Dumaguete City, the Philippines
June 24 – 26, 2011
“I’m back here in familiar ground,” my father waxed nostalgic in a letter to his “dear Kid,” an endearment for my mother.
The year was 1961. Theirs was a young family. Dad’s peripatetic job led him back to Dumaguete and his college haunts in Silliman University, where he had received his Associate in Arts degree almost ten years before. Despite the hassles of earning a living on the road, they faithfully corresponded through weekly missives; his were imbued with a romantic remembrance of his collegiate days. After all, it was in the acacia-canopied campus that my father would find the two great loves of his life.
Shortly after his death at 79, my friend Ki took me on a trip that turned into a sentimental journey for my family as we traced my father’s footsteps in Silliman to get (re)acquainted with the young man that we would eventually know as a loving husband and father.
My father’s letters, typed at the Alumni Hall, conveyed his world, expressed in the literary pieces that he shared with my mother. The intimacy with which he laid out the workings of his heart bridged the chasm of miles and months between them. In one letter, with childlike enthusiasm, he detailed a nocturnal discussion with college friends (“an enlightening evening it was, replete with nothing but poetry”) of Louis MacNiece’s Among These Turf-Stacks and quoted the entire poem, “Among these turf-stacks graze no iron horses….” The verses hinted at a mind of youthful idealism obstinate to the system. He was “iconoclastic,” as my mother put it.
But those who lack the peasant’s conspirators
The tawny mountain, the unregarded buttress,
Will feel the need of a fortress against ideas and against the
Shuddering insidious shock of the theory-vendors
The little sardine men crammed in a monster toy
Who tilt their aggregate beast against our crumbling Troy.
In Silliman, steeped in literary tradition, my father breathed in the redolence of timeworn books. He would have an audience with literary stalwarts in the university and the country, National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo and husband and fellow writer Edilberto Tiempo, immersing in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, despite a writer-friend’s offhand dismissal of such appreciation as esoteric snobbery. He wrote:
This is what is wrong with the Filipino intellectual: in his closed, cloistered campus-nook, he does not know his country and his people, shrugging them off with a few well-phrased generalizations, feeling himself a giant among pygmies. Be that as it may, this pygmy did enjoy his discussions with the giant on a subject within the airy sphere of the latter’s ivory tower.
Yet in this rarefied intellectual milieu he would experience his first spiritual stirrings. Silliman University was, after all, a Protestant school, established by American missionaries at the turn of the century. The university’s motto, Via Veritas Vita, was fulfilled in his life; light had shone on his journey.
The generator-fed electric lights had been silenced fifteen minutes ago. Now a hissing gaslamp dimly illuminates me. Two hours ago it was the moon, perched on the peak of a black-wall mountain, that silhouetted a horse and its rider and that rider was me.
Bright Sunday mornings would find him eavesdropping on the Presbyterian worship service at Silliman Church, the processional hymn, Holy Holy Holy, which would become his Christian anthem, carried by the breeze to pervade the campus sprawl. Those worshipful moments, beyond the hallowed halls of religion yet wholly within God’s presence, planted the seed of faith. Years later, he would marry a Baptist reverend’s daughter in another Presbyterian church in another university campus. Still more years passed before he would devote his life to lay Christian service.
He alluded to that nascent faith in another letter, “The theist in Tagore reveals itself in most of his poems. And for sheer beauty and simplicity, listen to the exposition of his faith,” followed by excerpted verses from Fruit-Gathering.
I cling to this living raft, my body, in the narrow stream of my earthly years. I leave it when the crossing is over.
And then? I do not know if the light and darkness are the same.
The Unknown is the perpetual freedom:
He is pitiless in his love.
He crushes the shell of the pearl, dumb in the prison of the dark.
You muse and weep for the days that are done, poor heart!
Be glad that days are to come!
The hour strikes, O pilgrim!
It is time for you to take the parting of the ways!
His face will be unveiled once again and you shall meet.
He might not have held his family as much as he so desired, but he bundled tender affection in swathes of Tagore verses dedicated to my mother and his two children then.
His young family: my mother, my eldest brother Barry, my only sister Desi – they were the fruits of love, one he found at first sight in Guy Hall, his dorm at Silliman. The moment he laid eyes on the photo of Mom on a roommate’s desk, he was a goner. She was all of 16 years old, fresh from her high school graduation. They would finally meet years later at the University of the Philippines, where he proceeded to study law, abandoning his dreams of becoming a writer, his turf grazed by MacNiece’s “iron horses.”
Such was his life; he had to trade off one of his loves, creative writing, for his father’s wishes. But such was love; in love, there was no loss.
Here’s one from Fruit-Gathering which reveals that Tagore’s relationship with his wife was not much different from ours:
I found a few old letters of mine carefully hidden in her box – a few small toys for her memory to play with.
With a timorous heart she tried to steal these trifles from time’s turbulent stream, and said, “These are mine only!”
Ah, there is no one now to claim them, who can pay their price with loving care, yet they are still.
Surely there is love in this world to save her from utter loss, even like this love of hers that saved these letters with such fond care.
My mother saved more than his letters; she kept the dreams of his youth. For Dad’s 71st birthday, my siblings and I surprised him with a tribute: the publication of Song of the Mountain and Other Stories, a collection of his short stories that appeared in the Philippine Free Press in 1960 and had been turning to dust in a box warped by oblivion. The stories of his youth were seemingly the sole legacy of Silliman University in his life.
Still, the stacks of yellowed letters he wrote to my mother – glimpses of a man who would be my father – told the story, in his words and those of his poet-heroes, behind his short stories. In this visit to his first alma mater, we retraced his footsteps that led him to love and God. Indeed, family and faith were the true legacies of his two-year stay at the university; he was truly a son of Silliman.
So goodnight to all the reasons for the contents of my day – to you, to Barry, to Desi – my pluralized God: the reasons for the loves and labors of my day.