Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

This Christmas, far from over, was lovely. We went to mass on Christmas Eve, here in New Bedford. Then we stayed up waiting for midnight, a custom from my part of the family and opened presents. My heart was completely content because all our children were home. It is the best feeling in the world.

On Christmas Day we took off for New Hampshire, to the farmhouse where his great grandmother spent her summers, and where Bud spent the summer vacations and ski holidays of his life. The farm is an old place. It was built in the 1820’s. His parents live there year round now. It is a very comfortable house, fully updated in terms of windows and heating.

We stayed at the Meadow Wind Bed and Breakfast in Hebron, where we reserved our favorite loft suite that sleeps most of us comfortably. A couple of kids stayed at the farm.

I felt great affection for my in-laws as we sat in front of the big fireplace and unwrapping our gifts, and watching them open their presents. It was like watching an old play, I knew the lines. There is something in tradition that is so comforting.

We listened to carols and had a grand and festive Christmas Dinner. Then, after the great nodding off post dinner, the kids all wanted to sled.

Behind the farm house, overlooking a field that ends in the village cemetery, is a hill that was meant for sledding. Their grandfather placed a flood light to illuminate it at night a long time ago.

The cousins, for when they even have one cousin with them, they are transformed into “The Cousins”, were a merry sight indeed. One after another they took turns on the sleds and toboggan. Shortly thereafter, their Uncle D. who is known for his prowess on the ski slopes in these parts, acted as coach.

By hours’ end he had them going down the hill on the toboggan standing up, like Romans on chariots. Whoosh! They would slide into the darkness, illuminated by their headlamps.

I thought, from my perch on the deck, how different it was from the Christmases of my childhood, yet how perfect it was for them. I surrendered nostalgia to the present reality and looked at my children joyfully engaged in their current pasttime.

I loved watching them though, eyes agleam and scarves flying as they flew down the hill and into the darkness.

Finally we couldn’t keep our eyes open so we bundled back into the van and went to the next village that lay sleeping. Hebron is a perfect post card of a place in the wintertime. All the houses that face the common twinkle with single candles in the window. The phrase, “All is calm, all is bright” comes to mind.

The next morning we were up early for breakfast – the leftovers of the majestic dinner plus eggs and toast and coffee. More sledding! Then we left, hoping to beat the weather.

It was a Merry Christmas indeed. A perfect New England postcard Christmas, with all the music, all the beauty, all the characters.

But it’s lovely to be home, it really is.

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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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Speechless and humbled and filled with joy, I am. Stumbling upon this on this great and bountiful holiday, time stopped.


by my daughter, Ana-Maria


I am thankful for this sturdy table,
worked by hand, and cloaked in handworked linen
to mask the stains and gouges left
by the feasts and frolics of many generations.
Lost legacies, stowed away in cupboards,
in antique pots on piano-tops,
deathless witnesses of time, recalling
memories of those who made us.

I am thankful for the feast that fills us,
the enduring gifts of Eden — God’s plentitude
thinly veiled by the toil of mankind;
for my father’s tirelessness,
my mother’s generosity,
for these two, who have taught me, by the fierceness of their love,
Love’s gentleness.

For my brothers and sisters, my best friends,
who have kept me, all my life,
or all of theirs,
from ever being lonely,
I am thankful.

For this home that we have built together,
this cradle of idealism, nest of dreams;
For the things it has taught us, and taught us to be:
Defenders of Truth, Men of Integrity,
Ladies Chivalrous and Bountiful,
All who know the value of kindness,
and the validity of faith;

For the Church that has held me,
sustained me from birth,
saved me from my stumbling feet and blindness;
For the hope of heaven that has given me
a wellspring of joy, a lamp and unerring compass,
I am thankful.

I am thankful for this string of peaceful days and restful nights.
I am thankful for solitude unbroken
but by the contented companionate rumble of my kitty’s purr.
I am thankful for friends who, with patient hands and steady,
have held for me a mirror to my life,
shown me my heart as I couldn’t see it alone.
My friends who have tamed me, understood my thorns.

I am thankful for undying dreams
distant worlds and lifetimes,
intimately loved,
cherished and known, though yet unseen.
For the breath that fills my lungs
the melody that fills my ears,
I am grateful to God,
who has given me voice and a song to sing.


For the honest work that fills my table,
for the hearty food that fills my hunger,
for the holy love that fills my heart,
and the kindred souls who fill my hearth
I am thankful every day.

