Assassination – Scene 1 (Draft 1)

This is the opening scene from a story about my early life in India.  It’s the initial draft, and I’ll have to re-write many times before I’m satisfied. If anyone here can help with critical comments, I’ll be most grateful.  Stoney.

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Assassination – Scene 1 (Draft 1)

I huddled over my balcony desk, surrounded by ancient texts and scrolls that hadn’t seen light for decades. Pages crumbled, tiny mites and spiders crawled out of the bindings.  I fussed over every item, documenting what I could, saddened by the knowledge lost from these dried and deteriorating scrolls.  The old library was dark except for my small lamp. Long rows of unlit archives spread out behind me, silent except for the scurry of a rat, the groan of an overladen stack of books, or the whisper from some long-dead scribe. Suddenly, the soft swish of fabric, and I startled as a librarian in her silk sari materialized at my side. I took a deep breath, covering my surprise by pulling out my library authorization form, one I had worked hard to secure. It was 1984 and I was a white woman in Calcutta; the Gandhi Memorial Library where I studied was never really convinced I could be a scholar of ancient Hindu mythology.

“You need to leave immediately,” she whispered in a surprisingly hoarse, frightened voice.

“I’m authorized to handle these old scripts,” I countered, showing her my card and letters of introduction from American University in Washington DC.  I thought she was just protecting her archives from me, as the other librarians wanted to do, but she paid no attention to my documents.

“It’s not that,” she croaked in a broken voice. “Indira Gandhi has been assassinated. You’re not safe here. Go home and stay inside.”  Then she disappeared back into the dark stacks, her sandals slapping hurriedly on the old stone floor.

My mind was blank for a few minutes. Then I looked at the priceless old texts around me and wondered if I’d ever see them again. “Why wouldn’t this quiet library be a safe place?” I whispered to no one. The urgency of leaving caught me as I looked over the balcony and saw the library staff and other patrons running out side doors, locking everything behind them.

I caught a riksha and made my way through chaos toward the small apartment I kept near the Hooghly Bazaar. Shops were closing, people running home or somewhere, grabbing food and supplies. Calcutta streets were always a calamitous dance of vehicles, animals, bikes and humans that I could barely navigate, but now a palpable frenzy, a low hysteria, drove the street. The fear was contagious, and in the midst of the frantic, pushing crowd, I felt alone and vulnerable, even though I didn’t fully understand the cause. I’d been in India for years, and I’d seen impromptu street justice meted out at the scene of an accident, or fights between strangers on the road, but this desperation was something new. The riksha driver also sensed the urgency and left the main road to cut through back alleys, then loop around Fort William where travel toward the river and my home became easier. He was an old man, the riksha driver, and I could see from the tension in his muscles and the instinctual way he avoided groups of young men or agitated crowds, that he knew more about the danger we faced than I did. I paid him well when we reached my apartment and watched him run off, perhaps to help others or find safety in his own home.

Upstairs I found my 10-year-old son, Chris, home early from school. Konika was with him, as always. She had lived with me for more than a decade, guiding and guarding Chris through the perils and joys of young life in India. She had started working as Chris’s nanny in Uttar Pradesh, just after he was born, I spent my days in libraries, documenting old texts and manuscripts related to the origin of Hindu mythology. We had lived in Dehradun, Jaipur, Vrindavan, and Madras, but now we were in central Calcutta. I studied in the disquieting old Gandhi library – with library staff who didn’t want me there – and otherwise simply survived the crush of an overpopulated city that pressed in from all sides of our daily lives. Fortunately, Konika was an astute young Bengali woman and I could trust her to get Chris to school and back, shop for our groceries, and give me sage advice on how to survive rural and urban India.

“You’re home!” I gasped, out of breath from anxiety and climbing the stairs to our 3rd floor apartment. “Did the schools close?” I hugged them both a little longer than normal.

Chris remained silent which didn’t surprise me because he was an undemonstrative child. Konika answered in her soft Bengali, “I don’t know. I heard about the assassination on the radio and just brought him home. Many parents were picking up their children.”  I thanked her for her diligence and felt some of my apprehensive dissolve now that we were together and safe. Konika went to the kitchen to cook, Chris to read his Tintin comics, and I to tune the radio, first to a BBC station and then All India, hoping for some national news. I stood at the bay window, watching the local news act itself out on the street below.

Rikshas continued to run past my building, hot and fast. Normally patient shoppers now hustled through the streets, pushing and shoving, looking lost or frantic, trying to make quick decisions in the face of an unknown threat. Dogs were kicked out of the way and some large, slow animals were abandoned as people raced for security. Then I saw the first mob fight, 10 to 12 men against one, giving permission for violence to erupt across the city, wherever a gang of men could find a scapegoat.

I still didn’t really understand what was happening. Twenty years earlier, U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. I joined the rest of my countrymen in shock and sadness. We cried and mourned and asked questions of a government that lied, obfuscated, and promulgated war. Some of us blamed Texas, but we blamed Texas for lots of things. We did not, however, run into the street and start mobbing innocent people. The radio said Gandhi had been killed by her Sikh guards, and it was turbaned Sikhs being mobbed and beaten in the street outside my window. I believed that Lee Harvey Oswald – a young, white, American male – had killed Kennedy, but I would have been astounded if there had been a nationwide attack on all young, white males as a result. The lawlessness of the Calcutta street violence, the anarchy of all things moral and right from my own upbringing, made me tremble in fear as the end of day brought darkness to my window and terror for anyone on the street.

Days went past, Chris stayed home from school, the door stayed bolted although we heard voices in the apartment building hallway…shouts, cries, then silence. On the morning of the fourth or fifth day, Konika said we were out of food and that she would try to get to the bazaar. Neighbors had told her that the American CIA had been implicated in the assassination, and although I had no doubt that Gandhi’s death played out on the larger world stage, I didn’t want to be held personally accountable for the political machinations of my country or any other. If rumor on the street blamed Americans, how would a mob determine that I was a research scholar and not a covert operative? Perception is always reality in the absence of fact, and ignorance has a bullhorn in a mob. I let Konika go out, and she made it home without incident, while I hid like a quiet, hunted animal waiting for danger to pass.

