• The Summer I Was Seven

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    (For Eleanor)

    MAY
    Last summer I was seven-and-a-half, Macky was five, Cheng-Cheng two, and Aniel one. It was vacation time and I had started missing Lilibeth and Anthony who were my classmates and best friends in school. Before the school ended in March, we had made promises to visit each other, but somehow, we never got around to. Anyway, in April, we all went on vacation to Aklan, Mommy, Cheng-Cheng, Aniel and I. We stayed with Mommy’s mother, our other Lola, in her house which was near the sea.

    How we loved it! What fun it was! We spent practically all day on the beach, swimming and splashing each other with water. I wore that bathing suit Mommy had bought at COD. Mommy kept taking pictures of us. I did a lot of poses. Later on, when I saw the pictures, I saw how dark I had become from staying too long at the beach and bathing in the salty water under the hot summer sun.

    Lola’s house was small compared to our house in Manila. But it was made of concrete, too, because it was dangerous, said Lola, to have a house not made of concrete if you were living near the sea. We did not have lights like the ones we had in Manila. Instead, we had a gas lamp, a Petromax, which had a bulb inside a glass case which was suspended from the ceiling. The light it cast was very bright orange and rather hot.

    We ate a lot of fish and shrimps and crabs and boiled vegetables, food I didn’t eat much of in Manila, but Mommy said, “Eat whatever is on the table.” Still, I wondered how I could’ve eaten all that for almost a month. Maybe Lola had a special way of cooking them. But deep in my heart, I missed the fried chicken wings and chicken adobo my Lola in Manila cooked for us, and also the friend longganisa and chicharon my Mommy would buy in the market.

    We slept on wooden beds without mattresses. There was no television and in the evenings, after an early supper and music coming from her transistor radio, Lola would gather all of us to tell us stories. But she spoke Tagalog badly and so we couldn’t understand most of what she was saying. She was always smiling and laughing a lot though, and hugging and kissing each one of us, which felt very nice. She smelled of the sun and of coconut oil which she put in her hair every time she took a bath.

    But summer by the sea with Lola was not to last forever.

    And soon it was over. So soon we were hauling our things to a jeepney which was to bring us to the pier in Kalibo. Then we were at the pier and Mommy was carrying Cheng-Cheng and Aniel in her arms and a cousin and Lola were dragging our luggage and in no time we were all settled on our cots in the big boat which would carry us back to Manila. Before we sailed, Lola embraced each of us tightly and asked that we come back again next year.

    BACK in Manila, I found the heat unbearable and I missed the beach and the sea and the waves.

    I played jumping rope, piko, patintero, Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar with the children in the neighborhood. Also, we played titser-tisteran, with me turning out to be a very strict teacher to them. I re-read the books my Mommy had given me when I was younger, like Little Red Riding Hood, Thumbelina, Three Little Pigs, and Hansel and Gretel. And I watched my favorite TV shows, like Kulit-Bulilit, Kaluskos-Musmos, Ron-Ron, Candy-Candy, Sesame Street and Electric Company.

    In the afternoon, our narrow street would fill up with various groups of children of all ages, playing all sorts of games, screaming and shouting, and Mommy would irritably drive away those who came close to our house. Of course, most of the time, Macky and I would be with them, unless we were watching television.

    In a week’s time, there was going to be fiesta in our place and already there were streamers and buntings hanging all over the streets and esquinitas. Our neighborhood soon bloomed with all sorts of ambulant vendors, their pushcarts tantalizing all of us children with ice-cream, frozen buko salad on a stick, fishballs soaked in sweet or sour sauce, popcorn and cotton candy. They usually came in the early afternoon, around 2 o’clock, and left before dusk fell. Only the popcorn man stayed. Way until dark. Or as long as the children, we children would still be out in the streets playing our games and munching popcorn in-between.

    The Popcorn Man! We waited for him to show up each day all that summer. Everybody gathered around him when he came although some preferred the Cotton Candy Man, but the Cotton Candy Man was not always around. Everybody clamored for that small pack of yellow salted popcorn or the red sweetened ones which I preferred. I always asked for 25 centavos from my Mommy or from my Lola and then I would go munching the popcorn in a corner of the bed while watching the adventures of Ron Ron and Candy-Candy, and Macky would be grumbling and sulking because I wouldn’t give him any, and he would go to Mommy and tell her how selfish I was and Mommy would irritably fish out a twenty-five centavo coin from her wallet, annoyed that she had been disturbed while viewing Anna-Liza.

