An Autobiography of My Mother

I recollected my manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, a hundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand births, many aeons of world-contraction, many aeons of world-expansion, many aeons of world-contraction and expansion: ‘There I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life term; and passing away from there, I reappeared elsewhere . . . ; and passing away from there, I reappeared here.’

–Gautama Siddhartha, 563?-483? B.C.E.

Every singular thing, or any thing which is finite and has a determinate existence, can neither exist nor be determined to produce an effect unless it is determined to exist and produce an effect by another cause, which is also finite and has a determinate existence; and again, this cause also can neither exist nor be determined to produce an effect unless it is determined to exist and produce an effect by another, which is also finite and has a determinate existence, and so on, to infinity.

–Baruch Spinoza (later, Benedict de Spinoza), 1632-1677

God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain. Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all dead.

–James Joyce, 1882-1941

Part 1: Cat-o’-nine-tales

My mother used to be a dog; now she’s a cat. She’s already shed nine skins, but she’s still hiding more lives in her mouth. A cubist cat, she’s been mailing me splinters of herself that she’s been holding in her belly for who knows how long – tattered maps, broken phrases in three languages, shards of lost time with jagged edges sharp enough to cut forgetful flesh. I can’t assemble these fragments into a recognizable mother. Who is this riddled sphinx purring enigmas into my ear? After sixty-one years of feline silence, where did my mother get a new tongue?


I never celebrated my birthday (being greeted happy birthday by relatives and friends) until I was in grade three because I did not know when I was born. Tia Lita said it was Nov. 28 but she was not sure. I have to submit birth and baptismal certificate for my first communion and that’s when I was sure it was Nov. 28, 1937.

A Filipino superstition says that a mother should save her children’s umbilical stubs after they drop off their navels – by keeping the puckers of black skin together she’ll keep her children close. Somewhere between Manila and LA, she lost her little plastic bag of dried umbilicals and her children scattered all over.


My mother was known for her beauty that men from as far as Pampanga came to court her (when I was growing up in Barihan, Bulacan, everyone who knew my mother was saying how pretty I was but not as pretty as my mother). Tio Valentin (Tita Cleofe’s father) I guess introduced my father to my mom (she is a relative of Tio Valentin). My father and mother eloped and when they went to ask the blessing (in the Pilipino custom it’s called namamanhikan) of my grandparents, my grandpa caned my mom and hit her several times on her back (at that time they thought that triggered her TB disease) It was customary in the Philippines (at least with the Tagalogs) to show anger or great disapproval (even though you like your future son-in-law) if your daughter eloped. The proper way is to ask formally with an entourage to ask for the hand of the daughter in marriage, then a public wedding with relatives and friends as witnesses and followed with a modest feast.

When she beat us with our father’s coat hangers, she seemed to look right through us as though she were trying to get at someone behind us, or as if she were struggling to drive out some alien evil hiding beneath our skin, said the first child. Her anger was terrifying and pitiful at the same time, like the black frenzy of an unwidow mad with uncrying because of an undead husband, said the second child. Or like the rage of a disappointed Cinderella whose prince turned out to be a beast, said the third. Then the beatings stopped. To the fourth child, his siblings’ stories of their mother’s fury had the archaic aura of fairytale stepmothers.


My nana Eva married Francisco (Paquito) a cochero (calesa driver – a calesa is a four seater horse drawn carriage) I remember we moved to a room in a house of Tata Paquito’s grandmother. I remember going with a neighbor’s daughter. We play either in their home or in a meadow near by. We gather violet (that was the only color then, no hybrids yet of orange, red, pink and others) bouganvillea and squeeze them in water and pretend that we are selling juice (of course we never drank them) Sometimes we chase butterflies and dragonflies (tutubing kalabaw or tutubing karayom) catch them and put them in bottles. I was helping nana Eva with her first child Bartolome (Tommy) by rocking the cradle (duyan – made of woven slit bamboo) while she washed. She used to wash me after I been to the bathroom (usually outside the house) and several times she has to rush with a sipit (kind of tong used to turn coals or firewood while cooking) to pull out an ascaris (intestinal worm) still clinging from my anus

