Lualu A. Lei
The old bench
I shove my carry-on bag into the empty overhead bin right above my seat. It went right in with no problem. The lady behind me who yielded a minute to get me settled nodded with a smile and said:
“Thanks”, I smiled back at her to appreciate the courtesy.
I quickly sat down to get out of the way of people behind me trying to get to their respective seats. I sighed, took a deep breath, reminded myself that this will be a ten hour flight to what it is going to be a brief homecoming for me.
A seat by the window is so relaxing I could go to sleep right away. Instead, I looked outside, down to a Honolulu airport ground crew who are loading up the belly of the Philippine airlines passenger jet with luggages. Up in the distance, I can see the Koolau mountains looking so strikingly green and sturdy under the glimmer of the hot summer sun. Deep inside, I know I will sorely miss this beautiful place I’ve called home for over thirty years now. I will be missing my family I am leaving behind: Emmy, my wife, Bob and Dan, my two sons who can’t come with me primarily because she has to work, the kids have to be in school and especially because of the sensitive and abrupt nature of the trip.
“You may still be able to save this prime lot, if you come home now, Manong Tommy.”, my sister Violy said in an alarmed voice over a Facebook messenger video chat a week ago.
The property she was referring to is our family farm located in Libertad, Abulug, Cagayan. Currently used as a farmland, It has recently reached its vintage status, thanks to a heavy development activity in the area in the past decade. My late father, who had passed the property on to the four of us his kids without subdividing it, left nothing but a verbal assurance that each of us has equal share. Now, Froilan, our eldest is trying to sell it without even consulting any of us.
What makes this sale somewhat shady is that he is dealing with uncle Illong, my late father’s younger brother, who is now wealthy from grabbing all of his elder, unschooled siblings properties. Over many years, acquisitions of many more tracks of land in addition to their share of inheritance made them wealthy. But just as soon as they became so old, uncle Illong took advantage of their frailty. In the absence of a will and proof showing compensation that could have been used to maintain the fragile state of their last days, he was able to transfer ownerships of all these properties to himself and to his children. He did not have to go through the necessary legal process, he has a lawyer daughter who does not hesitate to twist the law to get things done. From being a second rate school teacher, he is now a major landowner in the area.
Now, our share of the inheritance is in danger of being acquired by this selfish man. He had convinced our eldest brother to act as the lone owner in the deal, caring less of the repercussions of disregarding us his three other siblings in the process.
I got off the bus, had a little chat with the driver who happens to be my grade school buddy, then off to my sister’s home which is just mere yards away. I was met with a little fanfare by a few of my relatives.
“They’re busy. They all know you arrived. In the evening, after their day in the farm, they will all be here.” my sister reassured me.
I helped myself seated on the old narra bench my late father made for a dining table that has long been broken and thrown away. I was surprised at this bench’s resilience. It still shines after all these years. I set my bag at the far end and I lie down to sleep as I used to do back in the day.
After decades in the US, I can’t help but notice the changes. My sister who was merely in her early twenties when I left is now a frailty fifty-seven-year old, all wrinkles and no teeth. Gone are the vivacity she had back in the day. She’s gotten older than her age working daily in the farms where we all grew up. Our brothers, our eldest, Froilan, a teacher and our youngest, Romy, a pastor, both live towns away and could come see her only during the harvest season to fetch their share of the harvest.
After resting on the old wooden bench my cousins and I used to sit all day playing cards and shooting pool during the long spell of rainy season, I got up noticing I was all alone in the house. I looked around and could not help but smile seeing my old dusty guitar hung right next to an old enlarged graduation photo of mine is still hanging after all these years. I looked closer to this picture that left me a lot of memories, I see that it is not only collecting dust, it is also scaling and fading from simply being way over its shelf life.
I got out of the front door of the house to a group of grinning kids I have no clue who they were. I sat down to where I can see each of them eye to eye and started introducing myself. When I got to one little rowdy looking boy, he stepped back refusing my offer of handshake and said:
“I know who you are” he said, smiling.
You are grandpa Tomlit!’ teasingly emphasized the last word, a name I was called by in this neighborhood as a kid.
‘Stop, Beyyo!’ my sister Violy said from a little distance away as she arrives from the market with a basketful of goodies on her head. Honestly, I didn’t mind being called that name. It brings back the good old memories!
