Thursday, 13 September 2012

A mini-short story: Downloading memories from a photograph


Our family-owned koprahan at Pinagbirayang Munti, Paracale, CamNorte. Picture shows my family, led by my mother (center) during an outing in 2007. - From the Hernandez family picture album


HOW many memories can a picture download?

Heaps and tons, I supposed.

When you are looking at a picture that tells you something about how life had been to you and your family during those bygone days, the streaming images blur.

And the download is almost endless because that picture transports you pronto to a precise moment in your young life when you were enjoying the events unfolding around you, clueless that they were in fact a matter of family survival.
Try asking your parents about it.

One day a few years ago, my brother Sammy, the sixth among my younger siblings, emailed to me some pictures taken a few days ago at my late father’s small coconut farm in Pinagbirayang Munti, Paracale, CamNorte, in the Philippines.

Some digishots showed my nephews, brothers and sisters, relative, and my 80-year-old Mom while at work at our small “koprahan”, a makeshift shed where coconut halves were smoked out to remove the moisture and thus, become copra meat that was loaded with pure oil.

The members of my family decided to spend the long Philippine Independence Day weekend in Bicol and at the same time catch up with the feast of our baranggay’s patron saint, San Antonio, on June 13.

And a swing to my late father’s farm had always been a cherished ritual every time they visited our old home in Parang, Jose Panganiban to see how the coconut trees had performed.

Well, there were lots of fresh “buko” (young coconut) meat and juice for the taking, thus making the farm visit even cooler.

Interestingly, that year’s visit coincided with our harvest. In the last four typhoons towards the end of that year, the plantation suffered badly from the brunt of the punishing winds.

The truth is, it was just starting to recover and had managed to produce a few thousand good ones from the previous harvest.

Each nut went straight to the “koprahan” in our hope that the entire batch could fetch a few thousand pesos from the Chinese trader in Batobalane, a trading hub outside Paracale.

The koprahan, in short, is my mother’s genie in the coconut shell that churns out for her the household petty cash fund and of course, a source of some dough to meet family “emergencies”.

No doubt, the coconut farm during those days was my parents’ last resort after exhausting other means so that my sister Helen and I could pay school fees and take the periodic exams at high school. 

Otherwise, our beloved teachers at JPHS would send us home while the rest of our classmates stewed over the examinations.

I remember some seven years ago during my visit at the farm when we had to fell several trees that showed disease infestation and those that had been badly damaged by previous typhoons. 

I knew that most of the coconut trees in the farm were over 40 years old now, having planted a number of them myself when I was in the elementary and then, in high school.

In the years to come, the koprahan held the key to our economic survival. 

Our family was growing bigger, thus giving more and more pressure to the meager wage my father was earning from the iron mines in Larap where he worked as mechanic.

The farm had always saved the day for us, thanks to my parents’ foresight.

I was still in the graders when my young mother and father, along with my young sister Helen and I started making weekend trips to the farm to oversee a family of Aetas (Philippine aborigines) that was hired to clear my father’s land of thick bushes and tall grasses so that we could crop it with coconut.

The clearing done, the three of us – father, mother and I – braved the blistering sun digging holes all over the clearings throughout the summer season.

These holes became the bed for the young coconut seedlings that father had painstakingly grown over several months. The weekend planting job lasted throughout the raining months following the hot season that normally ended in May.

By the way, just before the onslaught of summer season that begins in February, father would see to it that the “Kabihogs” were at work again at his mountainside property, this time cutting down trees which were later set on fire during the hot days when they turned bone-dry.

This paved way for a new “kaingin”, which we planted to upland rice and later, root crops that included kamote, cassava, taro, yam, gabi and papaya while the soil still had its nutrients.

With the onset of the rainy days, the planting of coconut trees came. And so felling and burning of helpless ancient hardwood trees became a matter of course until the mountainside kingdom was finally denuded, a destructive affair that went for a period of five to six years.

The original koprahan that father built with help from his young relatives doubled as our “hostel” whenever our family had a “grand vacation” each year during school break. In short, it became our sleeping quarters at night. 

During the day, we did the usual cooking here and a lot more to the delight of our farm-bound relatives who were seeing for the first time how townspeople like us eked out a life away from the comforts of our home. 

They had always this impression that at the farm, we were like fish out of water.

Adjusting to farm life with just a “smoking home” protecting us form the elements was a challenge. In the end however, it became enjoyable for everyone as it afforded us kids new tales that awed every one in our class who happened to hear about it.

