by Jasper Caesar Espinosa Jampac
I always hated you, and somehow secretly sought you out – you, with the sunny personality yet scorching temper: beckoning us to come out and play with you but searing us at midday.
One early morn, mommy dearest brought me to a tabo-an (Sunday street market) in the mercado (public market) when I was about four years old. The maddening crowd amazed me, my eyes lit up, and my frail hand slipped away from dear mother. But I held hands again, only to find a stranger holding me. I quickly took my hand away and walked off. I didn’t find mother, but I miraculously found my way home.
I hid under our staircase, scared to get a kusnot (pinch) from mom when she would get home. Instead of a pinch, my family was just so relieved to find me; surprised at how I managed to come home all by myself.
Mommy sat on the piano chair and played her favorite piece, lulling me as I watched, a little scared.
I always look forward to your coming, April – summertime, sea, sand, siesta, school-off, yet you make me cry.
In my boyhood days in Butuan of the Eighties, your coming meant the commanding sullenness of the Catholic world of Christ Jesus’ death, which translates into the No TV, No Meat policy, extended to a week of sacrifices that happily ends with the dawn procession called Sugat (the Meeting). Everyone congregates at the Provincial Capitol compound wearing their Sunday’s Best (translation: most decent attire for a Church Mass or something probably picked out from Grand Collection, Klothes Korps, Annie’s or Jerry Shoppers’ World, whichever suited your budget and taste), on Easter dawn to take part in ceremonies that feature some of my schoolmates hanging like silly seraphim, they who did little angelic acts at school anyways.
No one would mind the week-long puasa (fasting) for Girlie’s burgers across Rizal Park were the prize for the sacrifice. And more. For Easter Sunday is a big fiesta.
Later that day, and almost by no coincidence, I see half of Butuan at its coastline, garbed in their ubiquitous bathing attire of oversized shirts over puruntong shorts (dungarees): enjoying the grey, powdery sands of Tinago beach, munching on puso (rice cooked inside diamond-braided coconut leaves), kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) and lechon (roast pig).
Easter is the only time I see familiar faces from school as after, I am back around my neighborhood playing street games like kariling (rolling bike tires), tagu-tago (hide-and-seek), and bahug-bahug (base takeover a.k.a. agawan base). If school rivalry had its beginnings, for me, I learned it all from these games. It was a test of character to be taunted or hailed, but in the end, friendships prevailed.
Growing up, summer meant a rite of passage: of many boys crying in overhyped pain, and of some girls changing and becoming slightly stranger; of leaving boyhood through tuli (circumcision) and of metamorphosing girlhood through ear-piercing. This gave me a gender bias that earrings were made for girls, more so when years later, my passionate Religion teacher declared with conviction that boys who have their ears pierced are ‘kampon ni Satanas’ (the Devil’s advocates). To this day, April, I wonder who else believes in that crap as I honestly do. But Miss Romano will be so proud of me. Don’t you think so?
Your temperature’s soaring, April, and there was no way that we could play with you all day. After enjoying the antics of Gleek and the Wonder Twins from Justice League, it was time for siesta. My summer siestas were spent poring over books of my mother, and of being enchanted by the world of imagination beyond my gaze, and of curiously wondering what’s out there.
Outside my shell was a world to discover. April left and I met May.
There is no mistaking that pomp and pageantry start with your arrival – you, with your feminine gait, your luxurious tresses and your beautiful blossoms – that made me take a second look at you. You are the enviable kiss in one’s midsummer night, or a longing for some place I have never travelled to.
The moment I learned to cycle, I pedaled as fast as I could, around and beyond the city, enjoying every journey I made and all the scenery captured in my head. That long, breezy, quiet drive from the City Hall to the Provincial Capitol was, by far, my most favorite ride. With rice fields on one side and cogon grasses on the other, this tree-lined pavement was unimpeded by structures, save for a few government buildings. The curve where the old rickety wooden City Hall stood, provided makahiyak (tummy-heaving) moments in one’s speedy turn. The Iglesia Ni Cristo temple offered me a Disney-esque feel as I pass by it while the grand majestic Provincial Capitol of American architecture, at the end of that road, lures with its magnetic appeal.
All roads lead to the Capitol, where Butuanons either converge, jog, hang around or find love. No one pesters promenaders around the Capitol, not even the guards from one security agency with an ironic promise: “gamay’ng kasikas, mata dayon” (a little stir and we’re awake). This is the same road where agony and beauty walk; where the once silly seraphim have now all turned into captivating Maria Elenas and Santa Cruzan beauties parading with their handsome consorts for the Flores de Mayo procession.
