Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Part 2: Our Story Continues

"Mother is the name for God on the lips and in the hearts of little children."
~ William Makepeace Thackery

"Because I feel that in the heavens above the angels, whispering one to another, can find among their burning tears of love, none so devotional as that of "Mother," therefore, by that dear name I have long called you. You who are more than mother unto me."
~ Edgar Allen Poe

When we got off the ship in Hong Kong for a day of sightseeing we were surprised to see a big
WELCOME banner with our name on it and a crowd of smiling people carrying gifts. They shook our hands, hugged us and then we were hustled off in a big car. It was on the way there that they discovered they had the wrong family. So with some embarrassment and a request for the return of the gifts they quickly dropped us off at the curb and hurried back to find the "right" family. I tried to return my brother along with the gifts as compensation for their mistake but they made us keep him.

After Hong Kong our next stop was the city of Manila in the Philippines.
When we disembarked we were met by Mission Board representatives who told us we would be stuck in Manila for a while. While we were at sea, Indonesia was having something called a coup d’├ętat and no one was allowed to travel there. So all our worldly possessions were removed from the ship and we took up residence at a Mission Guest house in the suburb of Malate. It was a magical place on a quiet street that traffic somehow seemed to bypass. Inside the compound, time seemed to stand still, cicadas droning in the silence of the afternoon, dust motes suspended in the hot air. Well, it was quiet till we got there!
I was fascinated with the dynamic multi-cultural, multi-generational group that inhabited the Guest House. From newbies like my parents, to "old hand" missionaries and Peace Corp volunteers, they were a passionate bunch. Dinners were a grand affair presided over by the manager of the Guest House, "Pompey". Each meal began with a reading from a monthly publication called "The Upper Room", then was followed by several scripture readings and finally a prayer by one of the guests. All meals were served family style, between bites the old timers would regale us with stories of their adventures and mishaps over the years. Many of them had been in the Philippines for decades, some had been there before and during WWII. The tales of their trials and tribulations filled my imagination. Quiet as a mouse I'd situate myself close to their after dinner conversations in the "sala". The newbies would confess their failures and frustrations, the old timers would look at each other and smile, then dispense advice and explanations. They would argue politics and theology and I sucked it all in. As days grew in to weeks the situation in Indonesia continued to worsen. We could do nothing but sit and wait, so with time on our hands we took in the sights.

Manila had been almost completely destroyed during the recapture of the city during WWII. Twenty years later it was still rebuilding. But the economy was good, the peso strong at 4 pesos to a dollar; there was energy and promise in the air.

Manila was exciting and fascinating; The buses had conductors dressed in stiff Khaki blouses and deep red skirts, street urchins running between cars, jumping on and off buses and Jeepneys, selling Juicy Fruit gum and cigarettes. Shopping at Rustan's and Tesoro's on Mabini Avenue, more shopping in Cubao and Quiapo. Rizal Avenue and Roxas Boulevard ablaze with neon at night. We took in movies and went to all the tourist hot spots from the historic old Spanish fortress section of the city called Intramuros, to Luneta park,
the Bamboo Organ and strolled along scenic Manila Bay. I remember the lights of Rizal Avenue, the Jai Alai sign and all the giant movie marquee billboards.
The Sound of Music, Doctor Zhivago, Thunderball, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, That Darn Cat!, The Great Race, Von Ryan's Express all up on hand painted billboards the size of a barn.

We began to learn new words: sala for livingroom, tsinelas for flip-flops; we began to sample the cornucopia of local dishes and fruits. Papaya and mango, suman and puto, lumpia and adobo. New names, new tastes, new shapes and new flavors everyday!
Just as we were getting used to our "home" at the Guest House, they made us move because we were driving "Pompey" and everyone else crazy. To get us as far away as possible and still give us access to the airport they found us a house a hour away in Quezon City.
It was a simple 3 bedroom ranch style track house. Bedrooms on one end, kitchen, living and dining rooms on the other. The only other thing I remember about that house was that there was a Jackfruit tree in the yard by the driveway.
Jackfruit looks like a giant watermelon with bumpy skin. The flesh inside is banana yellow and kind of tastes like a combination of banana and Juicy Fruit gum. Dad and I loved the fruit but everything edible in the Philippines was making Mom gag.

