Taking advantage of a recent visit by my sister Lilia, a US-based nurse, I proposed a family reunion in Baguio. From a brood of 13 brothers and sisters, eight signed up for the trip with their spouses and children. We came in five vehicles loaded with food, and rented a big house with a kitchen.
None of us ever lived in Baguio but the place held a special meaning for us. When we were young, my parents would bring two children at a time on a bus excursion to this fabled mountain retreat every summer. They could not bring the whole family simply because it was beyond their means to do so. And so the younger ones had to wait for their turn, contenting themselves each year with the vicarious thrill of listening to tales of fun told by returning siblings.
Those were the only times that I saw my parents at ease. My father was engrossed in his work most of the time, and left the raising of the family entirely to my mother. He was a very affectionate parent, but he was a loner when it came to leisure. My mother, on the other hand, worried perennially about making both ends meet and overseeing our education that she hardly relaxed. But once a year, in Baguio, they were the portrait of ease. The photographs we brought home from those precious family outings became for us paradigms of the good life.
It was these memories of Baguio that we wanted so much to recapture and share with our children. It was our first time to be together as family in Baguio, and we were eager to compare notes of what we remember seeing us children. We revisited all the old landmarks – Burnham Park, Baguio Cathedral, Mansion House, Camp John Hay, Mines View Park, the vegetable market, etc. – quietly hoping to catch a glimpse of something profoundly familiar, something that would evoke a Proustian remembrance.
We used to stay with distant relatives of my mother in Aurora Hill during those annual excursions. But we have lost touch with them, and I could not find their house anymore among the maze of homes that now cover the hill. My sisters spoke of the awesome scenery from the Mines View Park, but when we went there, we began to wonder if it existed at all.
After a sumptuous first meal at Rosebowl, feasting on the same dishes that my father used to order in those days when he was feeling rich, we decided to cook and dine at home. My mother taught all of us how to cook, and over the years, my six sisters have been able to replicate the delicate flavors that my mother produced in her kitchen. As I expected, our meals were the best planned parts of our journey into the past.
We talked and reminisced as we gathered around the kitchen table. The children listened in rapt attention to stories they must have heard many times before from their parents. Still, these tales, embellished over the years, come alive and acquire a truth value with every retelling. I realized that it is during these moments, when a family is at ease, that goodwill – the courtesy of the heart – flourishes within and across generations.
My father died in 1980. Most of his grandchildren never met him. Yet, they refer to him as if they had always known him. His presence looms in almost all the tales of childhood that have become for us part of the family lore. But more than that, my parents continue to live in the eyes and smiles, and idiosyncrasies of their numerous grandchildren.
I woke up early one morning to find the youngest of my nieces and nephews already at play, and I decided to join them. It was my first time to observe them at close range. I was stunned to realize that they had the same morning nasal allergies that I had seen before in my father and grandfather as well as in my own children and granddaughter. I watched them while they ate, and I recognized some of their habits as my own.
As the eldest in the family, I must have been to many of my nephews and nieces a familiar but remote figure. Our Baguio reunion gave me a chance to initiate interaction with them as if they were my own little brothers and sisters from an earlier time. They talked to me about school and about their aspirations. They asked me about my work, the places I have been to, and what I thought about certain things. I found myself talking to them the way my father did during those long bus rides to Baguio, when he was at ease and his time belonged solely to us.
My niece, Kris, who is graduating from a public high school in California, has been offered a scholarship to Berkeley, but her mother is wary of the school’s radical orientation. She has not decided what she wants to study, and so we started to talk about career options and courses, and her own personal interests and inclinations. In an instant I was transported to a day in 1963 when I made up my mind to be a sociologist.
“Tito Randy, what does a sociologist do?” asked Pido from out of the blue as we began our descent by the Marcos Highway. Separated from his cousins on the return trip, the 10-year-old son of my brother Bong found himself seated beside me. I thought he was just making polite talk, and so I lent him the motorcycle book I was reading. He was not interested in motorcycles; he wanted to know if sociology would be good for him since he had been thinking, he said, about his future. His earnest and respectful inquisitiveness startled me, and I responded with the longest lecture I ever gave on sociology as a field of study. By the time Pido was done with his questions, we were already in Tarlac.
We came looking for fragments of our childhood in the sights and scents of Baguio, but I wondrously found it among the children I was traveling with.
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