Memories

That’s nothing unusual, but my brain seems to enjoy doing what I hate doing most: Reminiscing memories I wanted to tell nobody about.

It was the theme of my lecture to my nephews and my nieces and my other relatives who have been asking me countless questions. That was the other day. They flocked around me—they are out looking for a model to copy from. Hey, I said, I am not a good uncle. I have never raised you up; and even when given the opportunity I never tried. But my story, the story of how I came to be, they said, is what they want to hear. Now guys and gals, sit on my knees and listen. I had just dropped by a place that had been witness to my many angsts and anxieties, to my many pains and perils.

My school, I said, carved out of sugarcane fields. I dropped by it on my way here. Be drawn to my tales if you want to learn of my pain. It was one perilous journey of a scholar who walked seven kilometers of unpaved roads morning and afternoon, and that, for seven years until his public school education ended in 1967. The pain was in my head and in my stomach. Who could resist the ripe star apples? I only breakfasted on coffee every morning before school, walked the long arduous road to education, and lunched on nothing at noon. I had seen the star apple trees in my school grounds now as I came over here, their limbs bent by too many winds and storms, like the winds and storms of my life which in a way too had bent and conditioned me for survival. I was then a young Catholic boy, having not learned yet how to ask for grace that comes from above. But I had mastered the way of looking up and looking around the crowns of the star apple trees. Star apple trees, to my way of thinking then, operated on the law of diminishing returns; whenever I looked up, while the watching eyes of our industrial arts teacher were not looking around, those fruits would surely diminish. There were five of us hungry youths who kept returning to our favorite tree as we saw its fruits ripe and ready for the taking. We had been caught not only once but many times, but we kept on returning. It is true that I graduated from that school with honors, but I too had been dishonored by the guardian of the star apple trees. He had kept a list of our sins; we also keep an array of scars on our thighs, cuts his fingers had made whenever he caught us. The star apple trees had been my angst, personally speaking. I thought I could not graduate.

What drove me to the comforting arms of the star apple trees was my hunger and my shame. I had a relative who owned an eatery not far from the school, everybody knew that. But for a reason, details of which I would not divulge here, I chose to become the vanishing nephew, egg-gatherer, water-gatherer and dish washer. My relative’s hospitality, to my way of thinking, should also be hospitable to my self-esteem, never castigating it in exchange for a meal. I left without a word. This relative, whom I could not learn to disrespect, I have now forgiven.

This year, 2008, the lunch counter is no longer there–that four by five affair whose wooden floor sagged at the weight of the school cook. In its place is an eatery that looks more like—well, anything except an eatery. That firstly was the lunch counter of my ambitions; I had dreamed of eating there but could not afford it. It was a witness to my youthful anger at life—anger because it had made me poor.

Ah, the bad memories of the PMT office, which represented the system that wanted to educate me to prepare for war in Mindanao when I never wanted to. I refused to carry that wooden rifle and repudiated the thought of me marching to the cadence of future killing machines. For my silent civil disobedience, I was given a failing grade.

And I also remember Miss Elizabeth Dooma, my Baptist teacher, and Mr. Eduardo Montoyo Sr. (back then he was still known as an Evangelical Baptist pastor although he had already left that denomination and ministered to a small church of Christ in the city of Bacolod). These two fought for me–a young Catholic boy–as cats fought a dog. The dog was the establishment that wanted to take me off the honor list for failing the PMT. They opposed the principal’s ruling (the principal was a Baptist, but of a different stripe, Maranatha, I heard). The PMT commandant too was a Baptist, Southern Convention. I had not listened to their very hot discussion about me. But I heard that the noble Miss Dooma and the equally noble Mr. Montoyo argued my case with fervor, and logic I am sure, Miss Dooma being a lawyer and Mr. Montoyo being a seasoned debater. Thanks to them, I graduated with honors.

And so we went on our ways. Mr. Eduardo Montoyo Sr., who had pledged himself to mentor me and help me master English for its rhymes and reason, went on and tutored me on the truths of Jesus. He has now gone to his reward. To this man I am ever-thankful. The PMT commandant was too apologetic to me whenever we saw each other, having heard that I had left the Catholic church and became a “pastor” to a church that “almost looks and sounds like Baptist.” The principal became head of another big school in the city. In later years, in another case of almost similar nature, I pleaded with him to readmit my brother-in-law (my wife’s brother actually) back to school. He did, but first he reprimanded him “for not living up to the name of your brother-in-law Ed Maquiling.” I guess in a way I had redeemed myself before him. Then he died.

And Mr. Nunilon Fulo Jr, my journalism teacher and school paper adviser. Who could forget him? He it was who guided me as I learned to craft words, and made me appreciate the whimsical Henry James, the disturbingly funny James Thurber, and the artful W. Somerset Maugham. Encouraged by him, I learned to consume Henry David Thoreau, and a host of others—essayists, news writers, editorial writers, columnists. Mr. Fulo, the ever- sympathetic observer of my writing mistakes. Thanks a lot.

As for Miss Elizabeth Dooma, of Sipalay, Negros Occidental, I wish she knew that my being me would not be complete without her. I want her to know that deep in my heart my thankfulness keeps blooming like a rose. Like brother Montoyo Sr., she has never fought for a cause in vain.

This is the story my nephews and nieces wanted to hear and learn. My endurance. My ambitions. My mistakes. How I survived. How I learned never to forget. And never to be unthankful. With that, I concluded the lecture.

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