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!!!