It has been humid for the past two days. So humid it seemed unbearable. Bud put the air conditioner into our room. I was hoping (why?) to make it through the summer with fans.

Oh the sweet relief of walking into a cool room! I go back in time to when I was a little girl, visiting my mother’s godparents in Manila. The Belmontes were such close friends of my grandparents, and they had such a unique and wonderful home.

There were ramps and rooms. Auntie Mameng had collections. Fans and dolls are the ones I remember. I slept in a cool, room with smooth sheets. The air conditioning made it a piece of heaven in the tropics.

We would sit on the screened in porch, on squishy cushioned rattan chairs. There were piles of magazine, National Geographic stands out.

Meal times had the lovely old-fashioned choreography of the time before the war. An immaculately set table, Uncle Tony at the head. Pleasant conversation. Smiling Auntie Mameng who was so warm and friendly. I was too young to appreciate the story of their family and mine.

There was a younger adopted daughter, who straddled the age between being addressed as an aunt, or as a cousin. I can’t remember her name.

A canopy of green surrounded the house, trees and shrubs. I wonder if the house is still standing?

I was seven or eight years old. My grandmother was still alive. I can’t remember why we went to Manila from Clark Air Force Base.

If only I had the words in those days to talk to them and ask them about their lives. The other good person in the family was Auntie Fe del Mundo. She was referred to as “our pediatrician”. When I grew up I realized how famous and revered she was.

Thank God I have an inquisitive mind and a good memory. Otherwise so much would be lost in the winds of time.

Hello there


Hello again. It has been a while. I haven’t been writing except for Facebook updates. It’s been quite the year! Last year in May 2014 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Writing took a back seat.

When I heard the news I went through all the emotions but the biggest one that needed to be dealt with was FEAR. There is a lot of fear around cancer. I don’t do well with fear. I know what fear does to the brain. I didn’t want to be afraid.

So I dealt with it, and am DOING AMAZINGLY WELL. I feel healthier than I’ve ever felt in my life.

Then, my daughter announced her engagement so the family went into WEDDING MODE.

She and Matt got married and it was lovely and it was splendid and many times I felt like I was in the best, most beautiful movie. Their wedding will be a family treasure forever.

Still, I hardly wrote. People need to process big stuff and I went through some big stuff.

The worst was being scared on our anniversary last year, 2014. A very callous and stupid doctor laid a hex on me, which frightened me. Thanks to my NeuroPositive training, I knew that I needed to experience five good things to offset that setback. We had a great day, anyway. We had a wonderful anniversary anyway. I fired that doctor practice and prayed, truly prayed to be connected with a healer.

In a matter of days (God answered this prayer very quickly), I met Tom Tam of Tong Ren Healing (Google him and the positive reviews are true, the negative ones are from people who do not know him and who are posting from afar). I’ve been going to Tong Ren in person or online for more than a year now.

Cut to the essence (I am doing exceedingly, wonderfully well). The tumor has shrunk 90%, I have a wonderful new doctor in Boston (Harvard faculty, etc.etc).

I live a life in the moment with the choice every day to see the positive and to FEEL positive emotions. This is probably the sixth life changing event of my positive life. With that thought in mind, I am about to open my NeuroPositive Life Coach business. Stay tuned. I will post the website here.

My takeaway from this experience is cancer is not a scary term. Cancer is something big, but it does not mean a death sentence by any means. There are many more ways to heal than we know about. We can thrive under all circumstances. And, as my late father used to say, “Be careful of the pictures in your head.”

I say, listen to your internal narrative and change it. Then live according to the changed narrative.

As St. Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.

Signing off now, because it is time to buy ingredients for dinner.

I’m writing this while Bud is sleeping. The kids went out and bought surprises and filled a card. He is very popular with his six children.

Bud’s day will start at 7:15 in the morning when he jumps up and gets ready to take our youngest, a high school junior, to school. Her opening time is 8 a.m. He will be back home at 8:15 and then he will make his coffee and turn on his computer and begin his magical method of spinning straw into gold.

