My Father

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Today is June 22nd, seven days past the day they have set aside to honor fathers all over the world. Too late to be remembering the man who gave me life, but who said that a late celebration to honor a past life is an unforgivable sin? My father, always forgiving to family faults including the neighbor’s, never complained of tardiness.

I know my father to be one who would always admit faults. He never glorified sin, for he had lived it— big sins, small sins. On our way home from his shop, he and I would pass by a small Catholic chapel in a barrio in the town of Cadiz, and he would call on the priest to demand his right to confess. A ritual he would do once month when I was five, he batted for perfecting it when I was seven, and by this I mean he did his confession to his favorite “padre” at six p.m. every Friday afternoon. Very regular, as long as it did not rain. I understood this actuation to mean he had been burdened by his many sins.

I was a tired seven-year-old kid. And my complaints about being tired of walking home after church, of being bored by the confession ritual just before vesper time, got his attention and so he sought to justify his cause and to convince me to keep him company, saying that he liked this priest in the barrio better than the priest in the town, because this “padre” alone was in a much better position to understand him. If I allowed myself to be convinced—which I would often do— I could have my Coke every day, a promise he would fulfill to the letter. Then I came to know that this barrio priest had sired three sons and two daughters with five women in the parish. I did not wonder anymore why father liked him so much.

I was third in the family of four, and I was five years old then when my father left us to look for greener pasture—Dumaguete, Cebu, Dipolog. He was a tailor. He made us fend for ourselves: My elder sister learned cane planting at nine, my older brother who was seven taught himself to ride a carabao to pasture, while my mother kept sewing clothes, and they earned enough to feed us five for a year or so.

My father came home after two years of being away. He never brought us to pasture, neither was the pasture brought to us. Now the confessional rite became regular every afternoon but a Coke before vesper time quieted my complaints. Also a copy of the Philippines Free Press (when there’s extra money) was added to the Coke, since I was already in the first grade and learning to appreciate English.

My father lived as a good Catholic but listened to evangels of every stripe. In our home in Cadiz, we had a Baptist hymnal, a doom’s day magazine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a copy of a book from a Seventh-day Adventist publication that praised the virtue of non-meaty recipes. My father read these, and listened to them, but never got converted. But his visits to the confessional became scarce. He taught me to respect all religions and I did.

He also told me stories of his women, and of his sons and daughters on the other side of the fence. My mother knew of these “hijas bastardas” and “hijos bastardos” but she had borne her emotional pains in silence. To her it was enough that father came back after years of philandering. I was fifteen years old when they sealed their marriage for eternity—and the impact of many years of illegitimacy was something we kids did not understand. We never questioned the past. We lived through it, and lived over it.

My family moved to Bacolod when I was eleven. The shop, including father’s two sewing machines, had to be sold to finance the trip and provide seed money for the new venture. It was a venture that never came. In Alangilan, where we lived, a relatively unknown wilderness territory not far from the Marapara mountain range, seventeen kilometers from Bacolod, father had to rent a sewing machine to use since he had already used up his seed money, and had to farm on the side to add to his meager income as a tailor. He never made good in both farming and sewing. But he became a good drinking buddy. His group, consisting of his in-laws and a nephew, feasted on his meager income from the tailoring shop. We found ourselves hard-up as we counted the days and the years.

I was twelve when I became a “vaquero,” a herder not of a cow but of a carabao. It was a job forced on me by an old woman who could no longer attend to her animals, and I was too happy for this new diversion. On school days I would be busy reading my books, and reading too the signs of the time when the animal would be in heat, since I also had read something about animal breeding. When I thought my carabao was ready, she and I would sneak to biggest bull we could find in the field. After nine months, my carabao had the nicest calf in the neighborhood.

This time my father cast his eye on my calf. He and mother had just joined a religious group in the mountain, the one founded by a Cebuano from Balamban and promised a lot of miracles to the beholder. The members wore white, and they would lie on their stomach as they prayed, the males being separated from the females. To convince me of his new found religious insight, my father brought me to the group’s worship hall and made me watch as they agonized themselves in prayers the whole night. It was probably the longest prayer session you could hear. I wasn’t sure if the Lord listened. Back home from the mountain, my father made me listen. He proposed to sell my calf because he and my mother needed money for the white gowns. “You need to wear white to meet with, and talk to God. You need to be pure.”

But it was not my father’s recitation of purity symbolized by the white gown that made me cry; it was rather the prospect of losing my calf. Oh, how I hated that group! My father knew he could not convince me to join that “colorum religion.” He however remembered my Coca Cola days; he bought me a T-shirt. This time I wanted to grab a paint brush and a can of paint and emblazon it with my anger statement: “I raised that calf for two years, and all I got is this stupid Crispa shirt!”