“Somewhat naughty, my son Ronald’s second child” She took the boy’s hand, made him to accept my hand for a shake.
I only smiled.
I took all the leftover pesos from the exchange I had in my pocket, gave each of them share. They all head to Nana Ustang’s Store excited.
“I called Manong Froilan and Romy. I told them you arrived. They’re both excited but asked of you to give them fare money” she smiled.
I felt somewhat dismayed. but I agreed to send them what they ask for.
“I didn’t tell Manong Froilan what exactly you came home for. But I have the feeling he knows”.
I wanted to ask her, ‘why not?’ But I realized it is probably best not to tell him. I helped her get the heavy load of groceries off her head. I haven’t seen my brother Froilan in decades. I have no idea how he had become and how he would respond. At this juncture, I remember how he bullied us when we were kids. I was hoping he had changed and got over it. I hope everything will be alright.
‘How soon can they get here?’
‘Just as soon as they get the money for bus fare’
I took a little walk along a homestead makeshift walkway elevated to about a foot deep and filled to about five feet wide along the eastern end of the property. I was all sweaty under the hot summer sun and yet I enjoyed the walk. I stood close to the edge feeling like a young kid that I was fifty years ago. I rolled my pants up as high as I can, unhesitatingly plunged my feet onto a knee-deep, watered down soil to reach some indigenous shell called ‘BISUKOL’ crawling towards the edge of the paddy. I looked closely to the poor guy I haven’t seen in a long time, remembering how bucketfuls of them made to our dining table, filling up our famished tummies when everything becomes scarce during the prolonged monsoon rain in this part of the world.
Looking around, I saw some stuff in the property that tells me more than meets the eye.
A square hole of about 2000 sq. ft. on the southeast corner digged up to about 8 feet is made highly visible by a heavily barbed wire around it. I peeked down to what looks like a fishpond. I felt weird as I got to a small shack built with thick hollow tiles. As I went around to the back of the shack, I met a grinning guy locking it up, skin parched by the sun, teeth heavily stained from chewing beetle nut. His eyes are reddish, reminding me of a powdered potion, usually part of a mixture called ‘mama’. I remembered myself intoxicated chewing this mix as a young man. Seeing me looked a bit surprised, he said he just got done cleaning the fishpond and feeding the school of tilapia in the process.
I introduced myself. He looked surprised when I said I am the elder brother of Violy. He told me his name is Sario and he has been working for Uncle Illong as a farm helper for over ten years now. Sensing I might be interested for answers of some questions, he respectfully asked to be excused and hastily off his way without even waiting for me to say a word.
I went around the shack one more time and look down on the tilapia pond. It’s strange why this shack of Perto is built here.
Midway into the property, a sign that seems to say, “NO TRESPASSING” is barely readable from where I stood. I had to walk a little closer to really make sure it actually says what I thought it read, and, it, indeed, says what I thought it did.
It is welcome party for me that evening. There is little doubt everybody wanted to see me. As the night wears on, I see more and more people arriving, thanking me for having been invited to the party my sister managed to put together. I gave him money to buy two goats and a fattened pig to slaughter for the night, and sure enough there is more people who came than I expected. I have seen most of my childhood friends and relatives as they were seated on the old bench we all are fond of sitting on during the long spell of rain. I have seen young people and kids that I haven’t seen before but was told they are all my relatives. The mood was a little muted at first, a little quieter than I anticipated, and all eyes seemed to have consciously focused on me. But just as soon as the local wine called ‘LAYAW’ start pouring, everyone seems eager to have his questions answered, mostly led to what transpired during that thirty years I was gone.
It felt relieving to talk to them as they sat on the old bench, because after all, this is my home I have left many years ago and they are all family to me. They wanted to know about my journeys, I wanted to know how they fared all these years. There is no better feeling than getting reacquainted with my roots, though it’s a lot different now than it was when I was a young man growing up with them. It’s fun reminiscing the past but to think it’s possible and desirable to relive the experience at all is a total fantasy. I see everybody like I saw my sister several hours before. They have their families, grown and all, and they got older. I mean, I got old, too, but the farm has taken its toll on them more than the luxury of the west was on me for the past thirty years. I can see the difference but I can’t really fully explain it.
