My mother is building a house on an island I knew she once loathed. Now, she tells me without fail on each of our weekly phone conversations, she envisions it to be our ancestral home.
She says she is doing this as a tribute to those who came before us, if not to the first Acain who was essentially responsible for much of who we are today, what we are, why we do the things other folks do not usually do, and why our pug nose and stringy hair have all remained so despite the eugenic advantages of interracial alliances.
Maybe if I do not know mother enough, I will be of the notion that she is doing this to fulfill a moral obligation, she being the only living direct descendant of the Acain bloodline, one of the earliest settlers of the municipality of Enrique Villanueva along the perimeter road of the island, a sitio away from the town hall that faces the notorious Siquijor Channel.
If she is building a shrine for the remains of our dwindling race, let her, for indeed, nothing could be more morally appropriate than that. That, if one did not try scratching beyond the surface of morality.
From the day she informed me about her project, a din of chainsaw on hard wood, hammer on stubborn nail and hacksaw on rusty metal pipe has never stopped bugging me inside my head.
Every time my thoughts turn to her, or, anything about the island, my mind flickers with snippets of her, a pudgy, silver-haired woman in her sixties and that ubiquitous quilt-hanky - mother crisscrossing the project site, mother carrying a bucketful of water, mother serving banana pudding to the construction men, and mother giving them Hallmark inspirationals at dusk.
Mornings I also see her early on the building site, gathering a shawl of mist around her, as she scans through whatever progress has been made of the little money she has at her disposal. She inspects a slab of stone somewhere on the foundation, makes sure it is not porous like any of those petrified reef fossils, then she would walk toward the east post; on noting that the sun is rising a bit skewed to the left of the post, she would mark it as an added de-construction for the day.
I also imagine the structure taking shape now, slowly rising from the ground without the benefit of a folk ritual, unlike our very first house, a nipa hut whose four posts each practically stood on an old one-centavo coin.
There is nothing much to be said of the Ones who came ahead of us, of their pioneering days on the island, of their lives and affairs, let alone a history of the Acain lineage. I admit I don't have much of the qualities of a biographer or a historian. My own memory of them is not bankable enough to even start doodling up the official family tree. Like Sylvia Plath, my tree is a current tree - one branch for my literary life and the leaves are my poems, short stories and essays; another branch for my career in advertising and the leaves are the projects and campaigns I helped successfully launch; and still another branch for my romances and the leaves are my lovers and the sweet secret temptations without which my life with the first would have been uneventful. True, I am a fictionist with an unflinching interest in the nowness of things, the finiteness of today, into which sadly I suspect the seemingly irretrievable past is sometimes intricately woven.
Believe me when I say that I would do anything to get rid of the past whenever the pen is confronted with an idea that bifurcates with history somewhere in the middle of a creation. I really would. The overpowering burden of sifting and gleaning through the chaotic nomenclature of dates and names of people and places is just too inconsequentially annoying for me, me who is set on living for the day. Both glory and shame of the past have been lived and forever dealt with. Why bother reliving it? So when it happens, I dawdle, stall or simply employ the time-honored device - call on the god from the machine. Then I would digress seamlessly.
For now, though, I will try not to dawdle or stall or evade cold turkey. This is the only reassuring token I could give mother to show her that my kinship and affinity with our family has not waned or been effaced entirely with the dehumanizing effects of ambition. So, I will do my best to recall the names and some circumstances of the Ones whom mother could be passionately building the shrine for. Then again I will not fault him who feels that the text is skewered with fictional contrivances but, for mother`s sake, I promise to minimize by limiting them to such details as dialogues or colors of dress perhaps. As for the mood or tone, theme, setting, and plot of the incidental vignettes, however, I will try to stick to the truth or semblance of it as best as I could.
The ground, she would say to herself, upon which the house shall stand would be consecrated for the Souls who had sprung from the great beyond since time immemorial. She could be referring to the Irish Atkinsons who allegedly were the progenitors of the Acains. Now this is only based on the data fed me by another Acain from Mindanao Island who is keen on drawing up the official Family Tree of the Acains. Tough avocation, I should say. The guy went on to report that the Atkinsons were court-people who served monarchs and royalties, whose appellation some time changed to Akins, then somewhere deep in the tide of evolution, the Akins or at least one vagabond of an Akins found his way to Asia. Then Philippines. Then Siquijor. Then Acain.