I was fifteen when my father would regal us boys with tales about the pretty women he had, perhaps his way of preparing us for the future. He saw me casting an eye on the prettiest lass in our barrio. What my father did not realize however was that we three boys, not he, were to create our own destiny. When it was our turn to start our journey to the future, all of us boys decided to be monogamous. Our chosen lifestyle must have been a slap to our father’s much vaunted virility, but he just nodded his head in silence.

My father’s older brother, Vicente, the other philanderer in the family, wanted me to become a priest. I thought he had trained to be a good salesman. He appealed to my pride when he told me that it was his cousin, Benjamin Gaston, a scion of the sugar barons whose one descendant also became a governor of Negros Occidental, who founded the much renown “Barangay sang Virgen” (Community of the Virgin), the group that trained its sights on making righteousness by unceasing prayers to the “virgin Mary” in the evening after the break of day and at dawn before the break of day. “Catholicism runs through our veins, it is in our roots; we have served the pope well,” he would say. Therefore, he added, you should seek to be a “padre.” Nice to be calling you “Father Ed.” Get used to that.

Then he made me turn around, looked me over, down and up, and said: “Tsk, tsk, tsk. You needed a good haircut, a nice pair of terno—white outshirt and black pants—, you needed to put more flesh on you. But if you become a priest, you would have nice clothes, nice shoes, a car, a nice house, much land, much money and much food. You will be saying goodbye to poverty.” And he winked at me, like he was concluding his sales talk: “And women? Even if you are a priest, you will have these ladies—pretty cantoras, beautiful nuns, gorgeous wives of hacienderos— crawling at your feet.”

The next month he introduced me to his friend, Congressman Felix Amante, who promised to provide my tuition and support while in the seminary. I never said anything. Congressman Amante had been speaker in our graduation. He it was who donated the medal for the valedictorian of the class, which my uncle pinned on me. He told me I could start seminary education—that’s to give legal credence to my “Father Ed” title which already some classmates had started to do— after I finished high school.

After graduating from high school, I found myself on a boat going to Zamboanga, my transportation fare paid for by brother Eduardo Montoyo Sr. I was to begin my first year at Zamboanga Bible College, in Baliwasan, Zamboanga City.

When my uncle Cente heard that I left the Catholic Church, he became so mad. My father never said anything for or against. My mother gave me her blessing.

My father was a great procrastinator, and it was this influence that made war in my soul for years. But I had made vows not to be what he was, to stand against almost everything that he had stood for. When I decided it was time to change stripes, I sought the audience of brother Charlie T. Garner, whose sermon that night of Wednesday at the Baliwasan church hall had touched me and troubled my soul no end. He asked the late Cesar Lobino to immerse me. I did not procrastinate.

And it was on the eve of my graduation from Philippine Bible College in Baguio City when I received the news that my uncle died. He had never forgiven me for becoming a “Portes” (in our Hiligaynon dialect, it means “Protestant”). Back from Baguio, I came home and taught my father my new found faith. But I was never good at teaching my father. My Bible lessons could make him sleep. So I tried to bring the gospel to the lost who were not family. But while I was involved in preaching my new found faith to others, I also kept close tabs with the affairs in my father’s home. And every time I had opportunity to be home, I would teach my father, and this time I could keep him awake.

Although he agreed with me religiously, my father still was as stubborn as the carabao that I once owned. He did not ignore the fact that Noah, the father of all races, was told not to eat blood, that the Jews were enjoined to abstain from blood, and that the early Christians were told to do the same. To please me, he did not mix the chicken’s blood in the tinola that he cooked for us. He boiled it, and fried it, separately, and ate it himself.

Ten years after I became a Christian, the faith that I had embraced still could not take root in the home of my father. So I took another strategy to make some conversions in the family: I brought my youngest sister to live with my family in Baguio when I taught at Philippine Bible College; in a year, she also embraced the faith. She is now married to a preacher in Iba, Zambales. And it was her husband, Tomas Lizardo, who taught and baptized my mother.

Every time I had opportunity to be home, I would teach my father again and again. Same lessons but much improved. His years of wining—Tanduay rhum, San Miguel beer, San Miguel ginebra, coconut wine—had taken their toll on him. So he stopped drinking. It was too late. He quit smoking too. On that last day that he threw away his last cigarette and vowed never to smoke anymore, he also paid a visit to the village cemetery. He was looking for a space to lie in.

That night from the cemetery, he walked the tiresome eight kilometers home. It was perhaps the longest journey he had. He asked for his cup of coffee, and sat down on his favorite sofa. Then he breathed his last.

My father: The person I loved who also wanted me to be him, or be like him. I never did. I had rather wanted him to be like me. He didn’t.

There is a point in some human lives, where a path that started as one may also diverge, or become two paths, and the two would never to meet. I am sure the path my father had trodden and the path I am now treading will not cross. We go our separate ways. However, I am thankful to the Lord for this man whom He had used to jump start me on the road to life. There is a human feeling of regret and loss that I feel today for him—my human father, one life who could have been— but I guess I have to be faithful to the call of the Greatest Father of all.

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