My undergraduate self who took my Comparative Literature thesis laughably seriously knew to thank biological uncles and titos—the ones I grew up with, and who were brought into my life by parents who kept very few people close.
That was a diverse set of men, some of whom in my adult years I have ceased to have relationships with. One of them, one of a gay quartet of friends of my mother’s, left me with books and projects (real and those in my head). He who arrived in the rain on the last day of submission of freshmen UP applications with the forms rolled under his jacket, who said, take Geology (puwede i-telescope ang boys!), but agreed with the choice of Comparative Literature. He who sent more books my way, giving me the ones I needed for class, or those that would be counterpoint to what I was required to read. I was—still am—thinking and writing the way I do because he was around for most of my life.
Another one of those titos, one I am bound to be by blood and last name, died recently. Though he was around for most of my childhood, and into much of my adulthood, I would be lying if I said I knew him. One finds that we know only as much as memory allows us. Maybe that is to say memory’s enough.
The big man
As a child in a big old house in Victory Avenue, Sundays were for family. That meant a grandfather who would come from Bulacan with alimango and talangka, talaba and hito; a grandmother all made-up with hair pre-set in rollers. Older cousins coming from Church, the extended family arriving one by one. A garage filled with cars.
Tito B was one of the scarier uncles then, the second eldest in the family, I thought him huge literally, a giant to my smallness. I was not one to be singled out, but none of us were; he had four kids of his own, the elder of my cousins, and his hands were full. His voice was low, his tone—as with my father’s—was wont to turn all Bulakenyo on us. I do not remember laughter, though I do remember the eating. How we ate in that house on Sundays.
I was one of many kids then who knew that the only way we might get ice cream for meryenda was if one of us was able to ask Tito B to buy us some. This meant a strategy too complex for my young mind. The timing needed to be perfect i.e., he wasn’t about to take an afternoon nap or wasn’t just waking up from one. If there were guests around, the chances were higher that he’d say yes, but we’d have to ask nicely.
Sundays without ice cream were rare.
Soon enough, as with most families, we got older, got busier, became adults. There are plenty of stories to tell, as there might be one thing to say: we have lived.
I’d like to think that Tito B can speak of that, too, no matter how age and body forced him to stop doing the things he loved, the person that he was. I was removed from the kind of man he was in the city he served, the city hall he worked from, but I knew from Papa who was closest to him how important that job was. I would hear much much later how that stretch of time serving the city— while in the end controversial—also meant good things.
For family it meant generosity. Tito B was one to help out, few questions asked. He was one to insist on lunches and reunions, probably the only one who could get Papa up early in the day no matter a late night gig.
In his fifties Papa would reunite with high school batchmates in a band that played in gigs across the metro, and, as in the 60’s, Tito B would often be there; the proud kuya (diko, actually) who also loved to dance.
His was a presence that was felt in family even when he was silent.
In 2009, reeling from a huge personal loss, I happened upon the University of Makati for an event that used its conference hall. I wondered aloud, though idly, if I might teach there. Papa mentioned it to Tito B, and the following week—just a couple of days after I wondered about teaching there at all—I was being introduced to officials of the University as someone who wanted to teach, and would they take me in?
Of course this still meant going through a teaching demo and interviews, about which Tito B asked a challenge-question: O, kaya mo naman ‘yon, diba?
That might have been the longest conversation I had had with him since childhood. But that year I was in UMak I was often in his home, and he would ask about how things were. How was I, coming as I did from such a difficult time. It was a comfort to say the least, as it was a surprise.
One realizes it takes very little for family to become so, even less for uncles to be almost fathers. With Tito B, it was treating us to ice cream on Sundays and being a caring brother to Papa, as it was the unexpected conversation at the most perfect time. One finds that because he was quiet and distant, Tito B’s words were most valuable.
What memory keeps of those words is more than enough.