Mothers don’t have childhoods. Mothers are only children playing mother. In my mother’s bedroom, I played mother. When my mother went away, I used to put on her shiny green nightgown and stumble around in her high heels. Somehow, with a child’s unerring intuition, I managed to ensure that only my mother discovered me, never my father. When she returned, my mother made me step out of her shoes and slip off her gown as she changed out of her yellow-and-orange work dress. Then I clambered onto her bed and she read me fables featuring loquacious frogs and chatty asses till the maid called us for dinner.


My mother was my Lolo Dencio’s favorite in-law and he would cook his specialty for her to make her eat (she would not even eat when my father was away).


2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 small onion, diced
½ pound pork, diced
1 medium tomato, chopped
3 tablespoons shrimp paste
½ cup water
½ pound Japanese eggplant, sliced
     in 1-inch rounds
½ pound okra, whole
½ pound bittermelon (ampalaya), seeds and
     pulp removed, and sliced thinly crosswise

Pregnant with her fourth child, she craved a bitter vegetable. She ate pinakbet till her tongue felt numb, turning dark purple like eggplant skin. Every morning after throwing up, she cooked the pinakbet for the day – crushing, mincing, dicing, chopping, slicing. She always bought the greenest bitterest ampalaya, which her vegetable woman at the market saved especially for her.


My mother never learned how to read or write, my father never go beyond grade five. He was always “naglalakwatsa” My mother lived with my lolo Dencio and his children while my father joined the construction crew of my lolo Paeng (Rafael Custodio – Tito Wahoo’s grandpa) They were building bridges and others in Naga, Camarines Norte. He stayed in a boarding house owned by my stepmother’s mom. He would stay away for months and months and letters dictated to Tia Eling and read to mom was the only connection. My father was coming home fewer and fewer times. When my sister Elizabeth (she died in infancy) was born even my mom’s letters were not answered. My mom’s pregnancy and childbirth aggravated her TB. The seeming alienation of my father’s affection weakened her will to live, specially after the death of my sister. She refused to see the doctor and stopped eating. Her dictated letters were never answered and on her death bed, the pleading telegram was not acknowledged.

On hot summer nights, the bathroom walls pearled with monsoon tears. Before going to bed, the children bathed together, the girls laughing at the boys’ ridiculous pendulums. Afterwards she shivered alone in the humid bathroom, while the children’s shut eyelids fluttered in the blue bedroom. Through the bathroom window, she could smell the papayas ripening, their orangeing skin swelling in the darkness. In a bathroom across town, his mistress was sucking his cock, its purple skin swelling in her dark mouth. The heady scent of the bulging papayas made her retch into the toilet. In the blue room, her youngest son was wetting the bed.

Blood and Money

The early recollection I have is a house with a lot of people and a band with somebody messing with the drums. People crying and somebody fainting. I don’t recall that there was a coffin in the sala (living room) or going to the cemetery. The next I remember is that my nana Eva and I were living in a sort of compound. At the time relatives tend to live very close to each other so a block will be occupied by sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles. You are living with relatives but how you are related have never been explained by anybody. You call Tia, tita, or tio, Tito only those related by blood. Older people who are not blood related are addressed Aling or Mang, I was the buntot of my nana Eva. When I wake up from my siesta and my nana Eva was out of the house, (maybe washing clothes near the well or doing some errands) I would cry and the neighbors my relatives would tease me and say that my nana Eva eloped. I would cry louder and will only stop when my nana Eva comes home. I don’t remember going out to play with other children here.

After she married, she rarely saw her family, and then only when her husband condescended to let her pay a visit. Hearing her voice change uncannily when she regressed to her youth, her gregarious children become shy as soon as they set foot on the ground of their mother’s past, where everything smelled strange and strong. I’m glad the poor girl got lucky, her aunts and uncles said, eyeing her well-dressed children. Poor Baby!, his brothers and sisters and their money murmured. On the first Sunday of every month, her in-laws met in a great glass house to play mahjong and poker and to eat, eat, eat. Everything they looked at said to them, eat me! Except her. Her inedible silence provoked them.


