When my mom Marisa was 17 years old, she and her family moved from the house she grew up in on Morning Side Terraces, Saluysuy in Sta. Mesa to a sprawling Mediterranean-style house in the grassy boondocks of Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Five days after the move, on August 2, 1968, her father, Health Secretary Paulino J. Garcia, died suddenly after suffering from a massive coronary thrombosis. Though she was in the throes of grief, my grandmother was able to renegotiate the terms of her mortgage with the bank. In the following years, Lola Linda was able to pay back every centavo by turning her 10-room house into a bed and breakfast (against subdivision rules, but how was a widow to make ends meet?). Lola was also able to send five of her seven offspring to school (her youngest was ony 13).
That house was the reason I had a magical childhood.
Lola Linda (short for Rosalinda) named her home “Vista Linda” for she had an uninterrupted view of Marikina Valley and the San Mateo mountains. The house was bounded by a front, back and side garden. There was a basketball court and a swimming pool. At one point in our childhood, she built us a nipa hut with a metal pole that served as a fire escape. It was furnished with clay pots as well as a plastic oven with sink combi. Our stories often ended with a pretend fire caused by someone forgetting to turn off the oven, and all of us needing to slide down that pole that was located a touch too far from the window sill. You had to swing one arm after another twice before you could wrap your legs around it and slide down. It felt dangerous and added an element of thrill to our otherwise innocuous stories.
In her front garden, there was a small pond where lily pads floated on the surface. We used to watch the tadpoles flit back and forth in the shallow water. Sometimes we caught them, and I’m ashamed to say some of them were mashed and turned into tadpole soup. Sometimes, we found sacs of frogs eggs on the side wall of her swimming pool. We all had swimming lessons there, but as we grew older and the chances for swimming grew fewer, the pool eventually went into disuse and was covered in broad planks. It became the stage for our annual Christmas programs.
The cousins and I had occasional sleepovers in her cavernous room. It had a sitting area by the window overlooking the back garden, a sofa, an altar, a recessed area with a heavily carved cabinet and a dresser with a mirror where she would sit and apply her make up. There were two single beds placed side by side, and on either side of the bed was a bathroom. The pink bathroom next to her bed was hers, of course. We loved opening the louvred doors of her closets, admiring the custom made shoes that went with the tailored dresses that she needed to wear at formal government functions. A frugal woman, Lola Linda always opted for classic styles and colors, so she could repeat her outfits without looking like a fashion victim. I would try on her pink kitten heels, wondering if I would ever become as glamorous as my Lola (short answer—nope).
The blue bathroom, meant for the exclusive use of my lolo, remained empty and strangely lonely. I wondered if he ever got to use it in the five short days he spent in the house before he passed. Above the sofa in her bedroom was a gray painting of a sad clown. I always wondered why she kept it. It seemed to hold a world of grief, never spoken of to us grandchildren, but the image spoke volumes. As much as she delighted in our presence, there was a an abyss of sadness underneath the mood of her every day.
Another spot in her house that was laden with sadness was the library. I loved sitting in that library, with its conference table and carved chairs with solihiya seats. Paintings and shelves filled with leather-bound books adorned its high walls. A huge rectangular window looked out at the entrance to the side garden, a spray of yellow bells bordering the glass frame. Though my grandmother was an avid gardener, and she pruned her gardens herself, she never spanked us for massacring those beloved yellow bells, whose unopened buds we used to rip off and wear on our fingers like Balinese dancers. She did, however, make me kneel on hard mung beans while holding two Holy Bibles on each palm, for being mean to my sister.
On the library desk, there was a black and white photograph of my Lolo Paulino, his chinito eyes smiling, his wide toothy grin an exact replica of mine. Being the only chinita grandchild in the family, that photograph was proof I was not adopted in the sea of mestizo and mestiza cousins. I used to wonder what it would have been like to grow up with a grandfather. My paternal grandfather was also a distant figure who never spoke to us grandchildren. Would my life have been different, if I had grandfathers to spoil me along with the strong, brave grandmother who molded me?
When I remember my childhood, afternoons in Lola’s village loom large in my mind because we experienced what it meant to be free within its mossy walls. Living under the penumbra cast on our lives by Martial Law, my father ruled with an iron fist to make sure we did not end up in some unmarked grave in the talahib of Katipunan Road. So days spent in Lola’s village, roaming around its hilly streets on our BMX bicycles, racing downhill on the manicured lawns of Lola’s neighbors, ensured part of my childhood was bathed in a golden light untouched by fear.
Before Lola Linda passed away in 2003, her La Vista house was sold. As the old structure was bulldozed to the ground, I began to dream vividly about her house. In one dream, the house looked brand new, the black wrought iron grills of her front gate newly painted and gleaming under the sun. In another dream, the inside of her house looked like a vast multi-level stage, and I was performing on it and simultaneously an audience member. The wrap-around balcony became a scene from one of my past relationships. For a while, I puzzled over the meaning of the dreams, and then it dawned on me: the house—the setting and backdrop of my childhood—was me. I found myself as I pushed against its walls, as it opened its doors to let me roam free.