Museum of Personal History

Bacolod City, the Philippines

December 27 / 29, 2009

Roa-Cachopero Ancestral Home in 2009

If these old walls / If these old walls could speak / Of things that they remember well / Stories and faces dearly held / A couple in love livin’ week to week / Rooms full of laughter / If these walls could speak…

This wistful Amy Grant song sets my feelings to words as I walk through the house of my childhood, my family’s ancestral home. These walls could tell a great deal of my personal history and evoke snippets of memories and anecdotes from the year it was built – in 1937 by my maternal grandfather; he died of bone cancer in the house shortly after in 1940.

Cachopero Family Photo (circa late 30s): Pedro Cachopero, Fortunata Roa Cachopero, Agnes C. Poliquit (my mom)

The house has survived WW2. My grandmother and my mother, who was 9 years old then, took to the mountains in 1941 when the war erupted. I imagine it was the worst time to be a newly-widowed woman with a young daughter – but this experience must have fortified these women’s spirits; I still see that quiet strength in my mother (now 77 years old).

The house was commandeered by a Japanese unit. Its proximity to a sugar mill that the Japanese converted into a garrison saved it from arson. The captain lived on the second floor, while his men occupied the ground floor. After 6 months, my grandmother and mother went to check on the house and found it spic-and-span. The captain was kind enough to give them a sack of rice per month as rent until the Japanese forces left in 1945. Unfortunately, my family did not expect that the Japanese soldiers would spare the house. They had sent all my grandfather’s photos, books, and other mementos to the countryside only to be completely torched by the Japanese there.

After the Liberation, the house experienced another kind of occupation. From about 1948 to 1952, an American missionary (Rev. Eugene Bjork and his family) rented the house. They built an annex at the back – which became my eldest brother Barry’s and my sister Loida’s rooms. At this point, my grandmother and mother lived in a dorm, as they could not maintain the big house all by themselves.

When my mother left for Manila for her college education in the mid-50s, my grandmother again had the house rented out – at one point to the Altomonte family (whose daughter, Emily Abrera, is now the chairperson of the Cultural Center of the Philippines).

Roa-Cachopero Ancestral Home, Circa 1960s

My maternal grandfather, Pedro C. Cachopero, built the house in what was then the outskirts of Bacolod City. It fronts the public cemetery which added to its nocturnal haunted house reputation. It was still the American era in our country’s history, and the chalet-style architecture must have been evocative of American suburbia. The design, though, makes sense in the Philippine setting – it is airy with its large bay windows and elevated porch, perfect for our scorching summers. My grandfather had studied in the US and was quite a little brown American (sans the derogatory connotation of the term). He set the house in the middle of a huge lot (3,600 sqm, according to my mother), proudly insulated from the main road and next-door neighbors. Picket fences would’ve completed the American look. As a child, I would race with my brothers and playmates from the gate to the front porch. Today, the same distance doesn’t seem to merit sprints. Age can make places seem smaller, or perhaps it is prolonged absence that diminishes their size.

Front Porch

My Brother, My Mother, Me as a Baby, the Porch with my Grandma’s Caregiver Posing!

The roofed grand staircase ascends to the front porch, where I used to play sungka, a kind of mancala using a long wooden board and sigay (cowrie shells). I was a sore loser; I clearly remember tossing the sungkaan (the wooden board), its cowrie shells trickling down the stairs with the jangle of my bratty frustration. I also had taken a tumble down the same steps, hitting the cement base head first. Perhaps that explains why I turned out the way I did. This was also where I lost my front milk teeth here, courtesy of Barry who practiced judo with me as dummy partner (he still does, actually)!

On the porch, I find my grandmother’s old sewing machine – a main character in my favorite childhood anecdote. My mom told me that when I was about 3 years old, I would sit on its pedal with a Readers Digest magazine in hand. I was still too young to read but I would painstakingly figure out the printed words for hours, with beads of sweat forming on my forehead!

My First Library – Under this Sewing Machine!