Before he leaves the dog will jump up on my bed, and at 8:30 he will open the door and say, “Food?” and sixty pounds of yellow lab will leap off and clatter down the wooden steps.

By the time I go downstairs it will be pushing eleven. Healing is a lot of work! When I go into the kitchen, I will see a mug of coffee sitting on the counter. He thinks of me all the time and makes my easy life even easier.

I am very grateful for him. In fact words are practically useless to express the amount of love I have for him. It’s more than being a soul mate, he is just perfect for me.

When I first spoke to him at length in 1983, I noticed that his birthday was the day before what had been the most tragic and devastating day of my life. I noticed immediately that he was left handed, like me, and was born in San Diego, which was my family’s home. Click and click the little switches turned. Notice, Kathleen, notice. Here he is.

Leaning against the wall at Bookbinder’s in Philadelphia, I noticed. I thought that his birthday would defang, defuse, render neutral a day that was supposed to be a personal 9/11. How can I not believe in God when things like this happen to me?

The great thing about Bud, no – one of the many great things about Bud is that he is an educated gentleman. His language is clean (that is important to me). It matters not that it might have been different, but to those who know me, know I appreciate a curse free environment. His vocabulary is large and his command of English is perfect. (Another thing that it important to me). No matter how much our bank accounts may be holding, whether flush or flat, he is the same optimistic, upbeat person. He is a good person. I’m grateful for that.

Romance for young people can be a minefield. There can be secrets, treachery, and lies that break hearts. My heart has been safe since I married Bud. He has never kept a secret from me because he knows I can’t bear secrets.

His sons emulate his best traits, they are gentlemen too, and his daughters love him unabashedly. He loves my family, loves the Philippines, and loves the Catholic faith. His every thought is of me and our children and we are so lucky to have him.

So on this birthday, I want to wish him uncountable days of happiness with me (because I know that is what will make him happy). I wish him every good thing because he is Mr. Wonderful. We’ve been together since 1983, and it has passed in the blink of an eye.

He is proof of the grandest of second chances. In April of 1982, I had no idea that in a year, a mere year, I would meet the truest of loves.

For me, he is personal proof of the goodness of God, and of God’s plan for me. Here’s to decades more of life together with all it holds, more family members and many more adventures near and far.

All the years of my life, this day has been first, my parents’ birthday and second, St. Patrick’s Day.

My parents were born on this day in 1931, Mama in the mountains of the Philippines, where her father was a mining engineer, Daddy on the old home place in Daisy, Georgia, where his father was a country doctor. They met in the Philippines when they were 23, he an Air Force lieutenant freshly stationed overseas, she an accomplished pianist just back from college in Minnesota.

At the start of their story, their birthday was the only thing they had in common – a single thread that would lead them on their great life adventure together.

When Daddy was a boy, he loved listening to the Irish music on St. Patrick’s Day, broadcast by the Savannah radio station. He named me after his two favorite songs, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and “Kathleen Mavourneen.” He’d play those songs on the harmonica. The song he loved to sing the most, though, was “Danny Boy”.

We are going to listen to Irish music tonight. It’s 9 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m in front of the Kinsale Inn, in Mattapoisett, Mass. I’m here with my husband, Bud, and four of our six children. All of our daughters are with us tonight: Mercy, Ana-Maria, Seraphina, and Rosie. Our sons are at home playing video games.
I miss my parents. I spoke to my mother in California early today. My father died in 1993, today is their 77th birthday.

Walking up from the harbor one can hear the merriment. It’s St. Patrick’s Day among the Irish, those who claim them, and those who love them.

The Kinsale Inn is the oldest seaside inn the United States. It is now owned by transplanted Irish folks who have made a success of it with their distinct blend of fun, coziness, and lively music. Tonight, they are having an Irish seisiun, or session.

