Posts Tagged ‘Baguio’

Just write

Let’s use memory to create something entirely new.


Clara and Mark stood in front of a big window looking down at the New York cityscape. It was the end of the work day. The sky was gray – it was raining lightly. The lights from the traffic and the shops and offices gleamed on the pavement.

Clara was thoughtful, and seemed sad. They had just finished a project and usually they would go out for celebratory drinks with the team, and she usually was bright and talkative. Mark tried to coax her out of the mood.

“Tell me about the sunset, ” Mark said.

“You mean this? It’s rainy so the sky  just gradually got dimmer.”

“No, tell me, about a sunset where you grew up ” he said.

Clara  squinted as if trying to focus .

“In Baguio, the fog would come in and the sun would set behind Mount Santo Tomas. Sometimes the fog would come in and the clouds turned pink, then lavender, and orange. The sunlight would burst through and turn the pine forest green-gold. The sky would be bright blue, then it would turn all the colors and the air would seem tinged with gold and rose.It was such an enchanted hour.” Her voice trailed off.

“Was it warm?” he said.

She started again. “It might be chilly and the scent of  pine hearth fires would waft on the breeze.”

“It sounds beautiful,” he said.

“It would be impossibly beautiful,” she said with sudden vehemence.  “And it would go like that, day after day. One day following the next and it seemed so ordinary, after a while.”

“Then you moved here, ” he said softly.

Clear tears filled her brown eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “I thought New York would be the thing I was looking for. And sometimes, walking down Fifth Avenue, there’s a moment when the sun gilds the rooftops and it sends me back. I didn’t know how beautiful it was when I lived there.”

“I never knew,”said Mark.

“You never know until you leave. It’s one of those strange things.” she countered. “When I was  eight, I went up to Baguio to visit my grandparents. My grandmother was sick and we had gone to the cathedral for the evening mass. My sweater was thin. I remember the cold air, standing on the steps of the old house next to my grandfather. There was a fire and around it the Igorots danced to gongs. Arms outstretched, their feet keeping time with the gong. Their bodies lit by fire, a dark delicious sky and the scent of pine. ”


This is why we write. To take pieces of what we have experienced, and use them to remember, to create, to leave our mark.

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A Requiem for Joseph

My childhood friend, Joseph Nacion, died a few days ago. The news of his death arrived by text message and left me speechless with a lump in my throat. I’m at a loss of what to say, I don’t know who to express my sadness to.

Just last week….how can this even be true? Just last week I was up late looking at Facebook and I saw his birthday picture flash by. There he was with a big smile, and a cake – my friend, Jojo.

I always thought I would see him again. I didn’t take him for granted; I just always thought I would see him again. Every time I would talk to him, he would invite us to stay with him at his house. His hospitality was legendary. I was so proud of his achievements, because he was one of us. His victory over all the obstacles tossed at him by fate was so inspiring. Just last week he was at the top of his game, a beloved pediatrician with a robust practice, an extraordinary friend, the anchor of his family.

I’ve been watching his FB page today, it’s sort of a memorial page as his hundreds of friends chime in about how much they love and miss him. As a writer, I guess it doesn’t become real until I document the loss in words.

My first memory of Joseph is funny. I was 14 years old and at my very first party.  I was a wallflower. It was excruciating to be left sitting on a chair with all my friends dancing to “The Age of Aquarius” in the middle of the room. Joseph asked me to dance. I felt my life was saved.  A 14 year old wallflower feels a particular kind of terror.

The world that we came from sits in memory lit by golden light. When I look back it is late afternoon. The sun hits the pine trees across the street. I’m a teenager sitting on the front steps of our house talking to Joseph and his friends.  “Betcha by Golly Wow” comes on the radio. It  is  just another sunny day.

Another memory that keeps coming back to me is the time we were standing in the lobby of our college. It was one of those cold, rainy, foggy days. There were four or five of us and to keep warm we stood back to back in a tight circle. Someone joked, we laughed. We were young and full of spirit and all of life was unfurling in front of us.