Originally, the ground floor of the house was an open garage where my grandfather parked his buggy; the horse had a shed behind the house. But in another time and with another man in the house, the space was walled in. It became my father’s office. For a while, my dad was in the book business, but the venture tanked. I had more carefree memories in it though: counting boxes of a particular brand of soap for Barry so he could win a sponsorship to a Boy Scout jamboree in Norway (he won it!) and using our black rotary-dial telephone to make phone pals.

When my dad moved to Manila for work, the first floor was unused for a time and was mostly left in darkness – to a child, it was the underworld where monsters lurked in the shadows. I would frantically run up the stairs because I imagined the devil grasping my heel. In retrospect, it could have been just my other brother, Raymond, scaring me.

Now, the first floor has been turned into a storage area: a darkened and cobwebbed repository of our childhood relics. In one room lies my yellow playpen. It feels strange to be reunited with something that cradled me as a baby. In another room hangs my brothers’ old bike, its wheels forming a wistful silhouette against the window. At a corner, Loida’s armoire (with her nickname carved on it) and Barry’s basketball trophy stand covered with dust. At another corner, Raymond picks up the wooden rifle he used in military training back in high school. His 6-year-old son, Dylan, takes a shine to it and plays with it the rest of the day. The room is a virtual time warp where vivid memories are coated with dust and grime.

My Brothers’ Old Bike

My Sister’s Armoire

The Transcendental Tourist Playing in his Playpen 40 Years Ago

My Playpen 40 Years Thence

…..If these old halls / If hallowed halls could talk / These would have a tale to tell / Of sun goin’ down and dinner bell / And children playing at hide and seek / From floor to rafter / If these halls could speak… 

Upstairs, old rooms are oddly strange and familiar. We have relatives who live there now, and they have recently repaired the otherwise creaky house. The living room, as with the entire house, seems smaller now. The large window in the living room, with the original sliding panel and square panes, still opens to the porch and beyond. It provided the venue for our family photos through the years.

Poliquit Family Photo, circa early 70s (I’m the youngest in the brood)

Poliquit Family Photo, circa late 70s

The living room was always alive with the sound of music. Raymond would pound the piano for hours. I heard a lot of Beethoven and Bach, but it is the frantic piece The Flight of the Bumblebee that I will forever associate with him. My mom’s tender version of Debussy’s Claire de Lune, though, was my first taste of art appreciation. If not playing the piano, Raymond would play vinyl records on the turntable. The first songs I ever learned were those from The Sound of Music and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Julie Andrews and the Beatles were my first pop icons. These pieces of music comprise the soundtrack of my childhood, their lyrics etched in my memory.

Poliquit Family Photo, circa early 80s

In December 2009 with my mother, brother, and nephew

If these old-fashioned window panes were eyes / I guess they would have seen it all / Each little tear and sigh and footfall / And every dream that we came to seek / Or followed after / If these walls could speak…

My grandfather must have been a wide reader, having studied in Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts; he had one room made as a library (too bad all his books were destroyed in the aforementioned arson by the Japanese). My grandmother was a teacher and a school principal; she was quite an academic. Reading was strongly encouraged in the house. I used to spend hours on end in the library, mainly lapping up dinosaur books, the encyclopedia and the World Atlas (thus, when my first grade teacher asked the class to name a country’s capital, I nonchalantly answered, “Prague, Czechoslovakia” – and smiled as her jaw dropped).

That’s not to say I didn’t have less nerdy pursuits. In 1977, Loida went to the US as an AFS exchange student. She went to Connecticut to complete her high school education. I would send her drawings of dinosaurs and other doodles I made in this library, and signed my name as Yellow Nose. I don’t exactly remember why I used that moniker – I hope not for nasal fluid. I think I have yellow watercolor, which I accidentally put on my nose, to blame. The color came off but the name stuck.

I also became a cineaste early in life. Every weekend we would go to the movies, either in State Theater or The Little Cinema. I took this interest home. Raymond and I constructed a miniature movie theater made of dominoes and other bric-a-brac. We would cut out movie ads from the newspaper every week to paste it on the facade as our “now showing”! Raymond took this hobby of putting titles on marquees to adulthood and to NYC where he produces Broadway shows. A love for any art form does inspire creation.