The musicians encourage people to come up and sing or play an instrument. It’s part pub, part inn, and part Irish tea room. Waiters with bow ties hustle about the room shuttling drinks and sandwiches from the grand oak bar to the many tables.

Just inside the inn door, there is a fat baby dressed like a leprechaun in the arms of his father. The room is crowded. I can’t figure out the fashion, it looks like L.L. Bean, but there’s something more. It’s coastal Yankee with a flourish. People have dressed up to go out tonight. I tuck myself into a corner near the stage. My daughters are shown to a table by a waiter who smiles at my husband’s request, to get them anything they want.

A music trio is running the session. They’ve warmed up the crowd, and a jaunty repartee goes back and forth. They sing of love and loss and yes, drinking. A woman named Mary Beth stands on the stage, hands on her hips, and calls the chorus out to the crowd. Soon we are all singing back. I am in a pub on St. Paddy’s evening, singing, while holding an Irish coffee. Bud has a bottle of Smithwick’s ale.

It’s my parent’s birthday and I’m far, far away from any of my childhood homes. I am missing most the parent I can’t talk to. I’m remembering Daddy on the harmonica, Daddy singing.

Bud puts his arm around my shoulder and I lean in. He points out the girls across the room just as a smiling waiter brings a tray. I see them clapping as the dishes are put down in front of them. The waiter nods his head and I can see him talking to them.

I’m in the midst of the room singing and swaying to a song about whiskey and love. I need, really need to hear “Danny Boy” tonight. I send a wish up, and as a backup, plan to ask Bud to write a request on a paper napkin and give it to the waiter.

There is another song about love and loss, by a young woman with tousled hair. She sings so sincerely without any accompaniment. She sings about separation, reunion, holidays without him and the desert. I wonder if her mate is in Iraq.

Bud has Irish blood and that is another story for another day. He sees his old boss, Jim Sullivan, across the room. Jim is sitting with five widows. Jim has explained carefully to Bud, “They can’t sit at home on St. Patrick’s Day”. He lifts his glass of Irish Mist across the room at me with a gallant nod.

The trio starts another foot stomping round. They greet a table of folks from Fall River who come to see them every St. Patrick’s Day. They are speaking in Portuguese. Tonight, we are all Irish.

Then, in that moment between sets that is ripe with possibility, the microphone is passed to a woman with a bonnet of steel gray hair. She introduces her granddaughter, Kaileigh Kelleher. Kaileigh lifts a flute to her lips. The light is shining on her face. The flute is poised. She looks like a Christmas card angel with her fair, young skin and auburn hair. She starts.

She’s playing “Danny Boy”, and a wave of nostalgia hits me. I’m nine years old again, Daddy’s back from Vietnam, and my baby sister has just been born. There are ten of us; we live in a large tropical bungalow under massive acacia trees on Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

The mandolin picks up the melody, and brings me back to the present moment. A hush falls over the room, and people start singing softly. The voices never rise above the flute and mandolin; they remain suspended between the two instruments like a ribbon of great affection.

She pipes the last notes and the pent up emotion in the room rushes out in applause. The musicians keep the tempo up with a round of “Tell Her That You Love Her” and finish the session with a haunting rendition of “The Water is Wide.”

Bud and I walk over to the table where our daughters are finishing up apple pie, bread pudding, cheese cake and ice cream with picture-perfect pots of Irish tea.

The fireplace in the corner glows.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day at the Kinsale Inn, and all is well.

I was going through my Facebook feed and saw this essay which I knew was being written. What a delight, what a surprise! It made me cry, because it brought our old house back to life in a way only writers can conjure.


CASA BLANCA by Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo

The unseasonably cool nights we had for a couple of weeks reminded me of my favorite mountain town. So I reread this piece which I wrote about a year ago for a friend who is including it in this book he’s editing, and decided to post it here. (Details can’t be revealed yet because the project is supposed to be a kind of surprise .)

