Alternate Reality

Nostalgia_by_SuzyTheButcher

Do you ever wonder what life would be like had you taken another path? Last week I had the opportunity to go back to volunteer at my old elementary school in East Side San Jose. While there, I was very nostalgic but also thought about what my life would have been like if I had stayed in the area.

My co-workers and I were asked to judge a science fair and we were escorted into the cafeteria with all the projects. The cafeteria brought back so many memories-this is where we’d hold our performances and awards ceremonies (and of course eat terrible cafeteria food). I have a vivid memory of learning, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” in the 1st grade and singing it for a crowd of proud parents for a Christmas pageant.

The awards ceremonies every quarter were my favorite. I always made it to Honor Roll and it always made my parents really proud. Those ceremonies were always during the middle of the day, like 10am or 2pm, but either one or both of my parents would always be there to watch me receive it. They must’ve seen me go up there a thousand times, but each time, they couldn’t be prouder and they always had to take pictures with me.

While visiting, I actually had the chance to see my 2nd grade teacher.  The first thing she said to me was, “Do you have your doctorate now?” I chuckled but was also humbled that she thought so highly of me at such a young age.

I thought, what would’ve happened if I stayed in East Side? When I moved over to Catholic school, I quickly realized how different I was. My teacher reprimanded me on my first couple days there because I swore so much. I didn’t even realize I swore that much! Being in East Side made it normal to speak and carry myself in that way. At the time, I still kept in touch with some friends from East Side but I heard that some got into gangs, got pregnant, or simply dropped out of school. I tried my best to maintain these friendships but after awhile, it became clear that I no longer had anything in common with them. I’d gotten ‘out’ of East Side.

Despite all that, I’m grateful for having lived there because I was able to appreciate the sacrifices my parents made to provide more for me. They were very strategic too, and made sure that they moved my life and social sphere away from East Side. Because of that one move, I’ve been privileged to attend some of the best schools, receive a stellar education, and now have a kickass job working for a startup as part of the Silicon Valley technorati. I don’t know if all that would have been possible if I had stayed in East Side.

Giving back to the community, especially to my own school, meant a lot to me. Although they say that East Side has gotten better over the years, it will always make me wary. My family has been the victim of crime and violence a handful of times while we lived there. Our cars have been broken into, property has been stolen, I’ve been harassed, my brother has been shot at for driving and helping a complete stranger (our truck to this day still has bullet holes in it) and worst of all, my uncle was killed by a deranged driver while he was walking at the park close to my house.

Still, growing up in East Side has positively shaped me. Obviously, I tend towards ghetto fabulousness, my first musical loves will always be hip-hop and R&B, and I have a big heart for giving charity to the underprivileged. I think, however, the main facets of someone living in a poor area are to have a little irreverence, a great deal of resilience, and a lot of heart.  I have to thank my parents and my grandma. They did all the heavy lifting. They made it out of East Side. Me? I’m just here making them proud.

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96

light_of_hope_by_afif508

What would you do if you lived till you were 96 years old? What would you do in that time? What kind of life would you lead? Would you look back with pride? Fondness? Or shame and regret? Would you remember anything at all?

Grandma turned 96 years old today. She’s at the point where I can’t ask her such heavy-handed questions. But what I can tell you is that the proof is in the pudding. Grandma has  3 sons, 7 grandchildren and 10 great grand children. She’s survived WWII under Japanese invasion, when she put chicken blood on her clothes and blackened her naturally light complexion with dirt so that the Japanese would keep from raping her. She suffered the death of her first husband, who was woefully murdered over an argument regarding a transaction of water buffalo. After that she somehow, she picked herself up and married again and had her last 2 boys.

She left everything she’d ever known and came to the US in the 70s, working with Dad in the burgeoning Silicon Valley, making microchips in a long factory line for semiconductors. A decade later, she welcomed me and JR to the States not only as full-time grandma, but also as babysitter, cook, and guardian angel. Every morning, she’d prepare our breakfasts and lunches and would walk us to school. Promptly at 2:15pm she would stand outside the school gates with her trusty blue umbrella, waiting to escort me and JR home. My friends always thought it was weird that she’d use that umbrella as we walked in the sunshine. I never understood it either. In fact, I have no memory of ever walking in the rain with that umbrella.

