When I first started bringing Kalinaw to school when he was two years and a few months old, I would park the car at Baguio Cathedral and walk with him from there to his school in UB Square. We would take a “short cut” through St. Louis School behind the Cathedral. Taking this route every day would bring to mind the fact that my father had studied at St. Louis for High School, and remembering this would sometimes bring a flood of memories, the stories he would tell me of what it was like to grow up in Baguio.
One of his favorite stories was about buying bread with his father at one end of Session Road. After buying the bread, which would be wrapped in paper and tucked securely under my father’s armpit, the pair would start the slow walk along Baguio’s main road. Slow, not because they walked slowly, but because my grandfather, who was a lawyer and at one time Baguio’s sheriff and clerk of court (and for a period of time also served as Provincial Sheriff), would be stopped every few meters by someone who knew him and wanted his expert legal advice on one issue or another. Midway along Session Road, my father’s armpit would grow sweaty from the hot bread warming it. Nevertheless, my dad loved these prolonged walks, listening to his father give his two cents’ worth, free of charge.
One of those persons who regularly sought my grandfather’s advice was Mrs. Gene de Guia. My dad remembered her because, even to a young boy, she wasn’t the sort of person one could easily forget. My Lolo Nando and she were friends who had served together on the War Damages Commission after the end of the Second World War, and thereafter remained good friends.
And so, as I would walk with two-year-old Kalinaw down the concrete path that cut through the St Louis campus, I would sometimes feel a sense of walking in my father’s footsteps. Their family, two parents and six children, struggled to make ends meet, and I remember once more my father’s memory of repairing his broken slippers using rubber found at the army surplus or junk shop. I imagined my father, a boy, running from Loakan to Ferguson with his barkada, the miles between feeling like nothing to their young, strong bodies. As I felt my footsteps, and my son’s, echoing theirs, a swell of emotion would rise within me, a funny kind of nostalgia for the connections I hold tentatively in my mind, tendrils that hold my father and me together in a kind of dimension or universe that only we occupy.
My son is a great-grandson of Mrs. Gene de Guia, that UP Law Student genius who was appointed Baguio’s mayor after the war, and served the City Government for six years. By the time I met her, senile dementia had stolen her short term memory, but she still knew my grandfather, Atty. Fernando Romero. “Ah, yes, we’re good friends!,” she would exclaim when I would ask her if she knew him, and I would then say that I was his granddaughter. She would give me a big, gracious smile, but I knew that by the end of dinnertime she would once again be wondering who I was.
Holding Kalinaw’s chubby hand in mine, I felt like I was also holding onto that part of her that dementia could never take away, the Gene de Guia that my grandfather knew.
I wasn’t born in Baguio, nor was I raised here. My parents met and married in Manila, and for better or worse, planted the roots of their little family in the middle of the talahib of Katipunan in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. But we came to Baguio often, and when I was in 7th grade and my dad was feeling stressed out by his job in upper management of a multinational company, he would fetch us from school on Friday afternoon and whisk us straight up to Baguio. We would stay at Hotel Kisad, which was perfect because it was right across from Burnham Park. After a weekend of skating, boating, bicycle and horse back riding, we would rush back down the mountain. Somehow, these weekends were the pressure valve release my dad needed to survive and thrive in his job. But in moments when his suffering was painfully clear to me, I used to say to him, “Dad, if you want to move back to Baguio, it’s fine with me. I don’t mind studying here.” I like to imagine that my vote of confidence in his hometown somehow reassured him, maybe gave him some psychological leeway to allow for inner maneuverings that may or may not have led to a physical move. But we never did move, and I was slightly disappointed.
I have always been the nomadic one in the family. At age 21, I flew to Germany to begin a career in musical theater. In the next ten years, I lived in a different city every year and a half, moved not just to different cities, but different continents, a total of three in the last three years I lived abroad.
Finally, as I hit 30, the exhaustion of living out of a suitcase caught up with me. Divorce papers arrived in the mail a few months before my final musical theater contract ended. I needed to heal. I needed to go back home.
At first, home in Manila was a refuge, a sanctuary. I was my parents’ “pet” once more. My dad was actually happy to have me single and at home. When explaining the end of my first marriage, he would cheerfully declare, “Oh, marriage? She’s done with that.” I completed my undergraduate degree in Social Sciences. I started working on my first book, my maternal grandfather’s biography. When I started writing, I did so in my parent’s condominium in Baguio. The cool climate allowed me to think clearly, the endless line of green trees and undulating mountains I could see from the balcony brought peace to my mind and heart. After writing for 4 to 5 hours in the morning, I would take long walks from Outlook Drive to Camp John Hay’s Ecotrail, my body craving the balance of physical activity after so much mental work. I think these were literally the first steps I took in “coming back” home to Baguio.
At the exact same time I began going up the mountain to write, I met Kidlat de Guia. He was based in Manila then, but he was from Baguio. A Baguio family my dad knew. Is life normally this neat? I really don’t know. As our relationship deepened, so did the pull I felt to move to the mountains.
And now, here we are. Home.
Recently, we visited my folks in Quezon City, which my children Kalinaw and Amihan love because they get to see their grandparents and Romero-Atayde
cousins. In the last couple of days of our week-long visit there, both my children asked me, “Mommy, when are we going back home?” This was followed by, “I want to go home to Baguio.” I was taken aback by this, for they had never expressed these sentiments before. But I was suddenly filled with this feeling of, I don’t know, contentment, maybe? Joy? That my children, though still so very young, already know where home is.
We live in a land where some of our ancestors were born, lived and died. Their history has fertilized this soil, their footsteps still echo on these mountaintops. As we go about our daily business of playing, creating, working, living, I feel those vibrations hold us in a delicate embrace. I hear the ancestors whisper. We live in a forever space.