From my mother’s side, I know very little. I knew that my mother’s maiden name was Crisostomo when I was grade four or five. I never knew the name of my maternal grandmother and grandfather, I think Louisa is my grandmother. My mother is Brigida (Idang and she is the middle child). My fraternal grandfather is Gaudencio Protacio Custodio (lolo Dencio) my grandmother was Dominga Victorino (lola Inga) My father’s siblings: Juan (tio Juan), Araceli (tia Eling), Anacleto (tio Etong), Arsenia (tia Eniang), Moises (tio Esing), Lolita (tia Lita), Cristino (tio Tinoy) Presentacion (tia Lelet). Serafin (Afin) is the second to the oldest.

An only child (though she had eleven half-siblings), she wanted to have twelve children. She got half her wish. In the Russian folk tales and German fairy stories she loved, the heroes (Sergei, Fyodor, Vladimir, and all the Hanses – clever Hans, stupid Hans, lucky Hans, lazy Hans) got whole wishes. Is that what reality is – an in-between place where only half of each wish comes true? Half a husband, half a life, half-truths?

Before each child was born, she picked out a boy’s name and a girl’s name. With six children, she had six names left over – our countersexed counterparts, disembodied Doppelgängers. Is this why I’ve always felt double? Secretly androgynous?

We’re all named after saints and martyrs – fanatics mauled by lions, crucified, stoned, eviscerated, stretched on racks, drowned, burned, buried alive, hanged from hooks. They terrify and fascinate me – my tortured counter-family, consumed by prodigal passions.

I Have Heard Stories

My father came to bring me to live with his family (my stepmother—Remedios, Tia Medying, and half sister Arielita, tita Ariel) I never knew him I did not know since then that I have a father. My world was my nana Eva with occasional visit to my nana Cosang’s family. My nana Eva did not want to give me up but my father said that I have to go so I can start school in Manila—Baclaran really. I did not have any say on that, and I just heard that my nana Eva fainted when I finally left.
My father brought me home in lolo Dencio’s house but I was so unhappy to live with my stepmother maybe because of the picture of a cruel “madrasta” that I have heard. Later I have heard stories about how it was with my father, mother and stepmother.

Our family told no stories. I’ve always been hungry for them, but I have no desire to tell any. Or maybe I just don’t know how?

Part 2: Scatterstories

Random Variable

My story will be at random and it is up to the reader to piece them in chronological order.

Her story strayed here and there, and she was beginning to suspect that her life lurched forward – and backward and sideways – randomly too. She wanted her readers to connect the fragments, but she didn’t know herself how they fit together – her memories jigsaw puzzle pieces that wouldn’t add up to a bigger picture. Maybe there was no bigger picture? Maybe the real story was the one (un)told by the multiplying lacunae, by the proliferating silences of her (de)generational drama of remembering and forgetting?


This gift of mine to you will be a lifelong project and a battle in discipline. I would have to get binder notebook that I can refill with lined paper. This notebook should be by my bedside with a non leaking ballpen. Usually things come to me at night sometimes in the middle of my sleep when I am awaken and can’t go back to sleep (sometimes 2:00 or 3:00 A.M.) I force myself back to sleep because I have to go to work in the morning.

To whom is my writing a gift? (My body is a leaky pen . . . )

The Captive

I have this recurring dreams of being a prisoner.

Her moveable prisons followed her wherever she went. Even in her dreams she felt the chill of metal around her ankles, wrists, neck, tongue. After her most suffocating nightmares, she would wake up clutching her neck, her mouth feeling gritty with rust.

Burning Tongues

Throughout history if a conqueror wants to eliminate a nation, they first burn their books they destroy their culture so the subdued country will not have an identity anymore.

Though she only spoke Tagalog to me (and I only responded in English), she couldn’t write her story in her mother tongue. I once asked her what the Tagalog word for sky was, but she couldn’t remember. She could only recall the word for heaven.

