Between age four and eight I was introduced to an alternative lifestyle that back then I didn’t know would set me on a lifelong journey away from everything familiar, leaving behind family, country, and culture, the very way I saw life.
My mother had an older brother, Tiong Nene, who lived in Manila. My father would sometimes go with us but it was mostly my mother’s idea to take the children and spend a couple of weeks in Manila during summer vacation. I think now that visiting her brother was an opportunity for her to live the finer things in life that she didn’t have with my father on Burgos Street.
Tiong Nene (his given name was José) had married a Filipino-American, Tiang Florence and with her and their children lived an American lifestyle in Manila. When we started spending summer vacations with them they had a house on Vito Cruz. There was a gas oven and stove and a Frididaire in the kitchen. A few minutes walk to the corner took us a modern sari-sari store where we bought Magnolia milk and Choco-Lite.
The house was across the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, then a popular venue for traveling shows from the U.S. We saw a Holiday on Ice show there when I was five or six and the sight of phosphorescent costumes and props glowing and sliding in a darkened coliseum was one of the wonders of my early childhood. I was very much taken by gorgeous young people with graceful bodies gracefully gliding on ice in what looked to me like ballet. (I didn’t know then about modern dance, certainly not Olympic-style skating or acrobatics.)
Tiong Nene like everyone in my mother’s family was raised in the Aglipay church but converted to the Presbyterian Church when he married Florence. I remember going to Sunday service with them and taking communion by drinking grape juice from thimble-size plastic goblets passed around on a tray! Men wore jackets and ties, women cocktail dresses, and the children too were similarly attired. It was quite a hoot, and the boy that I was was suitably impressed.
The family later moved to Quezon City along with many other fairly well off middle class people, lured there by spacious lots and modern houses. Their house on Vito Cruz was American-era, two-story white clapboard building with small, screened windows (my first encounter with screens to keep out mosquitoes), shaded by a tall, old tree (somehow I am thinking pine tree but it was probably an ancient broad-leaf tree). They moved to a new subdivision near Timog (South) Avenue where the streets were named after one of the 22 boy scouts who died in a plane crash en route to the 1963 world jamboree at Marathon, Greece.
Their new house was a bungalow, a style of housing that looked foreign and so high class to my probinsyano eyes. There was a spacious deck in front graced with tall wooden posts holding up a straight roof. Nearby a small pool bubbled amid rock layers and water lily pads. Everything was on the ground floor. From the deck one looked into the living and dining rooms through a tall bank of windows with Venetian-style glass. The polished concrete floor of the bright living room was separated by two steps from a hall of wooden floors and apple green walls from which the four bedrooms and the bathroom emanated.
The Salazars had bought an adjoining empty lot where Tiang Florence gardened and I spent hours conducting funerals for dead bugs. For their pantheons I used scrap construction materials like laminates, brick and sand.
Those were rhapsodic summers, a surprise to me today to remember when I usually think of childhood and teen years as miserable, lonely and misunderstood. I was not completely off the mark. Even then I enjoyed spending time by myself, enclosed in my own cocoon of fantasy and daydreams. My task today is to recollect those threads and unwind the cocoon!