A memory nine years in the making

I miss his smell. I miss the seemingly-eternal scowl on his face, the lines beneath his eyes that tell of years. I miss the way he’d smile so subtly. I miss his gruff voice, the orders he used give: “make me coffee”, “take off my shoes”, “bring me my slippers”, and – perhaps this is the one I miss most, the one that really changed things – “read me poems”.


Mama says I was fed ice cream by my uncle (I called him Daddy) the day she brought me home from the hospital. She says I started walking at six months, and by my eighth I was already running around our small yard back at Sua. She says I was a babble mouth before I turned one, and had blown off more ears than she cared to count. Even as a child, it seems I talked too much.

At more or less two years old, I moved to this house and this family, and joined the people who took me and Mama in and helped raise me. I don’t remember much, but I remember learning about absorption and sponges and transistor radios, and that vegetables tasted horrible.

Ate says I was speaking English by the time I was three, and was always being taunted by Lolo into verbal wars. I remember Lolo‘s amusement. In fact, I feel it now, as I lay here typing this and reminiscing things from sixteen, seventeen years ago.

I learned English both from Lolo and from always sitting on Ate‘s bed and watching CNN as she prepared for work. (Looking back, I should have watched and learned how to put makeup on, too.) Lolo always made me sit with him and read out loud the poems from his high school days—verse upon verse of perfectly-recalled poetry stashed away in his mind that he shared with and taught me. At four, I could recite to him She Was A Phantom Of Delight, and Annabel Lee, along with the list of his medicines and the entire Chicago Bulls team.

He made me read the poems from his books, and when the words got too hard, he’d recite the next lines, until I could resume reading again. He taught me all that I knew about pronunciation and tone, taught me “twen-ty” and argued with me when I asked why I shouldn’t say “tweyn-ty” instead, the way everyone else said it. He taught me to count and write, and laughed when I showed him my letter E: a single vertical line and as many horizontal lines as I could fit along its length. He taught me basketball, and told me why he wanted the Spurs to win against the Lakers (“because the Lakers are already winning too much”). He shared his bacon with me, and made me taste bagoong by hiding it in my rice. At five and in kindergarten, I was failing at Math and making friends, because they complained about how I “spoke English too much”.

Lolo, for all his math wizardry (he was the Dean of the UNC College of Engineering and was the board topnotcher during his Civil Engineering exams, with a perfect score in Hydraulics, at a time when calculators were still just a dream), never bothered teaching me maths. He’d sleep on my Geometry problems, ignore my low Math scores, tell me “kaya mo na ‘yan,big girl ka na”. But he’d question me on English, and how well my grammar is, and would correct me every time I made a mistake, no matter how small—a habit I had obviously inherited. At eight, my English grades were near perfect and my Math grades were terrible, but at least I could write him things, and he’d nod his approval, and I’d feel more accomplishment than my grades could ever make me feel.

He always told me stories of his school days. He went to school with just one set of the school uniform, and how his shoe soles peeled from the uppers. He’d walk from house to school, a good five to six kilometres, every day. He was a brilliant student, but he was even more brilliant as a chess player. He says he didn’t – never – did it for his family, poor as they were. I never found out what he did it all for.

At ten, he died, and all my grades fell.

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