My father was filled with such strange ideas. Once, when I was nine years old, our red beat up Toyota passed through a small street and was pelted with small stones, thrown by mischievous little boys simply trying to find some entertainment. My father parked the car, got out and spoke to the children.
In my mind, he would simply say that “it’s bad to throw stones at a car,” but my dad was never simple. He began with a hypothetical: “What if the person in the car was a dangerous man? Or what if the person in the car was a powerful man?” He continued, “You are lucky I am just an ordinary man and can understand your boredom or desire for adventure. You will not always be so lucky.” He made sure all those little boys knew what he meant, and at the time, I, as audience, still could not.
During the Marcos years, I was not allowed to have or attend parties. We lived simple lives under my father’s reign—ostentatious behavior disallowed in honor of the country’s suffering. At 15, it was enough to make my blood boil. What did my country have to do with my social life?
At my high school graduation, my father gave me money! What a treat! I instantly went to Rustan’s and bought presents for my closest friends. I showed the gifts to my parents later and noticed that neither my mother nor my father was smiling. After dinner, I was called back into their room. That was always a bad sign in our family.
This time I was scolded for spending my money on others. I couldn’t get the logic of it, believe you me. I thought to have spent for myself was the sin and to spend for others a sign of generosity. And once again, as with the rabbit foot's incident when I was six, I did not understand.
Mary was my best friend in kindergarten. Thirty-five years later, my memories with Mary remain untarnished. I can still remember the little things we shared. On Christmas break of that kindergarten year, Mary went to Baguio. When classes started and we exchanged stories of how our Christmas break went, Mary gave me a rabbit’s foot from her trip. Oh, nothing could be any more beautiful than this rabbit’s foot, I thought and still think to this day. Its gray and white softness; its perfection as it lay in the palm of my hand. I went home and showed it to my father. And guess what he said? Return the rabbit’s foot. I had no business accepting gifts, he said.
This must have been my first heartbreak, especially since I could not understand the logic of my father. It was not good to receive presents, he said. Well, apparently, he would teach me later, that it was not good to spend for others, either. I argued to keep the rabbit’s foot, which must have incensed him even more.
In school, Mary refused to take it back. From her perspective, it could only belong to me. Conflicted between my love for Mary and my fear of disobedience, I purposely lost the rabbit’s foot, lay it on a brick that formed part of a circular table that embraced a large kalachuchi. Until today, in my mind’s eye, I remember my deliberation.
At family parties (these were never banned) at home, instructions on how to behave continued. I was reared to be humble yet engaging; a good listener, but a prepared storyteller; to serve others first before serving myself. My father intoned such structures: “duty before pleasure!” or “wisdom before knowledge!”—his voice booming, always certain that we knew exactly what he meant. When he asked a question, you could not say “I do not know,” for it was imperative that you always know. And so I became very good at knowing the encyclopedia well, watching human behavior well, taking note of tiny things; always ready for that impossible question he was sure to ask me.
And so when our tire suddenly detached itself while on a family trip, he demanded to know who the imbecile who changed the tire was. And I knew that it was Mang Art. And even before the ensaimada or the egg crackers were finished, I had already added the items on the grocery list. Oh, I had to know everything! Expiration dates, prices of grocery items (in case he suddenly wanted to know the price of vinegar), opening and closing times of malls or theaters, where the latest copies of Time and Newsweek magazines were, how to make a long-distance call, etc. ad infinitum. I kept the comics page for every day my father was abroad, for I would be scolded if I were to miss one. He taught me how to summarize the newspaper too. At home, he would lay his head on the pillow and ask me to give the three most salient points of the front page. In the beginning, it rattled me, and at some point, it challenged me.
For many years, I have kept these stories because they have troubled me so. I have tried to find what they mean, and I’ve realized that some part of raising children is mysterious. A parent always thinks of what could be best for a child, this I am finally certain of. But the child’s acceptance of that truth sometimes comes late or never at all. It's easy to think that a parent is just mean or unfair.
But these days, I see my father in the way I raise my children, such as in my constant admonition that they work hard not for me, but for themselves. The way I ensure that they never feel entitled to anything, but rather grateful for everything. The way I dispense praise and censure—I am not quick to praise nor quick to censure, fine-tuning their knowledge of why they do what they do and not for whom do they do it. It must be frustrating for my children too.
What this is is the building of character—to ensure an erect spine. Much like a sculptor, my father used specific tools to make sure I could stand straight and erect, that I would have a core so strong, I would never be truly lost. And there are days when I can still feel my father’s lessons finally making sense—after all these years. The rabbit foot’s lesson I think was a lesson in self-sacrifice, honing my ability to find value in my friendship with Mary with no need of external things. What did I need the rabbit’s foot for? The answer to that seems to be the underlying lesson he wished to teach me.
(Photo by macinate via Flickr Creative Commons; photo courtesy of Rica Bolipata Santos)
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