March 21, 2020, PAL flight 117 touched down in YVR. I walked the elevated ramps of the airport, and it was not the same place I took off from, ten days prior. Apart from the fully laden Philippine Airlines direct flight, there were no other arrivals at the Vancouver International Airport. There were at least five checkpoints of border officials to pass through before exiting the Canadian entry port.
These were the early days of the Covid-19. I found myself self-quarantined at the condo, with nothing to do. Eat, sleep, and go online. Depression crept in.
Art had always fascinated me, and I painted, recreated sculptures, learned to ukulele, and revisited my social media writings, all to keep my head intact. I soon discovered how to write creatively.
I would like to share with the dear readers my memoirs. I travel back to my youth and my beloved country of those days. The story is incomplete, but these three chapters on my life journey in the early seventies have an urgency.
Part One: Pearl
Project 6 had the best location among all of the capital city’s housing developments in the early sixties. The Quezon Memorial was a stroll away. Two forty-meter-wide highways bordered the north and south of our middle-class community that was the edge of Manila’s sprawl. The Veterans Memorial Hospital grounds with a 36-hole golf course was on the west side. A creek that joined the San Juan River defined the Western edge. Our street ran parallel to that waterway.
We were at the capital city’s fringe. From my bedroom window, I could see a barefoot farmer and his water buffalo till the soil for another rice crop. Around his small tract of rice paddies were bamboo groves, creaking and hissing at the slightest breeze. It was a small pocket, a remnant of a scenery that was bulldozed to become Project Six.
Our Road 7 was fondly called newsmen’s row. On the corner lived Primitivo Mijares of the Daily Express, then Joe Aspiras of the Star Reporter and the Evening News, spouses Oscar and Alice Villadolid, of the Philippine Herald and New York Times respectively, Teddy Benigno of Philippine Star, Frankie Evangelista the anchor of Channel Eleven News, and a few more writers. Though not newspaper men, Rolando Sambile and my dad, Romeo Firme also lived there. Together with Joe Aspiras, the three gentlemen were married to the Mendoza sisters.
The summer of 1970 was a long one. On top of the regular two vacation months of April and May, the last suspended school days of March added to the warm daze. When not protesting in the streets, we had the roads and alleys to discover the neighborhood and beyond.
The street names of Project 6 had Road 1 to Road 10 and Alley 1 to Alley 34. Roads were 15 meters wide and alleys were only 6 meters wide. The nomenclature retained the hand-drafted letterings of the original blueprints up to today. Only the uncompleted Mindanao on the north and the Visayas Avenues to the south were given real names. These planned super highways were cut off by a tiny creek with no name that meandered west to the San Juan River.
At Road 7, every morning after breakfast, we would gather by the shade of the Fire tree on the Villadolid’s front lawn. Their Mayordoma* would bring out baby Mecca for sun bathing. I saw my mother sun our youngest siblings in the same manner. My mom explained to me that the gentle morning rays of the sun were with life giving vitamins that gave the infant color.
The term ‘Mayordoma’ or the domestic head was adapted from our colonial past with Imperial Spain. It referred to the head caretaker of the children and household of the Insulares, the Spaniards born in the Philippines. She was usually a matronly Indio, a term the Espanol refer to Filipinos. She was likely intelligent, and a mother herself.
Mayordoma was plump mama. She was a ‘kayumanggi’- an ancestor of the brown skinned migrants from the Indomalayan regions of Asia. She sat on the same spot, on the carabao grass with the baby niece of Alice. She always had a good ‘morneng’ welcome smile on her face. One by one, we would join her and make ‘stambay’- a Pinoy street term for one who ‘stands by,’ usually doing nothing.
There were hardly any schools open. Graduations were in limbo. Summer classes were suspended wholesale. We joined the head mammy every sunny day.
It was summer. We were barely in our teens. The oldest among us was the seventeen-year-old Aurora. The youngest, other than the baby, was sweet ten-year-old, wavy black-haired Boyet, the youngest of the Mijares children.
We had a healthy mix of boys and girls. The girls would form their pack and the boys would follow them. They would play table tennis and we would join them. With our bicycles, we ventured all around Project 6. It was the best of times and the worst of times were inconceivable.
From the subset gang of girls, Pearl stood out. I felt I was unworthy to even look at her.
She was the fairest of them all. Her skin was like porcelain. Her long curly locks were slightly brownish like maize. She had naturally pink lips with a small mole, a dot printed on the upper left side of her mouth. With her sister, Pilita, they were like a pair of dolls custom-made for the aristocracy.