"By heavens, how would you explain your relatives' pug noses and pillow lips if we have even just a drop of Irish blood in our lineage?"
"Well, I am uncommonly fair to begin with?"
"How about my wiry hair?"
"Mine is auburn, mother. Remember how visitors and your customers used to stroke my maize-brown locks when I was a child?"
"Shush. Take heed my son. Do not be easily misled by self-confessed theorists."
Personally I refute that theory myself, as I do not entirely discount the possibility that it is mere fancy of one man possessed with Caucasoid delusions, like Michael Jackson, to obliterate, in this case, a Malayan makeup.
But, who knows for sure?
At one time in our ten-year stay on the island, I remember folks being caught in a rush for treasure-hunt. A hillock overlooking a beach in Larena actually yielded porcelains and war implements speculated to be of Irish origin.
"Good heavens! We were invaded by Vikings! Can you imagine that?"
"Vikings for mambabarang*? How about that huh?"
"It couldn't be anywhere far from the truth. Witchcraft and sorcery have Celtic roots." I remember having this conversation with a classmate from the island at the grand reunion of the Sons of Siquijor when we talked about the treasure frenzy in the 80's…
So then, the four posts, mother would go on, are to be dedicated to the four Greatgrands - Greatgrandpa and Greatgrandma Acain, and Greatgrandpa and Greatgrandma Capuyan - strangers all to each other who by some biological impulse found their way into our own family totem.
Last night around half past eleven I got an unexpected call from my kid brother. It was none of the usual calls to reaffirm familial contact. I had a funny twitch in the gut that something unfavorable was in the offing.
"Bro, your mother is building a house… I mean some sort of a shrine."
"So what's wrong with the idea of living in a shrine? We spent most of our life on the island practically inside a tabernacle or something, might it not be kosher if she thought we might as well all retire in some shrine?"
"I tell you this is not just a shrine. I have a suspicion she is actually building a temple."
"With spires and steeples and gargoyles?"
"No not that...you know, I hate being alluded to or worse treated as if we are children of some oddballs who built the island's most embarrassing architectural oddity. I mean, look, I just dug up the design, her design by the way, that indicated all these gothic specifications! Could you come home this very minute and check it out?"
"Have you talked to her about it? You could just be overreacting."
"There is no need for that. I overheard her saying that that will be our ancestral house."
Suddenly it all seems to me that I too am besieged by an equal share of horror from this.
What is mother thinking?
Am I this mother's son?
Or, maybe I don't know my mother enough.
My mother is a religious zealot and an artful seamstress. Growing up, I really didn’t have much choice except to prepare myself for fashionable sainthood.
From the time I knew how to read, spiritual literatures poured in to our humble hut like manna to my knowledge-hungry soul. By the time I realized that words, once spoken, breathe a life of their own, my mother consistently spewed off Biblical verses in my direction to fuel my burgeoning cognitive faculty. All this amid the rhythmic patter of the treadle of her rickety Singer.
She first taught me the alphabet, came next the spelling of my name. Ah, the moral and ethical expediency of her teaching pedagogy would have shamed my first set of official grade-school mentors if out-of-school teachers were also evaluated.
"What's your name, young man?"
"E- , Ma…'am!"
"What is the fifth letter of the alphabet?"
"Now, here is how the letter E looks like. This big one here is the capital E and… Now, take a good look at it, before I tell you about the story of Enoch…"
In time I knew how to read and spell. Before long, reading became a pleasure but speeding up was a strain because every letter in each word came with a personality profile of every Bible character. Dauntingly, each word would rampage through my head with vignettes of each personage, who were all God's friends, by the way, mother summarily said.
Later, I suffered from some form of cognitive blight. Whenever I encountered a word bearing a "bad" lexical definition, I couldn't stop myself from thinking of the cast of good characters implicated within that “sinister” of a word. For days and nights, my mind would wrestle helplessly. How come we have bad-meaning words with godly people straddling on the curves, arches, lines and the spaces in between the letters within a word?
True, I was good at comprehension, but improving my speed was a struggle. In class, I would take unusually long pauses during reading enrichment activities. Some teachers actually thought I was dyslexic.
The “affliction” would even hound me in my dealings with real-life situations. Remembering faces and names was easy but it had somehow crippled my ability to read characters.