Our family business that put me and JR through school was built on her special recipe of spices for our homemade lechon. To this day, no one knows that perfect blend of salt, pepper, lemongrass and love that makes our lechon the most delicious people have ever had. Every day, she’d go through her chores of sweeping up in front of the house, taking out the garbage and whatever else the house needed. I’d tell her that she shouldn’t be doing such things at her age, but she said she liked doing them because she felt strong. Every night like clockwork, she’d plop herself down in front of the TV and watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.

In my early adult life, she worried about my virginity and questioned my choice in men and choices I made in my relationships. To that end she only offered this sage advice regarding my supposed purity: ‘if the flower is touched, it loses its fragrance.’ Is it any wonder that she’d always try to sniff the top of my head whenever I saw her? She was a born a singer and poet. She’d preface her Happy Birthday songs with beloved Ilocano folk songs. And on every Mother’s Day, she’d recite a poem she learned all the way back from 7th grade, about how very important it was to love your mother.

Her small birthday today made me sad. She didn’t remember me again. But as we made our goodbyes and put her to bed, she insisted on escorting us to the door in her walker. She has always been this way. No matter the hour, she always wants to properly bid goodbye to her loved ones. And through this small and simple act, she begins to remember me again. She repeats my name over and over and I am overwhelmed with bittersweet love. She sings her goodbyes, saying how much she’ll miss me. I’m the last thing on her mind before we part ways again. Perhaps that’s what’s most important. What if this would be the last time I would see her?

I shook the thought out of my mind and did my best to sear that moment in my memory. As she said her goodbyes, she pushed her walker forward, dancing and singing. That’s how I always want to remember her, dancing and singing into the light. And I know somewhere deep inside her memory, she will always come back and remember me.

A Change of View

D4046B9A-782F-11E1-9A28-D2AD052995DAWhen I had my one-on-one with my mentor, M. Evelina Galang at VONA, I was bout to piss my pants. My manuscript was scattered with no real plot or cohesion. The one story that did have promise was, “A Christmas Robbery,” the one thing I actually worked and re-worked (and re-worked) so that it won me that place in Tayo Lit Mag. I guess it shouldn’t be any surprise that the one piece that I actually spent the most time perfecting was the one that had the most potential.

She gave me some interesting feedback and asked me to write the story from the perspective of the mother. I had never thought to do it that way because I had always been so busy trying to capture it from my point view, the point of view of the little girl, because it’s the way the story has unfolded in my memory.

But Evelina taught me an important lesson in distancing myself from my work. I had been so invested in staying “true” to story that I had missed the potential in exploring the mother’s complexity. No, not my mom’s complexity, but the woman in the story. (Although, admittedly in writing it, I did begin to empathize with my mother during that difficult time in our lives.) In taking this step back I was able to find new paths in developing the character and the conflict that propels her forward through the plot… and I’m still not done yet! Here’s the revision of the story I made while I was in Miami.

I didn’t want to take her into the city, but I had to.  Her yaya fell ill and I had no one to take care of her.  Before the jeepney arrived I slowly bent down and told her, “Huwag mo bitawan yong kamay ko.” She obeyed and took my hand. Manila was dangerous so I pressed on, “If you let go of my hand, walang ka nang nanay.” Tears filed her inchik eyes.  She always did look like her father more than me.  I wanted to comfort her and apologize for my harshness.  She was only 4 years old, but I knew she had to learn.   If she let go, she would be lost.

It broke my heart to utter the words, but how much more if something should happen to her? She needed that fear to survive out there.

