I had always been different. I think this much everyone knew since I was growing up. Some relatives just took this for granted and accepted it, others made a big fuss and never let a chance pass by without making me feel less because of it.
I suppose I was a brilliant child, but then again that was true of all my brothers and sisters: we were all smart and bright, always at the head of the class and always ended up receiving whatever top honours were being handed out by our school. Without bragging, I must say I ended up with possibly the most: always top of the class in the elementary grades, voted most ideal graduate and even at one point served as boy mayor of our town for a whole week
One would think that all these were enough to make me happy and my parents proud. I guess Tatay was proud enough: I remember him coming to visit me during my stint as boy mayor and sat in on one of the council meetings. Inay was a totally different story altogether, and herein lies the reason for the rather delicate and complicated relationship I had with her. That she loved me, and I her, was never at all in doubt, that much I can honestly say. But she was always an honest and simple woman who spoke her mind plainly as she felt, even when sometimes a little more diplomacy might have been helpful.
I was the baby of the family, until my younger brother was born four years later. Enough time for me to feel specially attached to Inay, and I grew up devoted to her and almost never left her side. I was the constant help at the store, the one who was always there to run errands for her and kept her company until I was old enough to start school. However, being the first son after a long string of daughters I was also probably overly protected, and as the first-born son, saddled with too much expectations from the very beginning. Being totally devoted to her became a double-edged sword, on one hand she was happy, but it also became a cause for concern.
I distinctly remember one of her cousins, who also had a boy around my age, comment one day about how lucky she was to have “a boy who’s always with her”, as he said that his “boy is never around”. To which Inay replied, “Yes, but you have a real boy in your hands, and I don’t”. At that time was too young to understand what they all meant to her, but to this day when I recall those words I still feel the disappointment she probably carried with her the rest of her days. I suppose it was an honest enough summation of how she felt, and was partly responsible for my trying so hard to please her ever since.
I grew up a miserable child with a very mean temper. I hated school and skipped it with any opportunity I got such as a slight cold or a stomach ache, but cursed as I was with natural intelligence always ended up top of the class anyway; one of those ironies in life, for I remember one specific report card from a the fifth grade homeroom teacher with the note saying, “You are absent most of the time. Why?” Why indeed? Outwardly I was cheerful and happy enough, trying to please everyone but inside I was just pretty much in a rage most of the time.
Being in upper elementary grades always meant that you went to school all day long, with an hour’s break for lunch. Soon enough my younger brother and sister were going to school as well, and I had the added responsibility of waiting for them to finish their morning classes at noon and get them home. The problem was I had to be back in class for one o’clock, and the days that they have to stay longer for homeroom cleaning, it usually meant another delay of about twenty minutes or so, leaving me with barely enough time to get home, eat lunch and then back again for the afternoon sessions.
This would frustrate me to no end, and I usually took it out on my younger brother and sister. I would, dutiful that I was, wait for them until they were ready to leave, but would yell and rant at them all the way home. I would always be so hopping mad that I would kick their school bags halfway home in the blazing heat of the midday sun, my brother or sister following right behind me, bawling their eyes out. It must have made a funny, or sad, sight.
The best, or worst anecdote, though, I have saved for last: I had a cousin same age as I am with whom I played and hung out. He was the youngest of my mother’s brother, and was probably considered a real boy. We got along very well together, but the problem was his family. Many of his other siblings were pleasant and nice enough, but for some reason the two oldest daughters were very mean to me, and always referred to me as Aling Nito (Miss Nito), and always spoke to me in a mincing, sing-song way. As we grew older, and as their own children became adults, some sort of justice will be served, but that is another story for another time.
The mother was especially mean, a conclusion I have come to accept, although not really understand, as I grew older. I was frequently hanging out either at their store or house when not with my mother, and inevitably lunch or snack time would come around. My cousin being the youngest and the apple of his mom’s eyes would always get special treats: pritong atay, fried calf’s liver, supposedly his favourite dish, or ice cold tinned Bear brand milk for afternoon snack. Being from a family with not much money, we never had Bear brand milk; I remember watching my cousin, wondering what cold milk tasted like, secretly envying his good fortune as he drank. The woman never thought once to offer me any, not a sip although she must have sensed the longing any six-year old child would have over something he’s never had.
But, true to her self, she saved a lethal stinger for the most opportune time. Christmas came around one year, and to my surprise, she called me over Christmas morning and told me I could have any toy that I wanted from her store. Well, I never wanted another colouring book, nor a plastic ball or a pull toy, but asked her instead if I might have a metal cap pistol, so popular with kids my age to play good/bad guys with. “Now why would you want something like that?” she asked me with a smile. “Here”, she said, “You want one of these!” and started pulling a little dolly out its plastic bag, ready to hand it to me, the smile not for an instant wavering from her face.
© August 2007