From New York, he flew to Manila and took a long, circuitous bus ride to the remote province of Nueva Vizcaya to visit us.
It was one Christmas in the ’60s, and my father’s bachelor-uncle who went to America to work in the 1940s decided to visit his favorite nephew and his family in Bayombong, a mountainous town in Cagayan Valley.
We called him Lolo Feliciano, but he was not really very old; he was just a few years older than my father who was then in his early 40s. Until he came, I knew him only from vague stories from our elders.
What I was sure of was that he regularly sent us American classics (books) and magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Reader’s Digest and a US Knight of Columbus magazine.
These books and magazines greatly influenced our lives as children. There were nine of us in the family, and reading was a must as far as our parents were concerned. The books and magazines he sent were required reading for everyone.
It was the ’60s and there was no television yet in Nueva Vizcaya. And to fill our time, our parents forced us to read all those English books and magazines lying around the house.
From Lolo Feliciano’s collection of the classics, I read many American writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck. The Atlantic Monthly was a difficult read and I hated whoever was sending us this piece of punishment! How does a young girl read Atlantic Monthly and a magazine meant for old men like the Knights of Columbus magazine?
Fortunately, I found Reader’s Digest an interesting magazine during those times of no television.
I do not exactly know what my father’s uncle did for a living in New York. He stayed away for decades before he came back to the Philippines for a visit. He was not very tall, was stocky and bald and had a very pleasant disposition. He spoke very fluent Ilocano to our elders but spoke to us, kids, in English, perhaps to make us better English speakers.
Whenever he spoke to me, I would hide behind a sibling because I was very shy and not very sure if my English would come out right.
Best store in town
Every day, he would take us all to the best restaurant and to the best store and asked us to pick anything we wanted. There were nine of us kids holding his hand or trailing behind our own Santa Claus, and we were all very proud of him.
I thought he was a very rich man as he could buy us anything we wanted, and that was every day for a week, the duration of his stay with us.
In Jim’s Garden restaurant, I would pick out the American-sounding “muffin” to eat. Then I would have Serg’s Chocolate and Sun-Maid Raisins, which were made in USA then.
My siblings made their own choices, but as they were not as shy as I was, they would take home more goodies than I did. How come, I thought, my parents could not do this for us every day? In my child’s mind, I surmised my parents were poor.
After his vacation with us, Lolo Feliciano went to his seaside hometown of San Esteban, Ilocos Sur, to finally pick a suitable bride. He picked a young and pretty one and they had a big wedding in their town by the sea.
After the wedding, he stayed for a few more weeks to fix his bride’s documents and then brought her to live with him in New York.
We would never see our Santa Claus again after he got married. He settled down to working and attending to his domestic life in New York and had two children, a girl and a boy. In the meantime, we all grew up and life moved on.
After some years, I learned to love the Atlantic Monthly, especially its literary content. I also started to appreciate the books he sent us, as they were American literary classics.
Even if we did not see him again, we never forgot his face and the things he did for us. I believe in my heart and mind that he has somehow shaped my life forever.
The Christmas he came stands out in my memory, and I have always seen it as an act of love and generosity from a long-lost relative. It was this, and the happiness that went with it, that inspired me as an adult to do the same thing for children.
It was Lolo Feliciano who taught me to be gracious and generous to my nieces, nephews, stepchildren and my own child now.
Judging from how I and my brothers and sisters write in and speak the English language, I think Lolo Feliciano also influenced every one of us, siblings, to use the English language well through the books and magazines he sent us when we were children.
Most of us did not get to see him again. My eldest sister, who became a doctor and worked as resident-doctor in New York, had the chance to visit our Santa Claus often in his home and became close to him and his family. She related how kind and generous he still was, but he had become really old, she said.
He was never able to buy a home, she added, living in the same old decrepit building for decades.
Our real Santa Claus was not rich, after all. But that did not matter. What was most significant was his presence one Christmas in our lives.
He has gone to the great beyond, but my memory of him lives and has become a very important part of me.
I wish and hope every child meets his real Santa Claus.