Thursday, October 15, 2015

Growing up a Neri-San Jose – in Cagayan de Oro in the 50’s


As I watch the grandkids on my rare visits to their places of abode, I cannot help but be amazed at their almost unbelievable growth compared to the last time.  It feels like one has traveled to some distant misty future to witness the changed images of them in adulthood.  In another vein, one becomes sullenly introspective about one’s own travel through aging.   If they have grown this fast, then time must have lapsed sufficiently to make one feel and look old or older.  The latter definitely is my case.

 One cannot then help reflect on one’s own childhood, as a way of comparing that past to the startling present that has caught one unawares, and off-guard.  One accepts that it cannot be helped since man is innately reflective and wants to be assured of some continuity either with life in general, or selfishly, of one’s own perpetuity or immortality.

But how does one reminisce about one’s own childhood without being biased or partial since one reflects through the prism one has developed growing up?  In other words, how does one write about personal experiences without investing too much of one’s emotions and acquired prejudices into that narrative?

Nothing like putting things in writing and finding out or allowing third parties to make judgments.  This bit of autobiography undertakes this rather intimate narrative with an intent to allow those privy to it to maybe also introduce their own versions on the same incidents.  That way many sides are exposed and brought into the mix, and one can hopefully arrive at a truer depiction of events of an era gone by.

An early challenge to this attempt at impartiality may be the particular way I grew up as a child.  Though I had 8 other siblings in the family, which was headed by my mother, I pretty much grew up on my own.  Most times alone with my adolescent thoughts, and making decisions without counsel from anybody else including my mother.  Family conversations/discussions, beyond the casual or cursory exchanges necessary to maintain minimal functioning in a household, were mostly non-existent.  Rare indeed were the deep interactions I had with all my siblings.

Given this rather dysfunctional conundrum, one could not again help feel inadequate in certain assumed qualities needed to make for a more adjusted or well-balanced growth as an individual.  And certainly I can point to certain personal quirks which may be fruits of this unwanted situation.  I judge myself quite timid and ill at ease in my social interactions with my peers and those in authority.  Since I knew that I had to rely solely on my own, my actions came out appearing bereft of moral certitude and with a big dose of tentativeness. And so much hesitation was quite normal in making actions that were clearly in hindsight easy to do, and with no shame or reservations attached.

I vividly recall the case of a green glass flower vase of my mother, who in introspect was quite solicitous with the few things she had in her life,  that I had used as altar ornament for the school’s chapel, having been assigned in class for the purpose.  But for some unrecalled reason I was too timid and hesitant to approach the caretakers of the chapel to ask for my mom’s vase back, though there obviously was no reason why I could not do it.  I was just too timid to even try.  So that every time I passed by that chapel I would be reminded of the vase.  And every time I recall taking a furtive look at the altar to see if it was still being used.  I believe this whole thing was slowly forgotten when I noticed the vase missing in the altar. My mother never knew about it and she never asked about it.   

Another very stubbornly-remembered incident which happened in early high school was a book borrowed from the school library.  That book may have been a James Fenimore Cooper classic, like Last of the Mohicans, or maybe even, Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Since I was quite slow in reading it or procrastinated too much, the return date had expired by the time I had occasion to attend to it.   And there was then a penalty assessed for any late return.  I believe it started at 10 centavos for the first week or so, then more added as weeks passed.  I again found myself unable to approach the librarian whom I knew anyway (Mr. Portillo) that I allowed that book to be late for a long period of time, though every time I passed the library this gnawing feeling of anxiety and frustration would inch up to bedevil my mind.  How I finally resolved that simple dilemma, I cannot now recall.  But somehow it got returned.

All things considered, I did manage to grow up not too bad, though I would still be nervous in front of a crowd and especially in front of ladies.  I just couldn’t help it.  My speech would at times be rushed, high-pitched and shaky.  And my mind would draw a blank, running mostly on reflex. Relief would come only after I would be back to being alone.  And to this day, this remains a mortal challenge for me, incessantly focusing on controlling and setting aside this very cumbersome and frustrating behavior.  Though I am getting better in control as I age, more and more.

Those preliminaries resolved and shunted aside, let me proceed to committing to print the many vignettes and homely sceneries collected during my youth, as I still continue to remember or recall them.

