My Point of Origin

        Writing an autobiography is at once the easiest and the hardest thing for a novice like me to do. Easy, because I don’t have to dream up dashing heroes and wicked villains, conjure elaborate plots and dastardly schemes or produce exotic backdrops and fabulous locales to dazzle my reader. I only have to delve into my shoebox of memories, pick out my choice of characters, toss out the rest, and somehow make a meaningful collage out of all the snapshots of my life. Hard, because I can only fudge the truth, play down my flaws or gloss over harsh reality so much before this becomes a work of fiction.

      Writing about yourself is like offering yourself up to an unpredictable audience who might either cheer for or jeer at you, laugh with or laugh at you, shower you with roses or pelt you with stones. Ultimately, though, the harshest critic of all is the inner voice within you, the one that magnifies your every flaw and downplays your exploits, the one that forces you to confront the demons within you yet brings out the angel in you. Trying to be at peace with that inner voice is a lifelong struggle that ultimately governs our thoughts and actions.

        My life story will never be fodder for Freudian wannabes (I’m not that dysfunctional, I hope) nor make tabloid headlines (the paparazzi ain’t chasing me yet). Robin Leach won’t be tripping over himself sometime soon to feature me in “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” It is just the story of a person who was born, lived and will die eventually, and the people who mattered to her. A story like any other, but unlike any other, because each one of us, no matter how seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, has a story as old as time but as new as the dawn, that cries to be told. I may never win a Nobel Prize for literature nor will adoring fans line up to get my autograph, but to someone, somewhere, somehow, I touched a life, I made a difference. This story, then, is as much theirs as it is mine.

             I will begin my story with two beings, born scarcely three months apart from each other, living different lives on the opposite sides of the tiny country that is the Philippines. My dad was born Gregorio Balberan, the only son among five kids of Urbano Balberan and Quintina Pascual. My grandfather, Lolo Tatang, was a sugar mill worker. After the war, he used his separation pay to buy himself a horse and carriage, and earned a living as a calesa (horse-drawn carriage) driver. He started his day before the sun had risen and ended it long after the moon had cast its pale light, searching for passengers. He worked hard to feed his growing family, barely even giving himself the luxury of a day off. He was a man of few words, but not a man to be crossed, for when provoked, he used a guava branch to teach his young son some lessons in respect and humility. My Lola Ima was a loving mother to her kids. She was also a housewife of the superlative degree. She was the type who would literally go down on her knees to scrub the wooden floors until they were sparkling clean. When she stayed over with us when we were kids, we knew better than to enter the house after she’d cleaned it. She also prided herself in her cooking. A sure way to get into her good graces was to sample her delicacies and declare them the best you’ve ever tasted. The compliment manyaman ya (which means “this is delicious” in Capampangan, her native dialect) was music to her ears. Is it any wonder then that her son, my dad, who inherited her culinary prowess, is the same way? Every time he cooks his dinuguan (or “chocolate pork”), he would make a mental note of who did not touch  his dinuguan, who had a generous helping and who even came back for more. You could always see him beaming with pride every time a guest complimented his cooking. Our youngest brother, Gregory, is the same way. He will whip up a dish from one of his recipe books, ask you to grade his dish on a scale of 1 to 10, but won’t accept a grade less than 10!

        My dad learned the value of hard work from his parents. When he was barely in his teens, he lied about his age and forged his mom’s signature to be able to work. From then on, he would send a portion of his hard-earned money over to his parents. At 16, he entered the US Army, but soon got disillusioned when he noted a glaring double standard: American servicemen were being paid a lot more for the same exact work, and in dollars too, than their Filipino counterparts. He quit in protest. Later, he joined the Philippine Navy where he found his work more fulfilling. The Navy worked in tandem with the Bureau of Customs and it was when he was stationed in Cebu that he met a young woman named Teresita Fernandez, who was to change his life forever.

              Teresita, or Tess, was the sixth child in a brood of 12 born to Maximino Fernandez and Rosario Paradela. The Fernandez-Paradela  family was well-respected in the community and wielded a certain degree of clout. My mom would laughingly refer to her family as “The Kennedys of Pilar.” Both my grandparents were schoolteachers in their hometown of Pilar, Camotes, Cebu. Papa Minoy was a loving but strict father who watched over his girls with an eagle’s eye. His strictness was legendary. All the male suitors quaked at the sound of his voice. He was quick to punish his daughters if they were caught going out with some guy on a date, especially a movie date, which was considered a mortal sin back then. My grandmother, Mama Sayong, was a kindhearted, generous woman who had the gargantuan task of raising 12 kids – four girls and eight boys. She combined laughter, affection and basic common sense to run her huge household. Mealtimes, especially, were a challenge, as you can imagine, but she stayed in control of the situation by setting up two long tables with each person having a designated place with his ration of food heaped up on his plate. Each child also had his or her designated task.