For most people, “Casablanca” is the title of the classic film from the ‘40s, set in Morocco, directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid. For me, however, it is the name of a hotel, which was where our family lived whenever our father took us to Baguio City.This was in the ‘50s. And, as everyone knows, that Baguio is gone forever. However it isn’t totally gone. It lives on in memories of people like myself. As does the hotel named Casablanca.

At the top of Session Road, the road forked left and entered what used to be Camp John Hay’s main gate; and forked right into Loakan Road, where Nevada Square now stands. As I remember it, the Casablanca stood right there on the corner – a white house, two stories tall.

It was some distance from the road, so there was plenty of space for cars to park in, and for kids to play in. There were trees that provided shade, and flowers spilling from little terraces or flower beds, which were protected by low walls constructed from the multi-colored stones that Baguio was famous for.

My father liked going to Baguio in November, which may be why I have no memory of other guests staying in the hotel. (But I could be wrong about this.) We were always given the same room on the second floor: a family room, with five beds, separated by a curtain from a smaller room with a single bed. The curtain was in the same plaid as the curtains on the window, and, I think, the bedcovers. Beyond the small room was a kitchenette and a toilet and bath. Papa, Mama, and the three of us slept in the family room, and Boy’s yaya slept in the small room.

Some parts of the hotel were off limits to guests, because they were occupied by the family which owned the place – the Joaquin family – like the living room, which had a carpet, and a big fireplace with a large painting above it. I had never been in a house which had a fireplace and a carpet, and was quite in awe of this room.

I remember Mr. Joaquin as a distinguished-looking, courteous gentleman; and Mrs. Joaquin as a beautiful, elegant lady with a sweet smile and an unfailingly gracious manner. There were five children, whose names I still know today. The three older ones – Pat and Terry and Bud – were good-looking and glamorous. They seemed to have a lot of friends, who dashed up and down the stairs, laughed a lot, and held dancing parties in the basement that lasted long into the night. The youngest girl, Mary Ann, was still in school, and wore a bulky white sweater over her school uniform. And the younger boy, Sonny, used to romp about with the large family dog.

But Casablanca was just one part of the magic that was Baguio in that lost time.

I was only eight years old when I was first taken to Baguio. We went up by car, and and my kid sister, Ting, and I felt that we would never get there. The flat rice fields, which in my Geography book were called the “Central Plain,” seemed endless. My brother, Boy, who must have been only two, simply went to sleep on his yaya’s lap. But I couldn’t follow suit, because the car kept having to stop for Ting to throw up by the roadside.

The “Zig Zag Road” was an altogether different experience. Not only was it traversing terrain that was most definitely not flat, but it also appeared to be climbing a mountain – possibly several mountains – and doing so with great difficulty and at enormous risk.

Our mother was torn between gasps of admiration and exclamations of alarm. The road twisted past old trees, squeezed between enormous boulders, perched above rivers and ravines. Here and there we came upon a small waterfall tumbling down from the mountain slope into the roadside. And sometimes the road became so narrow, and bent so sharply that it was not possible for our father to see whether there was any vehicle coming toward us. Then we had to stop until the vehicle did pass us, and we were waved on by a man standing on the road, communicating with someone else through what was then called a walkie-talkie.

But all around us were wonders that we children were beholding for the first time: astonishing rock formations, trees perched at the very edge of a cliff, their branches dripping with tangled vines, enormous flowers, rainbow-winged butterflies, cascades and precipices. And, strangely, I have no memory of having to stop to allow Ting to be car sick during this part of the journey.

Baguio itself was a wonderland – a marvelous mountain town, draped in mist, smelling of pine trees, and tasting of fresh strawberries and whipped cream. We went pony-riding under the trees and biking around a lake ringed with weeping willows. We wore thick jackets and took long walks in the woods. And every night, before I fell asleep, I prayed that when I woke up, my father would announce that he was closing down our house in Quezon City and moving us all to Baguio.

