Rare is the Filipino family nowadays that has none of its members living abroad. We have long become a nation of emigrants and, though our own diaspora may not come close to that of the Jews and the Chinese, we know that a good part of our national soul now resides in distant shores. We try to keep in touch through various means of communication: by telephone, letters and postcards, voicetapes, home videos, by e-mail, and the ubiquitous door-to-door balikbayan box. But perhaps none of these can recreate the energy of a personal visit with one’s kin.
I am the eldest in a family of thirteen children, and three of my sisters and a brother live in the US. I manage to see them at most every other year. Either they come home for a visit, which is not very often, or I stop by to see them when I am traveling. Such visits are often very short, and no matter how carefully I work out my schedules, I usually end up not spending enough time to be with them. We talk about our children, their schooling or their careers, the state of health of our mother, the old house, and in-between shopping and dining out, we soon realize the visit has come to an end.
On this last trip to the US, however, I was privileged not to be in a hurry. I told my sisters my precise schedule well ahead of time so that I would not disturb their work programs and they could decide among themselves where I should stay on particular days. I also phoned them my basic shopping list of pasalubongs so that whoever had time could buy them even before I came. I told them I preferred to eat at their homes, and that I wanted to cook with them. If they needed to go to work, I said, I would stay home, keep their kids company, and just read and watch television. Or they could drop me off at a bookstore and pick me up later. They were worried I would get bored, but I assured them I really just wanted to rest and enjoy the warmth and plenitude of their lovely homes.
The result of this was a visit that allowed us all the time for conversations about our family, our childhood, the difficult times we went through, the personal triumphs, the unresolved meanings of past events, our respective idiosyncrasies, and the “blind impress” in our personalities that comes with having the same genes. I have always been close to my brothers and sisters, but I do not remember talking to them like this since I left the parental home to get married. I was only 23 years old then, and they were just children. Now they are grown, and it was enchanting to hear them talk about themselves and the lives they shared after I got married.
They talked vividly about the letters we exchanged and the little gifts I sent them when I was a student abroad. We talked about our parents, the incredible sacrifices they made, the lives we built for ourselves, and, at some points, I realized that in their eyes I was the figure of our late father who had returned to see how well his children have turned out.
We compared notes about the things we were silent about as children, the secrets we kept and the traumatic episodes we survived, and invariably we ended up laughing. But always, tears would well up in our eyes even as we laughed, especially when one of us noted how uncannily one’s passion for towels, or for clothes, or for shoes mirrored patterns of past deprivation.
We talked about the famous temper that we seem to have in common, an ugly trait evidently inherited from one of our grandparents, that clouds an otherwise gentle and generous disposition. “A minor but potentially troublesome glitch in a generally good program,” I assured its hapless recipients. We exchanged notes about this recalcitrant little bug in our personality, the havoc it wreaks, and our desperate attempts to subdue it. “It begins in the chest,” one of us said knowingly, “and then it moves up the throat, transforming the voice into a thin, tremulous alien sound.” Everyone agreed it was indeed the first sign of the onset of the familiar temper, faithfully handed down from one generation to another, that has caused us to lose our poise in the presence of people we love, or worse, to do things that we can only regret later.
I joked that I hoped the genes of our respective spouses were strong enough to wipe out the last traces of this error from the blood of our children. And that launched us into a lengthy and funny discourse on the comparative personalities of all the children in the family, with emphasis on which child was beginning to seem like a reincarnation of which ancestor. It was a fascinating exercise that made us all the more sensitive to our own physical features, likes and dislikes, and mannerisms that we had first seen as children in the bodies of our relatives.
I was happy to have been able to recover this ground of intimacy with my sisters in the States. I ended my visit suffused with the feeling that my parents have done a pretty good job of raising us despite the often insurmountable constraints that come with a huge family. My father would have been proud. Had he lived, he would have seen how his own love for dogs and gardens has persisted in his children and grandchildren.
More than all the letters and the gifts sent across the seas, it is such travel back in time on the occasions of personal visits that permit our families to endure the diaspora. I suppose nations are no different. They survive on memories that are collectively shared, on the values that are created in the course of the national experience, and on the myths that fuel the unceasing struggle for a better life.
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