On that day we were still just kids from Baguio, with roots in the pine covered mountains, bright days and purple twilights. The altitude and closeness to the ocean gave us fog that would sweep in and drip down the mountain sides like cake frosting. The rainy season was so atmospheric – a perfect environment for reading next to a fireplace or under covers. And that is how it was.

In thirty years the recounting of our lives would outdo telenovela storylines. At the end of those decades, we would chime in from our far flung outposts – so far from home, and reconnect, again and again. Technology shrank the sense of separation.

My Christian hope defines my belief that we will meet again one day. But until then, I so pray for his mother and son and all those friends who loved him dearly and love him still.

And I pray for all of us, that we really understand that life is short and there really isn’t anything that is more important than the nurturing of these golden bonds of love between friends and family.

Because, as my daughter says, “It’s only love that matters”.

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Catching Memories

I’ve been bothered by the passage of time since my mother’s visit. How did she get to be eighty-one? I feel time expand and compress like an accordion. I have been chased by family stories of the war in the Philippines.

Today I called my godmother, my mother’s younger sister, Auntie Terry, who was eight years old when the war broke out and twelve when it ended. Auntie Terry is a marvelous conversationalist, has a razor sharp memory and is easy to talk to. My brother Johnny said she should be recorded until all the family stories are told. There is someone like Auntie Terry in most families.

Auntie Terry was in a car with my family members, headed to my niece’s graduation in San Luis Obispo. She graduates from Cal Poly tomorrow, summa cum laude.

So I called Auntie, did a kind of a mike check, and set the audio levels on my iPhone. I called her on speakerphone and just jumped in. Once we were warmed up, the stories just flowed. I said very little, just interjected occasionally to get spelling or to write down a geographical place.

These are some notes:

  1. The first bomb to fall on Baguio, our hometown, the first bomb to fall in the Philippines on December 8, 1941 (December 7, in Hawaii), literally fell in our back yard. It glanced off a big rock behind our house, and ricocheted into the neighbor’s yard, killing our next door neighbor, Mr. Rivera. (I am a good friend of his great-granddaughter).
  2. The family was in Antamok, one of the gold mines near Baguio, at the time of the bombing.
  3. The family had to refugee to Itogon, another mining camp, and then to Dalupirip. These events took place between December 8th and New Year’s.
  4. My grandparents were close friends with Father Alfonso de Cloedt, who ran a mission in Itogon. He was the priest who offered them safe haven.
  5. My mother (Patricia) was ten, Auntie Terry was eight, Uncle Buddy was five, and Uncle Sonny was a baby. Auntie Mary Anne wasn’t born yet.
  6. On Christmas Eve, they camped under a mango tree and my grandfather built a small campfire and took out the statue of Baby Jesus, an heirloom statue with glass eyes and eyelashes, to have a little Christmas family prayer time. They sang “Silent Night” in harmony. My grandmother had a lovely voice. Out of the shadows stepped an American in denim (ma-ong) with a rifle. He asked if he could kiss the feet of the statue. They kept singing softly. He asked if his men could come and pay homage. They did. There were about twenty of them.
  7. They crossed the Agno River on a hanging bridge that didn’t have real footfalls. The place to step was jury-rigged with wood from American fruit crates. Igorot men carried my grandmother and the children across. My grandfather and great-aunt Millie crossed alone. They crossed at night, because my grandmother was afraid.
  8. They had to make it to Dalupirip to safety, but had to hike up a mountain pass. It was night time. They couldn’t carry lights because there were Japanese snipers in the mountains. It was raining very hard. According to Auntie, there was not enough room for two people to walk side by side. There was a sheer drop into the river. So they lined up, Uncle Buddy, because he was little, then my mother, then my grandmother, my grandfather holding the baby, and then Auntie Terry. They moved with their backs to the mountain, gripping any vines or vegetation that was growing out of the mountainside. They were very scared, so my grandfather led them in praying the rosary. They were, according to Auntie, literally praying to save their lives. They were very scared.
  9. Then, in a moment of inspiration, my grandfather said a new prayer.” “Cover us with thy mantle, oh Blessed Mother of God that we may be saved from all evil and temptation, and from all dangers of body and soul!””
  10. They repeated this prayer and crept along the mountainside. Then there was a turn that opened up into a meadow. Auntie could see a path with dry footprints. It stopped raining and in the bushes, about three feet tall, there were fireflies, the bushes were lit with millions of fireflies. They could see their feet and they took off running and laughing.
  11. At the end of the path was the convent, where Father Alfonso greeted them, surprised that they found their way in the rain. When my grandfather beckoned to the priest to look, the rain was falling hard and the fireflies had vanished. Father Alfonso said the rain had not let up at all.
  12. They were sheltered in Dalupirip by the Carantes family, whose father; Mariano was the chief of that clan.
  13. Their driver was named Rufino Tailan and he was a from the Barlig tribe, known for headhunting. He married Gregoria, their housemaid who was from the Bicol region. They had a daughter, Loretta who was Auntie’s age. One day Loretta invited Auntie over to meet her uncles. They walked along the “pilapil” the raised part of a rice paddy to the Tailan’s house. Sitting outside were Loreta’s uncles dressed for war with feathers in their regalia and special head hunting axes. Auntie was scared but Gregoria told her they were on their way to fight the Japanese.