We moved quickly down the streets, her little feet struggling to keep up.  I had so many errands to run and I wanted to get her out of the city as quickly as possible.  We were stopped on the sidewalk and I looked down to check on her.  Her cute mouth agape, staring at a banana-q stand.  I wish I had a camera to snap a photo and send to her father.  I asked her if she wanted one but she shook her head.  Her eyes though, always betrayed her.  You could see and know everything by them. I was always at the hospital with J.R’s constant illnesses.  The Philippine pollution and heat were difficult on his fragile body.  Every month he would be in there for a new illness.  I’d have to leave her with the yaya every time.  During those difficult times I would ask her how she was doing and she would lie.  She was so small, but so brave.  She had learned to put on a face for me, while I tended to her brother.  I knew I had to do better by her.   I bought her two banana-q and promised we’d go to Magnolia ice cream shop before returning home.

Paroles brightly lit the streets and this gave me hope.  Soon, Virgil would be coming home to visit and stay for a couple of weeks.  A few months ago, the kids had a small recital at school where they learned “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It was their first English production.  Ginette vigorously rowed her arms just the way the teachers taught her.  Her sherbet colored sailor dress bobbed on the papier mache waves.  J.R. gallantly wore a miniature navy man’s uniform and sharply saluted the crowd.  His arms were covered in mosquito bites, ones that I tried to cover with makeup.  “Iwanan mo, mommy, they make me look like a real sailor!” I had never been so proud.  After the show I saw both moms and dads rushing to their children.  JR and Ginette could only run up to me.  I didn’t have enough arms to hold them.

Today was a special vigil for St. Anthony.  I had to light a candle for Virgil to assure a safe trip home.  The paperwork never seemed to end.  These 6-month stints were growing more difficult.  When would we truly be a family again?

I positioned my little girl in one of the middle pews.  She sat forward with her short legs hanging over the side of the pew.  The pew was so large, it enveloped this tiny girl.  I scanned the church to see only a few worshipers scattered throughout.  I didn’t want to leave her there but St. Anthony would grant our family special favor today for his feast day.  I needed to pray for us.  Reluctantly I handed her my purse and told her to wait there while I prayed.

The walk down the aisle didn’t seem as long the first time.  I could almost see Virgil at the altar, waiting for me.   I took a padded pew before St. Anthony.   I hated the idea that St. Anthony was the patron saint of the lost.  My husband was not missing, but in those agonizing months apart, I felt lost.  Could I be both mother and father? Was I enough? Ginette was 4 and JR only 2.  Would I lose my family even before we had had a chance to begin?

Hot tears cascaded down my rosary.  And then I felt a tug on my on sleeve.

“Mommy?”

Anakko! Are you ok?” I struggled to stand up and wipe my face with a pano.

She lowered her eyes and faintly whispered, “Kunin nila yong purse mo…”

My heart stopped.  I looked toward the empty pew.  I looked to her small empty hands.  And in the distance, I could hear a rapid click clack of footsteps against the marble floor.  I took her hand and we raced through the church, and out onto the street.

I raced to the Carriedo Fountain just in front of church and climbed onto the edge.  I paced the perimeter of the fountain, feverishly scouring the busy street, searching for anyone with the purse Virgil had given me.  I looked down to my little girl below, fighting back her tears.  What had I done?

I spotted a policeman nearby and explained what had happened, but he hadn’t seen a thing.  It hurt for me to beg for money but I had no other choice.  Somehow I had to find away to get us out of there.  We took the first jeepney to the nearest bank.

I explained the story to the tellers and tried to hide my shame for doing something so foolish.  How could I leave my daughter like that? How could I risk making her lost? Her head hung low all day.  She hadn’t said a word since we ran out of the church.   All the bank employees marveled at her bravery.  I did too.  They all offered her candy but she refused.  My child was needlessly hard on herself.  She needed something more.  I was going to make good on my promise.

We walked out of the bank and down a few blocks.  Ginette’s shoes were scuffed from our tear of the city.  It was much more of Manila than I wanted her to see.

I turned the corner and said to her, “Ah, dito na tayo.”

