Philippines: A Day in San Pablo, My Father's Home Town

Philippines: A Day in San Pablo, My Father's Home Town
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It’s my official first month living in Manila, and my father happens to be visiting to attend a press conference. On the day before he is due to leave for London, we decide to take a day trip up to visit San Pablo City, Laguna, where he spent the first twenty years of his life.

I haven’t really been to San Pablo since I was a little girl, and because of my age, of where I’m at in my life, having the chance to spend time in my father’s hometown means more to me than ever.

So we set off from Manila to San Pablo, city fading into mountains and palm trees. By noon, the midday sun is blazing in full glory. 

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At my uncle's home, long-time-no-see family members surround us with joyous hugs and the ever-Filipino welcome:

Kumain ka na (Have you eaten)?” 

A glance at the laden dinner table tells us that roast vegetables, grilled bangus (milkfish), marinated beefsteak, rice, and fresh fruit are on the cards for lunch. Even though we're digesting our questionable sandwiches from an en-route gas station, we settle down to enjoy a hearty family lunch with long unseen loved ones.

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After the meal, Dad brings out a warm buko (coconut) pie – his favourite – purchased from a nearby bakery. We reconnect over sweet slices, reforming our common grounds, wrapping our roots around each other. My titas – aunts – have some trouble understanding my accent, but they hug me with love in their eyes, and my little cousins smile up at us shyly.

In the afternoon, we pay respects to the graves of my Lola and Lolo (‘grandparents’) at the Memorial Park. It would have been my grandfather’s 87th birthday last week, were he still alive. By his tombstone, we whisper belated birthday greetings into the wind and cross ourselves quietly, the Catholic ritual ingrained into our manners. 

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I always wonder what my life would have been like if any of my grandparents, on either side, were still alive today. When friends talk about visiting their own grandparents, a bittersweet pang of wistfulness always blossoms in my stomach. I wonder how often my parents think about their parents. I wonder how similar my father is to his father, and my mother to her mother.

We clamber back into the car for a trip down memory lane, driving towards the street that my father grew up on. Dad gasps as we pull up to the street, his eyes processing all the unfamiliar additions built in the decades he’s been away. “It's unrecognisable, Mel,” he says, looking up at a block of new-looking apartments hovering on the roadside. “I’d barely remember this street if not for the alleyway and our house.”

My aunt has the key to the house, which seems virtually untouched. There’s a certain pride in Dad’s voice as he shows me around, as he points out his family members pictured inside elaborate photo frames, as we laugh at visual records of the dashing denim flares and cocked-hip poses he used to rock in the ‘70s.

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I guess now I’m finally old enough to see and appreciate his roots, to understand where he came from, to recognise how different his childhood had been from my own. I know that it’s something that we both appreciate. (For all our fronting, we are silently as sentimental as each other.)

We step back outside into the shaded narrow alleyway, decorated with hanging plant pots and colourful plastic bunting, both fluttering in the mellow breeze. For a moment, as I watch Dad stand there, smiling up at the flags, he looks like a little kid. I suddenly wish I had even the smallest glimpse of what he had been like as a toddler, a young child, beyond blurry sepia snapshots.

I wish could see the boy who locked himself in his wardrobe to read books by torchlight and who swang from tree branches into the lake; the middle child who liked to play with birds and write poems and help his mother giftwrap parcels. I wish I could see more of the boy who turned out to be my father.

We take the ability to record life so for granted now, what with omnipresent cameras and smartphones. I finally understand Dad’s love for taking so many photos and videos. As the years go by, I often feel myself becoming more and more like him.

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Dad inevitably pulls out his camera to take pictures by the house. As I snap a photograph of him, relaxed and cheerful by the door he used to walk through everyday, we hear voices nearby. The voices are coming from the house next door, a small buttercup yellow affair with peeling paint and overgrown plants.

