like testing the pool for safety even comfort, as she silently pined for half her heart in Honolulu, her home of 30 years. Apparently, without her meaning to, her veins have rooted among undulating roads around Waikiki; how could Manila’s roads in constant Gordian knot compare? At 80 years old, sustained by youthful spurts of wanting to check out a good deal at Ala Moana Mall or attend a bishop’s noonday holy mass at the downtown cathedral, she had often felt stymied by warnings of black diesel smoke that could choke her and bad wolves prowling sunset streets of Manila in the few months of her stay.

Balikbayan boxes of her own appliances bundled and humped in a kitchen corner of the old house, notwithstanding, my aunt has not ceased refining her purchases to furnish the dream house—of late, a Kuerig coffee maker to replace a yet unpacked programmable-brewing-time Black and Decker. The Kuerig, she later worried, could conk out in one of those power surges or undetected fluctuations so common in Manila.
Stacks of food also trail her as if she had not known long ago how Philippine grain tastes, insisting that the 20 pound bag of brown rice from California tastes cleaner and nuttier. She had once brought 10 pounds of steak round, claiming local beef tastes ma-anggo. Concerned whether or not papaya or what other fibrous local fruit could be available as soon as she arrives, she would stock up on Costco’s dried fruit bags and prunes to bring, not to mention, of course, those aromatic macadamia blends of Kona coffee. Several trips on buses that kneel would keep her occupied, finding more stuff to fill the dream home.

But unease have persisted each time she flew in. That first morning she and I had visited Manila, her creased forehead on waking warned me of a terrible day unfolding: she felt a blister inside her left cheek. Which dentist would see her promptly? Given her health concerns that her dentist in Honolulu would not have to review, would she get proper care? We had hang our heads on the breakfast table, despairing over seeming improbables like if no one could bring her, she would have to ride a tricycle to the gate first, flag an FX express and risk being suffocated by the redolence of bold fragrances, which office-goers wear, or worse, seated beside a svelte friendly lady whose deft wrists could magnetize valuables.

Visiting my sister and me at our hotel during a short trip to Honolulu, my aunt had complained of dizziness from sleeplessness, perhaps from the soda pop she had sipped in a children’s party though she had just received a glowing reading of her last check-up, all paid for by health insurance, of course. Again, we had hang our heads, shivering as we confronted the day when her ailments might progress, God forbid, and who would then, take care of her?

You really have to go back home to Manila, Tia, I had gently proposed. She agreed as she picked up a bagful of alamang, dried dangit and espada, pusit, too, she had brought back from Manila she had promised to share with us. And three bags of Kona coffee, of which I first demured, but she insisted, saying she had more from another Balikabayan box about ready for pick up. I hugged her, rueful with gratitude.

Against my aunt’s two lives and those of friends to which I’ve been privy, I realized what rends them apart when threatened by uprooting: As the landscape of security and comfort pushes forward, details as in forest trees, cloud the choice. Would hearth, which had birthed her, win out in the end? Among quite a number I’ve known, holding out too long turned out too late for a decision. Yet, I believe, the play of both lives sustained them, as it does my aunt.

Homecoming, Peregrine Notes by Alegria Imperial, Business Mirror, Philippines, November 3, 2013, Manila

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Homecoming (Peregrine Notes, my column at Business Mirror)

Waders_in_flight_Roebuck_Bay

The word makes me wonder if most of us, like me, were born to leave home and later pine to return. Are we somehow reflections of homing birds, like the swallows of Capistrano, or the terns and geese of North America? Or closer to what I know, do we return where we come from like the salmon of British Columbia that swims back when matured to the river where it was spawned?

But unlike birds and fishes, home, for me, is no longer a place. I suppose it has ceased being one as I changed from one whom I recall even as recently as a year ago. This sense of being alien, which in a way is a reality, could have started to deepen like a whorl in my heart since six years ago when I hurriedly unloaded six decades of my life to live in Canada. At first, I couldn’t imagine going back home.

Where is home? Not that last apartment I emptied not only of accumulated debris but also of mementos and tags of moments lived, which my mother moved from house to house. Or an architect’s house that stood in an ancestral lot owned by five generations I was married into, which I had to sell. Where my sister and I lived with our parents for twenty years close to her high school is now a meaningless shell along smoggy Ramon Magsaysay Boulevard.

Not even where I was born already a vacant space shaded by an ageing pomelo by the time I learned how to read, the borrowed hut lent by an uncle of my father for my mother’s family driven into homelessness by WWII. Or where I grew up with my father’s mother said to be another temporary home built after their stone house from across was burnt. When my mother had to move back to her mother’s for care on the birth of my sister and my other grandmother debilitated with arthritis had to be hauled to a daughter in Manila, I watched it painfully torn down piece by piece and hoisted on to a carabao cart, with my childhood in it.

Massive convent walls where I was sent after high school and the dormitory run by nuns from across UST where I lived for six years sort of healed the gnawing loss I nursed from seeing those fragile walls just gone but I couldn’t call them home. Where then lies home? In my recent homecoming to Manila, I realized that home is both not a place and a structure but something “visible only to the heart” as The Little Prince of Antoine de Saint Exupery told the fox.

My homecoming last month was both ideal and deeply sad. Like a tide surge, my cousin’s death, Ceferino ‘Nonoy’ M. Acosta III, left no space for me to waver about a flight and waffle about gifts to bring. I was so wrapped up in my emotions that the smog, which swarmed the path of United Airlines on its descent to NAIA, failed to daunt me. Nor did the snarl in Baclaran, being a Wednesday, through Roxas Blvd. unnerve me. The landscape though felt shrunken and tighter with buildings now unfamiliar to me, and a crowd thrice multiplied; yet as the SUV that fetched me coughed through clogged streets, it had seemed normal.

I couldn’t guess how I would feel arriving at Paz Memorial Homes; it would be my first as a balikbayan. But with my first step into the chapel where Nonoy lay in state, I felt like I’ve been in it the day before—how many times have I bristled in the arctic air conditioning during a wake of relatives and friends? My uncle and aunt soon swept me in their grieving arms and we wept, sobbing words for the smiling Nonoy, a scene I have watched with other relatives countless of times.

When I turned to the faces riveted on us, there were my other uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, relatives, and former neighbors sniveling with us. While most like me bore marks of time’s subtle scratches, each was whom I knew through the eyes—that invisible space impermeable to time, where I met theirs and my unchanged self.

We laughed, relishing not what was said but simply from the thrill of retrieving lost moments of being together. In the few days that followed, as we exchanged more of such moments–some with Nonoy in our midst–we kept flinging open the closed doors that had been shut by years. And as the burial crowd thinned out, when our clan gathered for what for me was yet another last time together, I had ceased to wonder if I have a home to go back to.

So like a homing bird and the salmon I had managed, indeed, with a tracker so precise scientists remain baffled, to land in or swim back to the same exact spot called, home. Yet unlike them, it’s not a spot I arrived at but a roof with walls I carry around unseen.

Published on January 6, 2013 Peregrine Notes, Opinion Page, Business Mirror Philippines

Photo: waders roosting at high tide in Roebuck Bay, Australia courtesy of wikipedia