Marriage Plot

Even though the motive may not be the right one on the start, we were in it already and we were going on not badly. Your father could have tried to work on it instead of looking elsewhere (after all he never got a better woman or a better family). From the start I have resolved to work and make a go of my marriage and give something I always longed for to my children – a home, a father and mother and emotional stability so that they can grow up confident, compassionated, cheerful and grateful for life itself.

What is the right motive for marriage?

She wanted to give her children what she had always longed for. How many tragedies have been set in motion by a mother’s selflessness?


I don’t remember how we went back to Baclaran from Barihan – by train, caritela or what? I was living with my father and stepmother and tita Ariel in my grandfather’s house. It was a two bedroom house, big sala, dining and kitchen. The floor was of slat bamboo, the walls were wood and the roof galvanized iron. The windows were capiz squares in wood that slided in grooves. Underneath the windows were sliding solid wood that when opened revealed spaced carved wooden pegs. So during the hot summer days air will circulate through the bamboo slat floors, the opened capiz windows and the spaced pegs. We have siesta on a spread anahaw leaves mat not in the bedroom but in the sala. We did not have beds. We only have mats, pillows, blankets and mosquito nets. We have clay (kalan) stoves and pots (palayok) cooked by firewood and ate with our hands. I don’t remember how my father earned a living.

I remember . . . I don’t remember . . .
She didn’t remember the faces, just the stories. Mysteriously the stories carried on, though the faces had decomposed long ago into blood, skin, and bone scattered in the hazy nebulae of time.

Every time she forgot a name, misplaced her keys, or worried about whether or not she had locked the front door after going out, her untold stories sank a little deeper into her brain's convoluted graveyard.

Death didn’t discompose her. What disturbed her was forgetting. (A swelling forgetfulness was engulfing her receding memory, her past lives transmigrating furiously to an immemorial limbo beyond the good and evil of remembering and forgetting. Everything reminded her of something she couldn’t quite remember, every fugitive sensation tantalizing her with some elusive memory.)

Since she had a solitary childhood, no once could dispute her early memories. (How many times had she revised her past, remade herself in her own image?)

Even though she only knew it from a fading photograph, her mother’s tragic face (love killed her) was imprinted on her mind.
She was six hundred mothers. Because we all remembered her differently, we couldn’t piece her into one mother, not even a cubist one with forty-two eyes, seventeen mouths, thirty-six motherly and unmotherly hands, . . .
The early recollection I have is a house with a lot of people and a band with somebody messing with the drums. People crying and somebody fainting. I don’t recall that there was a coffin in the sala (living room) or going to the cemetery. The next I remember is that my nana Eva and I were living in a sort of compound.

I was the buntot of my nana Eva. When I wake up from my siesta and my nana Eva was out of the house, (maybe washing clothes near the well or doing some errands) I would cry and the neighbors my relatives would tease me and say that my nana Eva eloped. I would cry louder and will only stop when my nana Eva comes home. I don’t remember going out to play with other children here.

I don’t remember how we went back to Baclaran from Barihan – by train, caritela or what?

I don’t remember how my father earned a living.

I lived with my father whom I do not remember meeting until that time he picked me up. I remember nana Eva and I riding the train (with me standing up most of the time because I had boils on my buttocks) to live with tia Eling (Cleofe’s ma).

I don’t remember their faces I just heard the stories.

I never remember going to church.

She sees me everyday with red swollen eyes but I don’t remember her asking me why.

My father tries to take me at least weekends but even that was not acceptable to me. I don’t remember how many weekends I went home to Baclaran with him.

Anyway I don’t remember attending a single day of class during the Japanese occupation.

I remember our relatives in Parañaque staying in an air raid shelter made of “banatan.” I still smile every time I remember lola Juana with a thick pillow on her head walking to and fro with so many “Sus Mariosep”.

The war is over. We came home to Baclaran and I remember the aroma of baking pandesal and pan americano.

