What matters most

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything new here. I’ve been through a lot these past few months: turning forty, going back to the Philippines for the first time in twenty three years, jet-lagging for two weeks upon returning home while trying to catch up with work, and helping with preparations for my brother’s April wedding. Most of it has been good, but still kept me quite occupied.

Then last week I saw an item in the newspaper about how to will family heirlooms that are more sentimental than valuable. At the end, readers were invited to Instagram photos in answer to the question, “What is precious in your family?”

What, indeed? What matters most to me? What would I try to save from, say, a house fire (touch wood)? Picture albums? Framed photos? My mom’s red Spanish shawl? Her jewellery? My dad’s letters from Don Alvaro

I couldn’t decide.

Then today, after a long FaceTime session with my future sister-in-law, ironing out wedding details, my mom opened the Trunk in search of a few things that could perhaps be incorporated into the ceremony: the cord and veil from her wedding, the prayer book my grandmother carried at her (second) weddingarras coins from my great-grandmother.

The Trunk belonged to my grandmother and contained her wedding dress.

There are other things in the Trunk: my mom’s wedding dress and shoes, the baby layette, the white blanket she made to wrap her newborn babies in, coming home from the hospital. My mom’s first birthday party dress is in there too, along with all our First Communion dresses and suits, and the christening gown my siblings and I (and most recently, my nephew) were baptized in. It’s still good as new, ready for the next baby whenever he or she arrives.

Looking at the contents of The Trunk, now I know what matters most in my family.  Not these old things, exactly, but the memories and traditions they keep safe in their yellowed and faded folds. These are the roots that give me wings. 

The layette Mom used for all her babies
The baby blanket she made to take her babies home from the hospital
The christening gown
Can you believe we were once this small?

Goodbye to my 30s

RedRoses

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” So goes a quote from one of my favourite books of all time, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

I came across such a book recently. A colleague and fellow bibliophile gave me a pile of books, and among them was Quiet by Susan Cain. The subtitle, The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, drew me right in, and I read it cover to cover. And when I was done, I started talking about it to anyone who would listen, and passed on my copy to anyone who wanted to read it. One of those eye-opening, life-changing books, it helped me understand:

  • Why, after a certain time of day, I prefer to be alone and silent—and that it’s ok to feel that way;
  • Why I often feel exhausted after being around extra-gregarious, ultra-talkative people;
  • That I was actually not shy as a child—just extra-cautious when finding myself in unfamiliar territory, confronted with unfamiliar people;
  • That I can influence people and effect change—even if it means stepping out of character from time to time—if I care about something or someone deeply enough.

Most importantly, I think this book has helped me become better friends with myself, the person I am now as well as the person I used to be. One of the people Cain interviewed, David Weiss, a drummer and music journalist, says, “I feel like I am in touch with [my nine-year-old self] today. Whenever I’m doing something I think is cool, I send a message back to that person and let him know that everything turned out ok. I feel like when I was 9, I was receiving that signal from the future, which is one of the things that gave me the strength to hang in there. I was able to create this loop between who I am now and who I was then.”

I like this idea of creating loops, of coming full circle. I think this was a very timely book to read, one of the very last books to pass through my hands before I turn 40. Sometimes I look  at old pictures of myself, and I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but it seems that often I looked more solemn and worried than a child ought to look. So now I tell that worried-looking little girl that there are challenges and sorrows ahead, but a lot of joys too, and everything turns out ok. And best of all, the things about you that may have been misunderstood and ridiculed then—your bookish, quiet nature, your quirky sense of humour, your sensitivity to beauty and the power of words—are the same qualities that will find you true friends and true love as an adult, and bring you success in your profession.

So chin up—and here’s to the next 40.