At one point in my grade-school years, I got associated with a stable of friends who were collectively tagged as bullies and rebels. My teachers thought I was only naturally affectionate and non-discriminating, despite my being a receiver of their malicious tricks on more than one occasions. Indeed I was aware of each of their respective questionable reputation, but my mind was torn between knowing who was good and who was evil. If associating oneself with bad company was bad enough to begin with, wasn't it a lot badder to disown Joseph, my first friend despite his being a bully?
But mother was quick to rescue me from that seeming judicial, no, moral malaise.
"Simple, young man, think of the bad characters when you encounter bad-meaning words…Bad for bad, good for good…That's Scriptural, as well, see?…An eye for an eye…Which is also true of the concepts teeming inside our heads when we read words or, in your case, people that you know or become friends with. Now there also goes the need to possess a genuine discerning heart…as you will see eventually, the value of a person goes beyond the mere dictionary meaning of his name…But first let's weed out the troubles from this impressionable conscience of yours."
Sometimes however when circumstances strained us beyond our means like a fabric stretched past its breaking point, I felt that the burdens must have sprung from mother's own bouts with conscience-overload, too.
As each one of them transpired eventually, mother was no longer the sunny and funny woman I knew living on our side of the island. She would just morph dead on into a steely Puritanical heap. Then we would all sulkily consign into the cold fringes with those unwanted maternal left-overs. Warm smiles no longer signaled the start of a bright day; they were presentiments of grueling hours of memorizing Bible verses or, chapters. The rigors of which depended on how severe might the conscience-overload had been. One either had to contend with her taxing coldness or, simply forget she was one's mother. But to do just that, or to even begin forgetting that we were her children only made the world seemed more bleak, scary and unendurable...
Other than our regular adventures into the financial Sahara, the toughest of such hurdles would be those that which had stemmed from her staunch adherence to the tenets of her religion. By the way, was in essence ours, too, whether we liked it or not.
To a kid straddling on two different dimensions of reality - mother's make-believe paradise-on-earth and this "passing system" - the consequences, although confounding, turned out bittersweet and funny in a torturous sort of way.
My stepfather, one of the village’s noted fishermen despite his being a polio victim, would often come home limping with bountiful catch. It consisted not only of scaly fishes, the only types we were allowed to consume by Biblical standards, said mother, but also the catch consisted of all conceivable species of edible marine creatures.
Always proving herself as God's most unassailable line of defense, mother was always there to stand for His edicts.
"Dare not entertain thoughts of eating or, even touching, aside from hoofed animals, those squids, mollusks, or any of those sperm-skinned and scaleless sea creatures! Remember that Israelites who transgressed this commandment were stoned to death. We are in no way more special than them today. The Department of Social Welfare or the entire village could stop me from stoning you to death for sure, but I tell you, He is seething in anger with burning brimstones in hand to whack your mouth with…"
But how could one stop a child’s progressing taste palate?
How could one be so heartless as to snatch a child away from the thrills of an unexplored world of sensory delights?
Or how could one stop the sympathy of a prying neighbor?
No matter how hard I tried to veer away from the “worldly pursuits”, somehow I would find myself smack right in the middle of it, one way or the other, say a birthday bash, a wedding, a dead folk’s ninth night. As it happened, a neighbor would secretly pull me to a corner. It was not to warn me though about mother's discovery of her "stray" son, but, to shove close to my mouth a plateful of hearty dishes.
"Here, kiddo, fill up your stomach with this. I swear it's not your fault that I saw you out there lip-bitingly hungry in front of this roasted squid and grilled pork…but as my God is my witness, your mother has a hell of explaining to do to her own God if He just inquired about raising such bone-thin kids!"
Later at home, while nursing the lashings from my mother's soul-splitting swats, I cursed my own stupidity – not taking the squid-ring off my ring finger.
Her spiritual adventures, I believed, got more jihad-serious soon after she and her mother, Rosalia, had a falling out. Ironically, I found out soon enough that the conflict was caused not by mundane matters, but, well, spiritual. One summer I noted we had no aunts or uncles to entertain, no church elders to render shepherding services. I knew right then that we had been cast out into the much-dreaded familial Gehenna along with the other rejects of the clan. We were banished into a spiritual dark age.
I was convinced too that mother had tried as best she inconspicuously could, to avoid our collective silent query into the real story. She had succeeded at first in reeling in her anger before us, and then in drowning out that river of hatred raging deep within her as she took to her droning grease-hungry sewing machine. But she could not hide the veil of sadness away from me soon after both anger and hatred had seemingly subsided. Each time I caught her, she would look away to the west as if waiting for the sunset to mask her crying eyes.
Yet she would unfailingly attribute everything she was or hope she would be, to her mother, Rosalia, our Grandma Rosal, especially her dogged sense of spiritual tradition.
“Bro, I wouldn’t mind retreating in a Gothic bat-cave, really. I did try to call her last night about the ongoing construction down there. But, she wouldn’t take any of my calls. Would you know where she is?”
“You sound very much like you’re having a tough time convincing yourself of your batty idea. I personally would mind, brother. It’s easy for you to say. You don’t have a future generation to look forward to.”
“Your mother’s whereabouts; I was asking you, kiddo.”
“Try calling her through Uncle Methusellah’s mobile phone. The last time we talked she was overwrought with her dream about giving a warm bath to her mother. One moment she looked up and saw a dark cloud over The Shrine, you know what I mean, of course; the next, she looked down and saw the old dame putting on a black gown.”
“You ‘re not telling me Grandma Rosal is getting her fourth husband. At eighty-six?”
We both laughed like young boys again. Then I heard a couple of kiddy voices joining us in the background. His children. The laughter took us back to distant memories on the island while we were wiry and runny-nosed kids. We didn’t have to narrate all over every episode like kids would in a bring-me class. Every throaty groan, or squeaky note was enough to share in an all-too familiar moment.
Somehow, in the midst of the feel-light chitchat with my brother, Levi, my heart was suddenly dampened by a looming fear. That somewhere, where my mind turns to as my fingers feverishly pound on the keyboard to pour out the words that give form to these thoughts, these kids, or at least one of them will feel the urge to go back there. Long, long after I will have made my own journey back home.
Against a colorful mosaic speckled with various cultural legacies from various civilizations around the world, she had sprung from a hardy race that upholds men as the reason for its being.
Yet, Rosalia, if you should know, aside from being a book colporture and seamstress all through the dirt-poor post-war years, is a magisterial matriarch who takes on an air of silent conceit over her femininity. She is no respecter of chavunistic ideals or of the blind following practiced by most of her contemporaries. Her first girl, Virginia, obviously must have taken after this.
What I pride myself in however, is the knowledge that I could have been the first, or the only one, in a growing brood of iPod-toting grandchildren privileged enough to have personally known, and shared a rare bond with my grandmother's predilection for the uncommonly finer things in life.
As the oldest of that brood, no one can stake a claim that he or, she has enjoyed a rarefied moment with Rosalia as we exchanged poetic intellections with each other during the more lucid times of her life. And I am referring to my college years, that time in one’s short life when sensibilities begin to show promising buds.
School for me was fun despite being, by any standard, a poverty-shod scholar. Which meant a lot at that time because most parents of average-thinking kids who went to school with me would do anything to beat me to whatever scholastic achievements I was making for myself and my family. Surprisingly, my grandma and all of her stoic coldness was as keen on my intellectual growth as my favorite teacher, Mrs. Eliodora Dominguez.
Well-meaning praises came mostly from my aunts and uncles who mostly, by the way, had Biblical character for a name; and mother’s half-siblings from Rosalia’s third marriage – there was bovine-eyed Uncle Methusellah, who drafted himself for military service to support Aunt Ellaine’s studies in college. But she had her future set far beyond the gates of the community college campus. And it took her about two years to realize that big dreams await in the arms of a white human teddy bear. No girl from the wild eighties would have held a candle to Ellaine’s huge coal-black eyes and that cascade of thick wavy hair which she loved to wear free from prissy contraptions of girly ribbons or pins. That would include Aunt Evelyn, an equally exotic sister who was her fiercest arch-nemesis, but which I learned to love nevertheless when she said she wanted to convert to my mother’s religion. Anyhow, Aunt Ellaine was as heart-breakingly beautiful as any of those mythical Asian goddesses carved out in the walls of some ancient city. It was told that she was in her sarong doing the monthly pedicure of her dainty toes when she had her eureka moment. After dating two or, three European misfits who all flew in to check out the veracity of her exotic Asian beauty which they only caught a glimpse of from their snail-mail exchanges, her dream finally came true in the form of a marble-cutter from the backwaters of Georgia, USA.
