House of memories

At the height of the lahar flows in Pampanga, which buried a great part of the historic town of Bacolor, I took photographs of our old house in the adjacent town of Betis, and reconciled myself to the thought that this home of our memories would someday also vanish. But, almost by a miracle, while the floods got higher every year, the lahar itself abruptly stopped at the door of our town.  This offered little comfort, however, because while our houses remained intact, they began to rot from the moisture of the stagnant floodwater.

The house in which my parents raised thirteen children was not a rich man’s house.  Its roof was made of nipa and its floor was not constructed from the broad planks of mahogany that one often sees in the ancestral homes of the landed.  Constructed like a boat, it had two small bedrooms and one long living room.  Its posts were crooked tree trunks linked together by wooden beams of irregular sizes.  Later when they had saved a little money, my parents boarded up the exposed beams and posts to give the interior of the house a semblance of solidity.  Gradually, they also added some carved furniture to the basic Pinpin sala set that adorned our living room.

The house had a ground floor that was dark and always damp.  It was the most interesting part of the house for me because this was where the discarded acquisitions of the past were kept. I found here the remains of a horse-drawn carriage and the frame of a US-made bicycle.  I once dug two rusty Spanish coins beneath the stairs, and I began to fantasize about a forgotten treasure chest buried somewhere under this house by my ancestors.  I never stumbled upon any of course, but the thought that this unlit basement silently held traces of my family’s past always fascinated me.  In later years, my own generation would deposit its own discards in this place – old notebooks, pocketbooks, love letters, shoes, rusty appliances, toys. In the late ‘60s, I married and left for abroad, and parked my first motorcycle here, a second-hand Ducati. The floods would come once a year and leave a thick layer of silt upon these artifacts of my family’s everyday life.

My parents never liked living in the city, and so they never left this house.  After my father was appointed assistant city fiscal in Manila, he began to commute everyday from Betis to Manila, a good 3-hour journey during those times.  A relative took pity on him and offered him a room in their house in Manila.  But, unable to sleep in a bed that was not his own, he continued to take the provincial bus, leaving Manila at dawn and coming home to Betis every night.  Long after my father died, and all of us had moved to Manila or to other towns, my mother insisted on staying in the old house until she fell ill and could no longer live by herself.

My parents are both gone now.  One of my brothers wanted a weekend home, but instead of living in my parents’ house, he built a small bungalow just behind it.  Unlived, the house in Betis began to die and go the way of all ancestral homes – rot slowly until somebody offers to buy the property on which it stands.  Someone told me that everywhere in the country, venerable homes built with pride in an era now gone are being torn down and sold for a song for the secondhand lumber they contain.  Our house, made of lesser material, would not be worth anything compared to the stone houses of Vigan.

But humble as it is, this house is built on very strong memories.  And the most stubborn of these memories probably belong to my brother Dante, who could not suffer seeing the old ship go down from the porch of his modern bungalow.  One day he told me of the ingenious engineers and carpenters of Bacolor town who had devised a method for raising old homes from their weakened foundations and placing them on secure stilts to protect them from onrushing lahars.  Using only ordinary jacks, they can lift an entire structure without having to remove any of its contents.  The operation is done with great precision and care so that not a single inch of floor or roof becomes misaligned in the process.

All that we needed to know was that it could be done.  None of us asked why it should be done.  On the face of it, it seems the most impractical thing in the world.  No one is going to live in this house.

And it is not as if we have extra money to spend on a family shrine. But when we consider how much we pay and how much time we give for all the things in life we regard meaningful, the idea no longer seems so foolish.  This house is a diary of our childhood.  We want our children to draw their moral intuitions from the many meanings it holds for us.  To me, that is what being family means.

Unconsciously, perhaps, my brothers and sisters and I have dug into our savings not so much to rebuild a house but to preserve the remaining images of a shared family life.  We are rebuilding this home of our childhood so that we will never forget where and how we were formed.  We want our children and grandchildren, whether they live here or abroad, not to forget where they came from.  We want them to know that however far and wherever life may take them, there is always a place to which they can come home.

Benedict Anderson says that a nation is an imagined community.  I say, so is the family in the era of global diasporas.  If we know what it takes to preserve and reinvent the family in a time of rapid change, it should not be difficult to imagine what it takes to rebuild a nation.


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