The “mouse ears” of Sto. Tomas Mountain loom in front of me, the mountain below it shrouded in clouds. As I write this, I am leaving Baguio on a sunny February afternoon, on my way to the 3rd Nueva Ecija Personal Essay Writing Workshop, established by award-winning essayist, Wilfredo Pascual. I first met Willi 2 years ago, when he came to Baguio to give a writing workshop at UP Baguio, as well as promote his book Kilometer Zero, an anthology of essays in which he explored various aspects of his origin story. Like the monument of Jose Rizal at Luneta Park, kilometer zero is where things begin. Using his meditations on seemingly random curiosities, fragments of memory, the found objects that litter the landscape of being, Willi weaves a hauntingly beautiful, bittersweet narrative of his pasts and presents. His talk was as entertaining, insightful and compelling as his essays.
This writing workshop is the first I’ve been accepted to. Seeing my name on the list of fellows sent me over the moon. After tasting rejection a few times, the victory of being accepted is sweet nectar indeed. Yet the euphoria of success went beyond knowing that the difficult work of diving deep into the unknown waters of the subconscious via the written word had been awarded. For as much as I consider myself a daughter of Baguio, I also have roots in Nueva Ecija.
My writing journey was jumpstarted in 2004, shortly after the death of my maternal grandmother, Rosalinda Guidote Garcia. My mother unearthed 8 balikbayan boxes my Lola had kept hidden from us until her death. They were filled with leather-bound scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings about my grandfather Dr. Paulino J. Garcia. Along with the scrapbooks were plaques and awards, citing all the amazing things he did and achieved that we, his family, barely new about: first chairman of the SSS, first chairman of the National Science and Development Board (now known as DOST), first honoris causa of Ateneo de Manila University, to name but a few. Lolo Paulino not only did pioneering research in radiology, his specialty, he was also Secretary of Health under Presidents Magsaysay, Garcia and the first term of Ferdinand Marcos.
The reason we hardly knew him is because on August 2, 1968, he passed away from a myocardial infarction. As my Lola wept over his lifeless body in the funeraria, the earth shook mightily, causing the collapse of the Ruby Towers. But she did not leave his side—perhaps she hoped that the earth would swallow them both. When Lolo died, a part of her died too, for she would often tell me that “No one could ever replace your Lolo.”
Lolo Paulino was born in 1907 in Gapan, Nueva Ecija. Growing up, my only contact with him aside from faded photographs in my grandmother’s library were the yearly visits to the Garcia ancestral home on San Vicente Street. The smell of pig swill, the sweaty embrace of great aunts who cooked our lunch in palayoks over a charcoal fire, quesong puti molded by their hands in bowls of vinegar, biting into fat, creamy fingers of pastillas de leche, watching street life from the graceful second floor windows of the traditional bahay na bato at kahoy, feeling the eyes of the portraits of the long dead follow me as I crossed the living room, the wide beams of the narra floors buckling under my feet from old age, adobo made red with atsuete…somehow, I got Gapan under my skin, right in my DNA.
Seeing that sea of balikbayan boxes filled with scrapbooks, I was suddenly sure of one thing—I had to write my Lolo’s biography. I knew no one else would do it, would have the desire to do it, but me. I had never written a book before. Luckily my uncle Ed Garcia had written plenty, and he gave me guidance via email from London. A few writing mentors who lived nearby also gave me guidance on research methods and writing, such as Felice Prudente Sta. Maria and Mimi de Jesus. In spite of crippling self doubt, and the usual ups and downs of life, Dreaming of my Grandfather: the Life of Dr. Paulino J. Garcia was published by my family in 2009. Until now, I think this is probably the most important thing I have ever done, not just for my family, but also for myself. Getting to know the lolo I never met gave me the gift of discovering how far a human being can go. He was not just intelligent, for he also had a great understanding of human nature. It was the only way he could achieve so much, by collaborating with other experts or organizations that had greater resources than he. I also discovered how much of him lives on in us, his family. I see in our features his square jaw and wide, toothy smile. I got his chinito eyes, and we all got his ability to make conversation with anyone, his levity in the face of life’s vicissitudes.
Every time I began my work day, opening those leather scrapbooks and gazing at faded newspaper clippings, I would always cry. I felt like I was grieving something, perhaps the fact that I missed my Lola. But it felt deeper, like I was grieving for someone else. There was a sense of deep loss and regret that I couldn’t fathom. Sometimes, I felt a presence behind me. When I mentioned this to my mom Marisa, she looked at me strangely, and admitted that when I began working on her father’s biography, she sometimes felt his presence, too.
Was I channeling my grandfather by writing about him? I really don’t know. All I know is, I am about to join a writing workshop in Nueva Ecija, and a part of me feels like I am coming home.