If I could turn back the hands of time…
I’d be with grandma and grandpa in a nipa hut
By the dirt road that shook and sent clouds of dust
With each passing rickety bus
Leaning on its side
Moving like a limping elephant
Loaded with baskets of produce, pails of fish
And sacks of rice piled on its roof
Loaded with smoking men in straw hats
Blowing circles of smokes on the roosters on their laps.
After breakfast, grandma and grandpa
Would gather palm leaves and firewood somewhere.
I’d wave from the window at the familiar sight:
Grandma followed by grandpa who was
Pulling the carabao that was pulling a bamboo sled.
Playing with Fire
Then it would be time for me to run
To the unpainted concrete house fifty steps from our hut
And ask Gloria or Nancy to play with me.
We’d go under the house where behind the jars
Of salted anchovies I kept my toys: seashells and stones.
We’d chase the hen and her chicks out
And find a place to “cook”.
We’d put the seashell with water and blades of grass
On top of the stones surrounding bits of paper,
Dried leaves and small twigs.
And in all excitement, I’d race up the house
Drag the wooden stool to the kitchen
And reach for the match.
We’d watch in awe as water boiled before our eyes
Leaving us with cooked grass we wished were edible.
And to hide my sin from grandma, I’d sweep the ash out
Let it rest beneath the plants in the yard.
Of course grandma would catch me several times
And give me the most painful pinch
(You wouldn’t want to know where.)
She’d say I’d burn the house down
Which I couldn’t understand
For mine was a tiny fire.
My Aunt Nita
So on days when I didn’t want to be sinful,
I’d sit by the door and wait for another familiar sight:
Aunt Nita with her six children tagging along
Marching from their run-down hut by the shore.
She would walk erect with tobacco in her mouth
Swaying her round hips beneath her long, flowing skirt
Balancing a pail of fresh fish she would sell in town
Or a pile of pails with the laundry she would wash in the river.
(Aunt Nita still makes me wonder
At how she could balance pails on her head
And how she could smoke tobacco
With the lighted end in her mouth.)
Aunt Nita would ask me to trek with them to the river
Where we’d all bathe in the clear, running water
Or let me run with my cousins to the seashore
Where I could help gather shells for dinner.
On our way home, my cousins would pick cassava stalks
With which they’d curl each other’s hair.
And if my hair was long enough, they’d curl mine, too.
Later grandma would ask which indigenous tribe I belonged to.
During the wet season
I’d help my cousins gather beetles at night.
They’d fall on the ground like rain as my cousins shook
The branches of acacia trees with bamboo poles.
The poor beetles would be stuffed in bottles
And shaken out like catsup to land on a big, hot pan.
Aunt Nita must be glad at those nights
When everyone went to bed burping
Filled with fried beetles seasoned with salt.
Watching Grandma and Grandpa
My afternoon would be spent
Watching grandma in the yard
Shaking rice in a flat, woven basket
Tossing it in the air, blowing the husks off.
Gathered ‘round grandma’s feet the hen and her chicks
Would noisily pick the husks in delight.
It would be quite a performance as grandma
Would catch every bit of grain back.
(And the hen and her chicks seemed to applaud this
With their endless clucks.)
Grandpa would be chopping wood nearby
Piling the little chunks neatly under the house.
While the carabao tied in a tree would be
Gently shooing off pesky flies with his tail.
Then grandpa would settle by the door to begin “sewing”
Palm leaves together for people’s thatched roofs.
His thread would be thin strips of tiny bamboo
Smoothened by his glistening machete.
With one end shaped like an arrowhead
This thread and needle in one
Would stitch palm leaves together like a curtain
Of layered leaves tied to a bamboo stick.
Before sundown, grandpa would have several
Of these curtains laid on top of our thatched roof to dry.
People would come to buy grandpa’s curtains
To patch their roofs before the furious typhoons came.
People would also come for grandpa’s snowy white,
Pure sea salt, or sweet and juicy siniguelas (Sp. ciruela).
Then grandpa would have money for his betel nuts
Which he’d chew and spit after dinner to clean his mouth.
A Hearty Meal
Before dinner, grandma would teach me how to pick
Cabbages, eggplants, string beans, tomatoes… in the garden.
Just as she had taught me how to sow seeds
And water them each day.
If we needed eggs, I’d slip my little hand
Into a hole on the bamboo-slit floor
Where the hen’s nest hung.
And steal an egg or two while the mother hen was gone.
(Though I’d been pecked many times, too.)
Then grandpa would be back from fishing
With his heavy bamboo trap strapped to his back.
He’d pour its contents out in the bamboo sink
And fish in every size, shape, color, and texture
Would be squirming to my delight
Even jumping and reaching the floor.
(The eels would scare me though.)
Grandma then would have a soupy fish meal
With vegetables and tomatoes
To go with our steamy, red rice.
And grandpa and I would be so glad.
The rest of the catch
Grandma would simmer in vinegar or fry
And store in a basket hanging from the ceiling
Unreachable to any cat that’d be visiting.
So as I lay between grandma and grandpa at night
I’d glance at the basket and smile
Being assured of another day
Of hearty meals.
And after grandma’s Bible stories
And the fading drone of the pigeons’ cooing
I’d retire into another innocent,
But I can’t turn back the hands of time
And grandma and grandpa and Aunt Nita are gone
Nancy and Gloria and my cousins have children
Who have their own children
And now we all have different games to play…