Bacolod City, the Philippines
December 27 / 29, 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 set my feelings to words as I walked through the house of my childhood, my family’s ancestral home. These walls could tell a great deal of my personal history and evoked 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.
The house had survived WW2. My grandmother and my mother, who was 9 years old then, took to the mountains in 1941 when the war erupted. 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 could 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, unable to maintain the big house all by themselves.
When my mother left for Manila for college in the mid-50s, my grandmother again had the house rented out – at one point to the Altomonte family (whose daughter, Emily Abrera, became the chairperson of the Cultural Center of the Philippines).
My maternal grandfather, Pedro C. Cachopero, built the house in what was then the outskirts of Bacolod City. It fronted the public cemetery which added to its nocturnal haunted house reputation. It was the American era in our country’s history, and the chalet-style architecture evoked American suburbia. The design made sense in the Philippine setting – its airy bay windows and elevated porch were perfect for our scorching summers. My grandfather had studied in the US and was quite a little brown American (sans the derogatory connotation). 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. As a child, I would race with my brothers and playmates from the gate to the front porch. Today, the same distance didn’t seem to merit sprints. Absence could make a place seem smaller, or perhaps how much I had grown diminished its size.
The roofed grand staircase ascended 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 would toss the sungkaan (the wooden board), cowrie shells trickling down the stairs with the jangle of my bratty frustration. I, too, had taken a tumble down the same steps, hitting the cement base head first. That would explain 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 would still do decades later)!
On the porch, I found 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. Too young to read, I would painstakingly figure out the printed words for hours with beads of sweat forming on my forehead!
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 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 had been turned into a storage area: a darkened and cobwebbed repository of our childhood relics. In one room lay my yellow playpen. It felt strange to be reunited with something that cradled me as a baby. In another room hung 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 stood covered with dust. At another corner, Raymond picked up the wooden rifle he used in military training back in high school. His 6-year-old son, Dylan, took a shine to it and played with it the rest of the day. The room was a virtual time warp where vivid memories were coated with dust and grime.
…..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 were oddly strange and familiar. Relatives lived there now, and they had recently repaired the otherwise creaky house. The living room, as with the entire house, seemed smaller. The large window in the living room, original sliding panel and square panes in place, still opened to the porch and beyond. It provided the venue for our family photos through the years.
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 would 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. My favorite spins were 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 comprised the soundtrack of my childhood.
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 studied in Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts. He was a wide reader and had one room made as a library (sadly, all his books were destroyed in the aforementioned arson). 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. 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. Priceless!
That was 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. The moniker did not come from nasal fluid. Yellow watercolor accidentally put on my nose was more likely 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 produced Broadway shows. A love for any art form did 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.
I peeked in the bedrooms; they were other people’s bedrooms now. I summoned the memory of waking up to the sweet aroma of molasses from a nearby sugar mill (the Bacolod-Murcia Milling Co.) – an enduring childhood memory. The sugar mill had long been abandoned, leaving the air bland without its pervading sweetness, and the view from my bedroom window blocked by development.
A more constant and not less distinct fragrance from my childhood was that of my grandmother’s various lotions that she smothered herself with. She called them lana – Efficascent Oil that eased aches and pains. Those granny smells were akin to the fruity aroma of the weeping willow tree that stood by my grandmother’s room’s bay window (the tree died a few years earlier; I last saw it in 2002). That explained my fondness for weeping willows; aside from their sad and droopy leaves, their scent reminded me of Lola Natang, my late grandmother – and, invariably, of our mortality. Now, these oily scents had been replaced by the smell of baby powder – the family staying there had a newborn baby.
These rooms seemed bare without the fragrance of my childhood. Scents were evanescent yet deeply embedded in our memory. A room was after all inhabited by people who filled it with their scent, and without that redolence a familiar room became strange and hollow.
Surrounding the house were fruit-bearing trees 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 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.
…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 could not 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 was powerful. It was also fragile.
After this memory-jogging tour around the house, I asked my mother if she missed the place. Her answer startled 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 had not lived there since and would never live there again.
I may never live again in the house my grandfather built. Perhaps I had 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 didn’t have children of my own to bequeath it to. My nephews never lived in it as well; I had 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 was reassuring to know that there was another generation that would build childhood memories in the house – the baby lying in my late grandmother’s room. He may abandon it too when he would grow 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.
Lola Natang and Lolo Pedro’s house had gotten small enough to fit in my heart. I once lived in this house, but the house would forever live in me.
PS: Here’s the song that inspired me to write this post: