“What is the first telephone number that you can remember?”
“What images came to your mind when thinking about this telephone number? How did that number make you feel?”
It took me back to Esteban Abada Street in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Our first real home.
I remember where we used to keep our telephone, on a small square table on the landing of the stairs. Anyone going up or down would have to pass by you. It was a black analog phone with a rotary dial. I remember once, my mom accidentally dropped the handset right on her big toe. The handset was so heavy that it made her toe bleed, and part of the nail even fell off. I remember we used to have a party line.
I loved that house. Handsome black and white floor tiles covered the entire ground floor, whose sections were not divided by walls or doors. The living room opened into the covered terrace, separated from the garden by screened gates made of wrought iron. So open. For many months, before my parents could afford to buy furniture, that space was empty and we used to ride our bicycles inside. I was actually sad when the furniture finally arrived.
The only enclosed room on that floor was the den, where we would watch movies as a family. Brown wooden panels covered the walls where my dad hung for display Igorot hunting artifacts, a shield and a blowpipe with real darts. (I knew it was real because once, when I was 7 or 8, I blew through it, not expecting it to work, and the dart inside flew out with surprising speed and embedded itself into the wall opposite me. I was freaked out, and relieved none of my younger siblings were with me at the time.) Later on, the den was renovated and transformed into a dining room. At the round dining table my dad inherited from his parents, I learned to play chess and Game of the Generals with him.
My bedroom overlooked the front garden. I felt like a princess, looking out at the world from the louvered windows that were checkered in various shades of colored glass. I loved the independence of having my own room. My dad was paranoid about fire, so each padlocked window had keys hanging from a hook right next to it. My siblings and I used to open those windows, climb out onto the roof and reach out for the neighbor’s macopa tree, which extended its prolific branches towards our house. I can still remember how fresh and juicy that macopa tasted, harvested by our own hands, flavored with salt.
My Lolo Nando’s desk was in my room. I suddenly remember that now, because one of my siblings stole my Barbie doll, and later on I found its leg in one of the drawers. When my dad tells us stories about growing up in Baguio, he remembers hiding under this desk as a child to escape a spanking. On the other side of the room was a shelf, where I kept the record player I inherited from my dad, along with his collection of 45s, all of which seemed to be songs by ABBA. I also had the multiplication table on a set of 45s. I learned Math by singing.
I lived in that house from three to twelve years old. But when I remember our first number, 962987, I remember being eight years old. I would make my own breakfast drink: three scoops of Milo and four scoops of Nido powdered milk, half a glass of hot water mixed with half a glass of cold water. It used to drive my dad crazy, that I wouldn’t eat a “proper” breakfast. One day, he’d had enough of my insubordination, and he forced me to eat a typical Filipino breakfast of rice and some viand. Immediately after, I threw up. After that he gave up.
When I was eight, my three-year-old brother banged his head on the edge of the stairs and sliced his forehead open. You could see the white of bone underneath the blood. Our parents weren’t home yet from work, so our nanny asked the neighbors to drive us to GSIS hospital on East Avenue. They told me to talk to my wailing brother to keep him awake. Just as they were about to sew his wound shut, my dad arrived, still dressed in his barong tagalog and slacks. He had to hold my brother down to keep him still while they stitched him.
When I was eight years old, a man named Ninoy Aquino was gunned down as he descended from the airplane that flew him from Boston to Manila. He was dead by the time his body hit the tarmac. I remember my uncles and aunts huddled around a transistor radio and a television set on that sunny afternoon in my uncle’s house in Cinco Hermanos. My cousins and I were running around, playing, but I remember the atmosphere was electric. There was a change happening around me, and I could feel it.
Before that day, the adults never used to talk politics in front of us. Words were meaured, thoughts guarded. But after that day, the floodgates were opened. I started reading the editorial columns of Maximo Soliven and Louis Beltran. I’m sure I barely understood their words, but I felt compelled to read them. Even at the age of eight, I felt it was my responsibility to keep myself informed. I no longer wanted to be in the dark.
“Choose images that are alive. You don’t have to milk it. The impressions just flood you.”
“Now, make a list, numbered one to ten. Ten images of the earliest memory you have, of a trip you made with your family. You’re in the vehicle, it’s moving, going somewhere. What do you see inside that vehicle?”
- I see my dad in the driver seat.
- My brother is sitting in between my sister and me.
- My dad’s box set of cassettes, the whole Beatles’ collection.
- Gray, velvet seat covers.
- My mom is in the front passenger seat, occasionally turning around to tell us off when our bickering starts to get out of control.
- We three kids are in the back, trying not to get annoyed with one another.
- I can’t sleep because my dad is driving so fast.
- I see a book, one of those abridged collections.
- My army green messenger bag at my feet. Inside it is my journal.
- We are all singing along to the songs, finding harmonies. Those were the only times we harmonized as a family, I think.
“What do you see outside? Make a list, eleven to twenty.”
- A stretch of highway.
- The blur of the countryside, but lots of details:
- I see verdant agricultural fields, shimmering green.
- I see carabaos, sitting in mud pools, cooling off. Some are walking with their owners, ploughing the fields.
- Nipa hut house in the middle of an expanse of green, sheltering under a tree. I wonder what it would be like to live there. It looks so simple, so cozy.
- Santan, bougainvillea, acacia.
- Endless blue sky. Clouds like sailboats across a lake surface.
- Excitement and trepidation as the car enters Kennon Road. Hoping not to get motion sick.
- That poem by Joyce Kilmer.
- As we climb, I embrace the mountains with my mind. I wonder how a place I was not born and raised in could feel like home.