Part 3: A Mouthful of Mysteries

Black and White

In school I enjoyed learning history, geography, math, sociology and literature. I practically liked all my subjects except I had a difficult time finishing my sewing/craft projects and being present in complete uniform for my afternoon P.E. classes. I did not do well in my religion classes (a requirement for graduation) because many Sundays I did not join the class mass (in the Parañaque church early morning – in white gala – white shoes, white long veil and white starched skirt and long sleeves blouse)

History, Geography

Out of time, out of place, love – like heaven – must be white.


She stumbled into love with all the probabilities against her. Why don’t they teach the algebra of desire, the geometry of passion?


After the nuns expurgated the objectionable passages, none of the stories made any sense – desires she couldn’t name rushed into the gaps.


If you want to be a good wife, sew your mouth shut.
Black roses sprouted from her cross-stitched tongue, dark thorns cut her praying lips. Her bloody silence spread, reddening our childhoods.


Mary Mary quite contrary save us from the shiny tongues of pretty men.

Mother Mysteries

The Sorrowful Mysteries


And the angel said to the virgin – you’re fucked.


He came. They did it on a chair in her aunt’s kitchen. He came.


She was on her way to Shitlehem to bear her bastard child with the carabaos, goats, and chickens when they dragged her back to church, slapped a white dress on her unvirgin ass, stuffed a rosary in her mouth, and made her say I do.


She named her firstborn after the patron saint of music who died a stubborn virgin, condemned by Romans to be suffocated in the baths. Her baby was two months premature, if one counted from the wedding night. (Everyone counted, of course.) She offered her to him, but he shook his head. –I don’t know how to hold a baby, he said.


Nobody warned her that marriage was a cruel maze.

The Gory Mysteries


She was almost dead, but not quite. There is no resurrection for the half-dead. Who could blame her for clinging to her shrinking life?


Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s – SWISH! – a wishful uterus!


Her tortured spirit descended on his head, his disgruntled spirit on hers. They haunted each other for twenty-five years, their silent tongues dueling, fire fighting fire. Years after the divorce you could still smell the singed hair, the scorched scalps still smoking.


(Where was Mary when the lights went out?) In the dark he penetrated her. She floated above her stunned body, watched herself fake an orgasm, was yanked back when his dead weight collapsed on her. (Pray for us feigners now and at the hour of our death amen.)


Why is it so angry? Would she ever tame this violetveined oneeyed monster? She imagined love as a crown of stars, a luminous ring circling fused bodies - instead she got this purple cyclops threatening to poke her eyes out.

The Teufel Mysteries


The snake tricked her. As usual, they blamed the woman.


His pleasures were her pain.


He was her worst demon, so she married him.


She was born carrying a cross passed from her mother, and from her mother’s mother, and from her mother’s mother’s mother, and so on to Eve who, though born of no one, carried a cross too – Adam’s accursed rib.


He thirsted, she thirsted. They only had each other’s blood to drink. Iron Nails Ran In. Each was the other’s bleeding cross. Red offspring sprang from their wounds.

Mud Masks

I think I was with nana Eva during the first phase of the Japanese occupation. One time all the women had to smear mud all over their faces and hide in a dug out air raid shelter. As usual I was “buntot” and stayed in the damp dark shelter. It was dug out in the middle of the rice field and so disguised that you can’t see the entrance. It was rumored that the soldiers would go to the “bahay kubos” in the field confiscate hens, grains and vegetables rape the women. They sometimes amuse themselves by throwing up babies in the air and catching them with their bayonets.

The women taught her how to hide her pretty face, how to disguise her entrances. She learned early that masks and disguises were a matter of life and death. Huddling in a hole in the middle of a rice field, one aunt protested – I am not a hen; another complained – I am not a cabbage; a third – I am not a woman.

Our Father

I don’t know if my father would have gotten me if my nana Eva remained single. My father said that since nana Eva was married and had a son to take care of she might not have time for me, besides I am better off going to school in Manila
I lived with my father whom I do not remember meeting until that time he picked me up. I remember nana Eva and I riding the train (with me standing up most of the time because I had boils on my buttocks) to live with tia Eling (Cleofe’s ma) Even that time I have not seen my father.