All this and more came out of a forty-five minute conversation. I’m going to do more, and interview another aunt via Skype. Then there are the aunties in New York who are getting on in years, and they have stories to tell.

May they all have long lives and good memories.

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sirloloMy grandfather, Francisco G. Joaquin, was a knight of St. Sylvester. When I was a very little girl, I took it for granted that he was a special man. He had a sword in his bedroom, and a hat with gold braid on it, and a uniform. These things were tucked away, but I knew where they were. I also knew where his medal was – the one with the ribbon and the cross. It was in the drawer of his Art Deco dresser, with the full length mirror and all the little drawers. He had a library, a room full of books adjacent to his bedroom. The sleeping chamber was separated by a heavy curtain from the reading room.

He was my lolo, my grandfather and he moved with a kind of quality that I would later know as gravitas. In that reading room he could look across to Mount Santo Tomas. The dining room was down a step from the bedroom, and he would sit there, sometimes- lost in thought, in the time after my grandmother’s death. Even though he seemed sad in those last years -I always felt secure around him, I always felt that he had the answers.

I didn’t find his kind of Catholicism difficult to adhere to. I thought all of it was a great mystery, and that I was blessed to have been under his care.

We, all of us, were blessed to have been under his care.

My father was the one who told me that Lolo was a knight. We were living at Clark Air Base when he told me. My father was from the South and he was chivalrous. He told me about brave deeds and I understood what knights were. I have always loved fairy tales.

Lolo was chivalrous, a true gentleman. He was refined in that he loved to read, to discuss theology, and to play the violin. He would accompany my grandmother, Lola Mercy, as she would sings the old love songs, an art form called harana.

Then the war came, and the beloved violin was smashed. Toward the end of the war, he built bomb shelters. That sounds like a safe thing to recount. In reality, if the Japanese knew that he was building bomb shelters, he would have been shot on the spot, because that would have been a recognition that the US Armed Forces were returning to reclaim the islands. So he managed his crew of seminarians, and they built the shelters on the grounds of the religious orders who had their mother houses and retreat houses in Baguio. He built the shelter that saved my family’s life, and the life of the Bishop of Baguio.

When the bombs finally came, the bombs that destroyed Baguio, his shelters held. Because of his efforts so many people, civilians and religious were saved.

The news of his heroic work made it all the way to the Vatican, and he was made a knight. I often ponder the image of my grandfather kneeling before the altar at the Baguio Cathedral, while the words were intoned to create him a knight.