End Scene 1 – Assassination (Draft 1)

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“Comfortably Numb”

It started off quiet.
Small.
Like a fire that’s kindling in a corner. A small breeze delivers it the life-giving breathe needed to birth a flame.
Small still. Growing.
I sat up in my bed to listen more attentively. Five. I was five years old at the time. My long black hair brushed across my face when I rose and smelled like Bubblegum. It always brought a smile to my face when I smelled it, intermittently dance under my nose. But tonight it didn’t.
I could hear her crying through the music. “And I….have become comfortably numb.”
Anytime mom played Pink Floyd, it meant bad things were about to happen. I’d learned this faster than I’d hoped I’d ever have to, not that any child should ever have to. I thought it was ‘normal.’
The sound was growing now. Growing more.
“It’s just a little pin prick, there’ll be no more aaaahhhh……” the music wouldn’t pause for them. It didn’t work that way.
Screaming. Then I heard screaming.
More screaming.
Her screaming at him.
Hitting.
Breaking glass.
“….and I have become comfortably numb.”
Him screaming at her.
Him screaming at us.
Him screaming for us.
“Kids get down here!” he called for us.
We had been summoned from our beds to go. So we went, descending from the reality of earth into the deep dark depths of what was our hell. We marched warily down the steep stairwell with unsure steps and hopeful worry. Hope that maybe tonight wouldn’t be so bad and that we wouldn’t have to worry. The moment we stepped onto the flat floor of the first floor every ounce of hope had slipped away and was out of reach as we realized what was happening. It had happened so many times before that you’d think we’d become numb to it, or at least used to it. The truth is, you never get used to it.
“You need to choose and you need to choose now! Do you think she’s going to be there? Like she’s always been?!” He screamed at us, words slurring together. Whiskey tainted breath provided evidence that his judgement was clouded.
I turned to my younger brother, Ricky. A countenance of confusion stared back at me. It was so hard to think through my stinging tears and sobbing. My head felt heavy. My eyes stung. No matter how hard I willed myself to respond to him I found my breath hitching in my throat and stopping whatever response was trying to escape. A large lump had formed in my stomach and was making its way up my Esophagus. I thought I was going to throw up at any moment.
I hated these nights. This cruel game we were forced to play on their bottom-of-the-bottle nights that came and went at a pace faster than we could keep up with.
All of her relationships were like this. Each patterned so much like the last that you’d think they had provided instructions for those thereafter. A detailed list of ‘what to do’s,’ when really it should have been a list of ‘what not to do.’
This was the relationship my mother had run into after the one with her last boyfriend didn’t work out.
When I say didn’t work out, I mean that her last boyfriend ran me over with his truck by ‘accident’ when I was two years old. Somehow I had managed to walk away from that. My mother had chosen to do the same, not surprisingly.
Now it was him. Now it was them.
By ‘them’ I mean him and her. Who knew how long this one would last…
Donnie was her second husband and a rotten apple if there ever was one. I don’t know if mom took an ad out in the paper calling for the biggest asshole ever…but, I often wonder. In Donnie she found just that, the biggest asshole ever.
My mother was pretty. She was petite but voluptuous. A 5’4’’ brunette bombshell. She reminded me of those models you see in shampoo commercials, swinging their hair around while looking straight into the camera, eyes speaking more than any words ever could with a ‘come get me’ seductive stare that paralyzed men where they stood. She was a southern girl. Born in the backwoods of Southern Illinois where the air smells of hickory chips and crop dust. Her silky voice with her southern accent made her that much more appealing, though she had done a good job at almost getting rid of it. It still tinted every sentence she spoke, coming out subtly which only added to her sex appeal. She had a sweet scent about her that was accented with honey suckle and musk. It proved to be too potent a love potion when in the presence of men. They came and never stopped coming.
Men swarmed about her and tempted her with poisoned apples that she found herself consuming so quickly that by the time the poison had coursed through her bloodstream even an anti-toxin couldn’t have worked fast enough to reverse the damage the poison had done. They had her after that. She had tied her hands. Bound her feet. She wore a collar around her neck connected to a short leash. They held it. They choked her with it. She let them.
By ‘they’ I mean the men.
The one-week boyfriends, one night stands that never called back, good guys that tried but ultimately had failed in their attempt to capture her heart. Mom tended to test them the most. She pushed them with a torture treatment of words and sketchy times spent together. She wanted to see how much they would take, if they really loved her would they play the game? With her it always seemed to be a game. Ultimately in the end the bad guys moved forward, passed go and collected their $200. The good guys, realizing they couldn’t tame this wild woman, chose not to play. Donnie was one of those men that chose to stay with this good time woman and he held her under his thumb unyielding and unmerciful in allowing her any freedom of choice. Any thought she strung into words was pushed to the wayside and his took precedence.
They had met while out riding motorcycles one evening while out on a group ride, one of those friend-of-a-friend endeavors. At the time we were stationed at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan, where mom was active duty Air Force.
Memories. That’s what my mother made for us on that island. That was her intent.
Most of the memories I had of Okinawa are much better than that one. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed its people, it’s food, it’s culture. We had fun.
Mom knew how to have fun…with us, and without us. When she wasn’t with us having fun she was with men having fun.
“Did you not hear me?!”
Donnie screamed at us as we stood at one end of what seemed to be the never-ending hallway in our housing complex while mom lay broken and battered on the floor at the other end.
“Do you want to go with me, or stay here with her?” He asked with a rage in his voice that I had experienced before. Too many times before.
End. I just wanted it to end. When would it be over? How could I hurry this terrible moment along? I thought to myself.
Ricky and I, as if reading each other’s minds, naturally ran to our mother and fell on the floor, crying beside her broken body, the smell of alcohol fresh on her breath. We had never gone to sleep, as the early signs of an argument had been brewing in the atmosphere hours before bedtime in the melodies of Pink Floyd, and we tried to brace ourselves for what we knew was going to be a rough night.
“Fine. I’m gone.”
And we never missed him. The next day we came home from a tired day at school and arrived to find mom lying on the couch nursing her foot, which was in a cast and resting on a mound of pillows. Donnie had pushed her down the stairs that night and broke it. Almost every bone in her foot that was needed to support body weight had been crushed. She’s had four surgeries on her foot since then. Seven screws and two plates have been maneuvered and constructed in such a way so as to produce some type of arch support. Donnie left not only scars on her heart but also scars that will forever be evidence of our rough nights and broken home to which he is due credit in what very well could have been a love that mom would’ve died for.