Where are my father’s stories? (Did I inherit my nonnarrative tongue from him?) Who is my father?
My father is a used-car salesman.
My father is a mobile home.
My father is a wig.
My father is a butter-and-asparagus sandwich.
My father is a story without words.
My father is not a story.
My father is a migrant fantasy.
My father is a dildo.
My father is a get-rich-quick scheme. (My father swallowed America, but America spit him out.)
I don’t remember when I first met my father. (Everyone has a first meeting with one’s father, but not with one’s mother, for one has always already met one’s mother.)
For a long time my favorite sound used to be the sound of my father’s white car turning into the driveway. Coming in from the dark (we had finished dinner hours ago), my father smelled like the outside. After kissing his cheek, I would plunge my hands into his pockets, always jingling with coins, to feel for colored jellies (green, yellow, purple, red, and orange stuck to each other in a cellophane package), crunchy malteds in a clear glass bottle, chocolate pretzels in a red box with a picture of an Indian boy and girl, . . . My father’s pockets were Ali Baba’s caves to me.
Mixed Marriage

Everybody were hoping my father would marry my nana Eva for my sake but I guess my stepmother was fast. There were many suitors for nana Eva. There was this particular guy who was rich (I don’t remember their faces I just heard the stories) who my fathers siblings were pushing so my nana Eva will have a better life in Manila (she would not have to go back to Barihan and live with relatives). My mothers relatives discouraged her from marrying a rich man (“aapihin ka lang ng familia niyan”) My mother’s side relatives have beautiful women (although my father’s side has more mestisa good looks too) nana Eva was never exposed to a complex way of life she didn’t have the confidence maybe that she can hold her own. Even if she did not finish school at least she could read and write unlike my mother who couldn’t.

The old wives said – Don’t marry rich men, their families will despise you. But did she listen?

Female Mysteries

When we went back to Barihan, my nana Eva’s life was helping in the cleaning, cooking and washing in the house of our relatives. All the women did that (it seemed that all the people in that house were women)

Their life was cleaning, cooking, and washing. But what did their minds do while their hands were busy?

Male Mysteries

(I guess the men leave for the fields early while I was still sleeping and came back late when I have retired for the night.) I never remember going to church and of course I don’t know the days of the week we were at. Sometimes I see men congregating in the front yard caressing their roosters and blowing cigaret smoke on the roosters’ ears and letting the roosters peck at each other while holding on their tails (it sort of practising them for the Sunday cockfight)

She had no memory of going to church when she was a little girl. But the fascinating communion of men and their fighting cocks made an unforgettable impression on her.


I have not met my stepmother and half sister but I already made up my mind not to live with them without knowing where I could stay then. I never thought my father not giving any choice except that he tried to make it work that I stay with him. Maybe my fathers coming was preceded by stories of cruel stepmothers. I did not hear of tia Medying’s keeping my mothers letters from my father, even the several telegrams saying my mother was dieying, until later in my early teens. I just overheard it from my aunts. Most of the things I know of were just from conversations (when they thought we’re out of earshot).

An orphan from infancy, she learned the uses of invisibility early on – she was always listening. Bit by bit she assembled a motley mother from scraps of gossip overheard.

Silently, of Course

I never experienced tia Medying’s cruelty during that short time I lived with them. I was always out of her way. I was hanging out alone, up in the guava tree crying my heart out (silently of course) while looking for fruits ripe enough to munch. I go down from the tree when it was almost merienda time and I walk to my tio Etong’s house where his wife will feed me with pancit or suman or kalamay or bibingka or goto. She sees me everyday with red swollen eyes but I don’t remember her asking me why. I guess they talk among themselves what to do with me.

I’ve only seen my mother cry once – during a fight with my father. (I did also hear her cry on another occasion, not long after the divorce. I don’t know why, but hearing her sobs over the phone infuriated me.)