All these childish things were done under the watchful stare of my grandfather’s portrait that dominated the library. He had an appreciation for the finer things in life that rubbed off on us.

Pedro C. Cachopero (my grandfather)

I just peek in the bedrooms; they are other people’s bedrooms now. I try to summon the memory of waking up to the sweet aroma of molasses from a nearby sugar mill (the Bacolod-Murcia Milling Co.) – one of my favorite and enduring childhood memories. The sugar mill has long been abandoned, leaving the air bland without its pervading sweetness. The view from my bedroom window has already been blocked by development.

A more constant and not less distinct fragrance from my childhood is that of my grandmother’s various oily lotions and potions that she smothered herself with. She called them lana – Efficascent Oil that eases aches and pains. Those granny smells are akin to the fruity aroma of the weeping willow tree that stood by my grandmother’s room’s bay window (sadly, the tree died a few years earlier; I last saw it in 2002). Perhaps that explains my fondness for weeping willows; aside from their sad and droopy leaves, their scent reminds me of Lola Natang, my late grandmother – and, invariably, of our mortality.  Now, these oily scents have been replaced by the smell of baby powder – the family staying there has a newborn baby.

Under the Willow Tree (my eldest brother, me, and my sister in 2002)

Fortunata Roa Cachopero (my grandmother)

These rooms seem bare without the fragrance of my childhood. Scents are evanescent, yet they are deeply embedded in our memory. A room is after all inhabited by people who fill it with their scent, and without that redolence a familiar room seems strange and hollow.

My First Birthday (with Mom)

Star Apple Tree (Kaimito) Beside the House

The Comedor (Dining Room)

Surrounding the house are fruit-bearing trees, mostly planted by my grandfather. Unlike my elder brothers, I was too small to climb our mango and star apple trees. I settled for the petite water apple (makopa in Tagalog) and chico trees in the front yard. I may not have conquered those trees, but my creativity thrived under their shadow. Raymond and I built a little city made from leftover cement. We constructed miniature roads and a ship port; the mud puddle formed by a dripping faucet was our lake. It was also in these irrigation canals that I “water baptized” our puppies. I also dabbled in horticulture by growing my own yellow bells. Those were the days when you could be whatever you wanted to be. I somehow lost that childlike belief and discovering my professional destiny as an adult was considerably more challenging.

It was also under these trees that I would hide from my grandmother. She would call for me from her window but I answered with silence. She would be frantic and scour the yard for me. I would not emerge from the shrubs until she was in tears. Alzheimer’s disease had started to demolish her mind by then; she actually thought I was her son. She had forgotten everyone else in the family, even my mother. I loved her and was very close to her, but I didn’t understand why I was the only person she knew – so I taunted her with my impish pranks.

Lola Natang, My Grandmother

They would tell you that I’m sorry / For bein’ cold and blind and weak / They would tell you that it’s only / That I have a stubborn streak / If these walls could speak…

I cannot separate the house from memories of my grandmother, Fortunata Roa Cachopero. She died in 1990, but we all knew we had lost her years earlier. Amy Grant, my favorite singer-songwriter, once said that memory is powerful; I must add that it is also fragile.

After this memory-jogging tour around the house, I ask my mother if she misses the place. Her answer startles me. She had abandoned it through the war years and left it for college. She only lived in it at length when she was busy raising us, but then she had to move to Manila with the rest of the family. She has not lived there since and will never live there again.

Mom and Her House on Burgos Street, Bacolod City

Perhaps I would never live again in the house my grandfather built. Perhaps I have lost it as my grandmother had lost her memory before her death. It may be torn down eventually, given the current urban development in the area. I don’t have children of my own to bequeath it to. My nephews have never lived in it as well; I have no idea what they would do with it. I could only hope that that Japanese captain had told his children about the house he lived in during the war, that the children of that American missionary would still recall part of their childhood in the house. Still, it’s reassuring to know that there’s another generation that will build childhood memories in the house – the baby who’s now lying in my late grandmother’s room. He may abandon it too when he grows up, but may he always remember.

…They would tell you that I owe you / More than I could ever pay / Here’s someone who really loves you / Don’t ever go away / That’s what these walls would say / That’s what these walls would say.