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Sister Love

One August day, I was  looking out from  the window of  my new bedroom, one of  three of our   townhouse  in Milpitas, a city located within the Silicon Valley,  where we moved into in March 2017.

It’s summertime and temperature was at 86 degrees .  At 8 pm, the sun was  still perfect as a  yolk on the horizon  stubbornly chasing away the color of darkness. The calm of the still bright night longingly transported me  to that place in my heart that houses  happy and loving memories  of  growing up with three sisters.

Dad was a self-made man. Son of an industrious farmer, he became a lawyer  through innate intelligence, sheer guts, dogged determination and true grit. He practiced law only briefly before he realized his true  calling was in the teaching profession. One of the subjects he taught was International Law. His expertise on the subject easily got him  his first United States visitor’s visa in 1987.

During his interview, the American consul asked why he wanted to come to America.” I have been teaching about your country to my students, so why can’t I come to your country and see it for myself,”  he told the consul cleverly.  Impressed by the answer, the  consul right away  stamped  the B1 B2 visa onto his passport.

Mom, on the other hand, was the eldest of 11 children.  She was a pharmacist by profession but left the practice to venture into business. Mom and Dad eventually found their rightful niche in the business world helping people acquire life insurances. Because they were hard workers, they easily established  a veritably modest fortune that growing up my  three sisters and I  never experienced wanting materially.

We grew up in very comfortable surroundings, molded  in the traditional Filipino values  and raised to be good and well-mannered people. We were taught to treat the less privileged with respect and compassion.

For most of our childhood we lived in Bulacan, a region in the  Central Luzon area of the Philippines. We attended a private catholic  school in Malolos run by strict German nuns from the order of the  Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS). Malolos now a  highly urbanized city in the province of  Bulacan is  about 36 kms north of Manila, the country’s capital.

Everyday, we were up at 5 am to get ready for school and be there by 7 am.  Mom  would diligently help us  put on our starched stiff light brown uniforms and black leather shoes, while the Colonel Bogey March, the theme song of Dad’s favorite movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, played on the background. Mom was always assisted in getting us ready by  Inang Rita  (Mommy Rita),  my Dad’s older sister who never married but chose instead to help raise most, if not all of her nephews and nieces, the four of us included.

Breakfast was never rushed. We took time to relish the delicious meals that Mom and Inang Rita prepared . Mom was a real good cook in her younger years. But Inang  Rita, admittedly, was a better cook. Two of our favorite meals that she cooked was  Bopis, a piquant dish of pork or beef lungs and heart sautéed in tomatoes, chilies and onions and Kare-Kare,  a stew of either oxtail or pork hocks, calves feet or tripe, complimented with a thick savory peanut sauce. To this day, our mouths would water when we crave for these local dishes.

Then off we were, chauffeured to school everyday in our gaudy orange colored Mercedes Benz.  Of the siblings, I was the artsy and girly one, always making sure my looks and my things looked perfect.   I went to school with my lashes curled  that gave Betty Boop’s own a run for its money. In the early days, Johnson’s baby powder came in white tin cans and it’s lid handily became my  curling tool.

On my 6th grade graduation, I went up the stage with both my eyebrows missing. Covered by my long black tresses hid  a tiny bump on my head.  Wanting to look cool on graduation day   I shaved my eyebrows a day before instead of neatly plucking  them away. To look coiffed,  I teased my hair so hard with a teasing comb that the effort hurt my scalp. The hair spray that I  lavishly spritzed on my  teased hair reacted to the sore scalp and caused a big bump on a portion of my head.

On weekends, the four of  us played and romped  around all day  on our neatly manicured, bermuda grass covered   lawn  that had swings, seesaws  and toy horses. We  played hide and seek  and hilariously mimicked  famous local movie and television actresses of the 60’s era as we danced along the music blaring from  our 45 RPM stereo dressed in  pillowcases as our snug  fitting skirts and shod in Mom’s many high heeled shoes.

Summer breaks were always spent out of town.  Laguna was a place we went to  for  Lanzones, an edible tropical  fruit native to the Southeastern parts of Asia. In the Philippines, it is mostly grown in  Laguna and peak of its harvest happens in October. Calamba, a city in Laguna, is  the birthplace of  Dr. Jose Rizal, one of the country’s greatest national heroes. A trip to the Rizal Shrine meant touching base with history in  the hero’s house which was converted into a museum in 1950.  Batangas,  Bataan, La Union and  Quezon were among  our frequent destinations for beaches and nature trips.  Mom and Dad made sure to take us to various places to broaden our knowledge of our surroundings and the environment. They believed  that travels make people more  curious and smarter.

Our all time favorite  summer vacation was  Baguio, a mountain town of universities and resorts, located in the Luzon Island. It is referred to as the “City of Pines” and is a popular summer destination because of its unusually cooler weather. Baguio vacations were occasions for us to bond with our second degree cousins of 4 boys and 3 girls,  children of my Dad’s first cousin and best friend. In Baguio our sorority of 4 became a mix  of boys and girls and gained for us, at least the temporary joy of having and playing with pseudo- brothers.

If we were not in Baguio, our cousins were down in our place in Bulacan.  We were a rowdy bunch that got on the nerves of our grandfather who wagged   a stick at us  ready  to whip anyone  who would answer back to him. Grandpa Manuel or Lolo Uwing as he was fondly called, died at the ripe old age of 110.

But it was not all play. We also attended ballet classes and guitar and piano lessons. Beth benefitted most from the piano lessons. When she left for Connecticut in 1979, her first job  was giving piano lessons to kids in her neighborhood. For our youngest sister Techie, ballet, piano, guitar, or arts in general, was never her forte. She always complained of tooth ache every time our piano teacher came for our lessons  and when  it was her turn to sit in front of our baby piano.

If we were not studying, playing or going on vacations we were fighting. We fought like  boys , or even worse. We used Mom’s wooden ladle to hit each other or pulled each other’s hair until we all tumbled onto the floor. Our fights  filled the house with a cacophony of shrieks and yelling . Once Mom heard this, we were  ordered to get  down on the  floor and we got a whipping from either her or Dad.