At meal times Dad had a rule,
"three bites or a lot". This meant you had to try everything and have at least three bites or he would heap your plate with it and make you eat it all. So, besides vegetables, this included all the things that kids love like liver, tongue, heart and other macabre Hannibal Lecter delicacies. In those days, before Mom gave up cooking, if it looked horrific and tasted nasty then you could be sure it was on our table.
Dad, why is this meat so rough and slimy?

"That's tongue and it is considered a delicacy!"

Dad, this smelly meat is still bleeding!

“That’s liver and it’s got lots of vitamins in it!”

And you had to have three bites. Including of course, the fat. You had to eat all the fat too.

“When I was kid we used to fight over the fat!”

Go for it Dad.

We had a big iron table with fancy scroll work and I used to wedge the fat and other nasty things between the curlicues of the table when he wasn't looking.

Mom could never figure out the ins and outs of open air market shopping. Always overcharged and the cuts of meat were of dubious quality. We had been in the house a month or so and were beginning to starve when my parents finally caved in and hired a housekeeper/nanny/cook. Her name was Auring and she was wonderful.
Auring was always there to talk to us kids, taking us on her lap, stroking our hair as she read us stories. Soon our house became a home and was filled with the delicious scents of her cooking. We all quickly got spoiled, we got used to having good, tasty meals, mom got used to having someone do the housework.

Auring knew lots of stories about ghosts and witches and other scary things to tell us right before bed. My favorite was the
It was a witch/vampire whose upper torso would detach from the bottom half and she would fly around looking for young children who weren't in bed after dark. She would grab them and then her extra long tongue would slide down their throats using it to rip out their livers and eat it and drink their blood! When the lights were shut off at night we always made sure we were in bed and with our mouths clamped shut tight!
Auring had a boyfriend who drove a taxi and he would come by once a week to take her out on a date.
I would anxiously watch her get ready, selfishly hoping that things wouldn't work out. Auring had been a housekeeper for some Norwegian people and she told us they had been mean, pinching, slapping and beating her. She seemed to really like our family so I guess they must have been real horrible for her to feel that way about us. She was a great cook, but more importantly to us kids, she loved us. We had a mother. Music filled our home; to Dad's chagrin the radio was on from the moment Auring got up till she went to bed at night. Most nights we kids would listen to the tango hour on the radio and dance around the room with her. Auring loved to sing songs of unrequited love and would belt out You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin' by The Righteous Brothers as she cleaned the house. Doris Day, Mario Lanza, Tom Jones, Josef Locke, Dusty Springfield, Dean Martin, her tastes were eclectic. The sounds of her singing lullabies to my brothers still echo in my head.


  1. nice vivid recollection. love the aswang bit. and how old were you then? 5? 6?

    funny I was just thinking of the word 'ornery' before I clicked on your blog, then I see it right there in the first paragraph.

  2. Ah...old Manila, a yaya, aswang stories, odd meals...just a great post!

  3. Waldo, I'm spellbound! You're a natural storyteller and, goodness, what a great memory you have. I had a laugh at the mistaken welcome in Hong Kong - something right out of a comedy movie - and of course no Pinoy childhood is complete without the aswang stories. They scared the bejeezus out of most children, so lights-out was usually a breeze for all the yayas who'd then go back to the kitchen or the backyard and gossip with the rest of the help.

  4. who didn't have a maid who told aswang stories!! I also had someone who was like mother to me - her name was Monica and I loved her. Sometimes I would sit with the maids when they had their dinner on the back enclosed porch after our dinner - they would let me eat with my fingers igorot style which I thought was really fun!
    another great one Mark!!