Picking dry leaves

I still can vividly recall a recurring scene at the backyard of our old house some 18, I’m not sure, maybe 19, years ago.  It’s an image of my four siblings and me (our youngest sister was born several years after) picking up dry leaves that had fallen from an old Jackfruit tree.

This was our father’s “assignment” to us which we did with dedication every five in the afternoon after coming home from our classes in a nearby public elementary school. Our eldest sister, Mae, was 10 then. I was 8. Des, my brother born after me, was 7. Sef was 5; he attended kindergarten in the morning and at five, after sleeping the whole afternoon, already ready for play or to take part in any physical activity with us. And Gemini was 3, already an able ambler.

It was a task we took seriously, too seriously in fact that it became an opportunity for the five of us to compete with each other on who could pick the most number of dry leaves.

We had a method to this madness.

Before coming home, Mae, Des, and I passed by the stand of an old woman selling barbecued plantains (which we called sinugba nga saging because my parents are both Ilonggos, but which our schoolmates called saging ginanggang because they were all Cebuanos. The five of us never bothered speaking their language. As a generic term we called this snack banana-Q, which is not accurate since deep fried plantains in brown sugar were also called with it).

These barely cooked plantains were brushed with margarine and rolled in white sugar then skewered (I doubt if this is the appropriate word for it) using bamboo sticks that were sharpened at the tip.

To this day I cannot understand why our mother did not keep us from buying that snack, as everything about it was clearly a deadly weapon.

The plantains looked dirty after having swum in the ashes of the charcoals the old woman used to barbecue them. The margarine was without a brand name, and it was conspicuously colored in striking yellow similar to those used in emergency road signs. The brush used to envelop the plantains in that margarine-from-hell was a paint brush, and a used one, as evidenced by the chipping green latex paint on the handle. The sugar that stuck onto the bananas seemed to be from the same batch of sugar used in the previous weeks because it looked more like beach sand than sugar; individual sugar crystals could not be distinguished from the ashes that got mixed with it. Our taste in food, apparently, was very sophisticated. And lethal.

Lest I forget, the bamboo stick, which I remember using as arrows to target shoot the banana trees of our neighbor that stood in a community garden beside a small Catholic chapel. Legend has it that a grade four pupil in our elementary school was killed after having stepped on a protruding barbecue stick. That pupil’s ghost remained in the school to haunt students and teachers alike, or something that went like that, depending on the temperament of the storyteller.

After having our fill of that unforgettable delicious afternoon snack, the five of us proceeded with the operation.

We used those bamboo sticks sharpened at the tip to pick those fallen Jackfruit leaves in our backyard. The idea was simple, we punctured each leaf until they accumulate into a bunch of stabbed dry leaves. Each of us had a base camp where we stockpile our Jackfruit leaves “barbecue”.

The one who picked the most leaves won.

I don’t remember what we did with the leaves after, what the winner got as prize after winning, or what happened to the Jackfruit tree when we moved to a new house years after.

What I vividly recall, though, was our old backyard that was free from those fallen dry leaves.

And our father smiling at us.

An old photo

Thanks to Facebook and its subscribers who almost instinctively upload pictures unearthed from their files or old family albums and tag everyone in the picture, I am happily reminded of how malnourished-looking I was when I was very young, how my older sister was much taller than I and darker-skinned, how my younger brother was so fat and cute, and, most importantly, how straight my hair was. It was shiny and straight then, now it’s nothing but frizzy and thick and can only be controlled by having it shaved too close to the scalp.

This picture was taken during a birthday party of my second cousin, the kid in blue shirt at the center of the picture. My sister and I always looked forward to his birthday because it meant balloons, spaghetti floating in sweet ketchup sauce, and lots of sweets and toys given away. Images of that party, far removed from my memory until now, is very vivid I can almost taste the fruit salad, pancit, and lechong baboy; hear the laughter of children my age and the conversations of adults; feel my childhood that passed me by so fleetingly.

And see the piercing look of my sister if she finds out this impertinence–my posting here of this horrifying reminder of a past best kept hidden in memory.