After the fights however, Mom and Dad made sure that we all  acknowledged our mistakes and apologized for them. This process  instilled in us a  sense of discipline,  humility and accountability for our actions.  We were raised with the right mix of tough love  and tender loving nurturing. The occasions for discipline drew us closer to each other and strengthened  filial bond and sister love among us.

Daddy named us all after a queen, a fascination he had  with  the women of  history,  another major subject that he taught  his university students.   The eldest, of the brood was named after  Queen Elizabeth of  England. One of Beth’s  earlier jobs upon moving to the United States was  giving piano lessons to children in her neighborhood. Eventually she  worked in the banking industry, a far cry from her  Political Science  degree from the University of the Philippines. Catherine , the third in sibling succession was  named after the Queen of Russia. Her  culinary skills led  to a degree in food and nutrition from the University of Santo Tomas. She was the most adventurous and daring among us. A week after learning how to drive, she  hauled a bunch of her friends in our Mercedes for a joy ride  to Batangas, a province in the Philippines located in the Calabarzon region in Luzon, and about 115 kms from Manila. Frederika, the baby in the family and the most bashful of the four of us, was  named after the Queen of Greece.  Though she was  the sibling who never learned how to play the piano, never took a liking for wearing a tutu, and did not even care to learn how to  drive, Techie, her nickname,  metamorphosed into an intelligent social being, graduating with a degree in Economics from  Miriam College,  an all exclusive girl school in Quezon City.  She  presently holds a reputable position in the local government of Quezon City. Mom and Dad went up the stage at school to pin scholastic medals on  her and Beth, who were both  consiste ntly  on the honor roll.

The second in sibling hierarchy, I was named  after  Queen Wilhelmina of Holland. My  interests have always been the arts – movies, stage plays, concerts, reading and writing.  These varied interests told me  I was going to do good in Journalism. When it was time to choose my major course in college, I was thus propelled to enroll in this bastard sibling of literature and graduated with the degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

Weekends were our time to socialize but I made good use of them instead by reading books, novels, short stories, essays, and foreign glamour magazines that thrived on the inanities of the celluloid world. I loved watching foreign  films, particularly American productions that at an early age, I knew Gig Young, Gary Grant and all the leading actors in Hollywood.

Reading fascinated me. I used to carry with me a notebook where I wrote down all the titles of the books I had read for the week. As the list grew extensively, I had fallen in love so many times over with all the male heroes of the novels and short stories I had read. My fascination with reading  translated into a love affair with writing.   I would write letters to friends that were filled  with ornate words. What I could have said plainly, I embellished with the richness of my vocabulary. The many places our parents took us to became the subjects  of most of my compositions in school.

Writing also took me to the halls of of Malacanang, the  highest office of the land in the Philippines, serving as an Executive Assistant to the Press Secretary for six years from 1992 to 1998.  Writing likewise played a major role when I met the man  I eventually married. He was a man of science but he swept me off my feet with the very first letter he wrote me. It was prolific and poetic. In the course of a seven year courtship, he seduced me with his own style of writing.  I had thought that love for pen and paper  was to be the common thread that would bind us forever. That thought perished in 1997 after 20 plus years of marital bliss and blisters.

In 1999, I migrated to the United States and has since made a life that has become so ordinary and yet surprisingly peaceful; drab yet not completely uneventful. I stepped out of my comfort zone and turned 180  from a life of comfort  to  humbled  existence. I moved around a new environment stripped of the amenities that I had grown accustomed to. All my enthusiastic attempts to get under the American skin failed and made me unhappy.

When loneliness reared its ugly head during this transition period, replaying in my mind the happy childhood memories with my sisters sustained me. They knew I was recovering from the wound of separation so they checked on me everyday to make sure I was okay.  The  sister love that our parents had nurtured in us  adequately  equipped me to deal with the emotional woe at hand and empowered me to  overcome the ever continuing challenges of living in a foreign land.

I have since adapted to living in America . My  sisters and I are past our golden years yet we  continue fanning the flame of  sister love by being  witnesses to each other’s miseries and triumphs. We are support system to one another’s  highs and lows  and  we are each other’s  company as we continue to travel life’s  many peaks and valleys. Techie and I have already been widowed, Kathy has  separated from her husband early on  and  Beth is still happily married. Though I did now have kids of my own, I am thankful to my sisters who let me share in the joy of being a virtual  mother to their children and  in the even more joyful experience  of  being a grandmother to their grandchildren.  And all four of us feel so blessed that at 89, Mom is still around and still remembers our respective dates of birth.

To God be the glory forever!!!


 

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On Details

The first time I met my grandmother, I was six years old.  My mother, my sister and I, traveled by train from San Francisco to Rosario Mexico, where my grandmother lived. It was the first time both my sister and I had been in a train.  I remember listening to the metal sounds of the wheels as they turned faster and faster, as the visions from my tiny window became a blur. The first train, for we must have traveled in at least four different trains before we arrived at my grandmother’s house, smelled like it was washed with soap, the kind of soap my mother used to wash clothes.  All the seats were made of some soft material, and all very clean.  When the train whistle began whistling, I knew we were approaching another station.  This meant more people.  I didn’t really see anyone leaving the train, only getting into it.  I remember being annoyed at having to give up my seat to an old lady, nevertheless I managed a smile, because my mother was staring at me.  My mom had eyes that talked, she didn’t have to say a word and I got her message.

 

 

 

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The Spark

I loved my first experience of flatting.  The flats were provided by the Education Authority to attract teachers to our small country town.  All my flat mates taught at the nearby school but I travelled each day 40km or so on dusty roads to a tiny three teacher school in farming country. The school families were kind and welcoming and I had boarded with one of the families until now but it was a little claustrophobic living in such a small community where my every move was scrutinized.  It was much more fun in town.

In the flat I learned to live independently. This was the first time I had to share the responsibility of cooking and housekeeping for a group.  Housework was fine.  We usually attacked the tasks on a Saturday morning with the latest pop songs booming from the radio.  Cooking was another matter.  None of us had much skill at cooking but we took turns at putting dinner on the table each night.

