The half-remembered past
WHY AND WHY NOT - Nelson A. navarro (The Philippine Star) - October 7, 2012 - 12:00am

On a recent trip to my hometown in Bukidnon, I felt like a total stranger rummaging through a strange place that I must have seen before in my dreams or in another life I had long forgotten. I guess these queasy thoughts may have something to do with how long I’ve been away and how few and far in between my visits had been. Guilt and memory had pushed me back to the half-remembered past.

I had been unfaithful to this beloved town of my childhood years. I left after high school and never really returned. My longest absence took 17 years when I was in exile in the United States during martial law. I moved on and everybody I once knew moved on, too. The distance between us could only get wider and more unbridgeable through the years.

As we drove into town, I could hardly tell that this was where I grew up. The familiar buildings and houses of old were gone. No more lush flower gardens upfront came into view nor small mom-and-pop shops from which owners and customers waved at you because you knew each other well. Instead, ubiquitous fastfood outlets, banks and chain stores glared at you in cookie-cutter fashion just like everywhere else in today’s crazy-quilt Philippines.

Everything seemed to have shrank—the streets, the town square, the church, the town itself. Although Malaybalay is officially now a city, it appears a bit awkward as an overgrown town pretending to be a metropolis, straining for urban sophistication and glitz at the expense of its once-disarming character as a proud citadel of provincial pride and glory.

I don’t mean to knock down progress. Obviously there’s more money, more business and moré people out there. But the incorrigible romantic soul in me cannot but mourn the passing of a kinder and gentler age.

When we were young, Malaybalay was also young. It was only a few decades old when the conquering Americans turned it from a remote barrio no different from all the rest into a provincial capital and a college town. The original elite was made up of ethnic tribesmen brought “under the bells” by the missionary Jesuits and Baptists. Next came the teachers, the government bureaucrats and the professionals of middle-class origins who lifted cultural standards, thankfully not towards old Luzon or Visayan feudal decadence but in the pluralistic direction of Main Street America.

There were no big landed estates and no huge cattle empires. We kids all went to public schools and were confident we were at par with the best or near the best of what the country could boast of. The bright boys and girls aspired for admission to the University of the Philippines, far away in Manila. UP was the school of ultimate destination, from which a national career or a new life in the capital or farther out in America could ensue.

 If there was any snobbery, it had something to do with where you went to college and how you fared there, not how much property your parents owned or what clothes you wore. Social climbing was unknown because we were comfortable in our provincial middle-class skin.

Perhaps we were living in a bubble of Philippine life that was destined to unravel as the nation entered the turbulent 1970s and the martial law years.

In the peaceful and prosperous 1950s, Malaybalay was an oasis of low-key gentility and optimism about the future. It wasn’t a rich town but it was God’s country, blest with cool mountain air and spectacular scenery reminiscent of Colorado and Montana. We may have been backward in some material sense, but we felt a bit cocky about high education standards and quiet exposure to the finer things in life. We avidly followed the politics of the land, perused the Manila dailies and turned to the Free Press as the bible of public discourse on the Filipino destiny.

I was in the grades when President Ramon Magsaysay died in a plane crash. I remember that dark day. People were crying in the streets and it seemed that the sun had gone out of our lives. When the national candidates came around election time, we all trooped to the plaza to listen to their speeches. Dad idolized the nationalist icon Senator Claro M. Recto and when the great man dropped by our house just to say hello it was like we were the luckiest family on earth. 

In my neighborhood, there were no rich and no poor kids, just rambunctious playmates forever climbing fruit trees and running off for a swim in the pristine Sawaga River. Many took piano or violin lessons, sharing music teachers who came on weekends and tutored us one after the other army style. We would stage recitals and Christmas plays in our territory over and above those we had in school.

We all walked to and from school twice a day because lunch was always at home. Only one or two families owned transportation, an army jeep and never a car. There were six tartanillas or horse-drawn carriages in operation to provide rapid transit to those who got tired of walking.

Social life was dictated by the Lions Club to which our fathers belonged and the Puericulture Center into which our mothers poured their charitable intentions. What passed for competition among the leading families came to a high point at the end of each academic year in March. Those who had honor students walked tall; the most passionate feuds arose over who really deserved to be valedictorian.

There was only one movie house of Nipa shingles, Talisayan wood, and dirt-floor construction. Television was light years away and our education beyond the school room lay with the commercial genius of Hollywood. Movies gave us a view of the world and a taste of history through such potboilers as “The Last Time I saw Paris,” “Sink the Bismarck,”and “The Ten Commandments.”

Tagalog was hardly spoken in our Visayan-Cebuano world; we belonged strictly to the English language zone, with the local dialect never spoken in school lest we got chastised and fined.

Where I got much of my education was in the small but impressive library of our Irish Jesuit parish priest. His New York family and friends dutifully sent a steady stream of books and magazines to our education-hungry corner of the world. I feasted on biographies of Napoleon, Queen Victoria, Julius Caesar, and Churchill. I devoured National Geographic and Saturday Evening Post. A dentist who loved to sing kundiman, Dad had a good library of nationalist books and his collection of Readers’ Diges was second to none. Mom was a crossword puzzle fanatic. I took after both parents and the three of us fought fiercely over who got first crack of the day’s paper or the week’s magazine.

I am forever in debt to my high school teachers. One loved Shakespeare and the Lake Poets and infected all of us students with her passion for words. We memorized long lines of Keats, Shelly and Byron. I was Brutus in a play she wanted to stage but we ran out of time. Another mentored me in journalism and made me believe I would be a good writer someday. The music teacher gave me the part of the little brother in the operetta Hansel and Gretel; she also introduced us to Italian choral music.

Of the day I finally left town at age 16, I can only say that I had the first and most unnerving attack of self-doubt in my life. My parents had taught me to look forward, to be unsentimental about the future, to think of going away to college as the first real test of maturity. A make-or-break moment.

There they were, my family, seeing me off in the grassy landing strip in the days when Philippine Airlines flew DC-3s into town three times a week. Those planes represented the comings and goings of culture and civilization. Here the presidents, senators, and beauty queens came down like gods and goddesses from the skies. This was from where I was to make my Great Leap Forward to a better life in a world much bigger than Malaybalay.

Dad and Mom bravely whispered goodbye when the PAL manager announced that it was boarding time. Mom embraced me tightly and said in a soft voice: “We know you will never come back, but you go with our blessings.”

There was no tone of reproach, just a gentle and loving way of wishing me well. But something snapped in my mind. I was breaking down and tears welled in my eyes. I felt so ungrateful about abandoning my family and my town, perhaps never to return. 

Suddenly I wanted to chicken out and not board the plane. But I heard another voice saying I must not look back and go straight up to the plane. If I took a second look of Mom, I knew I would break down like a baby and blow all my chances of breaking free of the past. The thought that I could end up running a gas station or operating a rice mill jolted me back to reality.

So I hurriedly went up the plane. I took my seat and looked toward the chirpy stewardess demonstrating use of the life vest, telling myself not to look out of the window.

As soon as the plane got off the ground, I felt I was leaving behind the innocence and joy of childhood. Ahead lay another world pregnant with more challenges that I was supposed to conquer on my way to creating a better life of my choosing.#

* * *

Nelson A. Navarro resumes his original column in the Philippine Star after a hiatus of 11 years. The author of 10 biographies, he is the editor of the latest top national bookseller, Juan Ponce Enrile: A Memoir (ABS-C BN Publishing, 2012). Born in Manila, he was raised in Malaybalay, Bukidnon.

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with