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Bye, Auntie Mary Anne.

Auntie Mary Anne died on Friday, and she will be buried today – next to my grandparents who died so long ago. Her urn will be buried, not in the ground but in a niche in a quiet courtyard of an old church in San Juan in the Philippines.

When I was nine I stood in that courtyard and men hoisted my grandmother’s coffin up into the niche. As they pushed the coffin, all the aunties and uncles, my parents, and my grandfather, were right at the opening.I didn’t understand what death was; but thought of how pretty my grandmother had been in her coffin.

All the grownups, the ones who made the rules, were weeping. My mother and aunties were draped in true black crepe – in veils that covered their faces.

Auntie Mary Anne was one of the women. She traveled far, all the way from California to be at her mother’s funeral.

Tonight, Auntie Mary Anne’s urn will be placed gently in the same courtyard. I sit here in Massachusetts, and it all seems like a plot being worked out, a twist where something agonizing happens. I can be a little removed from it.  After all, I am here in my happy life. I am surrounded by loved ones. I have my pets, my books, my American life.

Until I hear the voices of loved ones across the world, across the country.

Then it is like finding the lost key to an old lock on an old gate.  Click and the gate swings open, and  my truest self wakes up and weeps.

She is in so many memories. Swimming, walking, reading, cooking, laughing,and  singing in Baguio, Cresta Ola, New Mexico, Hawaii then back to Baguio, Cresta, and Manila.

When I was four, a missionary priest came to recruit her for work in South America, and she joked and showed us a rubber shrunken head.

She told ghost stories, she crocheted, she knitted. She indulged with food. She mostly said yes, in a world full of no’s.

I saw her last in 2012. Pulled up to Cresta’s beloved heap. She was standing there, as if it had been a week, rather than thirty-four years. I tumbled out of the van to hug her. She felt the same. “Auntie,” I sobbed, “I’m sorry I stayed away so long. I should have come home sooner.”

I was wrong about a big thing. You cannot un-be who you are. No matter how far away I’ve been, where I come from is what makes my heart beat.

Now, none of us will see Auntie in this life. There is nothing happy about her death. It is a flat sheet of aluminum in the midday sun. It is the look of an abandoned housing development in the desert . It is the industrial landscape with abandoned factories.

There were two hours between the call that said she was gravely ill, to the call that she was dead.

Between this step and that step, a life goes out across the world. One this side of the room, she lives, cross the room and she is dead. That morning I woke up with a singing heart. In a moment the world turned to ashes. Death does that.

I know, I know, we will all rise up and heal. But it’s really, really sad that she died. People say you can’t go home again. Well, you can. I did and although what I found did not resemble the idyllic landscapes of my childhood, the essence was  there.

I’ll miss my Auntie Mary Anne. I’m sorry she got so sick. I understand diabetes, but I don’t know how she got to that point of no return.

I hope when she closed her eyes in Manila, she opened them in the glory.

We will all be OK. It will just take a while.

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When I was little, between the ages of 1-14 I had many ambitions.

1) Archaeologist

This was inspired by my brother’s dinosaur fascination. We lived in one of the barn houses near the parade ground at Clark Air Base. These old houses where built for the tropics, up on stiltsWe had a big chalk board at our house at Clark and I would draw jousting horses and he would erase them and draw dinosaurs. Then he would write “SAVE” on the board, which I had to respect because the teachers at school did that, and I didn’t think it was good form to erase. So I latched on to the interesting folks dressed in desert khakis with curious hats and notebooks in my brother’s dinosaur books and that fed my ambition.

One of my best friends studied to be an archaeologist and I always loved her accounts of going on a dig.

2. Taster at Chef Boyardee

In 1966 we moved from the Philippines to Albuquerque, New Mexico. My Daddy was in the Air Force and he was assigned to Kirtland Air Force Base. It was a very pleasant sojourn. Our big family was housed in a former piece of a hospital. Our bedrooms opened up onto a long corridor and the bathroom was industrial sized. I was fascinated with some odd things. We had a floor polisher and I loved shining the corridor and my bedroom. I loved American TV and there was an ad for Chef Boyardee that appealed to me:

Now that I look back on the ad, I understand it completely. The ad was full of children my age, it reminded me of the lively world of the Catholic Philippines that I was far from, the long table reminded me of meals with the family.

