Friday, April 9, 2010

Part 26: A Christmas Carol

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try
to keep it all the year."
~ Charles Dickens

"Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought,
doesn't come from a store"

~ Dr Seuss

The rest of the school year went quickly, final exams, the candlelight service at St Nicholas Chapel and then before I knew it Christmas vacation had arrived.

I wouldn't be flying down to Tacloban this year, the family would be trespassing in my world for the holidays, we would be celebrating Christmas in Baguio and then my parents were attending an annual missionary conference.

So the day after school let out for the holidays I reluctantly took a taxi over to the guest cottages on the compound maintained by our Mission Board. Yellowing cabins with faded green trim, surrounded by pine trees; it looked just like Brent. It had been several years since I had been there last and I was happy to see it still was the same. I wasn't sure which one we were staying in but I just headed in the direction of the ruckus made by 2 boys being tortured by a third. Our reputation preceded us; the caretakers had wisely isolated us as far from the rest of the guests as possible. Our cabin was filled with all the old familiar homey smells. Mom and Dad were out visiting some other missionaries, but Auring was there, busy in the kitchen making up some of my favorite dishes. She gave me a hug and told me to put my things away. My brothers stopped fighting and huddled together, saucer eyed, staring at me like I was some alien from Mars. I gave them the evil eye and wrinkled my nose as if I had just stepped in something nasty. I put my bag in my room and told them
"touch my stuff and you die" before heading out the door to look around. My first stop was to look under the cabins to see if the roads I had carved years before were still there (they were!). Then after inspecting several of my favorite Matchbox play sites I went over to the camp Library. Except once or twice with my mother, all the years we had come here I never saw anyone else in there but me. I always thought of it as my own personal space. I went across the little bridge, in silence I opened the door to the empty sanctuary and breathed in the aroma of old books; I was 7 years old again. The room called out to me"Well, there you are. We have been wondering where you have been"
Here was the little reading areas, there were the tables for writing letters, here a table for playing games. There on the shelves were the worn and tattered board games. There were the novels, here were the mysteries, there was the children's section.Hello, Old Friends.

My heart beating fast I went to the shelves, touching a spine here, pulling out a title there. Here were
The Happy Hollisters waiting for me to help them solve a mystery, there was Nancy Drew about to discover The Secret in the Old Clock. I pulled a few favorites and curled up on the couch to read. The hours flew by and all too soon one of the little scabs came to tell me supper was ready.

As usual my parents had put off Christmas shopping till the last minute. One day it struck them that they couldn't put it off any longer and went shopping. Fortunately Baguio had a lot of stores and a large American community which insured that there would be a good selection. I gritted my teeth and hoped for the best. Maybe they would just give me cash this year. Dad came back with a bunch of sacks and a Christmas tree. Mom came in with a few more sacks and began decorating the tree. It was beginning to look like Christmas, maybe there was hope yet.

On Christmas Eve we went to the UCCP church in town. The air was cold and crisp and the scent of burning pine filled the air, Baguio was magical at Christmas time. The service was solemn, the hymns joyful. Arriving back at the camp there were Christmas Carolers going from cabin to cabin singing. When they got to ours and finished their repertoire, in return Dad did his
knick-knack, paddy whack dance, patting each of his pockets in turn, searching for that ever elusive wallet he always managed to have left somewhere else, but Mom opened her pocket book and gave them some money.

Thank you! Merry Christmas! Malipayong Pasko!

We had a nice supper with some of the other missionaries staying at the camp, sang carols and went to bed late.

Christmas morning arrived with the sound of the metal grate scraping as my Dad lit the kerosene heater and my youngest brothers crying in the living room. I heard Dad yell
"Quit bullying your brothers!" followed by the hollow plunk of someone getting knocked on the head. Now the older one joined the two youngest in crying.Ho Ho Ho I whispered and pulled the blankets back over my head but I was wide awake now. Auring already had breakfast cooking; I could smell the bacon and the pancakes. So I got up, sipped a cup of hot tea and watched the little vermin rampaging through the gifts. They all seemed to have made out well, Dad even did fairly well by Mom. I was avoiding opening my gifts, not wanting to be disappointed. Auring handed me a package from her that contained two nice shirts, then Mom gave me a shoebox that had 6 paperbacks in it. That was it. I had been prepared for this and so busied myself with one of the books while the rest of the family continued to open presents. Auring clucked her tongue and mumbled "disgracia" and left the room. A little while later she came back and pushed some folded up bills into my hand. I protested, but she pulled my ear with one hand and wagged her finger at me with the other. Then she hugged me tight and I whispered thank you.

My parents were attending the
Baguio Religious Acculturation Conference, usually held the last week of December, where missionaries gathered for lectures and discussions on acculturation in the Philippines. Held at different venues each year the conference was hosted by one of the Catholic colleges and universities in Baguio. We had been in Baguio at these conferences in the past and they were always interesting and exciting. When I was younger I would stand outside the hall and listen to their debates. Most of the attendees were missionaries and religious educators, but there were a few anthropologists attending as well. At times the debates would grow passionate, standing, gesturing, waving their arms, clapping. One of the regulars was not here this year, Dr.William Henry Scott from Sagada was being held in prison on charges of being a "subversive" by the Marcos regime. His books on the natives of the mountain provinces were well known. Most of the old timers were there: Peter Gowing, Robert Fox, Edward Dozier, Richard and Eunice Poethig and the Grants to name just a few.