 

 

 

The jet set

Air France was my first real job where I earned my first peso. It was my Uncle Victor, who was also my sponsor at our secret marriage, that got me the job. He recommended me to a friend of his at Philippine Airlines, which was the Manila agent for Air France. I was hired as assistant to the Airport Manager, a Frenchman, Mr. Moreau, I think his name was. I worked both in the Manila International Airport and, after flights, at our Escolta offices in the Burke Building, where I was assistant to the Administration Manager. From the Burke Building we  we moved to the Manila Hotel, and then to the Shelbourne Hotel, where we stayed put until I left in 1978.

All throughout my tenure at Air France, I held two portfolios, the airport office to assist the Station Manager, and our Administrative Office as Assistant Administration Manager. And yes, I did travel a lot while there, both officially and on my vacations. Lola and I became regular jet setters, never missing going someplace on my yearly vacations. Your Mom and Titas were with us on trips to Disneyland, Hawaii, and places of pilgrimage like Lourdes in France and the Holy City, Jerusalem. I believe we were jet setting more than the local millionaires, really.

I stayed put in Air France for more than 25 years, I think. I was awarded a silver pin on my 25th year. I think I still have this pin somewhere among my memorabilia.

***

Glamorous as their stories of international summer vacations sounded, my grandmother was always quick to remind us that their free airfare often meant long waits at airports to get five stand-by seats together. To travel as lightly as possible, she packed only a few sets of clothes for her three girls, which often meant doing hand laundry in hotel sinks every night. Still, the annual trip abroad was something my mother and her sisters looked forward to, and now they have a rich store of memories, as well as a certain cosmopolitan attitude, an openness to new experiences, and a keen interest in other cultures.

3 decades of Gomez family travels

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The two M’s

Autumn-leaves 2

I don’t know what it is about the fall that makes me suddenly and keenly aware of time passing. Maybe it’s the sight of the leaves turning, a bright brave blast of colour before they wither. Everywhere, signs of slow decay. It doesn’t make me sad, but it does make me a bit more reflective. Summer, so eagerly awaited, has now slipped away to the place where all summers go to die. Ahead of us, another cold winter we’ll do our best to survive. But in the meantime, a chance to watch the most beautiful of all the changes of season, and maybe try to become a little better at living in the moment.

***

Recently I was sitting outside in the sun for a few minutes between meetings and chatting with a friend, when it occurred to me that sometimes we tend to think too much about the past or worry about the future, without realizing that the present moment is actually pretty good. Sometimes what comes to us through our senses is enough to give great pleasure, and make us more receptive to happiness.

I said as much to my friend, and we agreed to try and tell each other 5 things we enjoyed each day—one for each of the senses. I’m hoping it will be a way for us to get into the habit of living mindfully, to appreciate whatever is in front of us right now.

***

As it turns out, being mindful is also great for getting us out of the autopilot mode our brains are in most of the time, and for developing our powers of observation as well as a stronger sense of motivation about the things we do and why we do them.

So here goes: mindfulness and motivation—the “two Ms,” as Maria Konnikova calls them in her book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. It seems like a good way to start the season, to get ready for Thanksgiving, and to finish the rest of the year well.

***

“When people see my images, a lot of times they’ll say, “Oh my God.” Have you ever wondered what that meant? The “oh” means it caught your attention, makes you present, makes you mindful. The “my” means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And “God”? God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life.” ~ Louie Schwartzberg, cinematographer 

My 15 Favourite Books of All Time

In no particular order.

1) Gone With the Wind

For all the great lines:

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

First read this when I was 9, and even then I thought Ashley was a twit.

Also, Scarlett may have had some major faults, but she was tenacious, practical, loyal to her parents, and unafraid of doing a man’s work in an era when women were supposed to sit at home and look pretty.  Which just goes to show that nobody’s all bad.

2) A Wrinkle in Time and sequels

The first book that made me look at reality differently…made me realize there’s more to it than meets the eye.

3) Wuthering Heights

The only book I know that can be described as both “horrible” and “wonderful.”

4) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Made me laugh, cry, shudder, and hope. What more can you ask from a book?

For a Mercatornet review of this book, click here.