Life in the idyllic 50’s in rustic Cagayan de Oro City can be randomly described as the following.  A city of maybe 40,000 souls, each mostly known by everybody else with familiarity sufficient enough to qualify as a typical nodding-acquaintance kind of a relationship.  A city of narrow streets defining grid-iron type of city blocks, some paved with asphalt and the rest of graveled pavement.  Open drainage canals laced both sides of the streets, fed by the outflows coming from each house.  Drainage consisting of water from kitchen and bathroom sinks, from bathroom showers, and soupy waters from laundering done, etc.  We lived a mere block away from Divisoria Park, the central locus of life in the city, where parades congregated, important events held, political campaigns germinated, where most community-wide activities transpired.  At some point, we had lived right along the perimeter of the plaza, with our second-storey windows looking into the square; where by the way, the public market was once conducted.

No television, and only one radio station to provide listening entertainment or as medium for news both local and national.  Vehicles were few giving streets their perpetually empty look, save for the ubiquitous tartanillas noisily plying city streets. The two most popular schools in the city, one run by RVM nuns and the other by the Jesuits, were both a block or two away from where we lived.  Even the cathedral, the place of worship for most residents was a few minutes’ walk away.  And of great significance to the city, the river that traverses the city and which probably figured prominently in the location of the city was again a few hurried steps away.

In fine, the world that my youth gravitated in was very miniscule and provincial.  If we were not at school which was located two blocks away, we were gathered in the town plaza which was a block away.  And if we had some loose change for movies, we hied over to the few decrepit movie houses right in front of the plaza, or two blocks away.

Loved to be alone in movies to enjoy my kind of pubescent escapism at a very cheap price (the cost of a day’s baon). And during hot summery weekends we had the run of the beaches located some 3-4 kilometers away going east where relatives had beachfront properties.  And for household needs the public market was right in the plaza occupying two of its many sections.  And if out-town trips were made, the pier area was only 3 kilometers away going north, from which distance many hardy individuals could simply walk to.  In the very scant occasions where air travel was had, the rudimentary airport was maybe 5 kilometers from the poblacion.

In this rather isolating environment my childhood travels and experiences were similarly defined.  Most of our activities and interests were centered on our even smaller and rather quaint little neighborhood, consisting of a few blocks, and bound closely not only by its minute size, but by the fact that most residents were more or less related to each other.

Out of this microcosmic tapestry, my childhood memories were woven into whole cloth to form my youth.

Being born a Neri-San Jose came with some preconceived notion about being high-born, whether deserved or not.   The name itself was easy ticket to all that was deserving of those who carried the same name, duly earned by them because of wealth, renown, and influence.  Or even notoriety, like that of two of my grandfather’s siblings who were noted for their very miserly ways.  And their rumored deceptive ways of acquiring wealth.

Typical of the misconception about the name then was that being a Neri-San Jose denoted being born of wealth and influence, typically shown in real estate holdings.  The local historical facts were given as default reasons by those outside of family circles.  Clearly it is not logical to assume that all who carry that name would necessarily be similarly privileged.  And my father’s family being worthy to that fame did not necessarily hold true or carry over the next generation or two.   And of such was our case.

Being always embarrassed by that undeserved adulation which truly did not apply to us though others would continue to insist on it, one had perfected the response of either being quiet about it or simply saying that we did not belong to that class though we carried the same name.

We did derive some pleasure and satisfaction associating and confirming our close relationships with those relatives who did deserve the renown and popularity.

Part of my precious youth was spent with relatives.  During early HS I lived with an aunt as companion for her only son.  They lived in a big and new house in Lapasan District, which then seemed like some distant barrio, not serviced by electricity.

And true enough, we lived in a little neighborhood were a number of our rich relatives also lived.  Though their houses were more worthy of praise than ours, we did belong with them in that sense, that we lived close to each other.  Though it rarely went beyond living close to each other because we never really developed closer personal interactions with them.  But we did not mind that much, since we were contented knowing we lived in close proximity.

A sister of my grandfather was steeped not only in the pious practice of her Catholic religion, but also overly generous in her show of support of its mission.  Thus, any call for donations would be responded to not only with gusto, but with unprecedented generous amounts.  Thus, in the periodic listing of donations, which would prominently be posted at the main entrance of the cathedral, one would see her name on top of the list, with the rest way down below her in terms of amounts given.  I confess it elicited some personal pride knowing the same last name was shared.

To end and in fine, after making this pained comparison, I judge my own inauspicious and materially-sparse childhood almost diametrically different from those of my grandkids.  How blessed they have been.  This rapidly modernizing world has opened countless doors of opportunities for them to develop and choose the kind of lives their dreams can weave for them.

But I am quite willing to let go of my own and move on without much regrets but filled with hope.  Ready to pass from this life.  With the firm hope that our succeeding generations can forge better in forming their lives and being worthy contributors to humanity.

For sure, better than what our generation has been or will be.