We had some memorable meals. Our Scottish flat mate had never so much as boiled an egg before, and I came home from a weekend away to find her almost in tears trying to follow the most basic instructions like “Brown the onions in a pan.”  “What does that mean?” she asked. Another flat mate boiled the caramel sauce for so long that it set like concrete in the saucepan and she cut her hand on the sharp points trying to clean the pot. Not many people can say that they cut themselves on the caramel sauce but she could.  Someone gave us two whole fish they had caught and we faced the dilemma of how to deal with them. By the time we managed to remove the fillets, the kitchen table had disappeared under a cloak of fish scales and we were still removing them from every surface a week later.  I don’t remember who decided to cook an entire packet of rice for dinner one night but even our biggest pot was not big enough and there were cries of panic from the kitchen as the rice rose up and up and over the sides to create a charred mess on the stove top.

It was all great fun but I was starting to get itchy feet.  I had grown up in a small town, gone to teachers’ college at the age of sixteen and completed four years teaching in small places so the lights of the big city were starting to look quite attractive. However I had given no serious thought to moving on until one night in the flat.  We had no television so it was our habit to sit around the table after dinner where we often talked for hours.

One night a new friend of Viv’s came round for dinner.  Viv had recently returned from a couple of years living in London and it turned out that Graeme had too.   The rest of us did not get a word in as their excited voices kept us entertained.

“Did you go skiing in Austria?” asked Viv.
“Yes.  Wasn’t it great?” said Graeme.  “Which village did you go to?”
“St Johann.”
“Really? That’s amazing! That’s where we went.  Did you have ski lessons with that crazy instructor from Norway – Erik?  All the girls were in love with him and all the guys hated him. I bet he took you to that bar by the chairlift to drink mulled wine.  We’d never heard of it before but wasn’t it the best when you came back freezing from skiing?”
“Oh yes, he certainly did. We used to make it in a preserving pan when we got back to London. Our flat became famous for its mulled wine. We had it so often that I’m absolutely over it now.  I’ve never drunk it since.”

On and on they went.  One minute they were comparing notes on teaching in London.  Next they were reminiscing about the trips they had taken to Russia or to Spain or Morocco.

“I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get teaching jobs in London, could you?” said Graeme.
“Oh, I had a great job in a school full of kiwi teachers.  I went back there every term and travelled over the summers.  I never had to look for a job once I got a foot in that door.  The head teacher was a real martinet but she just loved kiwis.”

Didn’t you love that crazy market square in Marrakech?” said Viv.
“Yes, especially that guy with all the false teeth arranged on his rug in the dust for his customers to choose from.“
“What about riding those grumpy camels in the desert?”

“Did any of you have bath plugs in your hotel rooms in Moscow?”
“No.  None of us did but the hotel ladies were so fierce that nobody dared ask for one.”

I listened enthralled. Their delight was obvious as they shared story after story about the fun they had had, the people they had met and the exotic places they had visited.  For the whole evening their  laughter and reminiscences kept us entertained.  As I looked at their animated faces and their shining eyes I made up my mind.  I was going to save every penny I could and I was going to travel overseas too.  That conversation at our dinner table encouraged me to set off on one of the greatest adventures of my life.

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A Special Teacher

Miss Fincham, Freda Fincham was my class teacher at St Joseph’s Primary School, which I attended when I was 10 years’ old.  She was tall, lanky and gangly, her limbs mobile and appeared not to fit her body.  She had a long face and a long nose with dark lustrous hair that she piled together on top of her head and clasped back with a huge slide but which kept escaping into wild tendrils around her face.  She wore bright red lipstick and long flowing dresses with large colourful flowers on them and big woolly cardigans which had probably been hand knitted.

My mother was in hospital at the time and I was boarding at the Fidelius Convent but I was neither clever enough, nor was my mother rich enough for me to attend their school, instead had to walk down down the hill to the local school.

I was unruly and disruptive in class, I’m not sure exactly what I did, I talked alot (I still do) and joked alot (I still do) and generally did anything I could to attract attention which resulted in my being sent out to stand outside the Headmaster, Mr Brennan’s Office.  He would give me a telling off and hit me with his cane on the hand which stung and made my fingers red.

What I liked about Miss Fincham, although in my head she was always Freda, was that she would sing instructions to us.  ‘Put your pencils down’  ‘Take out your books’  ‘Pay attention when I’m talking to you’ and so forth, all on one note but very musical and I found her fascinating.  On one particular day there was alot of noise and I, along with others, was making paper aeroplanes and throwing them about.  Freda approached me and sang at me

‘Get out of the classroom.’

I sang back, ‘No.’

She then sung, ‘I told you to go out of the classroom.’

I again sung back, ‘No.’

She reached out to grab hold of me to pull me up, I resisted and grabbed hold of her cardigan which was flapping around and pulled back.  The cardigan sleeve stretched and stretched until I fell back down on to my chair, still holding on to her cardigan.  She looked at me for a few moments with such a look of caring that it was like an arrow of surprise that pierced through my hard, sulky exterior straight to my heart.  I didn’t realise anybody could care for me.  I let go of her cardigan and went straight out to wait for the cane.

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“Hey Jude”

“Hey Jude” – the sound for me of London in the swinging sixties.  I’m not sure why that particular song should evoke memories of those carefree days but every time I hear it I can picture myself back there with my flatmates belting out the song with a lot more enthusiasm than tunefulness. Whenever it came on the radio, we would all join in at the tops of our voices and that song was everywhere in 1968. 

The lyrics are quite sad and the song was apparently written for John Lennon’s son, Julian, at the time of his parents’ marriage breakup but it only brings back happy memories for me.  I was young and in London for the first time and there was a real feeling of excitement in the air.  I had come straight from a tiny country place on the other side of the world, a place so small it didn’t even have a shop, and London seemed like a box of chocolates, full of my favourite flavours.

I was flatting for the first time with people from three different countries; there was always a party to go to, a friend to come sightseeing and people my own age with whom to debate all the subjects under the sun.  After three years of being a teacher lodging with school families, this was a dream come true.