I dedicate this post to my grandparents, Lola Natang and Lolo Pedro. The house you built seems small enough now to fit in my heart. I lived in this house, but now the house lives in me.

Night Falls on our Ancestral House

PS: Here’s the song that inspired me to write this post:

46 thoughts on “Museum of Personal History

  1. as always, a very well written post but instead of a physical place, this time, the trip within memories of yesterdays. i truly find the article a bit sad as my own past is hazy and not as idyllic. you must have had a truly wonderful childhood!

    • Thanks, Erich! I don’t think my childhood is any more wonderful than anyone else’s. We just have to try to remember more – to distill these memories into vignettes that are puzzle pieces of who we eventually become.

      I lived in that house and now that house lives in me. :)

  2. This is great, AJ. You should send it for publication. I didn’t know our families had so many things in common even if we lived in different regions. My mother and her sisters also sew and we still have almost that same type of sewing machine my mother used to make dresses for us and our kids – until the last week before she got confined in the hospital last year. From my parents stories they also fled to the hills to escape the Japanese. But of course, we didn’t have a grand ancestral house like your family does. Wow, it’s really grand. You should have it preserved for history’s sake. It would be a shame to sell it or have it demolished. It’s part of Bacolod’s history not just your family’s.

    Good job. At least you’re taking the time and effort to write about your family’s history. Every family has a lot of stories to tell. Ako nga I’ve been meaning to do it for the longest time but the mundane demands of everyday life keep me from doing it. Either that or just plain laziness. Yun siguro. :)

    • Nah, it’s too personal for publication. And the house isn’t that grand. Seemed so when I was small, but now…no, just no. :) I think my grandfather planned to have a big family, but he died of cancer too soon. So my mom is an only child.

      Anyway, Binky you better buckle down to write about your family’s history…for the sake of KatSo and her lil sis.

  3. Bravo. Now I wonder with such a happy and wholesome childhood, why did you turn out to be such a b… ha ha just kidding A.J. Your family history and your childhood deserve to be adapted into a Broadway musical, starring Madonna of course. Hmm?

    • Rob, you don’t need a tragic childhood to be a b_____! Hahahaha (evuhl laugh) Light bulb of an idea to turn this into a Broadway musical. By then, Madonna would be the right age to play my granny with Alzheimer’s and her son Rocco can play…ehem…yours truly. :)

  4. Memory is not so fragile as long as you cherish it. I hope you keep the memory of the house in yourself. It’s really beautiful, so don’t let it go away. And I’m sure your grandmother had known that you loved her so much. :) I wish I could have such a lovely memory of my childhood as well.

    • As I’ve said in my other comment response:

      I lived in that house and now that house lives in me.

      One reason I posted this entry is to keep the memory of the house alive by having other people remember it as I do. Thanks Karry.

  5. Remarkably awesome writing! You have vividly sketched not only your memories of the house that lives in you now, but also bid me bethink mine as well. Thank you for sharing such beautiful piece of yesteryears.

  6. It gave me goosebumps reading the blog . . . like they said, you’ll never know what another person will cherish in your past . . . things that were as simple as playing in dirt, stacking blocks in a coffee table and sounds of what seemed like endless piano practice would stick in my little brother’s memories. Thanks, AJ, for this wonderful piece . . . it is one of the most poignant piece of writing I’ve read in a long, long time. (Even Dad can’t beat this :) You’re the best! I love you!

    • Glad you liked it, Noy. Good thing our childhood overlapped a few years. You were my only playmate then (how did you ever stand a bratty baby brother who was 6 years younger?! hahaha). And though I wrecked most of your toys (awww sowee bro!), we also shared a lot of wonderful childhood memories. :) Love ya too, bro!

  7. OMG. this piece made me cry.i remember my grandparents’ house too! and even now, when i say home… that’s the place i have in mind.

    God Bless you and your family. Yall are such an inspiration.