Then, there’s Aunt Mariam, their eldest, who went down south in Mountainview College in Malaybalay, Bukidnon laboring her way through college as a canteen assistant, a library aide, a garden hand, a faculty staff assistant. Rosalia surprised the whole family when she broke free from her usual coldish cloister after receiving the news about Mariam's incoming graduation. But, just a semester shy from reaching the milestone culminating ceremony, merry Mariam ran away with a Turkish-looking guy. What Mariam suffered in the familial Gehenna was just a foreshadowing of what would befall on Virginia later. But just imagine how my Puritan of a grandma must have reacted when she learned of who Mariam had eloped with. He came from a family of notorious Guerilla who allegedly was repsonsible for the terror spreading far across the mountain ranges of Mindanao Island.
Uncle Giddy was born to charm his way into the hearts or, disarm the timid guards of any unsuspecting worshipper of Asian Adonises. Or, so he was made to believe. I think that somehow this subconscious adulation of his natural “endowments” was just for the good of all. His misadventures and rubbings with a couple of police authorities as they were had been more than what Rosalia could have managed herself. Some men really were just born that way. And nobody had to walk up to them and tell them about their charm and the cataclysmic powers underneath the surface of cool and endearing arrogance. Anyhow, as regards to the lighter side of his “gifts” I saw a lot of girls, at least the ones that I did know of, who practically had to cry on my mother’s shoulder after they were dumped by him one after the other, at one time, he did them collectively. His aquiline nose that defied any claim of Malayan history; a jawline that echoes off the enchanting angularity of a museum sculpture; and that flawless Oriental glow of his skin – somehow all seemed to have cunningly conspired to coordinate harmoniously with that kind of raw energy that he unleashed in unbridled proportions. The only aberrations to his seemingly demigod makeup other than a couple of serious boyish tomfoolery would be his phobias with cockroaches and ghosts. I discovered it one summer while I trailed behind him as we gathered firewood for the following wet months.
Then there was Aunt Lucille. In my brief conscious encounters with her before Aunt Ellaine took her to America, it weirdly felt as if she had this unique gift of shutting down other body parts and honing mostly the power of her eyes. She used them mostly to either talk, smell and listen. I just had to see for myself if she ate using those peekers though. That would have been amazing. An aunt for a Ripley’s freak. I mean, it was one thing to use just one body part to perform all biological functions but to mismatch the organ and stimulus was another. Aunt Lucille only managed to say “How are you? Way to go!” to me as far as my reminiscences of her is concerned. It happened at the back of the stage after I delivered the valedictory address during my graduation from elementary.
Lastly, there was Uncle Silax, the youngest. He was three years my senior, so we practically grew up together. And how we played hide and seek a lot. Although there was no denying our kinship through the color of our skin, I wondered how he ended up with a nose that was as wide as a saucer lying upside down on his face. The game of hide and seek later had its adult version which got us into a serious fisticuff with each other. We were out to the next village to buy a kilo of ground-maize for our supper. It happened with that girl who I silently adored in my hormone-charged teenage summers. She was looming daintily up towards the feeder. I grabbed him by the arm and told him to just stay put with his back turned away. But he insisted. So I instinctively flicked the flour-sack open and slipped it into his face. I knew I was hideous. I didn’t want my object of desire to see me being related with a person who had an upturned saucer for a nose. A boxing match ensued. At home, my mother gave me the finishing swat.
Each of them took turns in spending their summer vacations with us on the island. But that was way before mother and her mother had a falling out.
“It breaks my heart to see her in that condition – so frail and childish. She could not even recognize all her children anymore. Why, she calls each one of them by only one name, Virginia, and that’s me. What did I do to deserve such recognition?”
“You loved her enough for those children who didn’t love her. That’s for sure, mother. I wonder if she would recognize me, for crying out loud, the oldest of her grandchildren.”
“It's amazing to see her back to being the sunny woman I knew. She looks so peaceful though and acts as if she had not been through a lot of life-altering traumas all her life. If I stayed close to her long enough, I would be enmeshed psychotically in this second-childhood of hers. I could baby-talk to her like the time I was her only child. Oh, mother, mother…I wish she’d live to see the new house I am building for all of us.”
“Mother, there is something…about the…building down there…”
“You should visit her soon, my son. You of all her grandchildren.”
Suddenly, I remembered it. The cache of our poetic exchanges which I have kept sacred all these years.
*mambabarangs = voodooist/ sorcerer