London offered endless diversions.  The shops were open all day on Saturdays, transport was easy and cheap and we had only ourselves to please.  Every weekend we caught the tube to the West End to take in the action.  Skirts were so short that men used to sit at the bottom of the stairs in double decker buses to watch the girls climb to the upper deck. Minis had became popular, a fashion helped by the invention of tights in place of the awful suspender belts and stockings we used to wear. Shiny hot pants were also a fashion item although I was never brave enough to wear them.   At the same time, maxi coats or capes were all the rage for winter and we wore knee-high boots for the first time.  I even had a wig with blonde streaks which made me feel very glamorous.  Fashion was cheap and disposable, so exciting for we girls who had always had to make our own clothes.  We all shopped for underwear at Marks and Spencer’s, commonly known as Marks and Sparks, and even sent parcels of knickers to friends at home.

 Mary Quant was the high priestess of fashion and makeup and Twiggy was the model to watch with her stick thin figure and haunting black-lashed eyes. We would spend whole days in Carnaby Street, the world centre of young fashion.  It was a riot of colour, each shop vying with its neighbours to present the most eye-catching displays. They had terribly British names like Lady Jane and Lord John, the latter attracting attention with the whole of its shop front painted in a psychedelic mural. Union Jack flags fluttered overhead and loud music boomed out of every doorway.  At that time, London was a magnet for all the world’s most creative young artists, musicians, designers and photographers.  It was the place to be. 

There was a real feeling of optimism in the air. Post-war austerity was over and young people felt a huge sense of freedom. They felt they could change the world and boundaries were being pushed everywhere.   The anti-Vietnam musical “Hair” was a smash hit and, for the first time, nudity was shown on a mainstream stage, even if it was for about twenty seconds in dim light.  We lined up for standing room tickets at all the shows as they were very cheap. We had to climb hundreds of steps to the Gods and watch from a great height but we were just thrilled to be there. We could not believe that we were actually in those theatres which had been familiar names from childhood – Covent Garden, Haymarket, the London Palladium and the rest.

We stood on the fringes of the anti-Vietnam protest march led by British-Pakistani Tariq Ali and actress Vanessa Redgrave when tens of thousands of people marched through the streets with placards, the biggest and noisiest crowd we had ever seen.  The march turned violent when protesters broke into the grounds of the United States embassy and the police were strongly criticised for their heavy-handed approach. In those pre-Internet/social media days, news didn’t reach us back home until quite some time after it had happened and we felt very important to be right in the middle of news as it was made.

These major events were exciting but we found everyday things almost as novel.  We used to listen for the sound of a horse and cart clopping down our street with the driver shouting “Rag and Bone” as he collected everyone’s castoffs. We were fascinated by the nippy little milk vans delivering their goods to our front door and we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw the girls in the flat next door actually cutting their minuscule front lawn with scissors.  Cutting the lawns at home had been half a morning’s work.  We fell in love with the man roasting chestnuts at our local tube station. He always gave us a few extra and the little bags were ideal for warming our hands as we walked home.

To be young and free in London in 1968 was the most exciting thing in the world. I could not have spent the tail end of the sixties in any better place and, although London is very different now and our hopes and dreams of a brighter future for the world have not quite turned out as we hoped, I still love retuning to London.  It is full of happy memories.  And, if I can’t visit in person, there is always “Hey Jude” to take me back there.

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Baking as a Tool for Healing

Around the late 1990s, cross stitching became a fad that everybody in my group of friends, except me, took to  it to while away the time, or possibly to get together to gossip about. In hindsight, and no offense to them, i also considered that taking on the hobby was a way for them  to escape hearing my separation narrative that had their ears already full for months since my marriage fell apart in September 1996.

We were first neighbors in an exclusive village called K-Square Townhomes in Quezon City, Manila’s capital as well as the largest city in the Philippines. Through the regular homeowners’ meetings, 4  of us gravitated towards each other and not long after, we have developed a solid friendship that has stood the tests of both time and distance. The circle expanded to include 2 other friends who lived outside of K-Square who were  friends with one or the other. Tess and Menchie T were coming to our place almost daily or nightly for our game of Pusoy 2. Soon they  were virtually residents of our village and that made my original neighborhood friends of six.  Five of us are now living abroad.  Menchie T and myself are in CA and is in New York,in the United States;Tess and her family live in Vancouver,  British Columbia, and Aida  just recently migrated to New Zealand.  Menchie Sexy ( an adjective we have attached to her name to distinguish  her from the Menchie with a T in our group)  still lives at K-Square, a decision she  stood up for to provide moral support to her son as he finished his medical school. Vincent, who is godson of  all 5 of us, is now a practicing pediatrician,

When all five  of my friends became so engrossed in cross-stitching, I looked for an alternative hobby to pursue because my eyesight could not handle the tediousness of sitting all day sewing x-shaped stitches to complete a pattern.

I did not hurry. Between sobbings over a failed marriage and trying to heal emotionally though spiritual retreats, I bid my time and waited until some promptings came to me. Then it just dawned.

I had no experience at all in cooking but I  I could very well undertand and follow cooking terminoogies and instructions  without even consulting Mr. Websters. So I told myself  why not baking?

So baking it was. The following morning, I rushed to Killion Merchandising, a place where bakers, caterers and  cooking enthusiasts flock to source ingredients because of its cheap prices.  It  is  located in Quiapo in downtown Manila, about 12.3 km from our place  but  about a two hour ride from Quezion City given the perpetually notorious traffic reputation of Metro Manila.

Every trip to Killion always included a visit to the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene,  famous home for the shrine of the Black Nazarene, a dark statue of Jesus Christ which many claim to be miraculous. The Basilica or the Quiapo Church as it is more colloquially known is just a stone’s throw away from Killion.

While Killion was a place for me to stock up on my dwindling baking arsenal, Quiapo Church was a quiet, serene sanctuary for me to unload my pain and hurt of my failed marriage  that had swelled anew from my last visit. I would stay in the church for some indeterminate time, not saying anything, listening to my grief that I believed was being divinely transported to the right channel of grace. I would come to the place burdened but always emerged feeling light as a feather.

With every visit to Killion and corollarily to the Church,  I knew that, aside from getting better at baking,  I was, more importantly, getting emotionally  healed  increasingly and progressively.