When Ting and I were in our teens, our family stopped staying at the Casablanca, because a close friend of Papa’s had built a summer cottage for himself along Naguilian Road, which he made available to us whenever we wanted to use it. So our yearly holidays in Baguio remained a family tradition, but Casablanca did not.

My husband and I were to continue this tradition with own children. Even in the middle and late 70s, when we were already living overseas, we would take our little girls up to Baguio each time we were on home leave. But by then, the Casablanca seemed to have ceased to operate as a hotel. So we either went up as guests of friends, whose fathers were judges of the Court of Appeals or justices of the Supreme Court, so that they had access to the summer cottages in the Courts’s compounds; or we stayed at the old Pines Hotel or at the Hyatt Terraces. The Pines was gutted by a fire in 1984, and the equally ill-fated Hyatt Terraces, completely collapsed during the earthquake of 1990. But we simply found other hotels – like the Safari Lodge and the Concorde and the cottages in Camp John Hay – and faithfully made the annual pilgrimage to our favorite mountain town.

By then, Casablanca had retreated to the back of my mind. But many long years later, I would discover that it had never really faded away.

In 1997, the UP Center for Creative Writing, of which I was a part, decided to hold its National Writers’ Workshop at a hotel called Salome, a curious, two-story white house with a sloping green roof. Its tree house, its sun-splashed terrace with the small, white, wrought- iron tables, under gaily striped umbrellas, and the birds singing in its pine trees, made it quite an enchanting little place. Beside it were three or four other old houses which had been converted into inns. And one afternoon, while I sat at one of those little tables, sipping my cup of lemon tea, something clicked in my mind, and I realized that our hotel was on Loakan Road.

A brisk walk brought me to the street corner. And there was the familiar fork, and there was the old gate to John Hay (though it had obviously been closed down). The Casablanca, however, was nowhere to be found. I retraced my steps, and stopped before each of the houses between the street corner and the Salome. None of them even vaguely resembled the white house I remembered. For a brief moment I thought I recognized it in a particularly decrepit structure, the one closest to the corner. But, no, that shabby, unkempt thing couldn’t have been my beautiful Casablanca. What had happened to it? Had I perhaps dreamt it up?

Nearly two decades later, I was invited by my old friend to contribute something to a book that would honor another dear, old friend – and one of Baguio’s favorite sons –who was about to retire, after a lifetime of dedication to the study of Cordillera culture. It was instantly clear to me that I would write about his city… and mine. I would write about Baguio, and about something which will always be a part of Baguio for me.

So I went sleuthing once again for my vanished Casablanca. But this time I would do my searching on the Net.

The first few tries brought up nothing but duds: hotels in Morocco named “Casablanca”, or hotels in Baguio city named anything by “Casablanca.” So much for Google’s finding the answers to everything, I thought.

But I gave it another try. And suddenly I stumbled on this blog by someone called Kathleen Burkhalter. She was writing of her old homes in the Philippines which were called “Casa Blanca” (she spelled it as two words) in Baguio and “Cresta Ola” in La Union. The blogger’s name seemed familiar. A quick search revealed her to be my Facebook friend.

I dashed off a Private Message, explaining who I was, and why I was interested in her Filipino homes. Within a few hours, I received her reply. She confirmed that her family had lived “next door to the Nevadas at #4 Loakan Road,” and she gave me a thumbnail sketch of the Casa Blanca’s story.

In the 1930s, when it was built by the patriarch (her grandfather), Engineer Francisco Joaquin, it was both a hotel and the family residence. It suffered some damage during World War II, and Kathleen’s grandmother, Mercedes Joaquin, “got the Americans to repair it because they wanted to rent it postwar.” However, it was someone called Annette Krasnianska who became its tenant, and she ran it as an “incredibly successful” place called “Annette’s Guest House.” The lady kept a guest book, which she later printed, and which is now in Kathleen’s hands. During that time, Kathleen’s grandparents had gone to Marinduque “to regroup,” which, I gathered, meant waiting for the Baguio mines to be reopened.