I always knew he was special, but because I have his letters and his books, I KNOW who he was. He was an exemplary man, pure in thought, word and deed. He adored my grandmother. He was brave and sober.

They died too young.

I think that he watches out for me. He looks down at me and knows that I was too young to appreciate him when I was under his care. I appreciate him now.

When I was of an impressionable age, I saw him pray, I saw my grandmother pray. I knew they tapped into a great power. Their faith was unwavering. When my sister Lizzie was in her last months, she reminded me that Lolo and Lola prayed for everything. They prayed for the good business outcome, the safety of their children, the safety of their trip. “We should do the same thing,” Lizzie said.

Ah, there’s another one who went too early. Another one who was fine and noble and true.

Because of my grandfather’s decision to send us back to the Philippines when I was ten, I was able to live in the environment he created, and benefit from his influence.

One thing I did in those early days of being back, was to go to mass with him early in the morning. I loved it. He didn’t say much, he was sad after my grandmother had died. There was a comfort in sitting next to him.

Kids understand when the grown ups are telling the truth. All his life, he carried a father wound, because his father was not like him. All his life, he tried to be a good Catholic. I thank him for this. He is someone whose example was never false.

We will never know all that we lost, or all that we were spared from until we are behind the veil. So much of life is pushing forward through the fog.

I pray, I hope, I trust. My grandfather’s example, imprinted in my memory, is my map. Thank you, Lolo, for this.

*reposted in honor of his work during this anniversary of the carpet bombing of Baguio City in 1945.

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I could have grown up into a depressed cynic, who lost the happiness lotto because of life experience and baggage. But, deep down in me always lived the soul of a happy child and an almost boring stability. I was not particularly brave or articulate as a child, but a child nonetheless, like all the multitudinous hordes of children in the world today. As a former child, I remember what it felt like, and lucky for me, my personal stars aligned in such a way as to break the bonds of generations of sadness, and here I am, about to be 53. As Oprah says, “This I know for sure…” This I know for sure, the best things we are told are true, and only love lasts.

If you are randomly stumbling upon this blog you might want to know some of the back story. I grew up in the Philippines. Far from being half this and half that, I am 200%, Filipino to my cells, and American to my cells too. Some things I love like a Filipino, my family for instance. Don’t tell me that political dynasties or benevolent dictatorship is the only solution for my troubled heart-home. Something in me that endured an Atlantic voyage to a wild, untamed land balks at that. We can change our future. It’s un-American to think otherwise.

Which brings me, dear blog readers, to touch on a shadow in my childhood. My dear Daddy, God rest his soul, was afflicted with bipolar disorder before there was a term for it, before there was medicine. Certain things could trigger an episode, like Christmas.

Naturally, my siblings are split between memories of beautiful Christmases, and memories of sad Christmases. Christmas is a loaded time. I have found that the road of acceptance and open-heartedness is my path to a beautiful Christmas.

One time a medical intuitive who has a radio show told me that I have tried to recreate my own childhood positively. That is true. I wanted the big family, all the kids around the table. I married the most stable of men, but not before marrying one who killed himself.

Awareness is all. We don’t want to repeat what we don’t have to.

That’s enough about sad things. I always want to remember how happy my parents were when Daddy was stable. Nowadays, there is medicine, therapy, and many interventions that can give a bipolar person a long and happy life. The latest brain research shows that rumination, the reliving of sad events, messes up the brains’ frontal lobes. As my positive psychology class taught me, gratitude, faith, goals, and positive experiences are the upward spiral that counteracts the down-the-drain of negativity.

When I was little, just ten, we had a magical Christmas at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Mama decorated the house with gilded red ribbon, a parol, poinsettias, a great Christmas tree, the Belen (Nativity Scene), stockings. We all had new red flannel nightgowns sewed by our live in seamstress. We went to midnight mass at the base chapel, and home to Noche Buena (the Philippine reveillion), and opened our presents.