So my baking saga continued. My first attempt was a simple pound cake. I found it in my older sister Beth’s stack of recipes which she must have left when she moved to Japan with her husband. Beth and another sister Cathy are the good cooks in the family. Mom,when she was younger and  in her  heydays, was a very good cook herself. Beth also took some courses in Culinary Arts while waiting to move to Japan; Cathy, on the other hand, was a Food and Nutrition graduate from the University of Santo Tomas, which must have imbued in her the art of food preparation, and ergo, the art of cooking. Techie, the baby sibling, and myself, had our interests away from the kitchen.

Braced for the task at hand, i propped up the recipe and spread out all the tools and ingredients in front of me. My nephew BJ and niece Carina were my little helpers. I suspected however that they volunterred during my baking sessions to be around not to help but to lick the batter from the mixing bowl once I was done with the mixing. Carefully and thoughtfully, I followed the instructions verbatim.  When the mixing bowl started whirring and I saw how the dry ingredients softened into a thick paste of butter, egg, milk, sugar and flour, I was ecstatic. When the batter was done, I greased the yellow bundt pan and shoved it in the oven to bake for 50 to 65 minutes. Needless to say, my first experiment was successful and from then on, my  cross stitching friends  had made it a point to gather in my place, almost daily  at around 3 pm, their cross stitch patterns in hand, while waiting for my next baking experiment to come to fruition. While I cautiously and painstakingly  separated the dry from the wet ingredients, folded in the eggs into the batter of flour, sugar and butter, and poured in the milk into the batter, my friends had their heads bowed down on their cross-stitch patterns,  looking up only intermittently to see my progress and how far off still they were from getting their hands into the finished product. This became a daily bonding time for us and for every compliment I was getting, I was progressively getting affirmed of my emotional healing.

My baking repertoire grew over time and inspired me to branch out to  cookies and other cake variations.  Oh, cookies. The plain sugar and butter cookies which my niece Trisha so much loved.  When I first made these I had  all 5 of my  nephews and nieces ( Trisha, Erika, Raymond, aside from Carina and BJ) present, cousins who were then all playful, and obedient  and whose gifts   of innocence , almost certainly, would end in time with the coming of age and reality.

It warms my heat to remember that memory when they would huddle around the kitchen counter and soon as mixing was  done,  grappled for the bowl to get the first taste of the batter. Trisha,herself a mother now, bakes this recipe to her own children Raphaela and Thea.

The hihglight of my baking adventure was when I chanced upon a recipe for Food For The Gods, a sweet dessert bars, made with dates, butter, walnuts and honey. It became a hit soon as it came out of the oven. So good in fact that my family and friends suggested I make them as give-aways during Christmastime. So I did and did it with flair. They were given away in beautiful christmas themed boxes or tin cans with either gold, red or green ribbons tied around it and a fancy gift tag dangling from it. Soon after they were not just giveaways. I was getting orders from everywhere which I accepted for a while to keep me engrossed until I was ready to leave for the States to make a brand new start in life, on a clean slate and without a man.

I have been living in sunny California  for the last 18 years now and bake only at my leisure.  When I look  back though the rearview mirror of  those devastating years  of my separation in the Philippines,  I am grateful for that  prompting to try baking as an effective  vessel  for me to rise above emotional hurt.  This prompting would have been   difficult to decipher without the wisdom of the Holy Spirit whom I have fully embraced during a three day spiritual retreat back in 1997.

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Discovering God’s Love Through Pain

The way I personally experienced God’s love was through the break up of a union that I thought was blissful and made in heaven.

It was the 7th of the month of September 1996 when I  confronted my husband (he has since passed away in October 2005) about all the nasty gossips that had been reaching me.

“Yes, it’s true. My son is turning two this coming November and my daughter is only two months old” , he said. When I heard the truth straight from the horse’s mouth, my world crumbled. There he was … the man who was the center of my life for 27 years, crying copiously and uncontrollably, begging for my forgiveness.

Too shocked and  too angry to react, I went along with the initial decision for him to stay with his children on weekdays and coming home to me on weekends. Because I was working Monday to Friday,  I chose the weekends so we  could make the most of Saturdays and Sundays together. I gave him my full understanding just so he would not totally go away. But the arrangement proved to be more painful than I had expected it to be. On Saturdays, he would come home pretty late when there was not much activity we could enjoy together for the remainer of the day. Sundays would be a routine trip to the church, movies, restaurants or madjong. When it was time for him to leave on Monday mornings, there we would be in the bedroom, by the bedroom door, by the stairs, by the car, embracing and assuring one another that the love was still there. It was painful knowing that this was the kind of love that I would have to learn to share with his children, sired out of an illicit relationship with a woman who had taken advantage of my husband’s desire to have kids which I could not give.

I am childless by circumstance.  In August 1978, I underwent surgery that would render me unable to bear children for the rest of my productive years.  But the post operation phase of our married life did not seem at all affected. Because we did not have kids, we could well afford to indulge in little luxuries. Our regular weekend activity was madjoing. We also enjoyed travelling to various parts of the country and the world, eating out in the finest restaurants in town and going out or entertaining friends in our well appointed townhouse in one of the exclusive villages at the time in Quezon City.

I was a pampered wife. IN 1986,  i got out of the government service and travelled even more and wrote articles about my impressions of countries like America, Europe, Australia and other parts of Asia, some of which were published in local newspapers and magazines.

For years I was content writing on and off but mostly enjoyed  just being around my husband catering to all his needs. We were happy. Or so I thought. I did not have the fainstest idea that my husband, a very quiet man, was already a father of two.

In November 1996, it got to a point where the excruciating  pain had become unbearable for both of us. For him, it was doubly so as he had to deal with a guilty conscience at the same time. So the inevitable happened. We had to separate. He chose to be with his children. He begged me to allow him to be with his kids who needed his physical presence. I was helpless. I let him go because I felt that if I did not allow him, he could just have deserted me anyway. But if I had insisted on my right as his legal wife and pressed him to stay, I would not have felt good either with the decision that he was there, with me, but only because he just had to be.

For a time I kept the situation from my family and friends. I hid the pain and carried this cross without anybody noticing until my weight started to deteriorate. That was the time I knew I had to tell them of my hurt. The way my mother held her tears when she learned of it was still very clear to me as yesterday. How my mother loved Jimmy so much. He was her favorite son-in-law.

