Seafood was served only on special occasions – juicy crabs crammed with tasty orange aligue (crab fat), halabos nga pasayan (steamed shrimp) as big as my hand that turned violently pink after cooking, and sweet fat fish stuffed with tomatoes and onions and then grilled. I wondered why we had these savory treats so seldom, since Lola also owned a fishing fleet – surely we could have been plentifully supplied with crustaceans and fish? Perhaps she was avoiding the high cholesterol content of those foods.
She was a great believer in children’s nutrition by supplement, though – she made me drink an entire plastic Tupperware tumbler of Milo every single night. It was brought into her bedroom, where I slept, by a kitchenmaid on a tray along with a tumbler of water. I was supposed to drink both. It resulted in my waking up in the wee hours and going to the bathroom in the dark. To this day I can’t look at a Tupperware tumbler without feeling like I have to pee.
I don’t know why Lola and Lolo insisted I sleep in their room. I had my own room, but it was only where I kept my books and things and spent time during the day, mostly reading. At night, I lay on a mattress placed beside a wall at the foot of their bed, right on the green carpeting. Beside me was a carved wooden commode on which was placed the “over-over” – radio equipment to keep in touch with the fishing vessels – and a ceramic pig.
This ceramic pig was a family heirloom. No one remembers where it was bought or where it came from to begin with. But it was meant to be used as a coin bank – there was a slit on its top. It was about as large as a real pig, made from white ceramic, and encrusted all over with faux pearls, rhinestones, and other glittery bijoux. Its mouth was open in a smile; its tongue was of soft red felt and its teeth were pearl beads. I would wiggle my fingers into its mouth to touch the tongue, which was the only soft part of the pig, and run my hands all over its encrustations.
I didn’t give that pig a name; somehow it seemed beyond that, for I knew it was older than I was. It first belonged to Lola Bennett’s mother, my great-grandmother, who always wrote her name in her books thus: Dña Marciana Ledesma vda. de Lacson – and naming her pig would have been presumptuous on my part. That pig looms large in the family mythos. One creased color photograph from 1968 shows me, less than a year old, pink and chubby all on fours on a bed beside that pig, wearing a toothy grin. People who see that picture comment on the resemblance.
The author as a child, with pig.
The radio squawked a lot in the early evenings, when the captains of the fishing boats would call in to report. I’d be in my pajamas lying on my mattress, dreading the arrival of the housemaid with the tray of Tupperware tumblers of Milo and water, and Lola would speak into the handheld microphone: “Benedicta I, Benedicta I. Come in, over.” Szquaawwk. “Ofelia I, Ofelia I, come in. Pila ka bañera sa inyo? Over.” (How many crates did you catch?) And so on for half-an-hour; sometimes I’d fall asleep listening to their choppy conversations, lulled by the hoarse voices coming in on the dark night over the speakers, punctuated by Lola’s “Come in. Over.” I do not know how she ended those transmissions – with “Over and out?” Something else? I never heard – I was always asleep by then.
When sleep was slow in coming, and I’d stare with wide eyes at the ceiling – or the pig – Yayay Mila would be sent for, and she would turn me onto my side, and pat my hip until I dozed off. It never failed to send me to sleep. To this day I cannot sleep except on my side.
Posts Tagged ‘bacolod city’
I’ve previously posted an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, about the year I spent in Bacolod City when I was eight years old. Here’s another portion from that section:
I loved it in the province. I lived in Lola Bennett’s sprawling bungalow in Taculing, close to where the airport used to be, on a hacienda planted to tubo as far as the horizon. This was during the late 1970s but even by present standards that house would look fresh and contemporary. Constructed in a gated area behind high walls across the road from her tubohan, it stuck out from its surroundings like a crystal in the mud.
The house was built in the center of a large pond, slightly raised on cement pillars above the knee-high level of the water. There was a bridge one had to cross to get over the water to the front door and I thought that was extremely interesting and stylish. I have not seen such a house before or since. Orange-colored carp swam in the pond; this was decades before raising koi became fashionable. After dinner Lola Bennett, silver-haired but still vigorous in her early 60s then, would take a piece of sliced bread and go out for her “daily exercise” as she termed it. We would walk several times around the house, tearing bits of bread off and casting them into the water for the carp. The fish would follow us around, and the water would boil frenziedly with their activity as they fought over the bread.