On the veranda of the house sits a man, somewhere between his late thirties to mid forties, tending to a disabled teenage boy in a wheelchair. The boy’s mouth is slack, and his hands are curled up backwards, distorted, due to some form of muscular atrophy or disorder. His carer – his father, presumably – is speaking to the boy softly, with a kind and patient expression, feeding him from a bowl with a spoon.

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My father is quiet for a time, seemingly in a daze. We stand there in the breezy shade beneath the flapping bunting, watching them. After a few minutes, Dad clears his throat and says, “Mel, I think I used to babysit that guy when I was a teenager.”

His voice is incredulous, awed, peppered with disbelief at the fact that thirty years has sailed past in the blink of an eye. Then, he says a little louder, “I forgot his name, but he used to be so small… just a baby… I guess that boy in the wheelchair must be his son. Kawawa naman (How sorry I feel for him).

I don’t say anything, because I don’t know what to say. I stand there in silence, watching as Dad has a revelation. I can see his mind churning, his brain calculating the time passed since his babysitting years, sifting through his dusty memories.

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We walk back towards the car, ready to say our final goodbyes before rush-hour traffic sets in. Just as I open my door and buckle my seatbelt, Dad says, “Wait, I’ll be back in a moment,” and walks back towards the yellow house. I turn around and see through the rear window that Dad has approached the man and his son, and started talking to them.

I watch as the man laughs, as they shake hands with familiarity; I watch as Dad discreetly takes a handful of bills from his wallet and places them into the boy’s hands. The man’s expression is shocked, grateful. He gives thanks to Dad, who is walking back to the car now. I’m not sure my father even mentioned that he used to babysit him.

The boy hands the money over to his father, who is still smiling in our direction. Dad starts humming, oblivious, as he buckles his seatbelt, still cocooned in the throes of childhood nostalgia.

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I’m about to ask Dad why he did the money thing, why he always does the money thing, with me, with my siblings, with other members of the family. But then it dawns on me: that’s the way he shows affection. The way he shows care. Sharing money is a token of his love for someone. I think back to all the times in my life when I’ve been away from home, and Dad’s only question to me is: “Do you still have enough money?”

My usual response is to roll my eyes, to remind him that I’m Now An Adult and to complain about him asking, but now, I realise – that’s his way, his very Filipino way, of showing love.

Of giving and providing for the people he cares for the most. It always has been, since he was an ambitious twenty-one year old who moved halfway across the world in order to send back money to his family in the Philippines.

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We end our trip to San Pablo at Sampaloc Lake, close to the mountains, where Dad and his siblings swam and splashed around in as children. Great teal mountains yawn in the distance as little kids run up excitedly and down the sidewalks with balloons and kites. Bamboo fishing huts float quietly upon the calm blue waters. Young lovers embrace as the afternoon trickles into a marvellous evening.

As we climb into the car and head back to Manila, familial goodbyes lingering in our hearts, I feel the love, the positive energy, radiating so strongly. I feel the spirits of my father’s ancestors surging through my bloodstream. I was able to see a glimmer of the life that my father grew up in, grew up with.

I look at Dad, who has shut his eyes and fallen fast asleep, sunlight flickering across his face as we glide across the highway, and realise how fortunate I am to have been raised by someone so hardworking, so selfless, so caring.

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My father is, honestly, the most generous man I know. The man will buy crappy paintings from strangers on the street just to support them. He’ll donate to the most obscure of charities and work tirelessly on projects without any pay if they mean something to him, if they mean someone deserving gets justice. He’ll stay up until 3am proofreading my articles, and to make sure I’m home safely from a late night out. He’ll always, always give his family something extra, even if it means he’ll go without – because he grew up with very little, and sharing money is his way of showing love. 

I am taking this opportunity to say: thank you for everything, Papa. Your generosity is written in your very name, Generoso. You’re the most kindhearted, incorruptible father I could ever dream of having to guide me through life. I thank you for your rock solid support and love, especially in times like these, where I so often feel lost and unsure. I would be proud to have children as generous, resolute, and compassionate as you.

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Happy Father’s Day.

Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.