I want…

I want to eat peanut butter, just peanut butter. I want to have a straight eight-hour sleep, not three, four, or five. I want to ride a tapir, not a tricycle, a jeepney, or a train. I want to stay home for a whole day and finish everything in my reading list. I want to swim some more lapses. I want my mother’s laswa soaking in hot Dinorado rice. I want to go to Pampanga and be with my sister, I miss her doting kindness. I want to ride a plane, now. I want to see a giraffe kicking a hyena in the face. I want to fill this page with non-sense. I want to splatter Jollibee spaghetti on the first person I meet wearing white. I want to insert my wet middle finger in the electric outlet behind me. I want to shout at the people living in the room facing ours and tell them how gay the color of their curtains is. I want to glutton on a gallon of stale vanilla ice cream. I want to drink the water from tap downstairs and wait if I contract cholera or die from typhoid. I want to seal the room shut, turn off the air-con and find out how long it will take before my lungs collapse because of asphyxia. I want to have a fishbowl, without a fish, because I can’t have a fish. I want to have a birdcage, just the birdcage, I cannot have a bird inside. But if I can, I want to have a myna and teach it how to eloquently blurt all the expletives I know.

I want to take a shower. I want to eat, I am hungry. I want to wash all my dirty pants by hand. I want to confess to the owner of the stray wi-fi signal named Belkin_e0d37a that I am having a free ride and that I am willing to pay him for the time I, unintentionally, used his signal to publish several of the posts here. I want to delete my Facebook account. I want to apologize to my readers for me having written this far and for them having read this extent.

I want to extract all my molar teeth using a pair of pliers. I want to shout at the top of my lungs that I am          . I want to think that I am being read. I want to think that what I have to say matters. I want to.

I want to simply continue writing this. I want to clean the house. I want to water the plant I have always wanted to have, but never had. I want to see my vibrantly verdant bougainvillea (it would have been this species) crawl and colonize the house until the living room resembles like a Peruvian sarcophagus. I want to know why I am entertaining these thoughts and have mustered enough bitter gall to publish them.

I want to think that by writing these things I want but cannot have or do I am finally acknowledging that some things go nowhere. And that other things, the nonsensical ones especially, get to be written down here.

A photo of the six of us

Our eldest sister made this collage of pictures she took from each of our web accounts. I thought it was so sweet of her. The last time we were complete as a family was almost two years ago celebrating Christmas. We’ve all gone to different places now: two are already working, I am still finding for a job, two are in college, and our youngest who is still in elementary. Our house started to feel like an empty nest for our parents several years ago. Except for our youngest sister, 10, and some of our cousins who occasionally visit or stay for the night, our parents are left alone.

High school friends often ask me when I’ll be home. I cannot give a definite answer. Home is too far away for me and for my other siblings. But I know we’ll all find time to visit our hometown and be with each other and our parents.

I am missing everyone.


Mundane existence and Checkov

The drizzle outside complements this wintry afternoon. I thought of buying some milk and peanuts per advice of my eldest sister when we’re still young – “Nami ni ang mani kag gatas kung magstudy ka ba, makapa-bright” (Peanuts and milk are good when you’re studying; they’ll make you intelligent). So despite the cold wind and a little rain shower, I braved to go out and bought those things. The old woman who owns the nearby store told me that her daughter sold me the bear bread I bought four days ago from the same store three thousand dongs less than its actual price so that means I have to pay eighteen thousand (the peanuts cost 15,000).


And now I am back in my room again, listening to Hey Jude! of the Beatles and contemplating about what Anton Checkov said: “Any idiot can face a crisis, it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.” The man never failed to capture truths about humanity. The mundane tires us so much that we can think of nothing but recreating crises after crises in our lives just so we remain useful in our own eyes.

I’ve never felt this scared of a final exam before, not even those that involved numbers. I’ll have the culmination of my stay here in Vietnam six days from now, and the regrets of not studying well when I had enough time are mounting, yet I know that I can do nothing but make the best out of the six days given to me to gain a certain level of proficiency in Tieng Viet. And this mundane task is starting to consume me, to leave me lifeless after.