I remember the music, the feeling of contentment and security, how we all were together. I remember how the next morning, the hot Pampanga sun baked the flowers outside and how the arch of the acacia trees shaded our house.

That year, on Christmas Day, we piled into the car with all the kids and a yaya (nanny) and went to Manila to visit Lola at Lourdes Hospital. I won’t forget that either. Lola, with her hair down, smiling sweetly from her bed. Lolo, sitting on the bed by the window. I remember Uncle Sonny coming in with Auntie Lou. Uncle Buddy and Auntie Lynne and my sweet little cousins.

Auntie Lynne’s parents lived near the hospital on Kanlaon Street. Their house was all wood paneled and dark with rooms and corners that were a place of endless fascination for me.

A few days later, my Lola Mercy died. She had been sick for about a year, and her death was unexpected. The whole world shifted when she died. It was my first encounter with death.

Two more Christmases followed that, one raucous in Albuquerque where my cousin D. came with her parents from California. She was an only child and all her presents came with her. She shared, though, as she always did- as she shares to this day.

The second Christmas was in Hawaii, and Daddy was hospitalized at Tripler Army Hospital. That Christmas Day was bright like the Pampanga Christmas, but oh so lonely. I couldn’t wait to return to the Philippines.

In that time of waiting for my uncles to raise our airfare back, one thought gave me courage. We were going to live in the old house in Baguio, Casa Blanca. In our Hawaiian kitchen there was a box of Lipton tea, with a picture of a tea cup and a hillside. It looked to me like Baguio. I would imagine sitting in the old dining room, looking out over Mt. Santo Tomas, and conjure the safety and security of that faraway place.

I recently looked on the net and saw that our old house in Kailua is a luxury home now. I hope the successive owners were happy in that house, with it’s indoor fish pond and beautiful garden. It was not meant to be for us. I remember a sunny kitchen and how even in Hawaii, the streets outside were quiet like the rest of America that I experienced. I missed the street noise and lively parade of people who colored our life in the Philippines.

The next Christmas, 1969, was spent back at Cresta Ola, my grandparents’ beach resort in La Union. It was a happy place and through these years via the Internet, I have heard from many former children who spent holidays there with their families. That Christmas was our first there since Lola died. I could tell the difference, but still it was jolly.

Lolo handed out presents to the staff, and I remember their glee at the gifts. When they went forward to claim them, it looked like a scene from a story about a good king, beloved by his people. Lolo sat in his arm chair, and the staff- waiters, maids, grounds people stepped forward with a kind of a bowing posture and gave heartfelt thanks. While watching it, I was thinking of how hard my own heart was, at 12, there were many things I wanted, but could not have. I noted how these humble people were so grateful and determined to grasp that elusive quality they had in abundance.

A few days later, Lolo died of a heart attack and the lights went out in our big family again.

The next year we found ourselves in Baguio. If you don’t know where Baguio is, let me tell you. It was a beautiful city built during the American era in the Philippines. It’s in a pine forest called a cloud forest by botanists. On some of the twisting roads you might think you were in New England, because so many of the places were painted white with green shutters. In that place, the air is pine scented. You could sleep under many blankets with open windows and breathe the beautiful air all night long. At sunset, the geographic location and the closeness to the ocean blended the air and sky for a spectacular show.

In my Baguio, there was a green-gold light as it turned from dusk to evening. The twilights were lavender, violet, purple. The sky was as colorful as the Aurora Borealis, with the tropical clouds colored orange and red. I have read that other cities in cloud forests, at similar latitude and longitude and proximity to water have the same phenomenon.

Christmas in Baguio was Filipino with a touch of Frank Capra. The old timers in Baguio, the older folks who set the city up, were largely still there. Their grandchildren were my friends. We owned the city with an affectionate hold, feeling far luckier than the Manila folks who only knew it for Holy Week, the summer break and the dash between Christmas and New Year.

