Reverie at 33

By: Cris Evert B. Lato-Ruffolo August 17,2019 - 07:51 AM

When my siblings and I saw the rice fields of Barangay San Juan, Ormoc City, we cheered with the passion and noise similar to football fans when their team scores a goal.

It was our first time to witness the verdant green of rice paddies and the lame positioning of scarecrows. We were in a jeepney and Maria Elena, my mother who was then 28 years old, was constantly reminding us to never place our arm, finger or hand outside the window.

I was nine years old. My sister, Stephanie, turned seven years old that day and was mulling about what we would eat for dinner when we arrive at our paternal grandmother’s house in Barangay Libas, Merida, Leyte.

Brother Number 1, Hendrix, was in deep thought for most of the ride. He was probably planning what to draw next. His five-year-old mind must have been overwhelmed with drawing ideas from seeing everything that morning.

Kevin, my Brother Number 2, was restless. He was three years old, mischievous and demanding, and was bugging my mother about getting him a balloon.

I caught Maria Elena in deep thought. Her face showed concern and fear of the unknown. She had glassy eyes and looked like she was just about ready to cry.

It was about 9 a.m. of Thursday, September 21, 1995, my sister’s seventh birthday.

My mother, the four of us children, and our Aunt Rosemarie left Cebu at 5 a.m. on board a fast craft that took us to Ormoc City. The trip lasted for more than two hours.

From Ormoc City, Mommy hired a green-and-red jeepney that took us to Libas, Merida, Leyte.

I felt like we were on a vacation for the first time. Raised in Barangay Calawisan, Lapu-Lapu City by parents who married young – – my father was 21 years, my mother 18 – – we were always on austerity mode so we never had a vacation.

My father just made it as a “third mate” in his profession as a seafarer sailing the high seas like Sinbad. I wrote to him in yellow pad paper and those letters were mailed to him. He received them wherever he was in the world, usually after three months.

My mother was a full-time housewife, who was not always the best cook but kept us on our toes because she was definitely the force to be scared of especially when you did not sleep during siesta.

We had a humble home in Barangay Calawisan surrounded by family and relatives. Our house was beside my maternal grandparents’ home, which, to me, was a mansion serving the best-tasting dishes in the whole wide world.

At nine years old, I didn’t quite understand how the solar system works. My friends and I used to have conversations about flying to the US on a spaceship to get to Neptune, where we thought the US was located.

Across my grandparents’ home was a vast grass field where children like myself would play in the afternoon. I enjoyed many afternoons playing hide-and-seek on that field. On that field, I learned how to impersonate the actress who played the title role in Anna Luna. On that field, I organized too many “beauty pageants” after I fell in love with Miss Universe in 1994 when Sushmita Sen of India was crowned, besting Colombia and Venezuela in the top three list.

I was not oblivious to the fact that I was living in a community with drug pushers. At nine years old, I knew I had uncles who were involved in the drug trade. I knew it was bad but I didn’t think it was dangerous.

Home was home and it always made me safe and secure.

So when September 16 happened, when the news of a dead man lying under my great grandmother’s breadfruit tree and my uncle surrendering to the police reached us, I felt that my home was violated.

The nights that followed were traumatic for my mother, who was the only adult living in our house. Scary-looking men “visited” our compound almost every night, threatening to do harm to the family members of my uncle. They were reportedly relatives of the dead man. I later learned from listening to adults’ conversations that my uncle killed a drug pusher, who was accused of giving him away to the police. My uncle was friends with a police officer.

Within the next four days since the incident, Mommy decided that we should  leave Cebu. It wasn’t a safe place to raise children, she said. We packed our bags to move to Leyte, my father’s hometown.

To her, it would be a good place for us to grow up because it’s a rural community where we would be safe. The drug proliferation rate in our village in Lapu-Lapu City that time was moving at an alarming level that Mommy’s maternal instinct kicked in. She just had to protect her cubs.

We arrived in our Lola Nenita’s home before lunch time. She was surprised to see us. She did not own a telephone so there was no way to reach her. Internet was non-existent in the area. My mother was not able to send a telegram.

Over the next year or so we lived with my grandmother before moving to our own house.

My siblings and I went to a public school, learned how to make fire, and assimilated with rural life.

We spent hours swimming on the beach. Weekends were about serving the church or going up to the mountains.

I lived in Leyte “full time” for seven years, from when I was nine years old until when I was 16. I did not appreciate it then but now that I am turning 33 in three days time, I am finding myself often in reverie, lost in pleasant thoughts of an old life that I wish will happen again.

My brother, Hendrix, and I would often laugh about the fact that it was illegal drugs that brought us to Leyte. Every time I deal with a drug-related story in my work as a journalist, my mind wanders back to that time when Mommy told us to pack our bags because we were moving somewhere.

I have been living a semi-nomadic life since then filled with stories of carabaos, coconut trees, and church services.

My brother and I will be visiting Leyte soon, a trip that we have been postponing for three years now.

We plan to cheer again when we pass by the rice fields of San Juan no matter how silly we will look and sound.

I hope we don’t scare the scarecrow.

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