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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.

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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.'

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Every once in a while, I reblog this terrific story by Joan Wester Anderson. It is a true story, it happened to my mother when she was a little girl. My mother is Patricia, her sister, my Auntie Terry, is Teresita. Lolo and Lola mean “Grandfather” and Grandmother in the Philippines. I guess when I originally spoke to the author, I kept calling my grandparents by this affectionate term, but their real names were Francisco and Mercedes Joaquin. Dalupiri is really Dalupirip.

 As I face a recently diagnosed serious health challenge, I am remembering all the times that our family has had prayers answered. This one, the miracle of the fireflies is something I have thought about all my life.  This happened, and it fuels my faith.
Thanks, Joan and The Happy Catholic Blog, for this grace. The link to the blog is at the bottom of the entry.

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Mary’s Mantle by Joan Wester Anderson

When bombs fell out of the sky on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was not the only city to suffer. Many areas in the Philippine Islands were also hit, including the city of Baguio. Baguio was a place of pine trees and mountains, surrounded by fields and gold mines, where Lolo Joaquin worked as an engineer. Lolo’s family, all devout Catholics, had spent the weekend visiting him at the mining site, and everyone was driving home to Baguio for Mass when they heard the bombs exploding. Terrified, the family turned the car around and sped back to the relative safety of the camp. For the next several months, they and many others, stayed near Itogon at a mission run by Father Alfonso, a Belgian priest and longtime friend.

Lolo had graduated from the Colorado School of Mining and had American friends, so as the Japanese army invaded city after city, he became involved in the resistance movement. He refused to work in the copper mines, knowing the metal would be turned into bullets used against his friends. His wife, Lola, smuggled messages inside loaves of freshly baked bread to American prisoners in concentration camps. But both knew it was just a matter of time before the Japanese made inroads into more distant areas, and discovered their activities.

Early in October 1942, as monsoon season began, word spread that Japanese soldiers were heading in their direction. “We’ll go deeper into the mountains, to Dalupiri,” Father Alfonso told the families that had been staying with him. They could hide among the Benguet tribe, whose kings were sympathetic to their plight.

The journey began early in the day, but Lolo soon realized that, for his family, passage was going to be difficult. Not only were the Joaquins traveling with four young children, but Lola had recently had a miscarriage and was still very weak. As miles passed and the trails became rockier, she often stumbled and fell. Other families tried to help, and Lolo knew that his was holding the rest of them back. With the Japanese on their heels, this could be disastrous for everyone.

“Go on ahead,” he finally told Father Alfonso. “We’ll catch up.”

Father nodded reluctantly. “We’ll send people back to help carry Lola as soon as we can,” he promised. “God go with you.”

“And you.”

Soon their friends were gone. Frightened, everyone looked at one another. “Daddy, it’s starting to rain.” Nine-year-old Patricia glanced anxiously at the sky.

Lolo followed her gaze. Clouds were gathering, and the sun had dropped, leaving a chill in the air. “Come,” he said, lifting baby Sonny into his piggyback sling. “Everything will be all right.”

But it wasn’t long before the wind picked up and rain pelted the little group. Soon everyone was soaked. The baby whimpered, and seven-year-old Teresita jumped as the trees swayed, whispering ominously. Lola grew increasingly exhausted. The monsoons had begun. How could they go on?

Soon the trail became so narrow that it could only accommodate one person at a time. To the right rose the cliff-side, straight up, stony and forbidding. To the left a precipitous chasm dropped to the overflowing river. The rain continued, pounding them as they struggled to stay upright on the slippery bluff. Finally Lolo stopped. “We’ll sit now,” he said calmly, although Patricia had seen the worry on his face before the last of the light faded. “Your mother needs to rest.”

Slowly the family put down their packs and sat against the rocks. It was dark now, Lolo realized. Even worse, somewhere in the last mile or two, he had lost his way. What should he do? His little ones were exhausted—how could they continue across those treacherous cliffs, especially as night fell? But they couldn’t sleep on the mountainside either, not with these heavy rains and soldiers trying to ambush them.

The wind grew wilder, and soon Lolo stood up again. “Perhaps we should crawl,” he suggested. “One hand on the ground and the other on the wall of the mountain for guidance.”

“Why don’t we light a torch, Daddy?” Buddy asked.