The Floating Garden

My granfather’s lot is about 1,000 square meters more or less. It was planted with mangoes, papayas, bananas, guavas, kamatchili, rimas (breadfruit) flowering adelfas and kalachuchi. It rained everyday almost all day during the rainy season (end of May to November). We love to bath in the rain (usually with only panties on) but afterwards it was dreary staying indoors without any toys. It seemed I was the only child in that house because Ariel was not big enough to interact with me besides I don’t mind her at all too.

Rain rain rain . . . the waters swelled and lifted her, a lush floating garden – glorious ark – carrying all manner of beasts, clean and unclean, including birds and everything that crawls on the ground.


Finally my father relented and let me live with my lolo Dencio in Parañaque. We stayed in a rented house near my lolo’s brothers and sisters. My lolo were taking care of the unmarried girls – tia Lita and tia Lelet.
My lolo worked for his sister Lola Milia or one brother lolo Ando. They were the rich relatives who owned several fish pens way out in Manila Bay. They also owned rice fields and salt beds in Sukat, but lolo Dencio work for the “baklad” (fish pens). He is a diver when needed (when they plant the bamboo poles on the seabeds) most every day they sail early in the morning (2:00 AM) to gather the catch of the night and as soon as they dock many sellers (mostly aunts) rush them to the market.

Her grandfather was a fisherman; her father an electrician; her first and last jobs were at banks; now her son is a teacher with a taste for strange books. Fish becomes electricity becomes money becomes words becomes fish . . .


My father tries to take me at least weekends but even that was not acceptable to me. I don’t remember how many weekends I went home to Baclaran with him. My tia Lelet was trying to teach me to write my name at least so I can be enrolled at the school run by the Japanese (they were teaching Nipongo of course) I guess one of the advantages of being occupied is learning a new language – Spanish and English (Japan was in power less than five years). To subdue a race the conquerors have to substitute the native tongue, traditions and culture and one’s country’s soul dies or is lost forever. Anyway I don’t remember attending a single day of class.

The Philippines has over seventy dialects. During their 333-year reign, the Spanish withheld their language from the natives. During their 48-year rule, the Americans wanted to teach every Filipino English. Jose Rizal wrote his subversive novels in Spanish, which Filipino high school students are now required to read in an archaic Tagalog translation. Most of them, however, “cheat” by reading an English version. (My mother has never read Noli Me Tangere; Rizal’s book, published in 1887, was still banned by the Church when she was going to a Catholic girls school in the fifties.)

The Sounds of War

I remember our relatives in Parañaque staying in an air raid shelter made of “banatan” (thin long bamboo sticks woven with small rattan vine used as fence in the sea (sa laot) fish pens.) These matlike banatan are spread on the ground to repair the broken rattan vine that hold the bamboo sticks together. These banatans were rolled (exactly as rolled sleeping mats) and stacked two deeps on top of each other to make the high wall of the air raid shelter. I still smile every time I remember lola Juana with a thick pillow on her head walking to and fro with so many “Sus Mariosep.” At night we could see the sparks of bombs and canons on Corregidor across the bay, you could hear the sound of war day and night.

They heard the sounds of war day and night; in other words, they stopped hearing them.

Stretch Marks

We have to get out of Manila and the immediate suburb (there was the airbase in Baclaran and that too was bombed). We evacuated to Barihan and we all stayed on tio Valentin’s house. His house is very similar to lolo Dencio’s house in Baclaran. At night it is very difficult to get out of all the sleeping mats and mosquito nets because we’re packed closer than sardines. Tio Valentin’s family, my father’s, tia Eniangs, tio Esings and lolo Dencios (tia Lita, tia Lelet and me) were squeezed in that house. The farmers were able to plant and harvest rice so we had some rice to stretch with fillers like diced camote, corn grits or diced kang kong stalks, or just make lugaw. We heard that people who stayed in Manila were starving.