In Baguio, the firewood was a local pine, sappy and resinous and aromatic as incense. This was the smell you inhaled with great breaths, if you took a walk on a cold night.

There was caroling. Finally in high school, we filled cars driven by big brothers and made our caroling calls on family and friends. All girls, singing away with hoarse voices, we wouldn’t stop and we were fed at each stop. Who could say no when we were greeted with tables laden with special treats? I am sure that today, the sound of “Give Love on Christmas Day” brings mist to the eyes of my classmates who are mostly away from Baguio now. Such is life in the diaspora.

No matter how difficult it was for me when my Daddy had an episode, there was the surrounding bounty of the city, my friends, relatives, and general nurturing culture of the Philippines. To make things better, my relatives had an attitude of making things happy for children at Christmas. Auntie Mary Anne comes to mind. There was no family time spent in talking about the upheavals. There was lots of family time spent in support of my mother, and attention to the festivities of Christmas.

So, during those difficult times, I simply turned a switch, and if things were too noisy at home, I simply escaped into my richly colored outside world. Unlike in America where people can retreat into madness and silence, the show goes on unabashed in the Philippines. The phone kept ringing with friends planning outings, the doorbell kept ringing with friends passing by, the relatives kept their Christmas visitation schedule. Life went on, in spite of the cross we carried.

Looking at this practically, given that there was no awareness of this illness, there was nothing we children or my mother could do, except surf with it and not judge it in the long run.

We all grew up and moved back to the United States, for a spell there were trips to California at Christmastime. We moved to California. Then, one year, Daddy died leaving a hole in our extended family.

Today, my older sister and cousin are the junior matriarchs in their region. They have a tribe, and the season is kept with light, color and food. There is a lot of togetherness, and distant folks are welcome to fly in. They keep the feast and have given their children an unbroken stretch of years colored by stability, bounty and family.

Our Christmases here in Massachusetts are happy ones. Always, there are the six children and their pets and their friends. There is music and food. No matter what twinges of memory there may be, I remember that I loved my Daddy dearly, and all that is best in my family culture, I owe to him.

Because of his illness, he was larger than life. He loved my children intensely, and that deep attachment shows in how they have taken pieces of him for their permanent selves. At my bravest I am my father’s daughter. At my most optimistic, I am his student of positive thinking. At my most stubborn, I am the one who will not compromise on that-which-cannot-be-bent. When he was dying, I spent so much time with him and made peace with all the past.

Two nights ago I dreamed of my sister, Lizzie who died in 2000. I miss her so much, not only because she was delightful, but because she was stalwart, faithful and true.

Last night, I was going through boxes in the basement and found stash of letters she wrote to me from Oxford. She wrote me every week, and I daresay I was the only one of our siblings she wrote that often, because at the time I was widowed and she was watching over me from afar. Her letters are funny, and full of her ganas. After she died, I sought to fill her void with my other sisters. They are so different from Lizzie that it is impossible. I love them but Lizzie and I spent years together with a shared vision.

I continue this road without her, grateful for the time we had together, and secure in the faith that she watches over us all.

In my dream, she was carrying her youngest child and looked so happy. She looked as she was in real life when she carried that baby. One of the treasures of this internet era is that I am in touch with her friends who share memories of her that are in perfect synchrony with mine. She made friends wherever she went, and was beloved by people. I daresay that if someone had a problem with Lizzie, there was something wrong with that person.

So this is how it is, at this age dear blog readers. All my Christmases are rolled into a giant ball of life. It is more jewels than coal. But for as long as I can remember, Christmas is the stretch from my birthday to December 25th. It’s an ongoing feast of memory and nostalgia, and missing and relishing. It is full of my babies, who tower over me, and their memories of Bud and me, and all our pets and this old house.

I still miss Baguio come Christmastime, but pine firewood is for sale in New Bedford, and we are really lucky we’ll have some snow during the season. God’s birthday is celebrated all over the world, and from where I type, grateful for my family and friends, that is a good thing.

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