It’s laughable how our entire life is, all of a sudden, placed at stake as if all the past achievements we have had don’t really matter, as if what counts is only anything that has to do with the now.

Nonetheless, I won’t let this fine afternoon tempt me to wallow in complacency for I am racing against time. I may get a passing grade, but never will I be satisfied with merely passing the subject, my inner self won’t let me.  This inner drive is too vicious to settle for mediocrity. This I think is my definition of mundane, commonplace. And, in Checkov’s words, this wears me out.

When we’ve grown too old to play ‘Snakes and Ladders’

This is a very simple board game that is dependent on nothing but sheer luck. Our mother introduced this to us when we were still very young. I was eight years old then. Playing snakes and ladders involves throwing of a die that will determine how many moves a player will take, and depending on his fortune, he may go to a safe tile, climb the ladder and go up several notches, or be eaten by a snake and go back a lower level. The player who reaches the 100th tile first wins the game.

I have three sisters and two brothers. The six of us grew up in a rather protected household. My childhood memory is replete of any friends from the outside. Although my parents did not prevent us from mingling with the neighbors’ children but still we did not go out of the house to play with any of the children our age. It was either we hated rough games or we thought that we did not need anyone because the six of us were more than enough to play hide-and-seek or tug-of-war or whatever game we could think of, and besides we used to think that our neighbors’ children despised us and thought of as us too snobbish.

And so snakes and ladders was one of our past times in the early nineties when Playstation and some other modern games were non-existent or, if they were already in the market, too expensive for our parents, who are both public school teachers, to afford. Oh I remember we had a Nintendo family computer where we had to insert a very big “bala” or cards to play Super Mario or a very rudimentary Motorbike race using our black and white television set as monitor. But it was only the six of us then – my eldest sister, myself, my two younger brothers and two younger sisters.

A decade after, we are already too old to play snakes and ladders or any children’s game.

I had a chat with my eldest sister two days ago. I reassured her that after I finished my scholarship I shall keep my promise to help support the schooling of my two younger brother and sister who are both in college now. I know it was difficult for my sister for she had been sacrificing for the past four years, setting aside all the plans for her self just to help my parents with the education of my younger siblings. I just thought that next year it’ll be a time for her to seek for whatever is in store for her. I told her that I am willing to postpone my master’s degree in Journalism at a university in the US because it is more important for me that she can also do something she really loves to do and not just because she feels obligated to do it.

I also feel the same for my brother who is next to me. He graduated from college a year ago and is now contemplating to go to Romania to be a hotel staff or do a job similar to that. I asked him if he has already made up his mind, he told me he has no choice, “It’s for the family, Yan,” he told me.

The Author, Mae Byrd (24), Sef Daye (19), Ojualyn (10), Gemini (17), Des Neil (20)
The Author, Mae Byrd (24), Sef Daye (19), Ojualyn (10), Gemini (17), Des Neil (20)

We’ve already grown up. Our concerns are not anymore about how to win a game of snakes and ladders but how to make our family whole. I used to think of my eldest sister as selfish and immature and my brother next to me as someone beyond my understanding. They are my siblings but I’ve never really known them, but through the years, I’m starting to see other sides of them that have remained hidden to me despite the number of years we spent together in South Cotabato and even while we were still in college.

It occurred to me that it was I who is selfish and who thought of nothing but the advancement of my career. Although my sister will never have the guts to tell to my face, but I knew she also wants me to do my share of the sacrifices. And I promised her I will. I will be turning 23 next year, in a time most crucial to my growth as a member of the academe, but I know it’ll never hurt me if I give up just two years of my life for my younger siblings and for my sister who also has to find her place under the sun.

I just want to share the ladders I’ve accumulated through the years and kill as many snakes as I can to help my other siblings, the children I used to play snakes and ladders with during our past times in the early 90s, reach the 100th tile together with me.