He who does not look back at his past (where he came from) will not be able to reach his destination ~ Philippine Proverb
Tagalog Translation: Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa nakaraan, ay hindi makakarating sa patutunguhan
My father has been in my dreams almost every night for a week. I’m not really sure why, but there he is. Sometimes, he is with my children, but they are younger, and sometimes, he is with my mother, and it is almost like it was yesterday.
I wrote a poem several years ago about my father’s hometown, a small village on Luzon, one of the northern islands in the Philippines. This poem is based on real events from the time that we spent in the Philippines as a family after my dad retired from the Navy, and then from before, during the beginning of World War II. Before my dad joined the U.S. Navy he was a guerrilla in the Philippine Army. He was only 16 years old.
A few notes of explanation: A caribou (last syllable like boo), which is a reindeer, lives in cold weather like Alaska. A carabao (last syllable like bow), which is a water buffalo, is the national animal of the Philippines. These animals are actually very gentle, even though they may not appear to be so. They are still used to plow fields.
Gapan, is the name of the town, and Nueva Ecija is the name of the eastern, landlocked province on Luzon. Nueva Ecija was created in 1715 and was named for the Spanish governor’s native town. The Spanish heritage is still in the bloodlines of those born in Nueva Ecija: my father’s mother was half Spanish. Nueva Ecija is the biggest rice producer in Luzon.
Cabanatuan is one of the four cities in Luzon. In World War II, Cabanatuan was the site of the infamous Japanese Prisoner of War camp; in 1945, Philippine guerrillas were responsible for liberating the Americans held captive there.
Tagalog is the most widely-used language in the Philippines. Babinka is a sweet cake that is cooked in a banana leaf. Mangoes grow freely in trees in people’s yards.
The Peñaranda River, a narrow but deep river, is now part of Minalungao Park; however, years ago, there was no Minalungao Park.
Ang araw bago sumikat nakikita muna’y banaag. ~ Philippine Proverb (Translation: Early dawn precedes sunrise)
This particular poem is very personal, and I hope that you enjoy it.
Gapan (Nueva Ecija), 1967
The women still come to Piñaranda River
in the early morning
to wash the family clothes on rocks
beaten smooth by many generations of use.
They gather at the bank, squat
along the muddy shoreline, and
pummel the fabrics of their lives
amid idle chatter of children and babies
and the lazy stares of carabao
that stand knee deep in the water.
Brown, hand-rolled cheroots dangle from
their mouths as they twist and
wring Peñaranda from threadbare shirts
and house dresses sewn by hand.
They can point to the places where
foolish young men have lost their lives,
testing their newfound manhood against
the swirls of the rushing water that swells
during the rainy season. They
point to the place where the river, pregnant
with the rains of monsoon, swept
into the village and laid waste to houses
chosen by God for destruction.
My mother tentatively asks one woman nearby
about the time of the Japanese. Her
brown eyes, hardened by time, drift
across the river to the rice fields
that lie on the other side, expanses
so green and fertile that the images
of famine that she speaks of
are hard to reconcile with the beauty
that is now. She speaks slowly,
as if the memory is still too near,
“All gone,” she sighs as she points,
“only the okra left.” As she looks
at my mother, it is clear that
the woman believes that my blonde
mother with light skin cannot understand
want and grief. Later,
my father explains that the okra plants,
grown in hidden gardens behind the houses,
were the only crops that the Japanese
did not take. The only rice the village had
came from the few grains spilled in the dirt
where the Japanese stores had lain.
Those desperate enough to steal rice
were beaten (or worse) if they were caught.
He tells me this as we near
the large house that was once the
fortress of the occupiers. Two carved
lions still remain to guard disuse.
Through the gates, deep holes
dot the dirt yard where two Americans
have been digging for Japanese gold.
“Someone sold them a treasure map,”
my father laughs, shaking his head.
“If there were gold, don’t you think
we would have known about it?” he asks
of no one in particular.
As we walk down the dirt road towards the
ice truck that is parked at the end, I notice
the heat rising in thick waves from the ground,
and I long for ice cream and slurpees.
My father points to another house,
“That is where the witch lives. She
has put a curse on your grandfather. Now
He will not come to this end of the village.”
As we walk back, I pull the wagon carrying
the straw-covered block of ice, glance
back nervously at the witch’s house.
Once more we pass the two lions, and
and my father stops. “Right here
is where they shot your uncle for
taking a walk at night. The bullet
went through his leg, so he lived.
We never knew why they didn’t finish him.”
He looks into the eyes of a lion,
pauses and then tells me painfully,
“It was a Filipino sentry. He was
working for the Japanese.” He spits
into the dirt and walks on.
That afternoon I watch my grandmother
wring the neck of a chicken from the yard
and clean it for dinner. While she cooks
I polish the dark floors of their home
with the halves of coconut shells
strapped to my feet. My toes curve downward
as I half skate half slide across the tiles.
Afterwards I take a shower
with cold water poured from old
coffee tins carried from the river.
The icy water is the only respite
from the heat that has seeped into
every corner of the shaded house.
Only when I am called twice do I leave
the comfort of the stone enclosure.
For dinner that evening we have
roasted chicken, sun-dried fish,
sweet bread and fresh mangoes.
Only years later do I realize what a feast
my grandmother had prepared for us.
Later, most people visit in their front yards.
My father takes me to a stand where
a man sells babinka—sweet, steamed
rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves.
He stands and talks to the vendor
in Tagalog while I eat the cake with
my fingers, sticky grains of rice
sticking to my hands and mouth.
I ask for seconds.
My American generation does not know want.
That night, from the safety of the
gauze mosquito netting, I overhear my father
telling my mother about those days,
how his mother hid from the Japanese
with her twin babies in the mountains,
how she lost both to hunger, how
the villagers caught one of the traitors
and turned him over to the guerrillas.
They skinned him alive before
finally killing him.
More later. Peace.