I pointed to the shop window and her cute mouth opened in awe.  Mango, macapuno, jackfruit, and her favorite, ube ice cream melting before her eyes.

Gusto mo ba?” I asked.

Tears filled her eyes and she couldn’t bring herself to look up at me.  I bent down to wipe them away and took her gently in my arms.

I pulled out pesos from the bank, “See? Wala lang.”

Lolo

old_young_hands

I’ve been terrible, I know, and haven’t posted since I got back from Miami (which btw- was an AMAZING experience that I will write about soon.) At the end of VONA, each participant had to do a reading of one of his/her pieces. I had originally picked something that I’d already written just to play it safe. But my mentor and residency leader, M. Evelina Galang, threw a wrench in my plans. On our last day of the program, we were invited to her home for lunch and a day of writing. It was lovely to sit outside in the Miami sun and have the singular mandate of writing. (Although, I was reprimanded for ‘liking’ my mentor’s pix on FB while i should have been writing..  what can i say – i’m a rebel and stubborn when it comes to my own good.)

She had us do an exercise where we closed our eyes and channeled our ancestors. While doing this, the one person I could think of was my Lolo on my dad’s side. When I sat down to write I started having a conversation with him and what spawned out of that conversation is the piece you see below.  When i shared it with my cohort, I was in tears, thinking about and loving and longing for a man whom i never knew. My cohort encouraged me to read this piece instead of the one I had planned b/c the feeling that brought it to life is the source of where my writing comes from. And so.. after the initial writing, I spent the whole afternoon editing it. And when I presented to all of VONA, my cohort was surprised that it was the same piece I had produced earlier. One of them commented, “You edited the shit out of that didn’t you?” Yes, yes I did.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to Abraham De La Cruz Acacio.

I hate Werther’s caramel candy.  Whenever those commercials came on, I would quickly change the channel.  The child in the scene is unable to open a small piece of candy, and the grandfather gently undoes the gold foil and tenderly places it in his mouth.  Where was that person to unwrap my candy?

Everyone knew lolo or abuelo.  They celebrated mass, birthdays and Christmases with him.  I have no such memory, only a lingering feeling that something had been taken from me much too soon.

Lolo, how did you fall in love with lola? How did you comfort a widow who grieved the loss of her first husband? How do you take on a child who is not yours? How do you begin a chapter for this family by adding new life to it? How do you explain to the priest why all the host is gone even before Mass starts, and why your son, the altar server, can’t stop laughing in the back? How do you explain why you risked your life to save stacks of books from the public library, while Manila burned all around you?

All I know of you lolo, are a few stories, good stories.  Stories to help me paint who you are.  I see you with a chicken in one hand a machete in the other, ready to put dinner on the table for Inocencia and your three boys.  I see your hands calloused from corralling the pigs to and from market. The sweetness of smoke and tuba are your daily cologne.  Lola hates it when you smoke and drink but she’s still drawn into your kisses.

You wear the same white T shirt.  It was always clean because lola made sure of that, but the hole at the nape of your back grew bigger with each typhoon season.  Character, you’d call it.  Things needed to be worn in, like people.  If they didn’t have any holes in them, they’d be less interesting.  “This is where the stories are,” you would say. Lolo, I do know you. You and me, we are so like.  Because the holes in me, they make me long for you.

Revival of the Fittest

Inspired by my admission into Miami VONA 2013, I think it’s high-time I get my blog going again. So every day this week, I thought I’d share parts of the submission that basically got me into the workshop. The first of which I kinda sorta cheated on (sue me); it was my winning entry into Tayo Lit Magazine last year. And since it’s the holiday season, how timely that I should begin with it.

Fiction: “A Christmas Robbery” by Virginette Acacio

My earliest Christmas memory is of a robbery.

One December day, my mother took me with her on her usual errands in the city.   Manila is not a safe place.  Whenever we went out, Mom would slowly bend down to meet me eye-level and lovingly threaten, “Huwag mo bitawan yong kamay ko– Don’t let go of my hand. [click here to read more]”