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“Time is the longest distance between two places.”
― Tennessee Williams
When my father was still alive, he would often call me to visit him at our old family home. He was a 75-year-old widower, a feisty veteran of open-heart surgery, and full of stories of his younger days as a driver of a horse-drawn calesa in World War II.
He loved travelling around town and would come up with the merest excuse to get into my car. It could be about needing to buy something from the hardware store or to check out a local delicacy. I knew he just wanted to go around. I did not mind because I actually enjoyed driving with him.
He was barely into his teens when the war came. His father owned several calesas which served as local taxis in those days, but business was not exactly booming. The drivers complained of harassment by the Japanese military police and were too scared to drive their routes. My father, however, was spared the aggravation. The Kempeitai regarded the sight of a young boy driving a horse-drawn carriage with amusement and would just wave him off with a chuckle. One could say he single-handedly saved my grandfather’s transport enterprise.
He relished revisiting the old haunts of his youth and would often tell me to take the old municipal roads that served as thoroughfares before modern highways turned them to obscure detours. He would point to familiar stops along the narrow streets, to the charming old stone houses with capiz-shell windows half-hidden by mossy adobe walls and bougainvillea branches. Or we would drive on to the outskirts, to the open rice fields and fishponds where spindly white herons probed the mud for prey with their long beaks.
But I sensed something more was afoot in the call I received one August morning. “Eddie, are you free tomorrow? I’d like you to drive me and Tata Trining to Manaoag.” His voiced was tinged with boyish excitement.
The town of Manaoag (pronounced /mɑ-ˈnɑ-wɑg/) is about 90 miles from our place as the crow flies, a much farther destination than the surrounding towns we used to roam.
“Yes, Ama, I’m free. But it’s a long way from here.”
“I know. I’ll pay for the gas. Tata Gimo will be joining us, too.”
That would make it four of us in my small second-hand sedan. I just hoped no one else was joining.
I arrived at our family home early the next day. It was built when my siblings and I were already in our twenties and working. Before that we lived in a crowded annex of my rich aunt’s house in Manila where we stayed until we finished college. My aunt, a successful meat dealer, had a walk-in freezer installed downstairs, and the low hum of its large motor would lull us to sleep at night. In those days, my father was an itinerant landscaper while my mother was a seamstress. We survived on their decent earnings and the kindness of well-off relatives. My parents’ foremost goal was to see us finish our educations. A house of our own was not a priority.
We finally got to build our own home a year before I got married. While it was relatively new, it had an old house’s vibe to it. It had a wide balcony that welcomed the morning sun. Inside, six small rooms enclosed the living and the dining areas. The hardwood floor was polished to a reddish-brown sheen. My father supervised the construction, which was paid for in large part by my sister who was then working as a nurse abroad. I pitched in with some cash of my own, enough to build a semi-concrete fence around the property that was bordered by a wide irrigation creek at the back. The whole place used to be a mango grove, though forest would be a better word to describe it. Decades-old trees stood in uneven distances from each other on the ground covered with dried leaves and thick carabao grass.
The workers managed to clear a swathe for our house and spared three big mango trees that looked like they were a century old. My father, ever the landscaper, built a wide grotto near the entrance. A corner near the creek shaded by the lone santol tree was reserved for my mother to raise geese and turkeys on. It was the perfect place for my parents to retire, but it came too late for us, their children, who had begun to disperse and build homes of our own.
That morning, I drove through the steel and wire gate and saw my father sitting on the terrace with his two cousins. Their eyes followed me as I came to a full stop under the tree nearest the balcony. I could sense my father talking about me, perhaps boasting of what meagre accomplishments I had chalked up in my rather uneventful life.
When I went up to the terrace, I picked up the right hands of my uncles and pressed them to my forehead in the traditional greeting of respect for elders. They looked admiringly at me for a second, probably amazed at how big I had grown since they last saw me, and then promptly resumed their conversation.
Tata Trining was a couple of years older than my father but looked much stronger. He smoked a lot though one would not know it from his big shoulders and muscled forearms. He was a man of the soil who built his fortune buying tracts of land with his savings and planting them with fruit trees.
“He is the only person I know who single-handedly planted a vast orchard of mango trees and lived to harvest its fruits,” my father said to me once.
He told me of how communist rebels once approached Tata Trining in his farm in the low hills of Zambales, demanding that he pay revolutionary taxes. My uncle did not tell off the rebels outright. Instead, he spread his thick calloused palms before them.
“See this my friends? This is the result of hard and honest labor.”
Then he pointed to the neat rows of mango trees on the hillside.
“I bought and tilled this land and raised those trees on my own. I did not take advantage of anybody. I earned everything by the sweat of my brow.”
The rebels must have admired his candor because they left and never bothered him again.