Lolo Maeng was Lola Bennett’s second husband; he married her when she was a widow, when they were middle-aged; they had no children of their own. I was the child Lolo never had. On Saturdays he would take me to a clinic in the city for my hormone growth shots that a doctor in Manila prescribed because I was short for my age. He’d drive his snappy little red-and-cream Renault 14 himself, going very fast down the dusty backroads with the windows down and the breeze blowing our hair back, his salt-and-pepper and cut military-style, mine trimmed like a boy’s. (I was not allowed to grow my hair long until I was in college.) “Do you think we’re driving too fast?” Lolo would ask. All I could ever answer was a frozen grin. He would laugh and step on the gas even harder, making me tighten my grip on the leather seat. There were no seatbelts back then. He would only slow down when we reached the city where the streets were crammed with people and jeeps.
After I got my shot, Lolo would stop by a suki for roasted peanuts. Sometimes we would halt at Lopue’s bookstore and he would buy me the latest Nancy Drew mystery and a Stabilo Boss highlighter. The highlighters only came in yellow and were a newfangled thing. I’d shade the o’s in my Nancy Drews as I read along and the sunshiny dots spangling the pages would show me how many pages were left to read. The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries were all hard-bound, as most of my other books were, the majority of them belonging to my mother; the only paperbacks I had were Enid Blyton stories.
Back home after a trip Lolo Maeng would take a large strainer and shake out all the salt from the peanuts and refill his garapon (an empty old jar of Nescafe coffee) that he kept in a cupboard in the “clean kitchen” of the house. (Food was cooked by kusineras in an outbuilding which housed the “dirty” kitchen and maids’ quarters. It was also where the ironing was done, with a weighty cast-iron plancha filled with glowing charcoal that I was absolutely forbidden to touch.) I was the only person allowed to share Lolo’s peanuts, and that made me feel special and loved. Come to think of it, maybe Lola just didn’t like peanuts at all.
In our creative non-fiction writing class this semester, our professor Dr. Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo challenged her eight students to come up with CNF narratives. These could be memoirs, travel writing, or other forms; we had to “pitch” our ideas to her first. If they passed muster, we were told to proceed with writing. PhD students like myself had to write a work no shorter than fifty pages. I pitched the idea of a memoir and have written 53 pages so far, with the work still unfinished.
It’s a work in progress. Here’s an excerpt from my chapter on Bacolod City, where I lived for a year when I was eight:
In Bacolod we ate a lot of chicken because Lola Bennett ran a huge poultry farm in addition to the sugar cane plantation. On a couple of visits the foreman gave me undersized hen’s eggs that didn’t pass their quality control inspections. I kept several of them under the bed in my room, right on the orange carpeting. Some months later one of the maids found them. She called my lola, lifted the bed skirt, and pointed to them without saying a word. My little collection was taken away. “Eggs are not toys,” I was told. Too bad. I liked those eggs, some of them as tiny as quail eggs with pebbly surfaces of calcium carbonate in raised and ridged patterns, random as nature makes it. I was never taken to visit the poultry farm again after that.
My Bacolod nanny, Mila, was scolded over that incident for not watching me carefully enough to know that I was smuggling home rejected eggs. I don’t think she was with us when we visited the poultry farms; she wasn’t with me all the time, as far as I remember. I usually saw her at bath time, when she’d take me to my white-tiled bathroom off my bedroom, switch on the shower, and try to whip up a soapy lather in the hard water which ran out of the pipes. At first I resented her bathing me because I told her I had been giving myself baths in Manila since I was seven years old. She smiled and said, “Your lola told me to,” and we both knew there was no arguing after that. I came to love the way she wrapped me up in thick white towels and rubbed me dry, giving me a quick hug before letting go.
After the egg episode Yayay Mila whispered to me, “Nugay nga hampang sang pagkaon. (Don’t play with food.) I know other things you can do.” One night she handed me her notebook, about the size of a pocketbook, hardbound, and filled with smooth creamy pages half-filled with her notes written in flowing cursive with a black fountain pen. She opened to a page and pointed to the title at the top – “Moon River”. “This is a beautiful song,” she said. “Memorize the words and learn it.” She sang it to me in a light soprano. “Moon river, wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style, some day…” I’ve associated that song with her ever since, although I have forgotten what she looked like. I wonder if she ever did find and cross her own moon river.