Deeper into the night, most of them went home except for a few close relatives and friends who wanted to linger with me. I ordered more spirits and we all had fun. Knowing they have to work on their farms the next day, however, they eventually had to go. I wish them well, knowing this might be the last time I’d see them again.
The bed my sister Violy prepared for me was a far cry from the niceties I have at home in the U.S. But it is my old room, every bit of it I have grown with except for the pillows, blanket, and mosquito nets that looked new. I have the impression she might have just bought it only recently, especially for me to use during this vacation.
I was lying down really tired, but could not sleep. I felt a little eerie, kind of have that uneasy feeling of being new to some strange place or thing I can’t really explain. I mean, there is no denying that this is home for me only it’s different. In my younger days, I thought I’d die here and be buried beside my mother and father, sort of contentment one would feel in having to be home sweet home. But those days are long gone. Something in me now says, “This is no longer home sweet home.”.
When it used to be all quiet at night except for some chirping of crickets, there is now loud noises of laughter and karaoke singing up over at the intersection about a few hundred feet away. Where it used to be just few houses and a couple of sari-sari store, now it is a boomtown with its own chinatown, several department stores and service businesses you wouldn’t imagine they would ever be here. Sprawling businesses have, indeed, made property values around here so high.
A loud noise that sounded like a mixture of adult laughing and children’s greeting my brother Romy who is just arriving woke me up. The old clock on the wall says its 9:00 o’clock. It looks like I overslept but I actually just had couple of hours sleep. I wanted to go back to sleep but overhearing my sister talking to my brother Romy got me fully awake.
“Where is he?” I overheard my brother obviously sounding excited about me being home.
“Still in bed” my sister said in a low voice. “Where is Manong Froilan?” she asked him.
“I just got his text. He is on his way. He’ll be here later today.” he said.
I got out, said hi and hugged him. He sobbed seeing me after all these years. When he calmed down, I look at him in the eye saying nothing. He’s a bit skinnier than before. Like everybody else, years has gotten the best of him. I took his bag off his shoulder and let him sit on the old bench. I sat down too, right next to my sister. Just the three of us in the living room as my sister Violy sent the kids out to give us some privacy.
“How are you?” I made sure to say the first words. I saw some glitter in his eyes seeing me for the first time in so many years and hearing my voice maybe a little different than it used to be.
“Nasayaat met, kaasi ti Apo” he said in Ilokano. After he spoke, I made some comments, said a little bit about my family and the reasons why they can’t travel with me. After a while, my sister invited us to the dining table for breakfast.
We resumed the conversation at the dining table, and more about the property our father had left us to subdivide on our own amongst us.
“What is the status of the property now?” I asked both of them. They looked at each other obviously wanting to yield the other the opportunity to answer my question.
“The title is in Uncle Illong’s possession for over four years now, I believe”. Violy spoke first probably realizing she is older.
We looked at each other like expecting a word from anyone. I didn’t want to say anything simply because I have no idea why the title is given to Uncle Illong.
“Manong pawned the property for five hundred thousand pesos (P500,000.00) with stipulation he must give the money back in five years or lose the property.” Gilbert lamented, looking at me intently in the face to see how I would react.
I stayed calmed shaking my head.
“Anything else?” I looked at them both for anything more.
“I heard Uncle Illong offered him a million and a half (P1.5m) more for the property recently.” she looks at me like she is asking my permission for her to go ahead. “I spoke to uncle Illong the other day and he said Manong Froilan has three months to redeem the property.” she continued.
“How much is the property worth now, do you think” again, looking at them both.
“The property of the same size that is located a kilometer away from the business boom area was sold for over P6m. Ours is here,” Violy pointed the ground as her way of saying our property is exactly where the development is and Romy nodded.
“Do you think ours has a value of P10 million?”
“Easily” Romy said having his face more relaxed now than when we started the conversation.
I frowned, preferring not to say anything for a few minutes. Deep inside, I felt pained by what I heard knowing its implied intent of pushing the sale to his advantage.
“Where does he think you’ll get the money to pay him back in so short a time?” I said after a while without expecting for an answer.
I looked at Romy. He preferred not to say anything. Violy also kept quiet, knowing the truth that they can’t come up with the money in three months.
“We’ll talked to Manong Froilan when he gets here” I concluded the conversation.