In 1961, when Kathleen was herself first introduced to the white house, she was only four years old. The Casa Blanca, wrote Kathleen, “worked hard as a hotel in the 50s” (which was when our family used to stay in it). “Its inner architecture,” she added, “made it able to morph from large home to hotel to summer rentals and back to house.”

She was immediately “enchanted.” She lived there from 1968 to 1975. Her grandparents died in 1966 and 1969. And in 1975, the house was “taken over” by the Social Security System (SSS), which “put an ugly gray façade over the front, made of wood and painted it.”

Kathleen does not know what happened between the 1975 and 1990. But she does know that during the Big Earthquake of 1990, the house “came down” or “was terribly damaged.” And when Kathleen’s mother, Pat made the trip to Baguio in 1993, “only the front steps and the chimney remained.”

So that’s why I couldn’t find it. It actually no longer existed.

My online conversation with Kathleen lead me to other entries in her blog, “Cresta Ola,” and to her photo albums. I learned a little about her grandparents. Francisco Joaquin was from Bacolor, Pampanga, and became a mining engineer after graduating from the Colorado School of Mines. There is a picture of him as a strapping young man, standing tall on some rocks, looking like he owns the world. Mercedes Verdote de Jesus was from Gasan, Marinduqe, and there is a lovely picture of her in a balintawak, when she was named Miss Marinduque in the Manila Carnival of 1927. The young couple were married at the Manila Cathedral in 1929 – and in what must have been an unprecedented move for their respective families – moved to Baguio, where he went to work at the gold mine in Itogon.

The Loakan residents that Kathleen remembers (owners of those houses turned inns that I saw in 1997, which they must have built at around the same time as the Joaquins built the Casa Blanca) were the Domondons, the Nevadas, the Pavias, and the Montinolas. (Lourdes Reyes Montinola recognized her family’s old summer residence when she and her daughter-in-law Ging Gonzalez Montinola, dropped in on the UP Workshop, which was being held at the Hotel Salome.)

The two older girls – Pat and Terry – went to school in Holy Ghost Hill, where they were boarders during the week. On Fridays, their father would pick them up to spend the weekend with their parents in the Antamok Gold Field.

When Baguio was first bombed, the Joaquin family was in Antamok. They had to abandon the mine for Daluirip. They were given refuge by a priest who ran a mission in Itogon, Father Alfonso de Cloedt. Pat was ten and Terry was eight at the time. The Joaquins had to cross the Agno River on a hanging bridge. Igorot men carried Mrs. Joaquin and the children across; the rest of the way was a narrow mountain pass, which they climbed in single file, in pouring rain, praying aloud the whole while. (This part was narrated to Kathleen by her Aunt Terry.) After the war, Kathleen’s grandfather was to be knighted by the Pope for secretly building air raid shelters that would protect Baguio residents from the bombings.

There are several pictures of the family through the years, formally posed in the Casa Blanca’s living room, which I had found so mysterious and impressive; of the Baguio Cathedral before the war, one of its stained glass windows donated by the Joaquins; of the Cathedral’s spires in the distance towering over the ruined city after the war; and of the same Cathedral taken from the space where the old Pines Hotel used to stand, now the city’s highest point: the top floor of the SM Mall.

Kathleen was baptized, and confirmed in this Cathedral. Kathleen’s parents were married in 1955, the Baguio Cathedral, on the same day that her grandparents celebrated their 25th anniversary. Patricia Joaquin wore an exquisite Ramon Valera terno, and John Burkhalter was in a tuxedo. The photograph was taken in Casa Blanca.

Among Kathleen’s photo albums is one titled “Time Is a Wheel that Goes Around and Around.” In it is the one full frontal picture of the Casa Blanca that I have ever come across. The proud owner is sitting on its front steps.