“We can’t, son,” Lolo explained. “The enemy might see it and shoot us.”

Teresita began to cry. “I’m scared, Daddy,” she sobbed as thunder rolled across the mountains. “I want to go home!”

“Hush,” he soothed her, patting her with one hand as he held the sobbing baby in the sling. “Stop crying, my little ones. This is not a good place to be caught by darkness and rain, but we must make the best of it. This situation calls for courage, not fear!”

“What can we do?” Lola asked, drawing four-year-old Buddy close to her.

Lolo paused. “We can pray,” he said. “Haven’t we always turned to heaven when things got bad?”

The children nodded. They had all read prayers from books, or recited those they had been taught. Of course they could pray. But now their father threw out his hands and lifted his voice in a way they had never heard before. “Cover us with thy mantle, oh Blessed Mother of God,” he pleaded, “that we may be saved from all evil and temptation, and from all dangers of body and soul!”

It was a wonderful petition. It had power and hope, and their terror seemed to recede, just a little. Lolo felt it, too. “I have an idea,” he said slowly. “It is too dark now to see ahead, but if we go in single file, each taking the hand of the person in front, we will all feel safer.”

Teresita wanted to be brave. But she trembled as the river beneath them roared. “I’m afraid, Daddy.”

Her father grasped her wet hand. “We will say the rosary as we walk, loud, so God can hear it over the storm! Buddy, you lead the way because you are the smallest and closest to the ground. Is everyone ready?”

“Ready.” Slowly the little group moved forward, water streaming into their eyes, clothes plastered to their shivering bodies. They would not make it. One child would trip, and all would lose their balance, plunging to the canyon below. “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Shakily they clung to the familiar biblical phrases, the reassuring cadence, the memory of their father’s impassioned plea. They would not make it. And yet . . .

The journey seemed to last forever. But as they approached a sharp turn in the path, Buddy was the first to see. “Mama! Daddy!” he shouted. “Look!”

The rain had abruptly stopped, the air seemed sweetly fragrant. And before them, as far as they could see, stretched a long line of luminous candles winding around the curve of the mountain and on to a wide plain. But no—not candles. For these lights were bouncing, dancing, twinkling like stars illuminating the heavens.

They were fireflies! Thousands, millions of them, all hovering about three feet from the ground. In their combined greenish glow, Lolo could see the path as bright as day, even the footprints of the refugees who had gone ahead of them.

Awed, Lola dropped to her knees in thanksgiving. The children laughed, catching some of the little insects and wrapping them in their handkerchiefs. “We can use them for lanterns!” Patricia cried, delighted.

Clutching the baby, Lolo stared at the scene, incredulous. In all his life he had never seen such a huge collection of fireflies in the same place, or massed in a precise pattern like this. Fireflies didn’t come during monsoon season. Nor did they hover close to the ground, preferring
instead the tops of trees. Yet here, hip-high, were an incredible number, waiting for his family, enclosing them—like a mantle of protection, he realized suddenly. A queen’s mantle, edged with gold.

There were more miles to go, but now the path seemed enchanted as the blessed fireflies lighted their way to the little village. Finally! They ran the last muddy yards and pounded on Father Alfonso’s door.

“We had given you up for lost!” the astonished priest cried, coming out to embrace them. “How did you do it? How did you cross the mountains in the dark, in this raging storm?” Patricia and Teresita looked up. The deluge had started again.

“Father, we can’t explain it,” Lolo said. “Look behind us and see this miracle for yourself.”

Father looked past Lolo. But there was nothing at all to see. No fireflies, no softened sky—nothing but darkness and streaming water. Lolo understood. “Has it been raining like this all evening, Father?” he asked quietly.

“It has not stopped at all, Mr. Joaquin,” Father Alfonso answered.

The following day, Father Alfonso called a meeting of the tribal elders, some of them over one hundred years old, and showed them the fireflies left in Teresita’s handkerchief. “Have any of you heard of this?” he asked. “Fireflies coming in a storm to light a traveler’s path?”

The elders conferred. They were experts on the ways of nature, and fireflies. There was no possibility of such a thing, they all agreed.

Such a verdict did not matter to the Joaquins. For they had seen, not only with physical eyes but the eyes of faith. Life would be difficult as they struggled to survive in their war-torn land. But they would not be alone. How wonderful were the ways of God!

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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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