        As a child, my mom was called Payatot (skinny) or Kalabirang Buhi (living skeleton) because she was so thin and frail. In contrast, her sister, my Aunt Josie (who is now a mere 110 pounds on a 5-foot frame), was called “bungalow” because she used to be “wide as a house.” When they were asked to fetch water from a well that was on top of a mountain, my Aunt Josie would easily hoist two pails of water over her shoulders without spilling a drop, while my mom would struggle with her one pail and come home with more water spilled on the ground than on her pail. Thus my mom’s frail condition got her excused from a lot of housekeeping chores. To this day, my mom, accomplished as she is in a lot of areas, would never make a good housekeeper, cook, babysitter or plain ol’ housewife.

        Luckily, my mom excelled in her studies. She was a working student in a clinic at the University of San Carlos. She remembered the first time she had to give an injection. Of all people, it had to be her Math teacher, who was all skin and bones. She had to give him Vitamin B12, a very sticky medicine. When she gave him the shot, she swears it felt like the needle hit a bone and bounced back from the impact. It is to that teacher’s credit that he did not yell out in agony under my mom’s inexperienced hands and that he did not fail her because of it.

        My mom was popular as a student with various titles to her name: Miss Law, Miss Liberal Arts, Town Fiesta Queen, among others. Back in the big city, away from her father’s watchful eyes, she was able to attend a lot of parties. It was in one such party that she met the guy destined to be her lifetime partner.

        It was a birthday party for a girl named Mercedes, who also happened to be my dad’s girlfriend at the time. As fate would have it, as soon as my dad set eyes on my mom, he was a goner. He asked her for a dance. They danced to the tune of The Tennessee Waltz. My dad would dance with no one else but my mom after that. My love-struck dad kept whispering to her “I love you…I want to marry you.” She was taken aback by his brashness. When her friends teased her about him, she pretended to dislike him, saying: “Ka bastos gyud adtong Tagalog, oy (How ill-mannered/ rude that Tagalog guy is)!” His charms were not lost on her, though, as she noted with approval his handsome features, his matching polo shirts and socks, and his neatly pressed handkerchief with his initials on it.

        My dad pursued her relentlessly. He would call her often at the clinic and say that he called just to greet her a good morning. My mom would play coy and say that now he had said his good morning, he could hang up. Once, my mom as Miss Law had to ride a float on a parade. My dad ran alongside the float the entire route, to my mom’s obvious embarrassment but secret delight. He tried to take her out to dinner but my mom would bring the whole gang, five or six of them. My father had to foot the bill, feeling like he was going nowhere with his courtship. After a few weeks, my dad was transferred back to Manila. Guess who happened to be in the neighborhood passing by? My mom, of course! When she visited him in the Navy station, he wouldn’t let her go home anymore. He smuggled her to the nearby town of Cavite where he married her in a civil ceremony officiated by the mayor and witnessed by one of my mom’s uncles, Col. Galano.

        Needless to say, my mom’s father and brothers were furious at their elopement. When my mom’s eldest brother, Tiyo Advent, came to Manila in connection with his work as a civil engineer, he echoed the sentiments of the folks back home by declaring: “I have no sister named Teresita.” As luck would have it, though, he ran into my mom and dad in a relative’s house. My dad extended his hand and turned on his charm. My uncle could not help but be won over. When he went back home, he told the rest of the family, “Greg is not such a bad fellow, after all. He is not bad-looking either.” With those words, all was forgiven and my dad was finally welcomed to the huge Fernandez clan with open arms. The rest, as they say, is history, and the beginning chapter of a life I call my own.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mari anjeli
    Apr 02, 2010 @ 23:13:34

    Wow. Mom already read out a copy of this story, way, way, way back in — uhh, I don’t know when. 😀 But I love hearing (and reading ;D) my grandma and grandpa’s story over and over again. Yey. I’ll move on to reading all the other entries later. : D



  2. emmblu
    Apr 03, 2010 @ 05:56:27

    Yes, Anjeli, I wrote this piece 2000. I sat down with your grandma and grandpa and asked them to tell me stories about their childhood. I’m glad I did. A year later, your grandpa died. While I wish I had more time with your grandpa, I realized I still have your grandma. Don’t worry. I will pump her for more stories. I actually have one in the works. The love story of your great-grandparents… I think you will like this one, too.



  3. Augustus
    Apr 03, 2010 @ 22:59:09

    Cuz Gingging . . . . .
    Very good story, touches my heart. A story that has a happy ending. I like their love story very much.
    Now I am going to search other love story of my aunt and uncles.
    Thanks for sharing this one.



    • emmblu
      Apr 04, 2010 @ 11:03:21

      You are welcome, Cuz Augustus…
      Too often we look at our parents and other grown-ups and don’t realize that once upon a time, they knew the joys and tears of a heart that loved…
      I am happy to hear that this story touched your heart…



  4. mari anjeli
    Apr 06, 2010 @ 06:25:27

    Yey. I’ll wait for that story! Makes me want to pump up stories from mom and dad when I get home — and from lola lota as well. : D



  5. al espanol
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 04:39:58

    Hi Emm, thank you for sharing. Looking forward to reading more of your postings. I just happened to be awake at 6 in the morning and stumbled into this site. I have always been curious of the stories behind the people in Pilar, their history, their origins etc. . Unfortunately, I’ve never taken the time to ask including that of my parents and many of their generations have moved on to another world or are too old to remember.



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