These past few years, Lolo Badong and Lola Rose (my sister and I started calling our parents “Lolo” and “Lola” imitating how my niece Monique or Mo called them) often travelled to Cainta. Their main reason for taking these monthly trips was to see Mo, my sister’s only daughter and the only grandchild in our small family.
Whenever Lolo and Lola were with us in Metro Manila, we would frequently go to one of the malls in the neighboring cities especially during weekends. Every time we go to the mall, Lolo was always “galante.” He would treat us to lunch or dinner. He would give Lola shopping money for new clothes.
But most especially, he would be very generous to Mo, buying her clothes, books or toys even without her asking. They would sometimes keep the fact that they were going to Toy Kingdom a secret from me because Mo knew it annoyed me to learn that Lolo bought her yet another toy. Her playroom in their home in Cainta was overflowing with toys accumulated over the years.
Lolo’s generosity prompted my niece to comment that “Lolo is rich!” When I asked her what made her say so, she replied that “Lolo has money here, here (points to the front pockets of her skirt), here, here (points to her back pockets), here (points to shirt pocket), here, here (points to other parts of her body as a joke).” We know that Lolo also sometimes hid money inside his socks when we went out and that he hid cash in unexpected corners in the house.
Lolo’s over-generosity to Monique could easily be explained by her being the one and only apo. But sometimes I sensed it went deeper than that. I felt he was over-compensating for the material things he was not able to provide to us his children when we were growing up and perhaps the things he himself missed as a kid. While we were on vacation in Coron, Palawan, I overheard Lolo and Lola talking about how they were not able to provide us with trips like that when we were kids. I heard him say: “No awan met kuwartata idi tapno maipasiarta isuda.”
Looking back on my childhood in Vigan, I realized late in life that our family was poor. Our house was small. We shared a single bedroom and slept on one big bed when we kids were still small enough that all four of us including Lolo and Lola could fit in one. Eventually, Lolo was able to expand the house to include bedrooms for my sister and me but, still, it was a humble structure with not a lot inside.
Remarkably, I never felt poor nor deprived while growing up. In fact, for a time I innocently thought we were rich. Lolo had a cabinet full of books. I thought that surely a person with that many books could not be poor. He was smart and wrote stories that were published in Bannawag magazine and won prizes from GUMIL, an organization of Ilocano writers. I thought a person with such talents, whose name appeared in magazines, and who got invited to ceremonies and brought home plaques and medals could not possibly be poor. He taught in the elementary school near our house, and many in our barangay called him “Sir.” Surely a person who commanded that respect could not be poor.
I am reminded of a dialogue in the movie Babette’s Feast. In the story, the main protagonist, Babette, used the money she won in a lottery to cook a lavish dinner for the poor community that took her in after she fled Paris during a war. Upon learning that she spent all her money to buy the ingredients for the feast, the old woman she worked for without pay remarked, “Now you’ll be poor for the rest of your life.” To which Babette replied, “An artist is never poor.”
Perhaps that was how I felt about Lolo when I was small, although I was just too young to pin it down in words. A writer is never poor. He is rich in empathy and imagination. A loving father is never poor. His family is far more precious than all the riches in the world. All that Lolo needed in life was not fame nor fortune, but a quiet space to write his short stories and to raise his family. To him that was enough.
One more reason I did not see that we were poor was perhaps because my parents never failed in providing us with the truly important things in life: their love, presence and support. Our meals were simple but we never went hungry. We never had to stop schooling for lack of money. They sent us to college, and my sister to medical school with only the meagre earnings of government school teachers. And when we decided to live on our own far away from them, they let us go without demanding anything back.
Compared to our life as kids, Lolo’s own childhood was far more difficult. His father died while he was still small. His mother was a fish vendor and could not afford to send him to school. She sent him to live and work for a relative in another town in exchange for schooling. He learned to write stories by reading the books in the library of an uncle. He had big ambitions — I believe he wanted to be an engineer or an architect — but the only college course affordable to him was in education and that was why he ended up an elementary school teacher. Perhaps it was Fate at work. As a young new teacher, he was assigned to a remote village in Quirino, Ilocos Sur and there he met my mother.
My father’s life may seem small compared to great men but if I compare what I have achieved in my own life with the hardships my father had to endure to get to where he was later in life, I would say I really have not accomplished as much despite the places I’ve been to or the experiences I’ve made.
Perhaps the biggest irony of my life is that I am slowly becoming like my father, no matter how much I tried not to. Whereas Lolo lived and died in Vigan for much of his life, I wandered. He raised a family and cultivated friends, while I became rootless. I never really took a liking to writing. But as I grow older I notice I am beginning to take on much of my father’s character, even the ones I used to hate. I even have the same vices. I treated him more kindly once I realized this.
And now with his passing, I find myself taking on the role that defined much of his latter life and for which he became known in the community — writing for and managing Tawid News Magazine. For years he tried to convince me to come home and help manage his newspaper, but I always found a reason to say no. Now here I am in his home office in Vigan, working overtime like he did to put his newspaper to bed. And yet it feels like the most natural thing, that this was somehow inevitable.
Daddy, I’m sorry it took me some time, but I have finally come home like you asked. I do not think for a second that I will be able to fill your shoes but I will do my best to continue what you started. I feel confident that everything will be ok knowing you will be taking care of us from up there like you took care of us when you were still alive.
Thank you, Daddy, for everything.