When we were children, nothing was more fun than the rain.
I can no longer remember how we knew classes had been cancelled. At the time, in the early ‘70s, there were no cable television, Internet or cell phones. Perhaps we learned from the news, from Amado Pineda, the weatherman, who would intone the cancellation of classes at the end of his forecast. It seemed less complicated then.
In school, when people asked me where I lived, I was often embarrassed to admit to living in Marikina because it seemed like it didn’t have a posh ring to it the way Makati or New Manila did. Marikina was also famous for its floods, its awful telephone reception (party line, is that you?), and its bad roads. At times, I’d make the effort to mention where we used to live before moving to Marikina, but no one was really interested in that story.
School was always an ordeal for me as a young child. I never felt I could truly be myself. There was a constant need to fit in, to alter, to hide the deepest parts of the self. No one asked me to do this, and I felt it in other ways, in classmates’ glances, in the way I turned people off, in the constancy I found in having lunch alone. There were friendships, of course, but nothing long lasting, I am afraid.
So having no classes was more than just a relief—it meant I didn’t have to pretend. Because at home, no classes meant more time for art. Looking back, it seemed like that’s all we ever did. I’d come home from school to find the brothers in the sala, rehearsing a new piece or playing chamber music with cousins or classmates. Our evenings were punctuated by more music. Summers were about putting up plays and musicals and whatnot. But rainy days were always about painting.
My parents had a printing press, so we had a steady supply of paper or pens. My father would run to Queen’s grocery along Aurora Boulevard and buy watercolors and acrylic and brushes. He’d pass by Marian Bakery too, to get their impossibly soft loaf of bread. It was our absolute favorite on rainy days: bread with potted meat!
A long table would be brought up into the sala from who knew where—perhaps our dining room? And we would paint away. Even then, we understood the idea of performance. At the end of the painting day, each child would choose their best work and post it on the wall like a gallery viewing. I think it was the oldest of us, Jed, who presided over this matter, the way that it was he who presided over our theatrical presentations.
I see this sense of history now that I am older. Storms still bring out the old ways in me: they signal a time to make art. During storms, the children and I spend unlit days doing crafts, either origami or Christmas decorations. A storm is always a tacit approval for me to let go of a long list of to-dos. And although Marian Bakery is no longer open, a version of it still exists here. We call it “Sandwich Lunch,” and the children look for it as soon as they see the change in the weather.
Other storms have left a kind of imprint upon me, my recovery from them not quite complete, or the lessons they have yet to teach me not yet fully revealed.
There was Typhoon Yoling, who came in all her glory when I was around eight. This one felt different. No table was set out, no loaf, no potted meat. We stayed in our rooms looking at large catalogs of clothes, a publication my parents printed. We girls would spend the blackout days deciding which ones we would have made. Yes, this was the age too when all our clothes were made by a modista or a sastre. None of my clothes came from a mall until I was almost done with high school.
My mother’s brothers lived in Mandaluyong then, beside a creek, and I still remember that hard-to-receive phone call from the uncles asking for help because the creek had overflowed. I can hear my father screaming at the party line to get off the phone as his call was a matter of life and death! In my young bones, I knew there was danger around the safety net my parents had placed around the idea of “storm.” I learned then that it could be life-threatening too and that certain situations could not be solved by art.
The uncles had six children each, and we were six as well, but my parents had no hesitation and asked them to evacuate to the house in Marikina because we had not yet been flooded, in spite of the river being quite near us. Monte Vista, our subdivision’s name, meant, after all, that we were high enough to have a view. I can no longer remember how long it took, but finally they arrived, and suddenly we were not just a family, but also a barangay! Two sets of parents (my other uncle was a widower), 18 children of varying ages, a motley crew of yayas and drivers, and did I mention a few horses?
At the time, we had a stable of horses, and they were restless and afraid of the storm too. It seemed only natural that they come in and hang out with us. And here I caution us all and merely categorize this memory under the banner “truth is stranger than fiction.”
When Milenyo came a couple of years ago, I was busy starting a garden on the farm. I had gotten this idea of moving my son with autism, Teodoro, to the province for half of the week to help with his sensory integration. A garden has always done wonders for him, and for around a year, we all commuted to the farm on weekends.
Experiencing a storm in the province is something else. There, we live by the sea, so at night, its relentless tearing can be heard from everywhere. You are constantly reminded that there are much greater things out there. Neighbors are far away and sometimes impossible to reach. This particular storm, the lights were out, no stars were out, my phone had little battery left, I had no flashlight, and I had lit candles all around the room. Worst of all, there was a tsunami warning. Antonio was 5 at the time, and he lay beside me, oblivious to all that danger. I truly thought we were going to die that night, and I resolved to face death squarely, even if I had to admit how afraid I was. Surely that could still count as “squarely” too?
In the morning, I inspected my newly created garden, and I was shocked to discover that the large mango trees were not as strong as my fragile flowers. It puzzled me, and I had a better sense of how we’ve sometimes wrongly illuminated courage and bravery. I’m still not quite so sure how, though. I only marveled at how my white flowers remained dangling vulnerably on a twig while the mango branches, far heavier, lay all around the garden.
During Ondoy, I had begun to run more regularly. This was the year I realized that I could not die yet, so I made a better effort at keeping my problematic heart strong. This was the year, too, that we put Teodoro on medication after years of resisting the inevitable. He was due to see his doctor that afternoon, but I had become something of an expert on rain, as I am sure every Filipino is. I knew there was something strange, so I followed my instincts and cancelled the appointment. Teodoro was very angry that day because he was unable to go to the garden because of the rains. He threw a table at me. This I remember quite clearly: I thought he was merely verbalizing the storm’s own anger.
That same storm, a niece of mine was stranded in UP and had walked all the way to my house. In the evening, to pass the time, by candlelight, my mother unfurled her own mythologies. We sang too, resurrecting childhood music from The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady, among others. We prayed the Rosary every night that whole period, the children fumbling with the beads in the dark, Antonio falling asleep, lulled by candlelight; Teodoro kept calm by repetition; Marty tripping over new mysteries.
We are a tropical country, and I love the idea that the word “tropic” comes from an ancient word that means “to nourish.” It seems incongruous and apt at the same time—to be so nourished by this weather and so deluged and depleted at times. I feel like my being is so attuned to the weather, feeling kindred to the most elemental things in the world in the way I can predict rain, in the way I can sense an earthquake, in the way I can see humidity. That’s part of what it means to live in this country, I think. To have this complicated, full relationship with the weather. I make no large anthropological claims. I only know I know the weather.
These days, watching Habagat (she who has no name) unveil herself, Antonio, now 9, sits beside me, watching his country figure things out. He is old enough to keep this memory. He asks me, “Why are Filipinos so strange? Even when we’re about to die, we’re still smiling?” He had noticed that in certain photographs of people being rescued from floods, there was always someone smiling. And other images made him laugh too.
How to explain this Filipino spirit? How we are perpetually a novel-in-the-making? How our ability to find humor in all things is our bane and our boon? How nothing unites us more than tragedy? How we are the best versions of ourselves when we are put to the test.
I think of that first memory in my heart of Yoling: that one house with adults, children, and horses, a veritable Noah’s ark. It feels like every Filipino home is an ark, and we have all done something pleasing in God’s eyes.
(Photo of woman with umbrella by Gexon via Flickr Creative Commons; photo of raindrops by Angeli Laura De via Flickr Creative Commons.)