I deeply admired her notebook – all I had for school were the usual ruled spiral notebooks with thin cardboard covers and cheap paper – but I never thought to ask if she could get me one. Now I know what it is like – a Moleskine notebook – and the memory of this may explain why my stationery drawer is crammed with Moleys of different sizes.
Another time she took me out into the garden, bearing a basin of soapy water. She made for a gumamela bush, plucked a handful of its glossy leaves, and showed me how to pound the leaves in the soapy water with a rock. Making ‘o’s with our hands, we blew bubbles that were strong and did not easily pop, even when poked by leaves or sticks. I pealed with laughter, and for most of that afternoon blew myriads of rainbow bubbles into being, sending them down the garden path and up into the air to bounce in the light, as Yayay Mila beamed.
Mila also took care of feeding me. I was fed – usually with scrambled or sunny-side up eggs for breakfast, for lunch and dinner fried chicken and rice, no ketchup – in the “clean kitchen” off the dining area, which was furnished with 1950s-style folding metal chairs with red leather seats – a set of four – and a matching table. That kitchen was painted white and was always very very clean, since nothing was actually cooked there. That room glows in my mind, always flooded with light, because a screen door at one end let sunshine in during the day. Through it I could see coconut trees, ornamental plants, and the Bermuda grass of lola’s well-kept lawn. Green and white and brown are the colors I associate with Bacolod – the colors of sun and earth and garden and fried chicken.
Nowadays I can’t get enough ketchup.
Whenever I’m asked, “What are you reading now?”, I’m sometimes hard pressed to answer. I do read one book at time, but there’s always a stack or two of volumes beside my bed, some of which I’ve read, the others newly acquired and next in line for reading.
My tastes are eclectic. There are marketing and business books, holdovers from my MBA days – Marketing Gurus, all the Franklin Covey books. Lately I’m into memoirs – Matthew Polly’s hilarious American Shaolin, A. J. Jacob’s tongue-in-cheek The Year of Living Biblically, Laura Shaine Cunningham’s poignant and brave A Place in the Country.
Near the top, where I can easily reach them, are the latest thoroughbred catalogues from Australia’s Magic Millions and Keeneland in Kentucky. Keeneland’s November 2008 sale catalogues are the more interesting. It is a set of eight thick books, the information on weanlings and other bloodstock printed on thin paper. I open to the Index to Sires and roll their names in my mouth like candy – Cryptoclearance, Langfuhr, Star de Naskra.
Somewhere in those stacks are the latest edition of Strunk and White, my style manual ever since it was introduced to me in my freshman English class at the University of the Philippines; a Dummies guide to Adobe InDesign for print publication layouting; and three volumes of the Plaridel journal, the academic publication of the UP College of Mass Communication.
And at the bottom of the shorter pile is Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside-Out – probably not the best place for it to be, if I want it to be of any help.
Any house I live in will be filled with books. It’s almost a psychological given; a house is not a home for me unless there are many books in it, spilling from shelves, stacked against the wall, piled on the coffee table.
My love for books stems from childhood. My mother raised me on science fiction and fantasy. This is a woman who kept her Lord of the Rings trilogy on the shelf below the TV set in her room, while all the other books were kept in the living room. This was back in the early ’80s, before fantasy became fashionable and when all of Tolkien’s books were out of print. Her copies, which she bought as a teenager at Lopue’s and China Rose in Bacolod City, were printed in the ’60s, before “acid-free” was heard of, and the pages were yellowed and crumbled at a touch. The spines were battered and mended many times with tape, which had also discolored to a color like weak tea.
In the tall wicker bookshelves in the sala she kept cookbooks. One of them was a ’50s hardbound Betty Crocker cookbook from her nanny who migrated to the United States. I have it now, and treat it as an heirloom. Others were cookbooks from the ’70s; those were filled with recipes for fondue, which seemed to me to be highly impractical since you needed a fondue burner.
That didn’t faze my mother. She improvised with a miniature saucepan on the stove. We gathered in the kitchen, dipping cubes of Kraft cheddar cheese in beaten egg, then breadcrumbs, then plunging them in hot oil till toasty brown.