I stood up, got out of the kitchen to the living room where the kids are watching “Tom and Jerry”. I looked at the TV and thought how things have changed since I left. We only had the radio.
I sat on the old bench, Mario sat by me.
“What time do you think Manong Froilan is going to get here?” I asked him.
“Probably mid-afternoon. In five hours or so.” he said smiling.
“Do you want to go down the river?” I smiled at him, I was referring, of course, to the river about a kilometer east of the boomtown where we used to go swimming as kids. Our late father taught us how to lay a “BUBU”, a cylindrical bamboo fish trap measuring about two to three feet long and about half a foot in diameter. It is made out of bamboo tree, with which our town has in abundance, cut to an almost fibric tiny long pieces about the size but ten times longer than a needle. It is laid through the night in the river trapping small native crustaceans called ‘LAGDAW’
“Sure” he answered knowing we have plenty of time to spare.
The riverbed has moved to about an 8th of a mile from where it was thirty years ago. I was surprise to see how narrower it became.
“It came really deep” Mario pointed the middle part of the river where it looks so bluish and clear. Downstream, I saw two kids having fun bathing their carabao. It sure had reminded me of the good old days.
“See those coconut trees to our left, manong?” Mario pointed to what looked like a newly planted coconut trees about a stone’s throw from where we stood.
“That ten hectare lot was Uncle Iniong’s” referring to our late father’s eldest. “Illong transferred title ownership to his name without Uncle Iniong even knowing it, no compensation, not even a cent!” he made sure I heard it.
“Uncle Iniong had like over twenty hectares to his name but died a pauper” he said bitterly.
I only shook my head.
“How’s Manong Froilan doing now, anyway?” I asked not only to deviate but also to know what to anticipate.
“Well, he still got the loud voice” but he looks really old now. “Lambanog has gotten the best of him”
We laughed, remembering the good old days
We were back just about the time sister Violy is preparing the table for lunch. We had a freshwater fish called ‘DALAG’ cooked to what is called in this part of the world, ‘SINIGANG’ Oh boy, Haven’t I really had a good time!
Manong Froilan arrived just like Mario said, in the middle of the afternoon. He is a little drunk but sober and alert. He looks older than his fifty nine year old frame. He looked smaller than he was in his prime. He sat himself on the old bench, right next to manang Violy and Mario.
He couldn’t look at me in the eyes probably sensing that I would be interested to know about his deal with Uncle Illong.
“How are you, young-looking man!” intentionally sounding loud like he’s used to back in the day. But he looks older now. Nothing scary, really. Just the big voice.
“I am good” said in a lower voice, making sure I sounded like the man of the hour. So much so that he was sizing me up and down. Seeing I am much taller and fitter than I used to, he probably thought I’m now more than able to subdue him if he’ll ever bully us like he used to do when we were kids.
He stood in front of us as we all seated on the old bench. He smiled at me, to Violy and Mario then back to his seat.
“So you came for a vacation ” sounding like he wants to make it appear I am a visitor.
“I came home.” I stood up in front of them making sure he wouldn’t reduce me to being wandering stranger.
He sat down, quietly now.
“You pawned the property” I made sure to say it at the right time, my voice is controlled but stern.
He just looked at me, then looked outside when he knew I’m no longer the boy he used to bully. He stood facing the door like he wanted to go. I got to him and slowly made him sit down. I felt his skinny shoulder bones and, he smelt lambanog.
“Yes, I pawned the property.”He spoke slowly sounding like a truly subdued man as he went back to his spot on the old bench.
“I’d like you to take me to Uncle Illong now” I spoke like I meant business.
He was frozen on his seat.
There was silence in the living room, glancing at each other as we waited for him to say something.
“I want to redeem the property.” said to him knowing he was worried where to get the money to get the title back.
He looked at me and asked: “What do you mean?”
“I want to redeem the property with my own money.”
He smiled, stood and signaled me to follow him to Uncle Illong’s house located just a block away. I looked at Violy and Mario who had been quiet until now. I see them whispering to each other smiling. We all followed Froilan to Uncle Illong’s house.
After a lively little talk over a few bottles of lambanog, we gave Illong his money, he gave us the title of our property back.
I shove my carry-on bag into the empty overhead bin right above my seat. It went right in with no problem. I sighed, seated and told myself:
“I am going home”##