5) Wives and Daughters

A big, fat, satisfying wedge of a book – if you overlook the fact that it isn’t quite finished! But you can watch the BBC movie to see how they ended it, based on letters and notes written by Elizabeth Gaskell before she died.

6) The Shell Seekers

Rosamunde Pilcher has a marvellous way of making ordinary things sound beautiful, and simple food sound delicious. Her language is simple and elegant. And I love how this story switches back and forth in time so effortlessly.

7) The Canterville Ghost

Witty and hauntingly beautiful (pun intended).

8) The Phantom Lover

Just because it can still make me laugh out loud. A particularly well-written Regency romance, which I’m amazed to find still in print!

9) Cheaper By the Dozen

Same reason as #8.

10) Eleni

True story about a very brave woman, written by her son, after a lifetime of searching for the truth.

11) Letters to a Young Catholic

George Weigel is my favourite journalist. He can explain the most profound realities in the simplest language, without stripping them of truth or splendour.

12) The Nurse Kathy books I read in grade school.

I enjoyed reading about Kathy because she loved nursing and made it sound so interesting, exciting and noble. Also because she dated Steve the hunky fireman.

13) A World of Folk Tales

My parents gave me this beautifully illustrated book of magical tales from around the world for my 8th birthday. I still have it.

14) Merlin’s Mistake

I must have checked this book out of the school library at least half a dozen times. So happy when I found it years later on Amazon Marketplace.  A clever story with a neat twist and a particularly satisfying ending.

15) The Hunchback of Notre Dame

So tragically lovely. The classic love triangle with the ultimate anti-hero. A book that taught me not to be fooled by appearances.

 

Once they had a secret love

Wedding picture of my grandparents
My grandparents on their “second” wedding day

Sorting through some papers after my grandmother died, my mom found her parents’ marriage certificate. But there were a few strange details about it. First of all, it had been torn down the middle and then taped back together. And the date of the marriage was November 29, 1952: two years and a day before the date the family had always celebrated as my grandparents’ wedding anniversary. It had always been easy to remember, because that day, November 30, was also my grandmother’s birthday.

Understandably, Mom proceeded to have a small crisis. What did this certificate mean? When did her parents actually get married? If the wedding date was wrong, did that mean her birthdate was wrong, too???

Only one person knew the answer. When confronted with the certificate, my grandfather smiled. “I was wondering when you’d find that.” Then he sat my mother down and told her the whole story – a story that he and my grandmother had kept secret for more than fifty years. Here it is now, in his own words.

“Your Lola and I spent the summer of 1951 apart, she in Cabanatuan with her Father’s relatives, and I in Daet, Camarines Norte where my Father sent me and my brother Pocholo to work in our Uncle’s law office. He was the lawyer of the gold mines of Larap. We had no cell phones then, and so we practically did not hear from each other all summer. Which made being reunited once more at the end of the term that much more desirable. We were always together when we were not in school. She did not like my not seeing her at her house after school, and on weekends. I really practically lived in her house. Those were the happiest times for us, being together.

“In the summer of 1952, we almost broke up because I asked her if I could accept the invitation of Tito Hector to spend a couple of weeks in his hometown, Silay, in Negros, an idea she did not like, knowing that my ex-girlfriend [also lived in that town]. But she let me go, making me promise to behave and to be faithful to her. I guess it was her way of testing me, eh?

“Anyway, Silay was fun, and the ex-girlfriend was there. But somehow, I really did not notice her presence the whole time I was there, even at the three parties we attended. She had ceased to exist, as far as I was concerned. I was always thinking of your Lola, missing her terribly, and regretting not being with her. I counted the days when I would be back at her side. Even Tito Hector seemed to notice that I wasn’t really having as good a time as he would have wanted me to have while his guest.

