(04 February 2011)
He slowly walked along the timeworn paths. It was raining that day, short-lived but frequent, brought by the passing rain clouds. He was glad that the trails are now covered by broken seashells. They crumbled under his sandals and announced his every step as clearly as the fading rain falling on his umbrella.
He found the spot. And he stood there in silence. The rain clouds vanished and the heavens have cleared. The scent of ylang-ylang blossoms in the breeze brought him many years back into his past, in a spot on the sidewalk…
Being new in the city and having no work, his parents took every opportunity to earn money. His father started peddling fish every morning, bought by the basin every night from the city’s smelly fish depot. His mother worked as a seamstress in a factory. By day, he and his siblings were fended by their grandmother and other relatives staying with them in a big but crammed wooden house.
At times, his father would go back to their hometown to harvest sweet potatoes and bananas to add more food to the table. A portion of these crops were sold on the sidewalk, in a spot underneath the shade of large ylang-ylang trees, outside the small alleys that lead to their house. He and his grandmother sat there on dreary afternoons with the sweet potatoes and bananas laid on the sack-covered cement, entreating people to buy.
With nothing to do sometimes, he always collected the flowers that had fallen from the ylang-ylang trees. He spent afternoons smelling them, occupied by their intricacies and distinct scent. Some other times, his grandmother tasked him to re-arrange their displays, filling the spots of those that were already taken and sold. Sometimes he would rush to put them all back into their sacks to head home when the rain had started to fall. But he spent most of those afternoons just sitting on the concrete sidewalk and observing the passersby while his grandmother did the selling. He felt small with their stares. And he felt like crying every time someone checked their crops saying they were expensive and decide not to buy.
This continued until his parents were able to manage their finances. By then, he and his siblings usually spent the languid afternoons in his grandmother’s room listening to stories she read from her old book “Historia Sagrada”. He would always lay his head on his grandmother’s lap, finding comfort in the smell of the old book and of her patadyong (traditional wrap-around clothing for women in Panay). She and her patadyong had become that strong assurance of love and comfort. In those afternoons, they had also come to mean good stories. Oftentimes while stories were being told, he and his siblings had their share of coconut bars or sweet tamarind balls. On other afternoons, his grandmother sang songs from long ago about smoke passing by, bamboos and butterflies.
His grandmother never faltered in praying the rosary during dusk. There was no known escape. It continued even in those days when they already have television. His grandmother always found a spot to set and light her candle. The television had to be turned off and he and his siblings would respond in chorus to the melodic leading of their grandmother. His grandparents eventually returned to the hacienda in later years. The saying of the rosary however did not stop, and he was not able to escape it during summer vacations in the hacienda or during his grandmother’s long visits to their home in the city. The smell of burning candle has also come to mean perseverance in prayer.
In the dusk of her life, his grandmother has always sought the solace of languid afternoons. She always wanted to have silence to listen to the wind, the birdsongs and even the streams. She always slept on the bamboo benches underneath the trees in the yard to the sound of the soft afternoon breeze. And she did much complaining when her other grandchildren turned up the volumes of their radio or television. In those days when she was less understood, she persevered in trying to find the solace of her old afternoons, sometimes singing songs her younger grandchildren had never heard before.
In the days nearing the end, she again sought solace in the old ways. She passed away clutching her rosary, with lips uttering those words she had always said aloud in swaying candle light. Her children asked her if she wanted him, her favorite grandson, home at once. She said no. She didn’t want him disturbed in his work.
It was not easy for him to come to terms with his grandmother’s death. In his childhood, he dreamed of bringing his grandmother in the comfort of his car to all the towns and cities where she and his grandfather had lived before and after the war. He found that time was too short for him to own a car of his own. But less was the pain of a dream falling into pieces than the pain of losing the epitome of love and faith he found during his childhood.
The rain has again started to fall, with drops not as big as those falling from his eyes. And in that rainy day in the cemetery, standing before her tomb, he still found her death painful. He lit a candle, closed his eyes and uttered a simple prayer. He then looked to the heavens with the assurance of the scents of burning candle and ylang-ylang blossoms in the breeze that he would be heard. With clouds moving in the sky, he remembered one of her songs…
“Lumabay-labay nga daw aso, aso pa lamang.
Ang tanan-tanan nga butang sa kalibutan.
Ang matam-is, ahay!
Nagapait man, ahay!
Kay sa gihapon, ahay!
(Like smoke that passes by,
So is everything in this world.
What is sweet, alas!
Will be bitter too, alas!
For ever and again, alas!
All will simply pass.)
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