This consciousness I call mine (it isn’t mine) stretches back to the war my eyes never saw.
Our bellies stretched by hunger, my mother and I ate rice mixed with yams, grits, and swamp spinach.
Can we have some more?
The Invisibles

About 10 km. From where we live was an air strip where the Japanese made mock airplanes with “sawali” (thin bamboo strips woven as mats usually used as walls in “bahay kubos”) The American planes would bomb these decoys and we could hear the frightening sounds, We then again retreated to the “bukid” away from the streets.
I cherish that retreat place because it was surrounded by trees – mangos, mabolo santol and others. Nearby was a pond with flowering blue water lilies. Sometimes “nililimas ang sapa” (drain the water out) to catch the fish (dalags and hitos) easier and faster. They also dig “kuhol” (snails) from the “pilapil.” We also have frogs when the rice paddies were calf high in water.

Fish in muddy ponds, snails in the pilapil, frogs in rice paddies, Filipinos in the boondocks – only the invisible survive.


My father and tio Esing made trips to Manila by bike to buy some supplies specially ingredients for making laundry soap. They made soap and sell to our neighbors and the money we use to buy rice and fish, shrimps and other food items. One time they came home very late. My father was hit by shrapnel in the thigh and tio Esing had to help him because he could not pedal his bike anymore.

Ingredients for laundry soap:
lye (caustic potash or soda)
coconut oil or lard
Not even considering stray shrapnel, making soap is dangerous. Lye burns skin and blinds; when ingested, it burns the throat like liquid fire. Caustic soda is also used in the manufacture of drain cleaners, and caustic potash is a powerful bleach. Despite the risks, her father made soap so they could eat. People were starving in Manila, but their neighbors in the country willingly traded rice for soap. Even during a war, one has to keep clean.

War Is the Father

We came out of the bukid, back to tio Valentin’s house and saw the American and Filipino soldier’s marching on the streets. The war is over. We came home to Baclaran and I remember the aroma of baking pandesal and pan americano. Corned beef, sausage and other canned rations of soldiers were sold in mushrooming sari-sari stores.

The war is over. American and Filipino soldiers were marching in the streets, but a few fanatical Japanese soldiers, unaware of the fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were still hiding in the jungle. The war is over. She smelled bread baking as she walked through the devastated streets. The war is over. People were buying and selling soldiers’ rations hand over fist – everybody was hungry for meat.


All the families who stayed in tio Valentins house in Barihan are now staying in lolo Dencio’s house in Baclaran. All the streets seemed still to be in chaos. You have to be careful even in your own backyard because there strayed unexploded shrapnel that you can step on. All the trees on lolo Dencio’s yard were still alive and we gathered mangoes and bananas and even dug some camote. There was a very huge camote almost as big as a dinner plate that I dug and made me so proud to have such a find.

The trees were still alive. They tiptoed through the garden, watching the ground for glints of steel while they gathered mangoes and bananas that were plumper and bigger than before the war; she even dug a yam as big as a plate. (We’re both good diggers.)


Now that the war is over and I am of school age, they are thinking of sending me to school. A grade one class was opened in one of the big houses by the beach. My first teacher was Miss Mayuga. I went to school in wooden shoes (not my own, I did not have my own and my dresses are all hand-me-downs too big for me). One day everyone had a commotion outside the classrooms. We were out on the beach and it was high tide. The waves brought in several bloated bodies (from sunken warships) there were very big negroes and americans and some of them were stark naked. Miss Mayuga hauled us quickly to the classrooms.

The naked Americans were gigantic. There were no clothes big enough to cover their nakedness. She couldn’t look; she couldn’t stop looking.


One day we had class picture taking and everybody has to come in white attire. I only had “gris” (blue denim dress usually used when women go to the well to wash clothes) I did not go to class but peeped to see how it was going with the picture taking. Miss Mayuga saw me and insisted that I join the picture taking. After one class was finished she borrowed one of the girls white ribbon. She combed my hair and pinned the ribbon on my hair put me behind where my gris will not show but my beribboned head and smiling face can be recognized. The picture was shot and I went home without telling anybody what happened. I of course did not have a copy of that class picture.

Miss Mayuga saw her.

Born Again

To be continued.

I was born on March 3, 1970 at 8:12 A.M.

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