I cannot remember much about my life when I was a toddler except what my parents and relatives have narrated for amusement to embarrass me. A family story is that at age two, I used to sit on a stool outside our grocery store waiting for the wife of my dad's cousin, Dekin, to pass by so that I could yell, "That's a beautiful lady". Every Saturday morning, on her way to the bakery, I followed her for several centimetres imitating the swaying of her hands and hips to the giggles of onlookers.
"No birthday party, mum, unless Dekin comes".
I didn’t have my third birthday party, and it was not Dekin's fault. It was because dad ran away with our cashier. I would parrot my mother; my vocabulary was rich with "carbon", "mierda", "tonto, "puta", and "hostia". My grieving mum had difficulty looking after four children and the store that had employees ready to milk the business, which quickly plunged into disarray.
Carrying only five bags of clothes and kitchen utensils, we boarded a bus for my maternal grandparents' house in La Castellana. I did not see my godmother Dekin for more than a decade until my cousin visited us and handed me a package of a dozen underwear from her. They were too small for me to the delight of my younger sister. In a country of 80% Catholics, godparents take their role seriously and feel guilty when they do not offer presents to their godsons and goddaughters.
Every Thursday evening, mum’s younger brother and about a dozen male Roman Catholic Cursillo group members gathered in my grandparents' house, and I heard them sing "De Colores" (Made of Colours). Some words of De Colores have found a permanent place in my brain, which I sing while in the shower from time to time: "Y por eso los grandes amores. De muchos colores me gustan a mí".
I saw rosaries almost every day, and we made a sign of the cross before eating at a long table with my uncle, grandparents, mother Adela, and my siblings. My father came only on weekends because of his job as a card dealer at a casino in Pulupandan and to avoid quarrels with his in-laws.
I often stood at the big window of the living area on the second floor, watching my mother wash our clothes downstairs on the roofless cemented extension of the bathroom. One Saturday morning, mum I saw mum kicking the plastic basin with clothes while screaming and rushing inside the house. I am not sure if I rushed down or stayed upstairs. The police came to calm down my uncle, who was threatening my father with a knife as he could not stand seeing his sister squeezing a load of clothes while my father was reading a newspaper. He was a convent man and was not supposed to do that, so it puzzled me for a while. He most likely went to confession afterwards and got told by the priest to recite Holy Mary a hundred times.
I started primary school in La Castellana a year younger than most pupils. I used to pick up vegetables from our grandpa's garden to drop at the market for some pesos on my way to school. During weekends and school holidays, my two sisters and I would sell melons that dad purchased from farms in Pulupandan, where he worked as a casino card dealer.
My older sister and I were only nine and eight years old, but we were excellent merchants getting into buses with trays of sliced watermelons and rockmelons. Customers were not all easy to please. They wanted value for money, so they insisted on having only sweet ones. Our dad showed us how to make a tiny rectangular portion to give to prospective customers to taste. We would only cut the whole watermelon if customers were sure to buy it. It had to be red; otherwise, we ended up eating it. It made us hardworking, value hard-earned money, and focus on taking and sharing responsibility. My younger sister had not started grade one yet but could count well. While we were selling in buses, she looked after our stall outside the cinema owned by my mother's distant cousin.
Our youngest brother was born in my grandparents' house in La Castellana, aided by my aunt, the third wife of uncle S, and without a midwife or doctor. Dad saw his newborn two weeks later. No one talked to him, including my mum; he spent his afternoons telling me stories.
“Once upon a time… The Japanese soldiers were still in the area and killing, but many Filipinos had to make a living the rough and dangerous way. A man was carrying a load attached to a pole of bamboo. He was pacing fast, balancing the weight on his shoulders while shouting. Instantly there was movement everywhere, and the neighbourhood became empty, like a ghost town. He was selling soap, so he was yelling "javon" (Spanish for soap). However, the people thought he was warning them "Japon" – the Japanese soldiers are coming.”
I put both hands on my mouth, but the “ha ha ha” echoed in the living room, which was transformed into a bedroom with dividers of light brown cloths attached to the windows on both sides of the walls.
Mum turned her head towards dad and me. "Ssh. Be quiet. Can't you see? He's sleeping".
From the age of eight years, I was already enthralled by stories about the Second World War. My mum was 15 years old when it broke out. Her mother forced her to chew betel nuts to look old and dirty to avoid being noticed and raped by Japanese soldiers.
Betel nut is the seed of areca palm fruit. It is a stimulant drug, so it has effects on the person's brain and body. My grandmother would crush betel nuts and dump them into my mum's mouth. She was so worried about my mum's survival in an environment of fear and unpunished illegal sexual violations that she ignored the risk associated with drug-taking. Though my mum consumed it for a year until the last Japanese soldier left the Philippines, she did not gain weight, experience discolouration of teeth and gums, or had a stomach ulcer. Perhaps, it was because she was quick to spit it out as soon as her mouth and teeth become red and dirty and not swallow any bit. She even won the local beauty contest five years later.
During the middle of Grade 3, mum decided to live with our dad in Pulupandan, a medium-sized town along the coast facing the Camotes Sea (a small archipelago situated between the eastern and central Visayan regions). After school, my two sisters and I would venture into the beach (where the open-air public toilet was), looking at the various small islets. We were amazed how the weather in the Camotes changed instantly from a cool northeast wind referred to as the Philippines' Amihan to a still cloudy day that gave us a picture of a deserted island inhabited by ghosts.
I was better than my elder sister at tumbling. One afternoon, while jumping, twisting and flipping with my hands on the sand, I heard my sisters shouting "run". When I got my two feet down, our mum's red face was right in front of my nose. Her yelling: "I told you to stay away from the sea. None of you can swim!" deafened my ears.
I had fun wherever and whatever, as long as I had my sisters, brothers and parents with me.
To date, I do not know why my late father returned home. I should have asked my late mother why she accepted him back after a year of hiding in the north of the Philippines.
In 2020, my younger sister, who now lives in Australia, sent me a photo of dad's former mistress's son, B. I had goosebumps as B is a carbon copy of dad in his 50s.