As unhurried life plods onward, Butuan’s simple joys include a walk of distinction – to be chosen as one of Butuan’s Santa Cruzan and Flores de Mayo beauties and consorts during the Balanghai Festival. You either get elected or invited to its roster of muses and escorts – a particular proud moment, and a step higher than being crowned as, say, Queen Anna I of Barangay Dumalagan after the final canvassing of monetary votes during its fiesta, with one’s new royal moniker emblazoned on the wall using silver-dusted styrofoam letter cut-outs tacked on either dead maroon or red satin drapes.
By the time a barangay coronation of a Queen One is completed, the lights dim, and the bayle (communal dance) ensues within a perimeter of the kasagingan (banana plots), bordered by fuchsia crepe paper cross lines. The boys ask the girls for their hand – 25 cents for hot music and 50 cents for a sweet dance.
Oh no, May, it is an excuse for merriment, socials, gossip, love and perhaps fame.
At 15, I unsuspectingly agreed to a barangay evening affair, only to find out that I was to escort the new Queen One. As I stood on stage all night with pellet-sized sweat pouring down my back, I only had one fervent prayer: Dear God, if you be so kind, please don’t let any of my classmates come near this open-air event or I’d be scarred for life. Otherwise, please let the earth open up and swallow me instead. The following year, my fortunes improved as I became a Flores de Mayo consort. Years later, I hosted the Mutya Hong Butuan pageant and co-directed it twice over.
With wide-eyed awe, I stare at the stars that all glitter in your nights, May, that somehow give my otherwise sleepy hometown a reason to return to. You deserve a mañanita (dawn birthday serenade) each day, if only for your blossoming beauty and brains. To me, in my day, you are Maria Dalsa Montalban, the last Miss Urios of her kind – a sixth grader who won the title over the entire school cohort. To most of Butuan, you are Joy Busa – hailed as the city’s most beautiful.
As beauty flourishes, so shall it fade. May happened and June came.
Why rage with ruthless fury and abandon me with deathly stares? I have known you to be extremely dichotomous: beginnings and endings, joy and grief, yin and yang. But I await your coming, June, as school beckons to reunite me back with my Urian classmates. You bring me excitement for a whole new world of discoveries, and of returning to rigor and regimen once more.
I start my day when the AM radio at home starts blaring at full volume at 5:30AM. The familiar vendor’s call of “itlog mo ’Noy, orins” (boiled eggs, sir, or Tru-Orange) comes ringing across the neighborhood. Dragging my feet to the bathroom, the super-cold shower wakes me up. Afterwards, I hurriedly eat my breakfast of fried panit (tuna), scrambled eggs, rice and sikwate (homemade hot chocolate drink).
My siblings and I leave the house before 6:45AM, giving our dad the courtesy mano (Philippine custom of respect upon leaving and arriving by putting an elder’s hand on one’s forehead), before taking the tricycle, if he won’t be driving us to school. From Janet Cinema, we dash to the Urios gates along San Francisco Street.
My desire to discover had the utmost impact on my education, inquiring about just anything, even the silliest of things.
“Why do you girls not come to class with fully-dried hair? It keeps the shoulder portion of your uniforms wet.” I wondered whether this was a way to make their stringy hair look straighter.
But, you know, June, I could be wrong. Like how wrong I was about you.
I thought you were all excitement and rebirth. However, you sometimes came with wrath from your winds, with rains that never end. You wreak havoc – even in the hearts of men, by sending beauty to madness.
The first beauty I knew in life who I adored, you took away from me and my family. On that 5th day of June in ‘82, at the 6th of the eve, my mommy dearest lay on her bed lifeless. Holding her cold ankle, I asked whether she was coming back to life – or at least speak for one last time. But I never got an answer. I was seven.
The day we laid her to rest was as sunny as April, as beautiful as May and drizzled the way that you are, June.
I continued on with life in Butuan without a mother. One day, I sat on her piano chair and discovered her favorite piece, A Love Story. I looked at the dog-eared sheet of music and remembered the last time she played this on the piano.
“She fills my soul with so much love, That anywhere I go, I’m never lonely, with her along who could be lonely, I reach for her hand, she’s always there.” – Where Do I Begin (Love Story)