“It was around September 1952 that we began thinking of ensuring that nothing and nobody would ever keep us apart. She was being closely watched by Lolo Conrado, who was not a very easy man to get along with. He had imposed very strict rules and was clearly bent on splitting us up. I discussed our problem with my teacher and friend, Fr. Lino Banayad, S.J., who did not see anything wrong in our getting married secretly until we were both graduated in 1953. So, we took the plunge. I got my Uncle Victor to stand as witness for me, and your Lola had [one of her closest friends] to stand for her. Fr. Banayad secured the civil marriage license through the help of his friend in the Pasay City Hall. And so, on November 29, 1952, at 1:40 PM we were joined in holy wedlock in the Mandaluyong Parish Church by the Rev. Fr. Lino Banayad, S.J. What a glorious afternoon that was! Although there were only five people in that bare big church that afternoon, it felt like Heaven and God’s angels were there with us.

“We had a little merienda at the, yes, Aristocrat where I had proposed to her, ‘on the rebound’ as you call it. And we parted that night, as usual, only this time feeling very secure and safe that nothing now stood between us and the life that we had fashioned for us that afternoon to be lived with each other and only with each other for the rest of our life.

“…nope, we did not consummate our marriage then. That had to wait another two years and be done properly.

“As you all know, your Lola and I graduated from college in the school year of 1953-54, I from the Ateneo with a Bachelor of Science in Economics and your Lola with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Santo Tomas. We remained secretly married. Shortly after gradation, I was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis, a sickness I must have gotten from my Father. Anyway, I was confined at the Quezon Institute. I spent the whole summer of 1953 as a patient in QI. Your Lola would visit me every afternoon, staying for as long as she would be allowed. When I recovered, I was hired by Air France. I owed this opportunity to my Uncle Victor, who was then working for Swissair, and who knew somebody in Philippine Airlines, who knew the man in the firm that was acting as the Air France representative in Manila.

“After almost 6 months with Air France, we decided we could now come out and be officially and publicly married. We decided on November 30, her birthday, and so, we made everything official by being engaged formally. I asked my parents to ask for her hand in marriage, and they went one night to do so. Much to our surprise, Lolo Conrado did not object. In fact, he was very receptive. To this day I am asking myself, as your Lola and I did ever so often after our public marriage ceremony, whether or not he was on to us.”

Next: The jet set

Love and an adobo sandwich

It was about the middle of 1951, in my junior year at the Ateneo, that my Visayan girlfriend and I parted ways. We were at a party and just before it ended, she told me that she no longer was my girlfriend. Just like that! Of course I was hurt, since I wasn’t expecting it. There was no previous quarrel that usually would herald such an end to a relationship. Just like a whim on her part, I ceased to be her flavor for the month! I bore my loss as bravely as I could, keeping it to myself for a whole week.

Then I attended a jam session given by my friend Lito Fernandez, a chum from Pagsanjan, who was then an up-and-coming crooner along with Diomedes Maturan, both Perry Como wannabes.

Your Lola [Alice] was at that party, too. As we were wont at these sessions, she and I would be dancing almost all the boogies and paso-dobles being played. It was while dancing a slow dance that I asked her if she would like to come with me to the Aristocrat on Dewey Blvd. for a snack. We enjoyed the adobo sandwich the place was known for. She accepted and off we went. I was already driving my own car, a Chevy, which my Father had as one of his perks as a junior partner of the law firm Petkins, Ponce Enrile, Contreras & Gomez.

Dewey Boulevard in the 40s
Dewey Boulevard in the 40s

And there, in between bites of that heavenly adobe sandwich, I found myself pouring out my heart to your Lola. I think I may have even been crying as I told her that my Visayan girlfriend was history. She sat there listening closely, not saying anything. Then, I don’t recall how, I found myself asking her to be my girlfriend! She did not say anything, just sat there looking at me with a look I never saw before. I cannot describe it to this day. She did not say a word until we left the place and I took her home. Not a word the whole time, until I stopped at her gate. I thought to myself that I lad a big egg that night! Then as I opened the door of the car, she looked at me nd softly murmured the sweetest YES I ever heard. It was like hearing an Angel whispering to me, YES!

And with that we kissed, she (as she told me later) for the very first time ever on the lips by a boy! As for me, that kiss made me forget the times I had been kissing others—mainly my ex-girlfriend, of course. And to this day, whenever I am sad, I just reflect on that night and I feel right again.

The Aristocrat restaurant, c. 1960
The Aristocrat, c. 1960

And that is how your Lola became my sweetheart….

It was only after [Alice] had left us, while I was in Manila with her gang, that one of her best friends told me that long before I even knew her officially, Alice told her after seeing a picture of me being passed around by Tita Chita in class, that one day I would be hers!! And I thought I was leading in the dance, eh? She liked me from the first moment she laid her eyes on me, not even in the flesh! And somehow, even though I did not know it myself, I always felt drawn to her whenever she was around.

The Gomez family, late 1950s
The Gomez family, late 1950s. From left to right, back row of adults: Pocholo (my grandfather’s 2nd brother) and his wife Lita; my great-grandmother Lola Carina; my grandfather’s sister Chita; Lolo “Judge”; my grandmother Alice and behind her, my grandfather. On the floor, Ricky (my grandfather’s 3rd brother who was born in the mountains during the war) is the 2nd from the right with his feet crossed. To his right is Hector, Chita’s husband. And my mom is the child sitting 2nd from the left.

Next: Once they had a secret love

My childhood was the original Fear Factor

contributed to The Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments

Ben Clarkson for The Globe and Mail

Some time ago I read that iodine and alcohol are not recommended for treating cuts and scrapes because they can be quite caustic on raw, broken skin.

This major scientific discovery came a few years too late for me. My mother used copious amounts of both substances on my four siblings and me in our time. When I showed the article to Mom, she sniffed and said, “So? You’re still alive, aren’t you?”

I thought back to when I was four years old, playing in the backyard while my pet rooster Charlie strutted nearby. Despite repeated warnings from my mother, I tried to get Charlie to eat grain from my hand. Now I know that roosters can be quite aggressive – another discovery that came too late. But you must understand: Charlie was my pet. I had watched him grow from a fluffy yellow ball of feathers to a handsome young rooster. We had always had an amicable relationship. So I was totally unprepared for the hissing, angry beast that suddenly flew into my face, clawing and scratching.

I don’t remember the actual attack. I do remember my mother shrieking curses at Charlie, then scolding and dragging me into the house. I had shut my eyes tight, a reflex which probably saved them from Charlie’s claws, but which also prevented me from seeing my mother brandishing the iodine until I felt her dousing my face with it. I don’t think I started crying until then. The pain was excruciating. Finally I opened my eyes and saw myself in the mirror. My face was covered with blood and iodine. I thought I was going to die.

But yes, Mom – I’m still alive. So are all my brothers and sisters, though it’s a miracle we survived our childhood. We all learned how to treat our own cuts and scrapes fairly early in life. We knew that at the first whiff of blood, Mom would appear, vampire-like, with either the dreaded green bottle (alcohol) or the dreaded brown bottle (iodine). So we cleaned ourselves up quickly and quietly, without fussing, crying or fainting. What Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and more importantly, it wouldn’t hurt us. That is, unless we died of gangrene or blood poisoning. But we figured that if infection resulting from our inept first-aid measures didn’t kill us, the pain from Mom’s vigorous scrubbing with her favourite antiseptics would, and we all agreed that blood poisoning was the easier way to go.

Sometimes when I’m at the pharmacy I find myself looking wistfully at all the fancy first-aid products that have been invented: no-sting antiseptics, soothing ointments and multicoloured bandages. What’s more, they seem to come with the moms to match. You know the type. “Come on, honey, take this itty-bitty pill for Mommy,” they coax.

My mother would stand over you and say just two words. “SWALLOW IT.” And you would. You wouldn’t dare gag, either.