  8. we have a store in burgos market and i used to pass pirmi in that area. it seems that the paint of the roof was green before (1980s). i knew from the start na balay ni raymond (a hs classmate). i remembered that you shocked your family when you suddenly quit schooling in grade school (I?) but they were even more surprised when you told them you’re coming back the ff year. that is from noyke’s “my family tree” report in hs. very well written. ay ambot kun damu da buhi nga patay kay lapit sa patyo! lol

    • Wow Inno, you remember way TOO many things about me! TMI much! Hahahaha! Yep, I was that brat who dropped out of second grade. But I punished myself by walking through sugarcane fields with my mother in La Castellana and Magallon. My skin would have scratch marks from the sharp edges of cane leaves. And of course, major sunburn. :)

      And yes, the roof was green then. Your memory is sharp! Damo gid nga salamat sa pagbasa mo sang blog nga ni.

  9. Ta,

    1. B.I.G. (Dad’s book company) stood for Business International Group. It was also the main sponsor of Barry’s basketball team – the BIG Pages – for which the trophy was “won.”

    2. The soap was Dial. The jamboree was to Norway (not Japan). The name of the contest was Dial-Your-Way-to-Norway.

    3. I named you Yellow Nose as a taunt when you had accidentally smudged yellow watercolor on your nose. You tried to wipe it away but I would keep on brushing the yellow color on your nose as I name-called you “Yellow nose! Yellow nose!” We thought that was so funny. Daw bata-bata guid.

    4. While on my AFS year, Mom Ann took me to Andover-Newton to see Lolo’s old school. It was there that we found out his true date of birth. They gave me his school records, yearbook photos, and took my photo on the steps of the main hall where his class stood for their grad pic. I gave them all to Lola Natang. They all went the way of Alzheimers.

    Ok. Naiyak na ako officially.

    Inday Des

    • Thanks for the corrections, Des! I was too young to remember all the details. And of course, those are just MY memories. Bar, Noy, and you have lived there longer – you can fill a book with your collective memories!

  10. Very nice Ta… I was too young to remember anything when our branch of the Cachopero clan lived within the compound and can only rely on pictures and recollections of our uncles/aunts for a glimpse of how it was. But I do remember those times when we’d come over to visit .. and your sungkaan was the first sungka I’ve ever laid my eyes on and played with.

    You’re a good job!

    • Oh yeah, I remember that your relatives lived there, but very vaguely now cuz I was just 3 maybe. I have a photo of Jen-Jen and me at that time. And too bad I didn’t preserve that sungkaan. Don’t remember if I left it there or brought it to Manila. Should’ve been a nice little relic from my past. Thanks for dropping by my blog, Jonas! :)

  11. Awesome job A.J. I’m glad that not all of your family history was burned by the Japanese =D. Once again I really love the photo’s. I wish that I had access to my family history in such a way, but unfortunately my knowledge of them is very small. I only know the few things i’ve been told =(

    • Thanks T! Every family has a story, and every story needs a bit of research. Go interview relatives and write…for posterity! :)

  12. AJ – What an incredible story!

    I can’t help but think of the times during WW2 and what your family had to endure. The war never touched our soil so we can never trully appreciate the sacrifice amde by so many that lived it in their own back yards.

    Your story is beautiful, wel written and a testiment to the strength of your family of which you have become a wonderful example. I love to read your journals!

    Be well,
    Ron

    • Gee thanks. I was never interested in my family history when I was young. The present and the future were all that mattered. I guess age makes you look back more and appreciate the past as an integral building block of your identity. Whoa! :)

  13. I am very impressed! WhereverI go i look out for old houses , they have a fascination for me i cannot explain. I love old houses and wonder about all the people that ever lived there. A little tear escaped my eyes as i read through. I will visit this house over and over again, maybe in search of my own past.

    • Your kind words kill me, Lily Rosaldo. Thank you for reading. I’m glad this post compelled you to draw from your own memory well. While it is usually in our best interest to move on, it also pays to look back; after all, it’s our past that has shaped us.

