Someone asked if there was a part 2 to last week’s column and Letty Magsanoc agreed as she thought there were too many gaps in my story and wanted to know who were my mom’s third and fourth husbands.
Anyway, I considered it and must confess there is a niggling thought that I am sure would upset my son Jegs: Why all this now? Am I making paalam?
However it may look and read, I just hope that through it all we recognize those who shine and affect our lives.
My mom Benita was a Cebuana, a Regner whose grandfather was said to be a friar. During the war, her family hid in the mountains of Carmen and her father brought her youngest brother with him to bury all their treasure—gold coins, plates, jewelry, even land titles. They never found the trove, Cebu land titles having been destroyed in fires. She lived in Manila, and after the war her siblings had to depend on her for help.
Her first husband Dixon (handsome, blond) was with the US Airforce in Clark Field and became MIA. Her second, tall, balding, with a big mustache, was Cecil, who became my dad. Third was the now infamous Portuguese-American who incidentally looked like a distinguished Sal Mineo, and the fourth was my papa, George H. Louis. Born in the Bronx of poor German immigrants, he lived a hard life and worked as a child laborer in an aspirin factory.
He ran away at a very young age, ate a lot of bananas to qualify for the weight requirement, and joined the US Navy. He traveled all over the world (had better meals than aspirin for lunch) and, after the Second World War, came to settle in what he thought was the best country in the world: the Philippines.
He had fallen in love with our land and its people. There was no one like them he said. They were honest, generous, hardworking, God-fearing and loving.
His wallet was lost at the Sta. Ana Cabaret and when he returned on another night, all the hostesses went up to him and said, “Mr. Lowey, we found out that one of us took your wallet. We have all contributed to return what you lost. Please check if it is correct.”
There were no grills before the war, and if anyone came to your door it was for a good reason, not for criminal activity.
He was married to another Filipina before he met my mom, but their family wanted the American dream, so he stayed home, here, while they went to live in Walnut Creek.
He was interned at the University of Santo Tomas during the war. They used to boil their leather soles in order to have something to eat and when the US forces arrived, the fighting and shooting took place across the halls, even from room to room. We used to have this big book of the occupation of UST (now long gone and I would be so happy if anyone has info or knows where copies can be found), and there is this photo of the UST façade with all these gaunt-looking expats smiling from windows. My papa was there.
He became a traveling salesman, told me tales of amok in New Washington, Aklan, and worked hard until he became the GM of Mr. Gunnell of PECO.
He hired a young woman with great legs who typed and took excellent dictation. She needed the job badly as she had a baby to support, but before he could make a move, a Portuguese-American married her and took her off to California.
He kept his feelings to himself till she found a way to let him know of the abuse we suffered. He helped her escape (my mom would hide me under the hotel bed whenever someone knocked on the door), hired a divorce lawyer, and then brought us safely back.
We lived in Pasay. Not in a well-to-do expat enclave. Which of course caused me great shame in front of my American School classmates. I often think that I wouldn’t have been so affected if I had just gone to some local Catholic school. But he paid for the best education there was. And from the time I was 8 years old, every Saturday, after my appointment with the famous Dr. Erana, he would have an assistant take me through the entire retail and wholesale sections of PECO to choose all the books, magazines, comics—classic and otherwise—that I could bring home.
I read the Niebelungenlied, Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Bible (which my Mom hid as she was afraid I’d go blind). I became fascinated with prophecy and started a Nostradamus collection at the age of 10 as I read “The Book of Prophecy,” which was published in the 1930s.
Every Christmas we would make gift bags filled with stuffed toys, notebooks, cookies and candies and distribute them to those around us.
But there was something missing. I never belonged. I was never a Filipina. I was called mestizang hilaw, iyong Amerikana and mestizang bangus.
I sold maruyang saging (banana fritters) with a bilao on my head through the small streets of Pasay. I ate hot pan de sal dripping with Star Margarine while watching movies (like “All Mine to Give”) on benches at the local basketball court.
I played tumbang preso, jackpot and even carved out sungka holes in the ground and had soil under my nails from scooping the pebbles out of houses razed down by fire breakouts.
I could dance the tinikling, pandango sa ilaw, binasuan, curacha, and many other folk dances.
I read all the Nick Joaquin I could find (“May Day Eve,” etc.), Aida Sevilla-Mendoza legal stories, José Garcia Villa, Linda Ty Casper, Maximo Ramos.
I sat outside and listened to “Ito ang inyong lingkod, Tiya Dely” while watching our neighbor, the garbage truck driver “Papa White,” walk down Mariquita Street, with huge pails of water that he would pour over the white stubble on his head so that the dust of the street would settle.
I would run as fast as I could so my Papa wouldn’t scold me for being out of the house. We were Americans at home, and we communicated in English.
I had no province. No hometown. I was “Amerkan 60 cents.”
I only felt that I had become part of the Pinoy community when I went to live in New York! I ate tapa and tocino there for the first time, joined a bowling team, and spoke in our secret language of Tagalog so that the white people on the street wouldn’t know what we were talking about.
I had forgotten that I was white, too.
Then I came home and was “’Kana” again.
My Papa was shocked when I had a son with a Pinoy named Angelo. I named my son after Diego Silang, the Ilocano hero, and promised that if he ever had a sister she would be named Gabriela, after Silang’s wife.
When I first brought Jegs (Diego) to visit New York, someone saw me on a bus and called a friend to say, “I just saw June Keithley and she had a little Filipino boy with her!”
Malakas kasi ang Ilokano strain ha ha.
So today my home is filled with bamboo, baskets, Pinoy furniture and paintings, Capiz doors, and stuff from my forays to kultura and the tiangge.
In any case, I am a national hero. Presented with the Philippine Medal of Honor by no less than the iconic Corazon Aquino herself.
My skin is white and my Tagalog may not be fluent, but my heart is as brown as can be, and I believe in the Filipino that my Papa, my gruff American stepfather, said is the best race in the world.