From the archive of the Villadolid family, showing their housing unit in Project 6, courtesy of Paula, the seventh of nine siblings.
Photo shows the bend at Road 7 where Oscar and Alice once lived. Note the unpaved gravel road and the three-bedroom bungalow replicated all throughout Project 6 in the mid-sixties. By the end of the decade, the house was demolished and a sprawling brickwork home emerged that exists to this day.
The fire tree yearling on center-left, was a silent witness that remained and matured. In the early seventies, we, the children of Newsmen’s Row made ‘stambay’ under its shade.
Aurora was my neighbor across the street. She would be enrolling as a freshman at UP later in June. She had the idea of donating sandwiches to the UP commune. While we spread the egg salad on the ‘Tasty,’ the name of a brand that Pinoys refer to as sliced bread, Aurora related that she was hanging around in Pearl’s bedroom a couple of days ago. During a lull, Pearl excused herself and went to the bathroom. Aurora saw her diary in the corner of the room and she started reading. Aurora looked me and said with a smile, ‘Pearl wrote an entry that she found you dashing.’
The revelation took a moment to comprehend. I asked her, ‘Ahh, what do I do?’
‘Tell her you love her, and when she answers that she loves you, you become boyfriend and girlfriend.’
That took much longer to sink in.
We soon finished packing the sandwiches and we hopped on a public utility jeep, a mode of transportation that originated with the GP or general-purpose vehicles the US army discarded everywhere during the second world war. We were headed for UP.
The Mijareses lived in the highest point of Road 7, by the corner of the main bus route on Road 3. They had a small beauty parlor business named Priz Beauty Box. I walked in as a customer, had my hair trimmed, and hoped for Pearl to walk in. On the mirror’s reflection, was Boyet who entered the air-conditioned room.
I connected with Boyet. I asked him first about his dogs. Then I requested him to tell his ‘Ate,’ a Tagalog term for the oldest sister, a message, ‘can you please tell Pearl that I would like to visit.’
His eyes brightened and with a boyish smile, he said ‘OK.’
My haircut was done when he came back in and said, ‘She will meet me at the ‘garahe.’
Their four-car garage had two vehicles parked. In between the car spaces were clean laundry hung to dry in the warm summer air. I found a plastic pail, inverted it, and sat waiting as I whiffed the freshly moistened air infused by the scent of laundered fabric.
I quickly realized that I was in uncharted territory. Should I have dressed up? I still had hair cuttings on my sandals. What if…
Pearl parted two white sheets and found me. She was like a cool breeze. She said ‘Hi’ and I was high in the clouds. Like myself, she did not know how to proceed and just stood in front of me.
I mentioned, ‘I just had a haircut.’
‘I know,’ was her answer.
I followed up, ‘this is my first time visiting a girl.’
‘Me too,’ she related with the similar.
I stayed for a few minutes more, but had to go because I was running out of things to say.
Our daily rendezvous by the garage, curtains drawn with sheets hung to dry, lasted for a few more afternoons.
One visit after dusk in front of their garage, we had our backs on their steel gate. I just looked up at the moon. It was a beautiful sight. It was so far away. I stuttered, ‘A-alam mo-o,’ an awkward Tagalog for ‘You know.’ It felt like my throat seized as I difficultly declared, ‘I…love…you.’ My head slightly swiveled to the right; my pupils moved faster to the same edge of the eye sockets. I sought a reaction.
After a second, she turned her head left to me and answered in Tagalog, ‘I’ll get back to you, tomorrow.’ I was sure she went up to her bedroom to write on her diary.
The next night, with the moon fully waxed, we continued to where we left off. Our backs were again, rested on their gate. I kept quiet and transfixed at the bright celestial orb. Pearl said in a straight and sweet voice, ‘Alam mo… I love you too.’
My heart jumped with joy.
It was my turn to go to my bedroom and write on the diary in my mind. The entries would finally be written down in this memoir more than half a century later.
About the Author
Tom Firme lived his youth in the Philippines, emigrated to Canada in 1993, and is a dual senior citizen of both. He and Ingrid Roxas married thirty-eight years ago. They have a unique life together with four beautiful children. Ingrid would complain to her sisters in his presence and half-mean it, when she quipped, ‘Tommy is my youngest child.’
Tom’s first online article was published in 2020 by Atin Ito News of Toronto entitled, Sidcor: A Sunday Morning Farmers Market Series. His first, and the above 2021 second articles, are part of an epic attempt to narrate a multi-faceted memoir.