There are only a few more pages left in my planner. The year is almost up. The next couple of weeks are crowded, and I shudder to think of how little I have prepared to accomplish all that is set out there before me. I know I should get moving. My Christmas list can wait no longer. But it is December. And my thoughts wander off to a time long past.
Was it 70 years ago?
It was Monday, Dec. 8, 1941. I had gone to San Beda Church for Mass with my ninang. When we got home, everyone was in an uproar. Pearl Harbor was bombed on that “day of infamy.” America declared war on Japan and, like it or not, the Philippines was in it.
I saw my mother and her sister leave hurriedly for the bank. Their husbands were away. Both were sea captains.
When Mama returned she was holding a brown paper bag. It contained her and Papa’s life savings. I heard her describe the chaos she had witnessed. There was a bank run, and no one knew how to deal with it. The normally sedate and well-behaved people of Manila were panic-stricken by news of war. They wanted their money, and they wanted it now!
I had never seen my mother so frightened. I stayed close, on the floor, and played a game of jacks. There was something in the air. It was unsettling.
Quietly, I wondered what a war was like. How long would it last? If it was all over on my birthday, could I still have a party? Somehow I knew that it was not the proper thing to ask. But I was just turning nine. What did I know?
I did manage to inquire about going to school. No one had an answer, but they thought that perhaps schools would close.
I knew then that life would never be the same again.
How incredibly difficult and frightening it must have been to be a parent in those times. The breezy, easy, lazy atmosphere of pre-war Manila had lulled us all into a complacent sense of contentment that allowed no stress, or worry or pressure to threaten it.
So much was taken for granted when we were children. Mornings were never rushed. Breakfast was always ready. Our school uniforms were fresh and clean, each pleat perfectly ironed.
In school, the German nuns were strict. The school grounds were impeccable. We brought baon from home. Once in a while we splurged on fudge squares and buttered German bread.
After school we looked forward to going to the “Japones” for maiz or mongo con hielo. The little shop near the rotunda was immaculately clean. The owners were sweet and mild-mannered.
But shortly after December 8, they were brought to an internment camp. So were the nuns in school. I could not imagine how our friendly shopkeepers and beloved teachers were now treated as “the enemy.”
Before the war, we were off from school on Thursdays. I recall watching elegant gentlemen strolling down our street. There was one in particular, always alone, who would linger under the window of our sala, and tip his hat at the sight of my madrina, who tilted her head to one side in silent response. She was single, and remained so until the day she died.
I later heard that he had courted her. There were stories of another woman in Spain, of broken promises and broken hearts, of a murder even. But these things were never discussed in front of the children. And no, we never asked.
Our first taste of the sights and sounds of war came on December 9, when planes came in the middle of the night. Everyone stayed indoors. Our street was dark and deserted. We had mandatory blackouts. Our lamps were shrouded with black cloth.
On my ninth birthday, we left the home we had always known, and joined other families who had decided to leave Manila. We literally took to the hills.
We were about a dozen children of assorted ages living under one roof. The adults did all they could to keep us busy, in line, fed and safe. Some of us were difficult. But there were no spankings, only whispered reprimands.
It was quiet during the day. We played outside. The planes came at night. We huddled in a dark hallway. Someone would lead us in prayer.
It was a very sad and frightful Christmas. We heard wailing sirens and explosions, not carols, on Christmas Eve.
Manila was declared an open city on December 26. But the bombings did not cease. Fires surrounded our fair city. We were terrified. It was like the end of the world.
When we returned to our home, we still had not heard from my father. We went into mourning, thinking he had gone down with his ship. It was a happy day when we saw him again in June.
Jan. 2, 1942, was eerily quiet. In my child’s mind, I thought, the war must be over. There was a welcome silence on the streets of Manila. And then we heard the scraping of soldiers’ feet on the pavement.
The Occupation had begun.
For the next four years, until we were “liberated,” we learned Nippongo, Rajio Taiso, how to make macramé bags, wear bakya, how to make pila and all about discipline.
But this was forgotten with our first taste of freedom.
Today we behave like model citizens in a foreign country and yet, in our own land, live a dog-eat-dog way of life. Here we are, 70 years later, and we still push and shove, lie and cheat, to get ahead. What a shame!
But wait! Yesterday I watched as an erring motorist tried to bribe a traffic officer. After confiscating the driver’s license, the officer waved him on, saying, “Sorry, sir, that does not work here anymore.”