But every day is filled of little things
that fill my life with wonder —
moments, fleeting, subtle,
that register in my soul with the reverence of glory
but often I neglect to register with conscious thanks.

Today, therefore, on this feast of Thanksgiving
with these greater gifts encompassing me,
enshrined in gratefulness, but set aside:
Today, in a pool of firelight,
A pool of warm remembrances:

For whispered whiskered caresses,
For watercolor vistas on an evening wall;
For swaths of melted gold that caulk the crevices of a maple trunk;
For the intoxicating antique tendrils
that waft up from between marbled bookcovers;

For the glistening dewdrop that rests
within the delicate funnel of a lily-leaf,
enshrouded by an emerald thicket,
sparkling through the darkness, though no wandering eyes may ever behold it
in the immortal flower’s lifetime;

For the delicate choreography of the butterfly,
for the touch of a ladybug on a fingertip,
for the patchwork in a glinting spiderweb;
For the modest stars that shine behind the constellations,
silver specks behind the brilliant lanterns;

For the gentle gilt that floats around the aeries
of cloverpatches,
catching the farewell light of summer dusk;
For the prismatic feathers that gleam against the silver sky–
rainbow pockets, brilliant, subtle, cool;

For the diamond shards that melt against my windowpane with every rainfall;
For the dappled screens that dance over my eyelids
when I rest beneath the sun;
For the whisper of the rosegold shadows
that welcome me to wakefulness at dawn;

For the sound of a hummingbird’s flight,
for the harmony it creates with the woodpecker,
for the cicadas’ August lullaby;
For the plumed plumpness of little sparrows,
who trust enough in their tiny hearts to take from me my crumbs;

For the salty air that tumbles over ocean waves,
which, entangled in my hair, follows me for hours;
For the sweetness that coats my tongue,
redolent, fragrant, fruitlike,
extracted by the sun over strawberry fields;

For snowflakes that hold their shape in a bank that overwhelms a city,
tinkling out their joy when recognized amongst the multitude;
For the beautiful tenacity of the withered leaf
which, exposed and thrashed about by the bold, ungoverned wind,
clings to its branch,

And for its graceful descent, after its graceful, trusting surrender
to the immutable currents of life;
For the little things that reveal to me how little I control,
and how much I have been given, in the depth of this richness;
For the moments that reveal the depth of your care,

I thank you.

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It’s been a beautiful sequence of days. On Facebook , via text messages, phone calls, and via email, reunions of dear, dear people from long ago and far away.

Some of us live on the other side of the world. Yet old Baguio, like Carlos Bulosan’s America, is a place that lives in the heart.

It’s still vibrant and a new version of it’s old self in the Cordillera Mountains of the Philippines. Yet, the haunted Baguio that calls to us in dreams and hangs like the edge of fog in our memories, is still very much alive and vibrant.

On Facebook, there is a Baguio group where people are posting their memories of that post war, pre-earthquake, pre-Pinatubo place. That place where we grew up around our parents’ and grandparents’ friends. Where everyone was from an old family and money didn’t mean a lot.

In that Baguio of memory, I suppose we didn’t know how very beautiful the place was. Living as we did in this tropical cloud forest, how did we know that our proximity to the equator, and our altitude was giving us our glorious sunsets and lavender tinged fog that swirled in the green gold light.

In that old Baguio, every inhalation of air was permeated with the scent of pine trees. Walks with friends down South Drive were strolls in a storybook land.

At six the Angelus bells would ring from the pink Cathedral where the bones of my great grandparents lie.

Who knew then, the thousands and thousands of individual stories that would spin people away from Baguio and empty the old houses?

Who knew then, the thousands upon thousands of adventures, near misses, lonely moves and flourescent lit jobs in faraway lands that would magnify a love and longing for home?

Then, this year, on Facebook, on the Internet, it came to life. People from all different parts of life have reconnected are, one by one, reweaving their networks.

Reticent men, now in their fifties are suddenly able to spill their hearts and remember. Women of a certain age, are finding the belly laughs that powered slumber parties long ago. And the good thing is, we’re young enough to go back and visit.

It’s a kind of miracle to be able to sit in New Bedford, Massachusetts, listening to Christmas carols. While sitting next to the fire, I’m chatting and emailing many old friends who are telling me stories and sending me pictures.

I look around at my lovely children, and dear husband and think. “This is a truly wonderful Christmas.” Reconnecting with Baguio was so easy. We were all just here, in our individual worlds. All it took was a mouse and a click and we have rediscovered the best part of Baguio….each other.

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Singing Merry Christmas and Joy to the World!

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