  14. Pingback: 2010 in Review (by Team WordPress) « The Transcendental Tourist

    • Thank you for the comforting words, Jim! Somehow this poem comes to mind:

      Stupidity
      by Amy Lowell

      Dearest, forgive that with my clumsy touch
      I broke and bruised your rose.
      … I hardly could suppose
      It were a thing so fragile that my clutch
      Could kill it, thus.
      It stood so proudly up upon its stem,
      I knew no thought of fear,
      And coming very near
      Fell, overbalanced, to your garment’s hem,
      Tearing it down.
      Now, stooping, I upgather, one by one,
      The crimson petals, all
      Outspread about my fall.
      They hold their fragrance still, a blood-red cone
      Of memory.
      And with my words I carve a little jar
      To keep their scented dust,
      Which, opening, you must
      Breathe to your soul, and, breathing, know me far
      More grieved than you.

  15. AJ, you never cease to amaze me with the sharpness of your memory! I have to admit, I got a little teary eyed reading this one. It’s very poignant and brings back a flood of memories in me as well, though some of them not very pleasant. :)

    You took me back in time, visiting each room of my grandparents’ house, which is now bare but not devoid of the “fragrance of my childhood” as you eloquently put it.

    Have you ever thought of becoming a historian? :D Just thinking out loud.

    • In a parallel universe, I must be a historian! :)

      I just get inundated by sensory memories every time I go back home. It’s always a sensuous experience, everything so vivid as if I hadn’t left. And memories of my grandmother come with a sting.

      I hope to read your childhood memoir too, Reiza.

  16. AJ, ang nostalgic ng post. you should write a book. you have a way with words. ang yomon yomon nyo naman, malaki na kaya yang bahay nyo. samen kase nipa hut lang. hihi favorite ko na toh, super interesting ang storya mu. sana ma-meet na din kita this year! :)

    • Di ako moyomon, Gael! :D That house is my grandfather’s last among his many accomplishments. He was only in his early 40s when he died of cancer, but by then he had left the small town of his birth in Iloilo, traveled and studied in the US, established a church in Bacolod, started a family, and built this house. So there…I can’t possibly claim what my grandfather achieved as my own. But I’m rich for having him as my lolo. :)

  17. Really nice post .. Its something special to see our past ..they way we brought up and all. The best part of life ..is childhood ..thx for this post AJ now i have to take out my childhood pic i think

    • I think it comes with age, Sheril. The older one gets, the more nostalgic one becomes. Good to start early though, so yeah dig up those old photos and start reminiscing!

  18. so beautiful! so well written that i felt the author toured me around and inside the house. i felt as though i knew the people who lived there. i would never leave a place like that, i would stay there, with my memories until forever!

  19. fight with all your mlght to prevent this house from being torn. i am sad that sometimes people have no reverence for the past…

    • Thank you for remembering this piece, Priscilla! I never imagined this very personal post would find resonance in people who do not even know me.

      I’ll be the first to be heartbroken if the house would be torn down. But it is something that I don’t have total control over. That’s why I wrote this piece – to share my memories so they would not die with me. In a sense, I’m letting the house and my memories live on through people (like you).

      • Did it never occur to you to submit this to any of the reputable publications we have – like The Sunday Times Magazine, The Star or The Daily Inquirer…it is such a remarkable, beautiful piece that it should not be relegated to a mere blog post.

        Thank you for sharing.

    • Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence, Priscilla! I just thought this piece was too personal to appeal to a wide audience, such as a newspaper’s. But then, it spoke to you, so I guess I had misjudged its potential reach.

      I’m not sure if publications accept articles that have already appeared in blogs. I do appreciate the encouragement though. :)

      Just wondering, how did you get to know this blog post? I know my blog is open to the wide world of the web, but I’m curious how people outside my circle tap into it.

      • i think it was because i did want to blog and went to wordpress (but changed my mind) and while there i got curious about the blogs and while scrolling i chanced upon the picture of the house i was impressed – (i have always been fascinated by old old houses) – and the subtitle – If walls could speak. You see, sometimes when i look at old houses it occurs to me what might these walls had witnessed, what might they had heard,…. what if by some power they could reproduce (to those willing to listen) all the secrets thay they hold… when i read the words “if walls could speak” i was completely taken.

        I was not familiar with the song and this was the first time i heard it. Such pathos echoed in your blog.

    • Hi Priscilla! Could you post your blog link? I’d like to check it out too. And the song…it’s one of my favorites. Very evocative, just like most songs of Amy Grant.

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