April 14, 2024

I scan the neighborhood searching for playmates, but the only one in sight is my cousin Susie, minding her little store, selling wares that only kids like she and I would show interest – coils of rubber bands, a stack of Captain Marvel flashcards, and a pile of shiny river pebbles, which Susie says are worth their weight in diamonds.
All these she put atop a carton box, decorating each side with a woman’s – or girl’s – touch.

“So why are you all alone, where is everybody?”
“Our cousins are still asleep,” she replies, “and will likely wake up at noon, just before lunch.”
“They may come out and play later, but the slightest drizzle will send them right back to bed.”
“So, maybe we can play indoors.”
Susie laughs, “What, play sungka or jackstone. What cousin Bebot calls “the game of sissies.”
But where are the other kids, I query her further. “The sun is halfway up. Don’t tell me they are still sleeping. They are not Ibaloys for goodness sake.”
Susie gives me a near incredulous look. Didn’t you hear, they are all on vacation, to renew roots and bond with their relatives in the lowlands.

I hear a tick inside my head, and I run back to the house to look for my mom.
She is in the kitchen, preparing the first meal of the day.
“Right on time. Go wake up your brothers and sisters so we can have breakfast together. Your dad just left for work.”
“Mom, aren’t we going to Balaoan to visit lola and all your other kin,” I sheepishly address the boss of the house.
“We will, we will,” she promises, “as soon as your dad is able to secure leave from his office.”

It is half an hour past five in the afternoon, and my dad is home from City Hall.
He plants a kiss – or tries to – on my mom’s cheek, who turns her face away.
“No leave, no kiss,” sounding like she was scolding him.
“Would I even dare come home if I failed to do that?”
“Are the kids packed and ready to go?”
“Yes.” We leave early tomorrow morning.
She kisses my dad.

We arrive in Balaoan after a four-hour dizzying bus trip, with the driver making a few stops along the way. It seems he is a regular Casanova with a girl in every town, dropping bagfuls of veggies to all his beloveds.
At one stop, my mom takes time out to pluck guava leaves, which she uses as smelling salts, putting the green stuff beneath our nostrils to get rid our giddiness.
It works better than vaccines, or some other Chinese medication, like the Tiger balm that my dad applies to his aching body.

We are a bit late, and all the rooms in my Uncle Fidel’s house are all taken and occupied by other visiting relatives from Manila and elsewhere, who arrived ahead of us.
My uncle, who is a doctor, billets us in two rooms of his hospital, one room for my folks and the girls, the other for us boys.
But lunch, dinner, and merienda, are served in my uncle’s “palatial” home.
Pretty visiting cousins from Manila catch my eye. They are not just pretty, they are stunningly beautiful, modern in every way – wearing shorts and loose garter blouses, smoking Salem cigarettes, and sipping beer at dusk.
Not flirty, the girls prefer my company, avoiding the older boys whose naughty eyes betray their lusty desires.
But when one of the girls drapes her arms around my shoulders like a big sister showing affection for a younger brother, my hot Ibaloy blood comes to a boil, my body feeling weird and funny, like I needed to take a long shower and soap myself just so.

We move over to my lola Balen’s house in Barrio Pantar, on a Sunday, but not before hearing mass at the age-old town cathedral, which is hot as an oven.
The women are fanning themselves furiously, while the men stay outside, bantering noisily.
Other parishioners shush them up by putting a finger to their lips.
I go to confession for my impure thoughts the day before.
Next week, at my lola Balen’s barrio bamboo house, why the United States is hopelessly divided.
Mea culpa:
We bring back from the grave my grandniece Macks Carantes-Stephenson, who is actually alive and well in the U.S.
Fake news of her demise, that’s what it was, and technology is to blame, where text is taken as gospel truth.
Anyway, Macks, when you are written off early, you are deemed reborn, and will live much longer than the rest of us.