There were a lot of Americans from different denominations in Baguio that year attending the same conference. Most of the missionaries who had kids brought them with them, so there were a lot of kids around the camp. Among them were two cute girls my age who went to the International School in Manila. Their parents were in the same mission as mine and I vaguely recalled them from years past. One was a blond and the other was a brunette, they looked a lot better than I remembered. Even better was that they seemed to like me. The two of them eyeballed each other and began verbally circling. All of this was done very subtly and with great politeness and decorum. I watched in fascination, never having seen anything like this or ever been the object of dispute.

After some intense negotiations they sorted out who was going to take possession of me and I went on a walk with my "holiday romance". We were passing one of the cottages trying to find a place to be alone when I heard someone call my name. Looking up I saw Dr Grant calling to me from the window.
"You boys come up for some cookies, I just baked them."
Both the Grants had PhD's and were missionaries that had lived near us in Fil-Am Village when we lived in Quezon City. They were like grandparents to us, and always had something good to eat. I introduced my new girlfriend to her and she exclaimed
"Sydney! Like the city in Australia! You don't hear that one very often. Do you go by Syd?"
I tried to explain, repeatedly, carefully enunciating her name, but to no avail. Sydney it was. "Syd" laughed and winked at me. After we finished our cookies and drinks she hustled us out the door and we continued on our way. With the conference going on the camp was full, and it seemed that there was no place where we could be alone. Kids running around and toddlers with their
yayas were everywhere. Finally we found a spot by sliding down the hill and there perched above Bokawkan Road, overlooking the valley and pine forested hills beyond, we could neither be seen from the road below or the path above. Now and then we would hear people passing above us, once I heard my Dad and brothers walking by. It was warm in the sun and we lay in the tall grass, her head on my shoulder, laughing, talking and kissing. Syd must have been concerned that I might be harboring some doubts as to her gender, because at one point she abruptly produced two volumes of evidence for me to peruse. Boy, these IS girls sure were progressive.

After two weeks in Baguio Mom and Dad were relaxed and content. This whole conference was an excuse to have some down time and they needed it. True workaholics they seldom took vacations. I suddenly realized that all the times we had come to Baguio in the past were when they attended these meetings. With just a few days of vacation left Dad now was spending his time catching up on all the periodicals he had been missing out on back in Leyte. Auring watched the kids when they played around camp and even they had quit fighting and were getting along. Mom realized the disparity in the gift department or maybe Auring said something,
but she decided to take me shopping.Overriding Dad's half-hearted protests, she decided that Yes I did in fact need sweaters and a jacket just like they did.

"I walked a mile and back to school in the snow with just a burlap sack for a coat!"

Mom got me some warmer clothing and we found a trunk to store my stuff in so I wouldn't have to bring everything home for the summer. We went shopping at Easter School where she bought gifts to send to the relatives, then on to shops on upper Session Road: Old Pagoda, The Pied Piper and down at the bottom of the hill, the old Stone Market where Mom exclaimed at all the black market items available. She had been missing American candy bars and couldn't help herself and bought a dozen bars. She also bought some black market American canned foods, shampoo and a bottle of
English Leather cologne for me.

We went to the movies and had ice cream at the the
Magnolia shop afterwards. We went to eat pizza at a restaurant called Mario's at the top of Session Road. She was happy and light hearted, the weather was sunny and cool and she laughed a lot.It was like we had been transported back in time. At night it got quite cold and Dad would light the kerosene heater and we would eat popcorn and play Flinch or Monopoly. The scent of the pine trees, the odors of burning kerosene and popcorn all bring to mind Christmas in Baguio. For a short while we were a family again, it was a good time, a quiet time before the storm. I think it was the last happy days our family spent together, before the rage, before the discontent, before the cancer, before the death, before the disillusionment.


  1. Hello,
    I just came across your entry that mentioned The Happy Hollisters. My grandfather was Andrew Svenson, the author of the series under the pseudonym Jerry West. He would have been delighted to know that his books were a fond memory for you --- and he would have been very interested in your travels and experiences abroad. I thought you would be interested to know that I have just republished the first book in the series -- the content is identical to the original, but it is now available in paperback for the first time ever. If you'd like to learn more about the project, please visit our website: Thanks!

  2. Mark - this is a beautiful part of your on-going digest - discription of your "memories of the past." Indeed you write well, my son! The missionaries you mentioned who attended the acculturation meeting in Baguio were all familiar friends. Scotty (WHScott) usually stayed with us when he came down to Manila, the Grants were dear, dear friends - bought some of their furniture when they left to retire in the States. The others were known to my wife, Gloria, who was Director of New Day Publishers then, the publising arm of the Christian Literature Society of the Philippines. She succeeded Fern Grant as director when she retired. Wow, what a glimpse of the past from you, Dahang salamat Mark. Ralph Rodriguez

  3. I continue to be enthralled with your adventures in the chapters of "Waldo Wanders. You have such a gift for writing.