Father had improvised on home furnishings, an area where he was good at, using coconut palms woven into a mat to serve as walls to cover the four sides of the “koprahan”, just leaving an opening on the front side big enough to allow for passage.

And our sleeping mat was the usual “banig”, fashioned out of some wild palm leaves. For our water needs, we collected drinking water from the nearby spring down the grassy slope on fat, freshly-cut bamboo tubes about two meters long.

This I shoulder-carried back to the koprahan “hostel” mornings and afternoons and sat them just near a makeshift earthen cooking place commonly known as “dapog”.

By then, they were ready for the service for those who would be needing water.

The brook that flowed under a canopy of thick branches and broad leaves just next to the drinking spring was our bathing cubicle.

The pleasure of the mid-morning bath where all eyes could see you was next to nothing, if you want to know the truth. As you soaped yourself while sitting on a rock half submerged in the icy stream, you’d next feel the persistent tiny bites from bush mosquitoes hungry for your blood.

But it was not a problem. Mother had a way of scaring them off – she normally burned coconut husks in three spots on the edge of the flowing water, which later sent bluish smoke billowing all over the place. 

And with this, the pestering bites would be gone in a flash. The morning birds were wonderful because they provided us piped-in music, just like what you would hear when you go steaming at your favorite sauna.

Running silent and deep in some spots, the brook yielded a rich catch of shrimps as big as the forefinger that we never grew tired of chasing right from where we believed the stream originated on the mountainside down the stretched below where we had set a net trap through which we collected them all in one go.

This we cooked with coconut milk,along with fresh ginger roots, “tanglad” (lemon grass) and “kalabasa” (yellow pumpkin) cube.

Indeed, lunch was at its best! And having it under coconut trees was heaven. Here in front of us were some of the dishes spread on fresh banana leaves that we seldom saw at home back in town, prepared by volunteer relatives who wanted us to have nothing but the best of the farm cuisine.

As a child who grew up in town, eating on white slats of banana trunk core mornings, noon and evenings was for me the ultimate experience. 

This was because I had no plates and spoons and forks to deal with like what I used to do at home day in and day out, a task I truly hated doing that I would prefer instead to split cooking firewood.

Here at the farm, all I did after every meal was hauled off the disposable plates to a nearby pit and dumped them into it for good.

ONE DAY years later when I began studying in Manila, our family finances bogged down. The coconut farm could only yield very little having been mangled by a violent typhoon a few months back.

The cash crunch had forced my mother to see some of my father’s relatives in the farm from whom she hoped to borrow some money that I urgently needed for next semester’s enrolment.

None of them would budge unless she pawned/mortgage father’s property to them, and at a usurious scheme.

The deal the money lenders were asking was that while my parents were trying to pay the money back, they would strip clean all the remaining coconuts that were waiting to mature and those bunches of banana that would soon be ready for harvest.

And what’s more, they would also fell the bamboos along the creek that bordered my father’s property to be sold to the “pawid” (nipa shingle) maker in town.

That’s on top of the usurious interest that they would like to hitch with the pawn money.

After making a brief mental calculation on how much the worth of those future harvests would add up to, mother arrived at a figure that was thrice the amount she was trying to borrow.

“No, thanks … I’ll just see someone else …”, mother told the money lenders.

And that was the last time she talked to them.

After some frustrating efforts of chasing would-be lenders, mother decided to see Tata Pulo and Lola Sisa at the farm.

A close relative of my late father, Tata Pulo was considered the patriarch of his huge clan and his words were laws to the members of his family and to those living inside his large coconut estate.

Every villager had assumed that he had lots of money stashed away somewhere (not in the bank, mind you, but right inside his house), which he made from copra making, an endeavor that he hacked once every 45 days.

Tata Pulo and Nana Sisa were close to my parents by reasons I came to know very much later.

When my mother told them about my urgent need to pay school fees for the enroment (I was doing the second semester of my first year in business education), the old couple did not hesitate to produce the cash, which Lola Sisa simply extracted from a small slit on the wall of their sleeping room, thus confirming the village rumor about how they nourished their walls with money.

The truth was that mother was willing to mortgage father’s property just to give them the security. But Tata Pulo rejected it, telling mother it was unnecessary.

“We know you and Jaime … we have seen your efforts to send your children to school and we are happy that one of our relatives is doing just that …and we wanted to help you …” Tata Pulo said. (Father, those days, was employed as mechanic in Guam, but the timing of my school fees was just as bad as he had yet to get his salary, the very first since he began work with the company just a month earlier.)

Speechless for a while, mother couldn’t believe what she just heard. But then, she insisted her promise to pay them back, including interest. Lolo Pulo told her to forget it.
But on one condition, he said.

And he explained to her how it would be as the three of them folded up into a huddle.

So, the next day, after sending the money to me in Manila via postal money order, mother returned to the farm to see Lolo Pulo and Lola Sisa again, this time taking with her the title to father’s property along with other related documents.

A few days later, the news that my parent had mortgaged our coconut farm to Lolo Pulo made rounds of the village, and it really went around quick from one gossip to another, while others decided to see the old man personally to check how true the rumor was.

And Lolo Pulo was always ready to confirm it for them. In fact, he had even volunteered to show the documents in his possession to whoever would care to ask.

Mother was amused whenever some village people asked her about it and she would just say “yes”.

The news had also reached the couple whom mother first approached for the loan. 

They were a bit annoyed because they had long wanted to lay their hands on my father’s coconut farm and they had assumed, like the rest of those who took interest in the property, that my parents would ultimately lose the land to the old couple once it was foreclosed.

After a few months, my parents made good their promise to pay back the loan and “got” the title back.

As for my mother, she had sincerely thanked them no end because they never touched whatever produce that could be had at the farm. 

Lolo Pulo simply told that our family had needed them more than they did, especially the maturing coconut that mother was hoping to claw down soon to catch up with the rising copra prices.

FIVE YEARS AGO when I went home to Manila (from Port Moresby) for my yearly work break, mother and I had a casual talk about the activities at the farm, particularly the replanting efforts that she had initiated to replace the old trees and those that had ceased to yield nuts like they used to.

I casually told her of the story about the farm that I picked up at the village when I was still in the university – that it was mortgaged to Lolo Pulo (now deceased) once and that she and father had almost lost it.

Mother, then 80, looked up at the ceiling, trying to download something from her distant past, a littled jolted by what I just said. 

Then, she giggled and declared: “No … it was not true… it was never mortgaged to them (Lolo Pulo and Lola Sisa) … your Lolo Pulo himself had refused it although he loaned us a big some for your schooling”.

Well, that’s interesting. “So, what’s the real story …Nanay?” I asked.

“You see, there were many people who wanted to borrow money from them, but whom they had been refusing ever since after they failed to get back what they loaned out … and these included their own grown-up children who now have their own families,” mother explained.

Mother recalled that before Lolo Pulo handed her the money that day, they made a deal to make it appear that she had mortgaged father’s coconut farm, up to the point of surrendering the land title to them and that the old couple would appropriate all the crops the farm would yield during the mortgage period.

That was the “press release” that Tata Pulo issued out to the village for gossips’ consumption.

One reason was that the old man did not want his children and relatives to know that he loaned out a big sum to my mother with nothing in return for security. 

This way, even their own grown-up children would have no reason to think that their own father had been “madamot” to them. 

But anyway, as far as Lolo Pulo and Lola Sissa were concerned, talks like that – if ever they transpired  -- never bothered them.

First of all, they had given their children all the support they needed to make their family economically sufficient, but when they did, they did not bother to pay them back, believing that Tata Pulo wouldn’t mind.

But on the contrary, this was deeply resented by the old couple who felt that their trust had been violated and abused by their own children. And since then, they never lent money to them or to anybody else unless he came across with some sort of pawn or security.

Well, for all you know, my father was among the village boys who grew up into manhood under Lolo Pulo’s watchful eyes during the pre-war years. And it was my father who succeeded in freeing himself from the clutches of farm life when he took the courage to flee the farm shortly after WWII for a better life in Manila, where he ended up meeting and eventually marrying my mother.

And in later years, Lulo Pulo and Lola Sisa had praised my parents for succeeding in seeing us through college by sheer hard work, patience and firm resolve despite difficulties in raising seven children.

Indeed, in Tata Pulo’s village, only one or two had managed to follow in my father’s footsteps in later years.

FOR SOMEBODY living in a foreign country like me, pictures from home are always pleasure to look at, and the ones that my brother sent me showing an old icon that had lived in my youth were no exception.

In fact, the download of memories from those wonderful pictures goes on.

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