Also on the shelves were my stepfather’s encyclopedias and his mother’s collection of children’s “two-in-one” hardbound classics. For instance, one side was Grimm’s Fairy Tales; flip the book and you got Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. My mother also had a good collection of adult classics – Aldous Huxley, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, the Brontes. I wore out Bullfinch’s Mythology, though I later lost that particular copy.
My mother also possessed nearly all the Edgar Rice Burroughs books – my favorites being the Tarzan series (no, there wasn’t a “Cheeta” in the books) and the Mars series. The latter starred skimpily-clad Martian princess Dejah Thoris, who was constantly being saved by her husband, the manly Earthling John Carter, from predatory villains and robots controlled by evil scientists.
Fanart depiction of Barsoom (Mars); in the center, Dejah Thoris and John Carter face a myriad perils
Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories were also well-represented. H. Rider Haggard and his endless yarns of hunter Allan Quatermain’s adventures in lost cities in Africa? Check. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells classics? Yes, there too, as well as L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books, many of them with the original John R. Neill art nouveau illustrations.
Neill’s drawings of Ozma’s hair – confined at the forehead by a thin diadem, tresses curling in whiplash tendrils – and her gauzy draperies, floating cloudlike around her slim body – captured my young imagination, representing an aesthetic that was otherworldly and unreachable. To this day, it is one of my favorite genres of art.
A Neill watercolor of Dorothy, Glinda, and Ozma of Oz.
Knowing of my insatiable – and indiscriminate – appetite for books, my mother kept those she felt inappropriate for my age in her closet, which we children never opened. When I was in college, she brought the books down, the ban lifted. One of them was Stephen King’s Dark Forces, a collection of horror and SF works by various writers. My mother probably didn’t object to the storylines but rather to King’s salty language.
In any case, it was just more grist for my mill, along with her more spinechilling H. P. Lovecraft books. The cover of one was horrifying - a worm snaked through the empty eye-socket of a half-decayed skull which bore clumps of matted hair and rodent-like teeth. I averted my eyes from that awful artwork whenever I opened that book to read about the Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep.
At the mere thought of that macabre painting, an involuntary shudder shakes my frame as chills riff up and down my spine. Uncannily, this is my exact same reaction when my eyes or fingers travel over the few old college mathematics and physics textbooks unexpurgated from my shelves. Cthulhu ftaghn!
My father was yet another heavy reader, but his tastes ran more to W. Somerset Maugham, John O’ Hara, Norman Mailer, Sholom Aleichem, Truman Capote, biographies. Pops lived in California for five years in the ’80s, and while there wrote me excitedly when he began Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s novel on native American history. He wasn’t into science fiction; the most that he got into that genre was Ray Bradbury – I Sing the Body Electric, Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I usually finish what I start. The exception is one book that I bought at a secondhand bookstall in Morayta in the late ’80s, set aside because its dense language put me to sleep although its ideas were interesting; a paradox in its rules of engagement. It was Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This groundbreaking book had a profound impact on mass communication and media studies. As a mass comm major, I felt duty bound to read it. It’s one of the books by my bed. Sometimes I feel I keep it around not so much because I plan to finish reading it, but as a talisman to keep me focused on the particular discipline that is my life’s work.
Let me see – it’s in the taller stack, under the used copy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast that I found a couple of years ago at Booksale for P45. It’s the second in the “Titus Groan” trilogy. I got the first book in the late ’80s, also at Morayta, deep in the University Belt in the heart of Manila. I’m still looking to complete the set. Perhaps twenty years from now, in another serendipitous moment, I’ll stumble upon a copy of Titus Alone and I will add it, yet another block in the tower of books by my bed.
People come into my house, find piles of books stacked chest-high against the walls and two- or three-deep in bookcases, and ask, “Have you read all those?” The answer is, yes, except for that darn McLuhan.
And often, “Why do you like reading so much?” and at that I am rendered inarticulate. It is difficult to explain to people who do not read, who do not relish the sensation of eyes tracking words across a page to be immersed in a story, momentarily losing touch of reality.
My own habit of reading is a result of childhood influence and a desire to escape. I lose myself in forests of words and in thickets of concepts, drown in rivers of language, wander through time and space. The volumes by my bed embody different worlds where I may go freely, through the simple expedient of cracking open a book and reading.