    Then came our 2-day fiesta. I never found our street as busy and festive and as merry as during this time. Long strips of multi-colored buntings and streamers hung high across the street between houses, crackling with the blowing of the hot and humid winds of May. For two days, a brass band paraded around the neighborhood several times in the day, led by a beautiful, smart-looking girl wearing a very short, white skirt and high boots, smartly marching and masterfully twirling a baton in her hand. Plenty of games and contests were held in the afternoon. I participated in the “Break the Pot,” where each of us contestants, our eyes blindfolded, tried to hit an old clay pot loaded with coins. I also took part in the Pepsi drinking contest, finishing well ahead of the others, but which made me feel so bloated and tearful and sick afterwards. The worst thing was I began throwing up. I won the ten pesos but Mommy got so angry with me for what she called my “overdoing it.” There were other games I didn’t participate in but enjoyed nonetheless as spectator, like the “buko game,” where the contestants rolled on rough, dusty ground trying to beat each other in capturing a greasy, slippery, young coconut which kept getting wrenched out of their hands, and the sack race, where participants, the lower half of their bodies slid inside the sack hopped frantically to reach the finish line first.

    But there was something else which I joined and that was the dancing contest. I danced so well, with such abandon, to the tune of Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu – the sound warped by a bad sound system – and indeed later romped away with the prize money of fifty pesos. Mommy took three snapshots of me and indeed I think I did better than the WEA twins the way I danced that night.

    At 7 o’clock in the evening, the procession from the church passed down our street, parading the images of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her white heavenly robes, and Jesus the Nazarene, and the Holy family, all carefully poised upon make-shift altars, resplendently garlanded with immaculate white sampaguitas. Girls heavily made-up, wearing elegant dresses were escorted by handsome young men wearing barong Tagalogs which looked like they came straight from the tailor’s shop. Everybody in the procession was dressed in what seemed to be their nicest clothes and everybody’s face glowed amidst the light of the burning candle everyone held.

    All of us, Mommy, Daddy, Lola, Macky, Cheng-Cheng, Aniel and I watched the procession from our veranda and made the sign of the cross as each holy image passed by.
    A week later, the rains came.

    JUNE
    It is the first week of June. In another week, I’ll be back in school. And I’ll see Lilibeth and Anthony again. And we will be playing hide and seek and telling stories about our favorite TV shows and the movies we saw during the summer vacation. I saw Superman II at Greenhills with my Tita Ging and her friend Tita Nancy. Maybe I’ll tell them too about the bump-car rides I had at Harrison Plaza and the toys and Sanrio things I saw at Shoe Mart.
    Only I wonder if Lilibeth, Anthony and I and the rest of our classmates can still play in the schoolyard and run after each other, because it looks like it’s going to rain a lot from now on.

    Yes, the skies get dark and cloudy most of the time now. And I terribly miss the sun of May. It drizzles several times a day and when there is a heavy downpour our street becomes a pool of muddy water. Macky and I hate it because we can not play outside anymore. Mother and Lola forbid us to, for we create quite a mess in the sala with our slippers caked with mud.

    Summer seems so far away now. The house of Lola near the sea in Aklan, the shouts of us children in the street as we played our games all afternoon during that hot month of May, the sweat that covered my body after hours of playing, and the refreshing shower afterwards – all gone.

    Gone too are the ambulant vendors: the Ice-cream man, the Fishball man, the Cotton- Candy man. Only one has remained: the Popcorn man. He never really left. Rain or shine, he still comes, although not as regularly as last summer. I still see him every afternoon, even under a slight drizzle, patiently standing by his pushcart, tending a pile of yellow and red popcorn, leaving only when dusk creeps in.

    Only now, there aren’t children gathering around him anymore. And I miss it very much: all the children surrounding him, patiently waiting, some impatiently, waiting for the popcorn to crackle and pop, and shouting with joy when finally it does.

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