Tata Gimo, in contrast, had a subdued disposition. He, too, was full of stories but of the introspective kind. He was younger than father and Tata Trining and spoke of more recent times. He tried his luck in Saudi Arabia once but returned soon after, unable to adapt to the lonely life of an overseas contract worker.
One time, he told me of the night he was in a boating accident in Lingayen Gulf and was given up for dead by his companions. He described how he survived the chilly waters by clinging tightly to a buoy, saying all the prayers he could remember from his catechism days, promising God everything if only he would be spared from the incessant waves. Thankfully, he was rescued in the morning just as he was about to lose his grip and his mind from the ordeal.
After a cup of coffee, we proceeded to my car. As I was about to take my place behind the wheel, I saw my seven-year-old son, Glenn, slowly approach, looking at us inquisitively.
“You want to join us?” I asked him.
He nodded his small head slowly.
“It’ll be a long trip. Are you sure you want to come with us?”
He nodded again, this time vigorously.
Glenn was the youngest of my three boys. At that time, he was staying in the old house with my sister, Marita, who was very fond of him. He was the one who always wanted to tag along with me. I remember the time I was leaving to visit my sister in New Jersey. Not wanting Glenn to see me go, I sneaked out of the living room where he was playing with his friends and took the back door out to the street where a car was waiting. But just as I was sliding into the passenger seat, I saw Glenn standing outside looking at me with plaintive eyes. The sight of him broke my heart and I sniffled all the way to the airport.
This time, I did not have the heart to leave him, so I called out to my sister. She laughed when she saw what was happening and took my son inside to prepare him for the trip. A few minutes later, we were on our way: three generations of my family and my father’s two best friends. Glenn rode at the back with his granduncles while my father sat beside me.
If my father had his way, we would have taken the MacArthur Highway, named after the American general who liberated the country from the Japanese in 1945. That road would have taken us through historic towns, stately provincial capitals, and flea markets that spilled over busy streets. But a nostalgia trip was not in my plans, and I would not have those distractions on a long drive. So I drove to where the nearest tollway entrance was, went down the ramp and merged with the breezy expressway traffic.
The town of Manaoag in the province of Pangasinan is the site of a minor basilica where a 17th-century ivory statue of the Nuestra Señora del Santisimo Rosario de Manaoag (“Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of Manaoag”) is enshrined. Stories of miracles attributed to her are widespread and pilgrims from all over the country travel to the town to make supplications in their times of dire need. My father was going there for a different reason.
A long time ago, he spent a couple of eventful years in that same place landscaping residences and public spaces. Job offers came so frequently that he could only go home to us on weekends. He found a room for rent in a house owned by an elderly lady who took him in like her own son. My father had often wondered if she were still alive. By that time, she would be in her nineties. He thought how wonderful it would be to see her again and to reminisce about the time he spent there.
Tata Trining had a reason of his own and it concerned Pedring, an old friend who left their town long ago to try his luck in Dagupan, a city in the same province. Pedring initially bought and sold the popular milkfish bred in that area. Later he managed to save enough to go into the more profitable business of farming the fish himself. He became a rich man and raised his family there. Even so, he maintained close ties with his folks back home and many of his friends benefitted from his benevolence. The latest word about him was that he was very ill and confined at a local private hospital. Tata Trining wanted to see him before he expired.
Tata Gimo knew Pedring, though not to the same degree as my father and Tata Trining did. But he knew Pangasinan better than they. He had migrated there himself with his family and had decided only recently to return to his hometown in Bulacan.
As for me, I had no particular reason except to please my father and his friends and perhaps to feel the vicarious joy of seeing old acquaintances. My son, Glenn, simply wanted to be with me, an adorable trait that children so briefly possess before they curl up in their own cocoons or seek the company of their peers.
Our travel was mostly smooth. At that time, the expressway took up just a third of the journey, and eventually we had to merge with the old highway and take that route the rest of the way. The road though was well-paved and we did not encounter heavy traffic except when passing through town centers where large provincial buses had their terminals and local minibuses called jeepneys picked up passengers going to the interior.
I had expected the most well-off person in our group to treat us to a hearty meal in one of restaurants along the road. But Tata Trining was a notorious cheapskate and all we got was some sticky rice cakes and bottled water he bought from a vendor. He smoked a lot, too, and we had to drive with open windows for most of the time so we could breathe better.
Glenn was silent the whole time, observing the changing scenery outside with calm interest. But as we neared Manaoag, he asked if we could pull over. He looked pale. I stopped the car and went around to him. Seconds later he threw up on the roadside. I felt sorry for him and regretted letting him join us. Thankfully, his face quickly gained color and he was up and about soon after.
We reached the fabled town past midday and stopped at the municipal government building. As we got out, my father proudly proclaimed that he landscaped the premises long ago. In fact, he said, some of the original features were still there, pointing to a green area around the flagpole.