But while I was thankfull for the loving support of family and friends during this difficult time, no one could have ever felt the pain the very same way I did. It was an indescribable pain — the kind of pain that tore the heart, the kind of hurt that gnawed at the very fabric of my being.

The ensuing days were even more nighmarish. I had to learn to undo the things that I had become so used to doing with Jimmy. The dawn of another day would break and would find me still awake. On an extraordinary lucky day, I would doze off momemntarily only to wake up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding. It was extremely painful entering our bedroom and he was no longer there to embrace me, assure me and secure me with his love. Loneliness would grip me and I could only cry. Sadness followed me like a shadow as I would see him everywhere — in the man standing close to me in the elevator, in the man driving the car beside mine and I would feel him in anything that would accidentally touch me.

During this darkest hour of my soul, I thought about God. But then I was angry even at Him. I blamed him for the break up of my marriage. In one confrontation with Him, I said I was no big sinner. I was not a cheater nor a murderer. What did He have to punish me for?

In March 1997, my dear friends Chris and Gigi invited me to attend the Life in the Spirit (LSS) Seminar, a three day live in seminar designed to introduce one to a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. It provides people with an opportunity to find out more about that life and to be helped in taking the first steps of a new relationship with God. It  aims to establish or deepen among the participants a more personal relationship with Christ by yielding to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Blindly and immediately, I said yes. At that point I knew there was no else who could take me out of the pit of despair but God. I have always been pious. I never missed  out on my Sunday and Holy Days obligations since I learned about God in our religion class. But given my current situation, it was not easy convincing myself that God could actually  change my outlook about what creative suffering and genuine love was all about.

For three days, I sat and listened patiently to all the sharings and the talks about God’s Love, Salvation, New Life and other discussions as I secretly await for that “Aha” moment when I would feel the love of God, actually, physically. Then it happened during the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I did not know what came over me but I liked how it felt. It was overwhelmingly  conforting. Immersed in 3 days of prayers, meditations, fellowships, talks and discussions, I came out of the seminar feeling light as a feather. I joined the seminar to find emotional healing and I got more than what I had bargained for. I had continued in my spiritual growth by joining the Bethesda Healing Ministry that caters to all supplicants who were emotionally broken as I was and to those who were physically infirmed as well. This went on until I left for the United States to make a fresh start in life without a man. No ordinary man. The end all and be all of my existence for 27 years.

As I reflected on these  events in my life, I realized that God must have used the situation to allow me to see that there is no perfect and faithful lover than HIM. My attachment to my husband had driven me so far away from HIM  and He wanted me to draw near to HIM.

The pain still rears its ugly head once in a while. But this pain has been a great teacher. It taught me to be more involved with the world around me. It taught me how to be concerned with others other than my husband. It taught me how to acknowledge my helplessness and powerlessness before God who is so full of mercy. It taught me how to look for the jewel in the rubble of despair. During times of extreme pain and sufferings, things that were lying hidden are exposed and jewels are discovered. I discovered the most precious jewel in fact.  A deep personal relationship with God.

The waves of sorrow had polished and refined me and allowed me to show forth the power of God’s conforting and healing words. It took me a while to understand His ways. But the effort and the struggle along the way was worth every pain and misery.  Now, I know how to deal with pain. When pain sets in, my best armor is prayer. I pray to HIM for strength, for light and for guidance. I have prayed to HIM for healing, acceptance and most important, forgiveness.  In HIM, I found the grace to forgive my husband, the woman and the people who might have had a hand in our separation. I won over pain because I went to the winning side. I conquered pain that had left scars of bitterness and anger in my heart because I chose to have love in my heart instead. His forgiveness and love have helped me forget what getting even means. I now walk with love in my heart and beam love to those I meet specially those who are or have been emotionally wounded just like I was.

The love of Jesus has showed me that true joy is often hidden in the midst of sorrow and the meaning of life finds its beginnings in grief. He says “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it cannot bear fruit…. Unless we lose our lives, we cannot find them; unless the Son of Man dies, He cannot send the Spirit”.

My separation has been the cross through which I have embraced the pain. But through this pain I have found the joy based on the knowledge that I belong to God and have found in HIM a refuge and an assurance that nothing, not even death, can take God away from me.

 

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The Song I Wish I Could have Sung

The Song I Wish I Could have Sung
When my senior year in high school came around and I was able to go back to school, I was changed in so many ways that one person could ever imagine being changed. I was left in a wheelchair from the MVA that was caused by the person who was harassing me at the end of my junior year. However, I was changed for the better, shaped into a new profound free spirit which could view things so much clearer. A song that really took place in helping me through my spinal cord recovery, which I know all of you know that was sung by Joe Nichols call the Impossible.

The Lyrics goes:
“Then there was my junior year, Billy had a brand-new car
It was late, the road was wet
I guess the curve was just too sharp
I walked away without a scratch, they brought the helicopter in
Billy couldn’t feel his legs, they said he’d never walk again
But Billy said he would and his Mom and Daddy prayed
And the day we graduated, he stood up to say…”

“Unsinkable ships sink, unbreakable walls break
Sometimes the things you think would never happen
Happen just like that
Unbendable steel bends
If the fury of the wind is unstoppable
I’ve learned to never underestimate the impossible…”

You see I never did get to sing or say that I prayed enough to feel my legs in full or walk again, because in my song that is not the case. When I listen to this song, I could feel the real sorrow of my soul the depths of my wants as a once a flighty but athletic girl had. I cannot say I did not wish and pray for this to happen because I did. But, I did not ponder on this reality very long, instead until one day I realized that this was not my destiny to say God granted my leg’s ability to walk again. Instead, my story was more poetic and motivating.

Impossible brought shame, jealousy, and hate, to my 18-year-old broken life. However, it also brought me to the realization of knowing. I knew that the real fact of the matter, I am still paralyzed in my chair, but I knew then that God was allowing this to be, for a very blessed reason. So, for their forward I did not ponder on the why’s and why not. I decided to lift my head and go on with my life the best I knew to do. For there are things that happen to us that can may seem impossible to live with but fighting against the odds in reality is worth the outcome in the long-run.

When graduation came that spring I wrote a speech in which I quoted a memorable faithful poem and read it to my class in our baccalaureate program. I ended up rolling up on stage and presenting my speech which was one of my best speeches I have ever recited in my whole college experience.

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