Storytelling is something I grew up on with my paternal grandparents.
My own life as a child may be worth the telling in itself. After I was born to my teenaged mother—my own father was barely 20—we all went straight to my grandparents to live with them, in a home in the storied district of Malate, in Manila. It was a grand affair, bounded by three streets: Taft, Remedios and Pennsylvania.
After that house was destroyed in the war, I rejoined them on weekends in their small chalet on Oroquieta Street, and not too long afterward moved again with them to their newly built house in Park Avenue, Pasay City.
In a sari-sari store on the small street beside the Pasay house, Lola went for galletas and Cosmos, a bottled root-beer drink, a family favorite. She chatted with the store owner on every trip, a culture more genuinely neighborly than idly gossipy.
From Lola and Lolo’s, I walked with fellow wards Sylvia and Ninit, slightly older cousins, to a big old house close by on Fernando Rein Street that was then Maryknoll, the school run by American nuns. We followed Maryknoll to bigger grounds on Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard and on to familiar Pennsylvania till grade school graduation. Ninit and Sylvia stayed with Maryknoll when it moved to Diliman, its final and present home. But I, reunited by then with my own parents in their newly built bungalow in Quezon City, went to the neighborhood convent school—St. Theresa’s.
All that was the glorious ’50s, a perfect setting for hopeful stories.
All my life I was surrounded by natural storytellers—from Lolo and Lola to their nine sons. The oldest, nicknamed Liling, was named after their father, Rafael, who to my mind was the original and best storyteller of them all. I had no personal memory of Tito Liling since he had died in the war, but there were many stories fondly featuring him from uncles, especially my dad. Ding, the youngest, would finally immortalize our martyred wartime hero in his book “Looking for Liling.”
Liling was a family legend, a perfect brother, good at everything, tallest not only in height but in everything else, in their eyes. Each brother believed he had his own exclusive and special bond with Liling.
He was the first of them to write a newspaper column—“Thorns and Roses.” Though a journalist at heart, he had been groomed to take care of the family farm and had to finish Agriculture first. A collection of his columns and other writings survives.
Skipping the next brother, Tuting, the next column writer was my dad, a lawyer and professor of corporate law at FEU before he entered politics. For years, until he won a congressional seat in 1952 and kept it until Congress was abolished by martial law, he wrote “My Daily Bread,” so named because for a time the column literally—if I can believe him—put bread on our table. This was, of course, before the title was used for religious messages.
Dad wrote about daily life, commenting on politics, from the point of view of “Maneng the barber,” a character he made up. It was common knowledge in our society then that the most accessible source of news, and a fairly reliable one, was their barber. Dad went on to share his newly acquired expertise as a five-term congressman with the people in a newspaper column called “Know Your Congress” and, much later in the mosquito press during martial law, a regular sociopolitical commentary under the title “This is My Own.”
Following in his footsteps was brother number five, Anding, who picked up his oldest brother’s column title for his own and switched the elements around to “Roses and Thorns.” Tito Anding won a prize for his collection of short stories, “Of Cocks and Kites,” and was a National Artist for Literature; he even wrote a musical performed off Broadway. He was also education secretary of the Diosdado Macapagal administration.
To all who knew him, Anding is remembered most as a lovable raconteur. To us nieces he was the perfect, attentive and generous gentleman uncle; he treated us to expensive restaurants and made us laugh.
The last but not the least of these brother columnists was number nine, the youngest—painter and writer Alfredo, nicknamed Ding. He wrote the column “Light and Shadow.” He first gave the family honor through his paintings; in a few of them, my mom and I were his easily accessible models. From his adopted country, Australia, he has written the most books—my favorites are naturally those about family. We are looking forward to the next one—on Lolo Rafael.
Despite being blessed with privileged and happy lives, dad and his brothers developed a sensitivity to empathize with those who had less in life. The column writers in my family had what my husband called “a fresh take.” Vergel is himself convinced that anyone below 40 had not lived life long enough to deserve to peddle any opinions in so public a medium as a column. And Dad himself would tell me a columnist’s worth lies in the reader’s recollection of what he said. He would cite one and ask me, “Do you remember anything he said?”
The other uncles never wrote but could have, being tested oral storytellers themselves. At any rate, they distinguished themselves in other ways. Tuting was an amateur boxing champion at Notre Dame University, became vice mayor to Arsenio Lacson, made the best fabada and paella, and knew plants and fruit trees like nobody’s business.
The oldest living one, Peping, called Sport by his children and grandchildren, was a guerrilla marksman; at 98, he still plays the stock market. Uncle Pipo, 96, a chef who specialized in steaks, could hold your attention telling the simplest stories; he has the best memory for names and other such factual details, and his wit was something else.
Chito, the best athlete and tango dancer, became an exceptional bowler; he died ahead of his older brothers. Marquitos, the second to the youngest, the most reliable insurance broker in the family, remains handsome in a bearded Sean Connery way; a gifted storyteller himself, he does it on the net.
We nieces have been privileged to have heard them firsthand. Their memories of the war remain vivid, as though it happened yesterday (Vergel himself relies on Peping and Pipo as primary sources).
I never imagined I’d have myself a similar medium for unsolicited observations and appreciations of life—in my senior years yet. It’s my first paying job, actually, but one I may have been preparing for all my life—if unwittingly.