Glenn and I crossed the street to the grounds of the famous church while our companions bantered. There was just enough time to stroll around the wide patio and marvel at the imposing façade of the basilica minore. We wanted to stay longer but we still had to visit my father’s former landlady.
We all got back in the car and drove down a narrow street not far from where we first stopped. My father was on an emotional high since we entered the town and was giving a running commentary the whole time. A couple of minutes later we pulled over in front of a small tin-roofed house with unplastered walls of concrete hollow blocks. We got off, walked through an open gate, and went straight to the back where there was a covered space with a big wooden table and plastic chairs. My father greeted everybody in sight, shaking their hands and asking for his old friend. A minute later, the slightly bent figure of an old woman came out of the house. She was sprightly for her age and embraced my father upon seeing him. My father introduced us to her. I have never seen him stand so proud in his life. He was in his element in that place—loud, boastful, and funny.
We partook of a simple meal prepared by the members of the former landlady’s family. She was very warm toward us and her own children seemed to share in the joy of the reunion. Some of her grandchildren were only as old as I was, equally uninformed of the history of her friendship with my father but just as enthralled by their recollections.
Soon it was time to bid our hosts goodbye. The old lady clung to my father like he was a long-lost son until we all had to go back to the car. We waved goodbye to her and her family knowing we would probably never see her again. My father kept on with his running commentary, though somewhat slower this time, as we drove to Dagupan.
We reached our destination without incident in about 20 minutes. The hospital was a white two-story building with a glass entrance. The place was clean and not a lot of people were inside. We inquired at the reception area and were directed to a room on the second floor. We climbed the stairs and knocked gently at a private suite across the landing.
Inside, we saw Pedring lying on a bed with an intravenous needle stuck in his arm and an oxygen canula under his nose. He was expressionless at first, but his eyes lit up and his lips formed a slight grin when he saw his friends file in. Tata Trining ambled to his side, touched his arm gently and leaned into his ear. I did not hear what he said, but whatever it was it drew a wide smile from Pedring. It must have been funny because his wife who was wedged between them seemed to giggle. Glenn and I sat in one corner of the big room while our three companions surrounded the sick man in his bed.
We listened to their stories of the old times, of the barrio of yesteryears where they serenaded girls under moonlight, of childhood pranks and grown-up escapades. Tata Trining drew laughs with his typical dry humor while father was his old boisterous self. Tata Gimo, still the introverted one, just smiled and chuckled along with the rest.
Then it was time for the inevitable goodbye. The three friends each whispered some comforting words to their ailing comrade, adding a few teasing remarks tempered by gentle taps on his shoulder. The wife was teary. Everyone knew it was the boys’ last leave-taking of Pedring, but no one dared mention it. There was silence when we got back in the car. Everyone was in deep thought, overcome by a chilling sense of mortality. But the musings did not last long. An attempt at levity by Tata Trining was followed by a wry remark from my father and soon the group was the same lively bunch again.
It was Pedring’s wish that we drop by his place on our way home, so we stopped by an elegant old house with intricately wrought iron gates just off the town proper. His son came out to meet us lugging a large Styrofoam cooler. We opened it and much to our delight, it was full of the famous Dagupan milkfish packed in ice. We put it in the trunk and thanked the young man. We drove off silently, mulling over Pedring’s final gesture of friendship.
The ride home to Bulacan was mainly unremarkable and we reached home in the early evening. There was not much exchange of words after we got off the car. Tata Trining and Tata Gimo looked tired as they walked to their own vehicle parked at the corner of our yard. They waved weakly as they passed us on their way out of the gate. My father and I waved back and then slowly walked to our house. Glenn was already inside, tired but with still enough energy to answer my sister’s playful questions. I kissed him goodbye and took my leave.
That was one of the last few trips I took with my father. I went abroad a few years after, hoping to find the proverbial greener pasture in another land. My interactions with him were reduced to brief overseas phone calls. I came home a couple of times, but he was too weak to travel by then. One afternoon, we sat together at his bedside, and mused over that long trip to Manaoag we took with his friends. Tata Trining had died the year before so we knew it would never happen again.
We ran out of stories after a while, and just sat there facing the large mirror he put up on the wall many summers ago.
“Time flies,” I said, just to break the silence.
“It does. It really does,” he said softly almost ruefully.
I pressed his hand and said goodbye. My father did not say anything, but the mirror betrayed the weak smile on his face as I stood up and left the room.
It was already dusk, and the subtle scent of mango flowers was in the air. I steered the car slowly out of the gate and drove down the narrow road out of the village. Reaching a low rise, I pulled over just where I could see the throngs of vehicles emerging from the expressway. I gazed at the silent stream of headlights for a few moments, then went down and joined them on their way home to the suburbs.