A couple of days ago, I sat in my van, relaxed and feeling blessed while I waited for the rest of the family to convoy up to the City of Pines to celebrate another milestone.
Why Baguio? Because despite the decay it has suffered, the traffic, crowds and smog, it remains very close to my heart.
It was not quite four in the morning. It seemed like the middle of the night. And in that semidarkness I remembered that same day, 76 years ago.
Dec. 8, 1941.
Has it been that long? My memories of that day are clear and in living color.
It was a holy day of obligation for Catholics, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. I was with my mother’s spinster aunt, Pilar Corrales, at San Beda Chapel (today the Abbey of our Lady of Montserrat).
The day seemed ordinary to me. But I was excited. In another two days, I would be nine years old. I knew the cousins would come for Magnolia ice cream, frozen strawberries and cake.
And all I could think of was the beautiful red two-tiered pencil box sitting in Mrs. Sharuff’s gift shop just waiting for me. Mama said that if I got good grades, I might have it for Christmas. But I hoped she would buy it for my birthday.
I was mentally lining up newly sharpened Mongol pencils and my favorite erasers on the top level. It also had a special place for my new fountain pen and a short ruler in the drawer below.
Feeling of alarm
Mass over, we walked to the car where the driver, Epifanio waited. He seemed agitated. I saw little groups of people sharing a newspaper. There was a feeling of alarm in the air.
It was midmorning when we got home. I was surprised to see cars parked in front of our house on Calle Legarda. Upstairs, Mama was in tears. So was her sister Titing.
The radio was on. United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had declared war on Japan after an attack by Japanese bombers on US ships in Pearl Harbor. And I remember thinking, why are we upset? That’s so far away. Little did I know then that this faraway place would some day become my home.
Years later when I visited the Arizona Memorial, I learned more about the “date which will live in infamy.”
Both sisters were confounded by the events, not knowing what to do as their husbands were out at sea. Papa was on board the MS Fortuna in Palawan, and Tio Antonio, Papa’s brother, was due to arrive the following day on the Doña Aurora.
Support and advice
I remember our Cabarrus family, who lived just a door away, coming to offer their support and advice. In my entire young life, they were always there for us, just a hug away, dependable and steadfast.
One of them, I think it was Pepe, accompanied the two sisters to the bank. I had no clue what they were talking about. But I knew something was terribly wrong.
I sat on the polished hardwood floor and played with my new jackstones. When the tiny red ball bounced away from me, down the stairs and into the dark zaguan below, I did not chase after it. I put the jacks away. Somehow it didn’t seem right to play.
Suddenly I was no longer a child.
That night we had our first air raid. We heard sirens. The planes droned overhead and we felt the earth shake with every bomb that dropped. We huddled in the dark. I heard Mama praying.
My birthday came and went. There was no party. No cake. No ice cream. And no red pencil box.
Bolt out of the blue
The dictionary defines it as an unexpected event, fact or thing. It comes like a bolt out of the blue. To surprise someone is to cause that person to feel mild astonishment.
Let me tell you that my surprises have been anything but mild. They have taken my breath away.
If your family is anything like mine, you must be ready for the unexpected. They are so good at keeping secrets that at times it worries me.
It seems that, for the past several months, my children had been plotting behind my back.
Even the grandchildren were sworn to secrecy. When there was danger that someone may slip at the lip, there were threats of bodily harm. It worked.
I think the “organizers” were challenged to top their past surprises. On my 70th, they gave a concert and flew my two daughters in from the US. On my 80th, they hosted an elegant dinner at Chef Jessie and made sure all six children were present.
What could they do for my 85th?
I had not given my birthday much thought. It was still weeks away. I was busy doing Thanksgiving. My mind was on “turkey and all the trimmings.”
On the big day, there were 30 of us standing around the dinner table. It was quiet.
My pastor son came up to give thanks. And he asked God to bless each and every member of our family. But he didn’t mention his youngest sibling.
I nudged him, “You forgot Rachel.” He asked, “Who?”
That was her cue. Enter Rachel, all the way from Florida.
I was stunned.
The plan was flawless. It had all the makings of a show-biz script—timing, suspense and drama.
I like what British novelist Charles Morgan says: “There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved. It is God’s finger on man’s shoulder.”