Sunday Lifestyle

Big fish

Mitzie Celeste M. Luna - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” At 10, Frank falls ill with typhoid. He has to stay in the hospital and gets his hands on some books. Reading Shakespeare transports him to a new world, different from what he knows. Away from the flea-stricken mattress, away from Malachy’s foul, alcohol breath, away from the floods inside the house during winter, away from it all.  “It’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words,” he utters.

My grandmother bought me a pad of white paper that I filled with poetry. She thought it was nonsense that I’d waste so  many pages writing down short sentences, each having its own line. The last page was filled with scribbles of my signature, deciding which one I should use to trademark my work. Poetry transported me to another world. Away from grandma’s illness, away from the questions of my mother not being there, away from missing grandpa who had to work far away to send us to school, away from it all. That pad of paper was my pride and joy. It gave me the confidence that I can create something, that I can be something.

Angela’s Ashes is Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer-winning memoir of his childhood in Brooklyn, Ireland and Limerick. He was the first child of seven. His mother, Angela, was pregnant with Frank when he married Malachy. Malachy, his father, spends his meager wages on alcohol, often leaving the family deprived of food, clothes and a decent life. Angela’s Ashes is honest, heart-breaking, yet charming. And while many of us often talk about our childhood with fond memories of hide-and-seek, Barbie dolls and toy soldiers, Frank speaks about his struggles. The family lived in a decrepit house that flooded during the winter. Wondering where the next meal would come from was a daily ordeal.  His little sister, Margaret, dies in her sleep. His younger brother, Oliver, dies within a year after moving to Ireland. His twin, Eugene, dies six months after from pneumonia. The kids did not have shoes or sweaters for school in the cold of Ireland.

The McCourts named the second floor of the house “Italy.” They would live in Italy when the first floor became damp and chilly from the winter. Frank survives through humor and acceptance.

We had our own version of Italy, too. At least three times in a year, our house would be flooded because of the poor drainage system in the province. The fridge, the gas stove and everything was on the second floor inside the two bedrooms. While everyone else was annoyed about the situation, I was having fun. It was like living in Little Tykes or like camping. Everything you needed was within arm’s reach.

When the water level was low enough, grandma would buy fish and release a couple of them inside the house. My brother and I would then have a mini fish-catching tournament inside the house for a highly coveted P5 coin.

I read McCourts book when I was about 23. Young enough to do my own fresh recollection of my childhood but old enough to understand what this book was telling me. “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”

Mom left to never come back again when I was two. I was perfectly fine with that, I suppose, because grandma took care of us. She passed away when I was 12.  I remember that night when my little charmed life was summarized into boxes, my doll house disassembled so everything could fit inside the jeepney. It was a long, dark drive to our relatives’ home. Our new home. There was no more grandma, no more packed lunches and church every Sunday, just life with strangers.

My brother and I slept in the living room and were not allowed to watch television for more than an hour. We never belonged so I wrote down all my hate. People thought I was weird but I thought everyone else was weirder.

Frank was telling me that the goo, the meat, and the richness of life lie in what you are able to overcome. That the beauty in life is the gap between your questions and the answers. God wanted me to tell a story. Just like how He wanted Frank to tell his story. This book helped me translate my anger and hate into something more profound and meaningful.  

Malachy, his father, found a job in England but never supported his struggling family. Frank became the man of the house at 13, working odd jobs like writing threatening collection letters for a moneylender, delivering coal and newspapers to make ends meet. One day, the moneylender asked Frank to get him a glass of sherry. Frank found her lifeless when he returned. He took her purse and threw the paper with the list of debtors into the river.

Often the most underprivileged make the boldest decisions in life. No opportunity is wasted as you do not know when the next one will come your way. Always in a hurry, time is your enemy. I studied hard, worked hard. Never accepted my own excuses nor do I have tolerance for the excuses of others. I was determined to turn around my fortune, determined to make my grandparents proud. “The happy childhood is hardly worth your while,” Frank wrote. However, I was determined to get mine back no matter how old I was. To again have a home I could call my own where I could arrange the bed, the couch, and everything to my heart’s desire. To choose the colors of the curtains and sheets. To watch television all day. To use or not use coasters. Freedom was my idea of getting my childhood back.

Frank returns to America with the little money he has managed to put together. Back in New York he starts anew, hopeful and determined.

His work wins the Pulitzer.

A child, a poor child can dream.  I am imagining a seven-year-old boy or girl now out in the streets at night selling garlands. A child at this moment hiding under his bed while his parents are arguing. A hungry child, a child weeping for his sick mother. They will become president or doctor or philanthropists and tell us their stories someday.

And although my struggles were not as hard as Frank’s — but maybe just as painful to an extent — I can say that I am the person I am today because of my childhood, because of my grandparents, because of cruel and kind people I have met along the way, because of not having too much.

“I am for who I was in the beginning but now is present and I exist in the future,” said Frank.

Everything makes perfect sense now.


Mitzie Celeste M. Luna says, “My father owned a two-door Mitsubishi Celeste when I was born, hence the name. Up to this day, I am grateful that we did not have a Toyota.  I grew up in Lubao, Pampanga and was raised by my grandparents.” She went to UST to study physical therapy but now works in the BPO industry. “With the combination of hard work and a little luck, I did well and I’m now working as service delivery lead for Accenture Philippines.”












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