The truth is, my childhood was the original Fear Factor. The only difference was that there was no prize money at the end. If there were, I’d be a millionaire by now, because there were challenges at every turn.

Take dinner for example. We’re Filipino, and we eat some pretty weird food. Most dishes I disliked as a child I’ve actually grown to enjoy, but to a little kid, Filipino cuisine can be intimidating, to say the least. (You try choking down blood stew, or whole fish with all the bones still in it, or squid cooked in its own ink.)

But even more intimidating was – you guessed it – my mother, looking at you across the table. She didn’t have to say a word in this case, but you knew what she was thinking. “EAT IT OR ELSE.”

Did I eat it? You bet I did.

I may not have won any prize money for facing up to these challenges, but I have learned a few things that will probably go a longer way than any amount of riches.

First, what doesn’t kill you does indeed make you stronger. I don’t know if I’m as strong as my mother, but I do know that if I have to do something difficult, all I have to do is imagine her saying “DO IT” – and I take a deep breath and go for it.

Second, my mom’s love may be tough at times, but it’s real. If she’s hard on me it’s only because she loves me and believes in me. So I’ve learned not to fight her when she’s pushy, because chances are she’s pushing me in the right direction.

Third, I’ve learned that all things eventually come full circle. Mom cut her hand the other day, and she asked me to help her clean it. I went for the no-sting antiseptic – yes, this is what we use now. It lives in the medicine cabinet right beside the bottle of alcohol. Although she hardly uses alcohol any more, I guess Mom thinks her household wouldn’t be complete without it.

I couldn’t resist saying, “I’ll get the alcohol.”

Mom said, “No! This … isn’t a wound for alcohol.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What exactly is the kind of wound for alcohol?”

She smirked. “Your wounds.”

Post-war: The dancing years

My salad days at the Ateneo really put the war years behind me. I got to wear shoes again, even if my first pair of the shoes after the war were combat boots. Although I wouldn’t  call it a uniform, our regular wear consisted of khaki pants, long or short, depending on how hot it was, and a white shirt, with a “Trubenized” collar, long or short sleeved – again, depending on the temperature of the day.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 5.31.18 AM

A 1949 Life Magazine ad for Trubenized shirts

Lolo

Weekends were always “jam session” days. Every Saturday afternoon, from 6 PM to 10 PM, we would be at somebody’s house for a jam session. That’s what we would call our dance parties. Girls from schools like Sta. Scholastica, Mary Knoll, Assumption, Holy Ghost, Sta. Teresa, La Concordia, and Sta. Isabel, to name the more popular ones, would meet at somebody’s house to meet boys from the Ateneo, La Salle, San Beda, Letran for some dancing and merienda. Ah, yes, those were the days, when girls were girls, and men were men.

Lola

It was in one of these sessions that I met your Lola. I always preferred her as a dancing partner, especially for the boogie. But other than that, there were others who were more appealing, so to speak. I wasn’t feeling anything special for her. I found her to be well-mannered and unusually reserved. But, oh, she could dance the boogie like no other in the room. I liked the way she would sway. There was nothing vulgar in the way she would execute the intricate steps of that very demanding dance. But I didn’t hear bells ringing and didn’t see comets flashing in the heavens when we were not dancing.

It’s fun to imagine my grandparents young, laughing and dancing the boogie!

But there was this girl, a Visayan belle, who took my breath away when we met, and who became my first official girlfriend. She affectionately always called me her palangga [dear]. We went steady for about a year. She was from the Assumption Convent in Herran, just on the other side of the wall that separated it from the Ateneo. I even visited this girl in her hometown in Silay, Negros, one summer vacation.

And in between, there were other girls who had crushes on me, which flattered me, of course, but which I did not return as I was never a two-timer. I was the boyfriend of my Visayan girl and she was my only girlfriend. But when it came to dancing the boogie and the paso-doble, ah, those were always with your Lola. What can I say? I guess this was her hold on me. But more on this later.

Next: Love and an adobo sandwich