My mother disguised the vault door with a varnished bamboo shelving unit, with a section that swung out to gain access to the vault. I was born in this house and I never heard anyone question why we lived in a house with a bank-standard vault. Until I was in third grade when, during a birthday party of my older brother, I heard a cousin brag to friends about our vault and insisted that my brother show it off. I wondered why this was a big deal (the boys surrounded my brother begging him to show and tell!) and for the first time wondered why it was there, in our house!
What I learned about our house on Justicia Street, Bacolod City, years later,
included the history of the family business. Our house served as the office of the family’s numerous businesses, which included a taxicab company, a local commuter bus service, a cinema house, and the family’s sugar cane plantations. The first three were cash businesses and it made sense that a bank-standard vault was needed to keep the cash until a weekly or every-other-day deposit was made in the bank. The vault also housed all the important documents including land titles, personal and professional IOUs, and corporate and tax files.
After the war (WWII), when my father’s family returned to the city and reclaimed their residences from the Japanese military occupiers, my father and his siblings—all married with young children except for the youngest brother—were expected to move into my grandfather’s art deco mansion on Burgos Street. The iconic building was the tallest building in the city and while doubtful it would fit all the families with children, my grandfather’s word was final. They would all move in together. The patriarch suffered a major stroke during the war period and was ordered to live in a more tranquil location away from the recently liberated city that was in political turmoil. He made it known through his belabored paralyzed speech pattern where his family would settle right after liberation was announced.
Everyone followed his orders, except for my mother. She convinced my father that as much as she adored her father-in-law, moving into the mansion with three other families was not a good idea and she would have none of it, especially since they were expecting their second child. It is not clear how she prevailed, but in the latter half of 1945, the family office on Justicia Street was converted into our house and we were spared from sharing the mansion with the rest of the family.
It was not an ideal location. It shared a wall with the city’s water district and public bathhouse, was walking distance to the town plaza and cathedral, and just before sunset, when the bathhouse was drained, the house was the recipient of a stench that lasted for hours. But there was enough positive side of the ledger for my memory of that house in the center of town to be filled with fondness and a fun childhood. First off, we were the only house with a walk-in vault! Secondly, we had a huge avocado tree in the front of the house where somebody (not my father, I’m sure) made a platform on top and was a perfect refuge from homework or piano lessons. Last but not least, our gate was literally in front of the gate to the school where the first four children started. Although I refused to start kindergarten (buxom Mrs. Ballesteros, with her generous girth and super bright red lipstick terrified me) my mother was wise to argue with the principal that I will be ready for first grade (I was).
Life was simple in my hometown then. Around the corner from our house, past the bathhouse and across a small bridge, was our favorite sari-sari store owned and run by Buktot (hunchback) who carried the latestion of chicklets and packaged candy with gifts inside. He was a kind man. I was never afraid of his malformed body and felt helpless when I saw people taunting him. I always included him in my night prayers (with the hidden wish that he would save the best candy-with-gift for me). The town plaza, which went through a menacing phase when I was in high school, was then a safe place for us children to visit as long as we were accompanied by an adult—usually an aunt who lived with us, or a nanny. It was a place to get local ice cream during hot steamy days. The cathedral, built in the 1880s, was literally behind our school in the southern end of the campus, and served all our church needs, including baptisms, weddings, funerals.
I didn’t have words to describe my hometown when I went to the US for the first time to go to college. I was both defensive about it and embarrassed by its simpliciity compared to life as I saw it in the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet I knew deep inside it was a special place though no words would come to me to describe the land I came from. No great beaches to tout, but there’s a beautiful but active volcano that scared anyone who heard my hometown was within its reach. I tried to describe the ubiquitous landscape of sugarcane fields, from the flatlands to the rolling hills in the foothills of the volcano’s range, but it sounded mundane. Then I tried to recall the morning cockadoodledoo of the fighting roosters that inhabited almost every abode in my hometown which I missed. But the idea of fighting roosters for sport was a no-no to most non-Fiipinos. As a freshman living in the dorm, one night I called home and my mother answered the phone. I could tell how excited she was to hear from me and I heard her call Papa to come to the phone. But I could hardly hear her and at first I thought it was the phone connection. Mama was almost screaming at the other end. Then I understood: It was raining so hard in my hometown and the downpour was drowning out all the noise! I started to cry and when the din died down my mother heard me sobbing at the other end. She was alarmed and asked if I was okay, what was the matter? And between sobs I said: I miss the rain! I miss our rain! I miss my hometown, my home!
My hometown: remembered through sights, sounds and smells.