Comments from her FB friends fill in the gaps. Martha Carmel Chanco wrote: “I remember this house so well as we passed it a gazillion times on the way to John Hay, and later PMA, as we visited my brother and went to hops.” (June 20, 2009)

Edgardo Nevada: “The basement of this house became the first discotheque in Baguio, appropriately called ‘D’Basement,’ run by Red, White and Blue, namely Rudy ‘Red’ Nuñez, Tony ‘Blue’ Verzosa and Sonny ‘White’ San Pedro.” (July 11, 2009)

Martha Carmel Chanco: “I remember D’Basement. That was the hottest spot in the early ‘70s and late ‘60s, I think. Kathleen, didn’t you tell me your folks had to add additional boarding to your bedroom floor to protect you from stray bullets in case there was a brawl down there?” (On July 11, 2009)

Kathleen Burkhalter “Yep… those were the days. Finally Mama didn’t renew their lease. Our new tenant was Sister Vincent and the Easter Weavers! From loud music to the music of the looms.” (August 30, 2009)

Patricia Joaquin Burkhalter: “That was my happy home with so many happy memories and my children will always remember.” (September 16, 2009)

Mahrz Leyco: “Nowhere Disco was the forerunner of D’Basement, right Sonny J?” (September 18, 2009)

On September 30, 2009, Kevin Engle picked up the conversation: “Drove by it many, many times, on our way to the Halfway House or the 19th Tee or the library on a Sunday afternoon to read periodicals or to play miniature golf.”

More than a year later (Nov. 2, 2010), Monch S. David wrote: “Tita Pat … so this was Casa Blanca … Ang ganda! I should have tagged along with my mom… Sayang … Lovely house!

Another year later, the comments were still coming in. From Dolly Aquino (July 4, 2011): “My sister, Bebe, and her husband Ernie Bueno had their wedding reception at Casa Blanca in 1952. Later on, my brother, Benjie, managed the pub there, which he named “Nowehere,” a hangout of my brother’s band, the Footnotes. Those were the days when Baguio boys and girls enjoyed clean, wholesome fun, and the evenings never ended in brawls and fistfights.”

And so it goes, the faded photograph of the stately Casa Blanca allowing the intersection of recollections from these old Baguio residents and their progeny.

I also found photographs of Kathleen as a schoolgirl in St. Theresa’s College in Baguio, and as a co-ed in UP Baguio and UP Diliman (where she was part of the UP Concert Chorus). And a couple of pictures of Kathleen’s grandfather (Lolo Paquito), still handsome, though much leaner, after his wife’s death. He had taken up painting and going on solitary walks, and had died himself just three years after she did. And there is a picture of Kathleen sitting by a window facing mountain slopes and pine trees, in Forest House Café and Bistro, beside Hotel Veneracion (which used to be the Salome Hotel) on Loakan Street, when she returned to the Philippines to celebrate Baguio’s centennial. It is captioned “Dreams do come true.”

Finally, I found an entry, titled “A Child’s Memory” and dated August 31, 2009, which begins thus:

“Today is the beginning of Baguio’s centennial celebration. One hundred years is a short time in history but a long time in a family. The picture taken here was from 1955, a few days before my parents were married. My Baguio story began a mere five years after this picture was taken.”

The little essay goes on to describe what life was like in the Baguio of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, from the time Kathleen was first gathered into the arms of her extended family as a 4-year-old, to the time she left it in 1975. She writes of the large stone fireplace, the scent of pine wood, the two fox terriers called “Saddle” and “Queenie;” of dinner around a long narra table, in a room whose windows overlooked the blue mountains; of a sunset that was the color of jewels; of the many dishes and platters that were carried around the table by uniformed maids; of sleeping in a room with “ivy wall paper… a carved dresser with a round mirror,” a room which had been her mother’s, when she was small, and would become hers when she returned to Baguio to live. She writes of the games she used to play, the places she used to haunt, the singing and guitar strumming and sungka marathons when her younger uncle and aunt were home from their colleges in Manila. And finally, Kathleen offers a portrait of the family.