In real life, I ended up cooking for large numbers of people. As a twenty-something I embraced cooking as and easy way to have fun and make people happy. When I was widowed at 25, I lived in a house with friends and there were always  a lot of people over for dinner and cooking for everyone was a happy occasion. We shared food like a family.

Later, I had my own big family and every night for decades I cooked and fed my own table. Then they grew up and started their own kitchens and food preferences, but we can still fill a large table in a moment.

3. Philanthropist

During that time in Albuquerque, I got hooked on Batman and greatly admired the noble philanthropist, Bruce Wayne. I couldn’t think of a better or more fun profession than giving away money to deserving folks. As I got older, I always was attracted to generosity, and stories of people who helped. Robin Hood, St. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, were my heroes.

In real life, philanthropy (albeit micro-philanthropy) is a part of life. I love KIVA and the Franciscan Family Apostolate, and Food for the Poor. I figure tossing even a mite into a plea adds up. The gospel of the Widow’s Mite is a rule of life.

4. Queen

Between fairy tales and childhood games, I always thought I would make a great queen. Princesses didn’t have enough authority and were always being married off by clueless king fathers.

The Wicked Queen in Snow White stunned me. “Wow she has power but she is misusing it,” I thought.  My sisters and I would play a game of claiming chairs and pieces of the house when we were small. “I’m the Queen!” I’d shout.

Then my sister, Lizzie would counter with, “No, that is mine, because I am the Empress!”. I lost my attempt at territorial expansion because I forgot that there was a title greater than queen.

I loved the power of the words, “I command you!”

Of course shouting that as a 7-year-old is different from a 30-year-old with an army. But……sometimes I think if people would just do what they were commanded to do, everything would work out better. Don’t laugh. Democracy (which I prefer to monarchy as a real life political system), works. But really, some people should be told what to do. Especially during a government shutdown.

Well, I didn’t get a crown, but I married a prince. When you go back in Bud’s genealogy you collide with a wall of kings and queens. I always knew he was special.

As the mother of many children I had plenty of years of telling small people what they should do. I think I was very benevolent and they love me very much so it worked out.

When I watch royal dramas the level of intrigue and nastiness is horrible. Real life is much more terrible than imagined life, so I am happy with my small dominion. My current subjects are one dog and four cats. Life is good.

4.Psychologist

When my father had his first bi-polar break that landed him in a hospital, I was my mother’s stalwart hospital visitation companion. I’m not sure in this day  it would be considered an appropriate place to bring a ten-year-old but kids are tough and I loved my Daddy so I was happy to see him in any shape.

In that world, of long corridors and vending machines (I loved to get candy bars), I was introduced to some interesting people. I met a king, a great aviator, and the smartest man in the world. In the psychiatric area of a hospital, amongst the patients there is incredible tolerance for each other. At least that is what I observed. I gained a lot of empathy for the mentally ill.

In real life, when I was very young I married a brilliant young man who had a piece of sadness that wouldn’t go away and he committed suicide.

When I married Bud and became a mother empathy for the mentally ill never went away, it only expanded. I’ve always been hyper aware of the genes that are in my family DNA and have been very aware of the necessity of kindness and stability when raising children. So far, so good. The kids are great.

After I finished my journalism masters, I threw myself into a year of training to be a licensed NeuroPositive life coach. While it is not a psychologist degree, it is in the realm of mental health. A happy mind is a healthy mind. I can see where random acts of rumination impacted people I love in a terrible way. Now I know how to stay in an upward spiral. This is something I can help people with right now.

5. Writer

Here I am, writing. It was always the idea, planted in my head by my third grade teacher long ago and far away at Wurtsmith Elementary School by Miss Jeanine Scherer. She praised a poem I wrote and said it should be printed in Highlights Magazine for children. I’ve never forgotten that moment of recognition and elation.

Louisa May Alcott, is a kind of patron saint for me. We have made repeated visits (more like pilgrimages) to her house in Concord, Massachusetts. She was an awesome role model.

Then there is the actual practice of writing. Writing liberates. The act of putting feelings and observations into words makes them real. Otherwise they are fleeting thoughts in our own heads, as ephemeral as morning mist.

From where I sit at 56, I see the importance of writing your life down. If you don’t you will vanish when you die. You will become a record at Ancestry.com, but no one will know your story. Guess what? When you are dead and have great-grandchildren, something as innocuous as “I lived here.” becomes gold. Your descendants will want to know everything about you.

You may not believe this, but it is true. Every single thing about you and what you have lived is important to people who aren’t even born yet.

6.) Nun

I wanted to be a nun because I was a devout little girl and loved my faith very much. (I still do.) I got very high marks in CCD during my school days at Clark Air Base. I loved, “The Sound of Music.” I also was inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux, and the ranks of beautiful nun saints portrayed in my saints biography books.

I was in awe of missionary nuns who lived like those archaeologists I admired, in all sorts of difficult habitats. Their lives seemed full of bravery and adventure. What I didn’t like was that nuns had to cut their hair and change their names. Those were the days. Now it seems nuns like short hair because they are so busy, and they are perfectly entitled to keep their names.

The more important thing was that I realized, becoming a nun was a calling. I wasn’t called to that life, but to a life of marriage and children. Still, I keep an eye on all the positive news I hear coming out of convents and communities of religious women around the world.

When I need prayers, I have my list of convents to email, and I always get a return email and an assurance of prayers. I always follow-up when the prayers are answered.

So rather than being a nun, I am a supporter of women religious all over the world. They are amazing.

So there you have it. Archaeologist, Food Taster, Philanthropist, Psychologist, Writer, Nun. This post started out light-hearted, and ended up serious. I’m really a serious person anyway. There is always more to the story than what is on the surface.

Whoa, 1609 words. That was easy. This is my 1,112 entry into my blog. It adds up, doesn’t it?

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On the wall, is a portrait of Bud’s great-great grandfather, Robert Gibson Bell. His wife’s name was Sophronia Bruce,  but her portrait is quite dour, and it just sinks the chi of a room, so she is scowling downstairs in a safe place. They were Scots, through and through. The chest of drawers came to us via my favorite great-uncle-in-law, Uncle Doug who lived into his nineties and had a debonair spirit. He and Aunt Margaret were fond of convertibles and date-nut bread. She was a housewife her whole married life and the story goes that she invested small amount of money from her household budget and when she died, she left Uncle Doug a fortune. So it goes with the unknown geniuses in a family.

One day my dear friend who is a very high up the art totem pole in the Philippines went with us to visit them at their storybook cottage in Natick, Massachusetts. He sat and ate and visited and they thought him tremendously charming and they never forgot him and to their last days they sent best wishes.

At the back of the chest you can see a big photograph of the beach at Cohasset, Massachusetts, the picturesque town my husband grew up in. It is still a lovely place to visit on a summer day.

Then you can see a clock which belonged to Bud’s great-great grandfather, the inventor of Bell’s Seasonings. The clock doesn’t run, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t aesthetically a restful thing to look at.

Two whale oil lamps one from the family, and the other from an estate sale stand at attention all the time.

The dearest thing on this surface is the photo of my grandparents, Mercy and Francisco Joaquin. This was Christmas of 1963, I think. This was at Cresta Ola their beach resort in Bauang,  La Union in the Philippines.

When I read stories about children who grow up in hotels or castles, I think of my childhood days at Cresta Ola, where the restaurant was our kitchen, and the hotel rooms our bedrooms, and the swimming pool our playground. The sun sank into the ocean every night and guests came down the driveway and added color to our march of days.

When I was back in the Philippines earlier this year, my uncle gave me the whole sequence of these photographs. When I look at them, I see so much. Most of all, I see my own small face in my own branch of the  family. My mother in her cat-eye sunglasses, my father in his blue tropical weight suit. There we were, in the most unusual place, in the most unusual life, frozen in time.

Yet, that time follows me everywhere, and my grandparents loom large over the landscape. The gifts given to me, the imagination, and the ability to dream with a huge canvas, come from this world.

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Story # 2

First of all,  I will be posting at least twice a week. The end of degree frenzy is winding down and I can focus on my slightly abandoned blog. Second, let me tell you about this little distressed plaster statue I got in Manila.

Whenever I look at this I have a warm feeling. I don’t see a plaster piece with a chipped nose. I remember seeing her up on a shelf. I am in a vintage shop on a sunny, breezy afternoon in Manila. I spent the morning in the company of my cousin and her pre-Cana group. There was a marvelous breakfast and jolly conversation. I listened to the most amazing ghost story ever. Afterwards we embarked on an afternoon of being together. My cousins Bernadette, Melody and Auntie Lynne were with me. We were on a treasure hunt. We had no idea what we would find.

On Facebook, I met Alex Castro of http://andalltheangelsandsaints.blogspot.com . He is one of my favorite bloggers. Our interests intersect in multiple realms; vintage paper ephemera, Manila Carnival beauty queens, and Filipino antique saint statues.  He mentioned a place in Cubao, at the site of the old Marikina Shoe Expo.

The Cubao Expo is like a tropical slice of Brooklyn. The old showrooms that housed shoe displays in Manila’s shoe export heyday are now transformed into vintage shops of all sorts.

We entered one called Remnants. An article about the store is here. It was like walking into a magical closet in a grandmother’s house. Eye candy everywhere. The stories roared out of the little pieces of exiled beauty. Does that every happen to you? When I am around old things in a flea market or an estate sale, I can feel the stories come out of the things. Sometimes I feel sadness, sometimes loneliness, sometimes there is love. My little plaster statue was on the top shelf looking down at me. Something about it grabbed me. I thought of a thousand afternoons in a room with capiz shell windows with the sound of merienda being prepared downstairs. I thought of the stand of sunlit bamboo near the library at University of the Philippines. I thought of my childhood in Baguio and La Union. I thought of the sparkling sea and the sound of guitars. I remembered the porch that wrapped around our house on Clark Air Base. Like pages of a book, the images flashed through my mind.

I turned to look at my cousins who were laughing over records – such blithe spirits. Here we were on a typical afternoon between lunch and dinner. No agenda, just spending time. The most normal thing in the world, spending time with family. Here in the States I spend lots and lots of time with my husband and children. We never see his cousins.

In the in-law family,  a rigodon must be danced. One misstep and heads roll. Like a mystery novel, secrets must be kept, questions must not be asked. It’s sort of like communist Cuba, strict adherence to party propaganda has to be adhered to.

What a relief to be in Manila with my own blood. I had missed it so much!  Now the work is to build a bridge back, with a life that can be lived in both places. More than anything I yearn for these hours with my family.

After shopping we wandered into a charming restaurant called  Bellini’s  . The place was empty. We ordered like princesses on a holiday without spies. Our laughter bounced off the sunlit frescoes. The golden light of late afternoon in Manila told us it was time to go. We chatted with the owner, a former paparazzo who married a Filipina. He seemed like someone who won the lottery. I thought he did.

Like all the other special days in the Philippines, that afternoon had a feeling of extreme normalcy. That feeling which I often allude to is a feeling of extreme comfort, of belonging without explanation, a feeling of being understood and accepted. I guess it is a feeling of love.

 

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Sixty five years ago, the U.S. forces were wrestling of Philippines from the invading clutches of the Japanese Empire. In this fight to the finish, they carpet bombed my hometown of Baguio. My grandfather built bomb shelters next to the Baguio Cathedral, and in other locations in Baguio. He was a mining engineer, and so he knew how to build tunnels.

On the morning of the bombing mission, my family knew the drill. They were staying with the Catholic bishop, who was a good friend of the family. The Blessed Sacrament would be taken from the Cathedral tabernacle to the underground shelter. The Bishop would give Holy Communion one last time, give them the final absolution, and then they would wait.

My mother was fourteen. In fact her birthday would pass during those days. I always think of her as a little girl, because in her narrative, she always sounds like a child, deferring to her parents in a high pitched voice. She never told us the story until a few years ago, when Hollywood released, “The Great Raid” about the rescue at Cabanatuan. She told the story to my children. We sat around the table and she reached into some unaccessed piece of memory and told us what happened.

At the end, we are all in tears. At fourteen, you have an idea of life and death. You have a sense of dread. You can feel terror. So there they were, in the bomb shelter. They had received the Last Sacraments, they huddled together in the embrace of their parents who held hands around their children. There was Patricia, 14, Teresita, 11 Buddy, 8, Sonny, 4, and baby Mary Anne. It must have felt like being on the Titanic.

Lolo started praying out loud, when the high pitched whistle of the falling bombs began. There was, of course, tremendous noise, the force of the concussion, and earth quaking. I can just imagine them bearing it in however children can bear things. I can just imagine my grandmother holding my grandfather’s hands, truly, for dear life.

Then, unbelievably, it was over. My mother did not know if she was dead or alive, and felt her face. She could feel blood coming out of her ears and nose. Then someone opened the door and she could see a pinpoint of daylight.

They staggered out into hell. There was fire all around them. A decapitated head blinked its eyes. My mother said the bishop’s palace was a smoldering ruin. The only thing she could think, at that time was of a dress she had. Her only dress. She reverted to her teenager’s mind and thought, “There goes my dress. How will I ever get another dress?”

They weren’t done yet, the war wasn’t over yet. They still had to refugee on foot down the mountain, and refugee back up to Baguio. If you have never heard of Baguio, I will tell you this. It was a beautiful American city in the highlands of the Philippines.

I have often pondered how it would be if our city would be invaded and taken over by a cruel conquering army. How would it be if we had to withstand a carpet bombing? I think of the people in Baghdad. I think of the people in Bosnia. It is always so hard on the people who survive. It leave scars, believe me, it does.

I carry scars from my mother’s war experiences. I carry a fear of lack, a fear of what might go wrong. So, unlike my husband whose parents grew up in relative security, I fear things he would never think of. Because encoded in my DNA, are memories of terror that became normal.

At least I know this, and have worked to overcome it all my life. The war was the single world event that formed the psyche of my mother’s family. Many of their reflexes are still as children in the war. They all miss their parents, even if their parents died in the 1960′s.  Time, of course, has abated the pain, but their absence is still palpable. How can you ever let your parents be human beings if they saved you over and over again when you were a child?

My poor grandparents, what did they bear? My poor mother, what things did she see and hear that she still cannot fully process? War is horrible. We should think twice or thrice about the legacy of violence around the planet when a child is witness to horror and brutality.

And interesting thought about the Philippines and all who witnessed the horrors of war. I don’t know how people dealt with it except through repression, because there was no therapy movement. It looks to me like people just buried it and went on. If Americans have a triumphalist view of history, then Filipinos has a triumphalist view of life. They like to look on the bright side. Ever optimistic, they buried the pain of the war deep where it wouldn’t come to them during the day. It just wasn’t spoken about when I was growing up. I never even heard of the plight of the “comfort women” until I was a grown woman in San Francisco. So much pain, my island home, so much suffering. And such a beautiful country.

When I was a little child, the war was right next to us. The servants told us of the atrocities, my mother never did. Stones will tell the story of that sort of violence.

Sixty five years ago, the bombs fell and my family live to tell the tale. Many other people we know collectively, people who were part of the family story, didn’t make it. That is how it is in the time of war.

I am very grateful to be here. I am glad my mother has these years of peace and plenty in California. As a mother, I am so sorry my family had to endure that. It scarred them. Some of it was transferred to us. You don’t have to look hard.

Only with compassion can everything be forgiven. The conquering Japanese, the Americans who liberated with bombs, the encoding fear that shaped that generation. May they all have peace now, for the rest of the road.

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