To my surprise, I instantly recognized it, probably because I had seen it somewhere in that white house, those long-ago Novembers. The family is posed rather stiffly in the Casa Blanca living room, the parents in formal terno and tuxedo, the girls in shimmering evening dresses, the boys in sober grey suits. But the smiles seem warm and spontaneous. The picture was taken five days before Kathleen’s parents’ wedding. It was a happy time.

I’m not from Baguio myself, but through the years, I’ve come to feel a stake in it. Even now that Tony is dead, and two of our daughters have left the country to follow their own paths, I continue to make the trip to Baguio each summer. My trips are mostly work-related. When I was still VP for the UP System under President Emerlinda Roman, we would go up at least twice each year, for a meeting of the Board of Regents and for Commencement. The UP Institute of Creative Writing continues to hold its annual National Writers’ Workshops there. And now, the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, which I head, also holds its annual National Writers’ Workshops in Baguio.

But I know that even when I am truly retired, and no longer have professional reasons for visiting Baguio, I shall be unable to keep away.

I have friends there. And I don’t mean just Delfin Tolentino and Ben Tapang, Kidlat Tahimik (who is Tony’s fraternity brother), Bencab, Babeth Lolarga and Rolly Fernandez (another fraternity brother of Tony’s), Precy and Butch Macansantos, Frank Cimatu, Laida Lim, Baboo Mondoñedo, Padma Perez, Chit Balmaceda, Popoy Saboy…

I refer also to the ghosts of Madame Chiang of the Old Pagoda antique shop; and of the shoe shine boys of Burnham Park; of the little old ladies who sold delicate, filigreed, silver jewelry and teaspoons and little rocking chairs and harps and bahay kubo, in the silver shop run by the nuns of St. Louis University; and of the band that was first called Different Strokes, and later morphed into On Call, which my fellow-UP-writers and I followed from the old Pilgrim’s Cafe, on top of the Azotea Building on Session Road, to the corner of Leonard Drive and Brent Road, to Forest House Cafe, and finally to the Manor…”

And to the ghosts of Sunshine Grocery, where my father would buy bread after having breakfast at Star Cafe; and of Bombay Bazaar, where Mama once had to get socks for us because ours had inexplicably been left at home in Manila; and of the First Cinema; and of Star Café; and of the Nevada Hotel, another casualty of the earthquake of 1990…

Those friendly ghosts will continue to haunt to me. They will continue to call to me. I will pretend not to hear them. I will suddenly turn to the friend seated beside me, or across the table from me, and complain about the pollution and the traffic in Baguio. But eventually, I will capitulate.

And each time I find myself in Baguio again, I will think of the lovely, lost Casa Blanca. I will ask myself if something could have prevented its complete demolition by an earthquake. Maybe not. On the other hand, maybe if it had been well cared for by those who had taken possession of it, in that decade before the earthquake happened, it might have been strong enough to withstand even those violent tremors.

And then I will wonder, again, why Baguio’s City’s government cannot buy houses like the Casa Blanca — houses which are a part of the city’s history — or set up a foundation for heritage preservation, which will give them the protection they deserve, as the treasures that they are.

So that we might once again walk through their tall rooms, and pass our fingers over the frames of their old paintings; or over the edges of their softly tarnished mirrors; and stand before their windows, to gaze at the sunrise, at the circle of light ascending, turning the sky silvery gold, then powdery blue, while beneath it, the well loved city begins to take shape again … as did Paquito and Mercy, and Pat and Terry and Bud, and Mary Ann and Sonny, once upon a time, in Baguio.

(My thanks to Kathleen Burkhalter, who very kindly gave me permission to quote from her blogs and borrow the picture of her old home.)

'Oh Casa Blanca. In my dreams I walk through your rooms. Baguio City. 4 Loakan Rd. Across from the Main Gate of Camp John Hay. Now, only a chimney remains.'
%d bloggers like this: