by Hazel-Gin Lorenzo Aspera (Nonfiction)
Every time we went to the department store in the South Seas Complex, I asked Mama for a Barbie. And each time, her answer was always the same: “Next time. Wala pa tayong pera.” Part of me would want to whine out loud: “But that’s what you said the last time!”
But by the time I was six, I instinctively held my complaints in. I figure that’s what happens when you’re the eldest. When my little sister Kim snatched the toy I was playing with, Mama would say, “Pagpasensyahan mo na kasi bata pa siya.” Even though I was, in fact, also bata pa. Or when my brother Sha hit me and I hit back, she would be, “Ikaw na lang mag-intindi kasi ikaw man ang mas matanda.” Even when he was less than a year younger than I was.
So I learned, early on, to pasensya and to intindi, to avoid conflict at any cost. And also not to tell anyone exactly how I felt because I would only be told to pasensya and to intindi some more. And that got tiring at some point, especially to a six-year-old.
Most of my childhood angst was therefore directed to a diary. I got it for my birthday, a beautiful notebook with flower-patterned, rainbow-colored, sweet-smelling pages. To the side, clasping the thick, padded covers together, was a tiny little lock made of fake gold, with a matching key and a whisper of a promise that it would keep all my secrets safe. I called her Jo.
Today was amazing! I wrote one day. Aika and I made clay out of flour and oil. We used a clay recipe from a book she had. We had a good time. She made play food and I made animals. When we were done, Tita Detdet said Aika’s lolo took the clay, mixed it with egg and made a pancake.
I carefully copied the recipe for the clay (not the pancake) at the bottom of the page. On another page, I pressed down my pen so firmly that the resulting indents on the next page were readable in the right lighting. The boys stink. I hate it when they tease me about Jan. I don’t have a crush on him. I don’t have a crush on ANYONE. Which was a lie, of course. I actually had a crush on Chris O’Donnell as D’Artagnan from Disney’s take on the Three Musketeers. But that didn’t prove my point, so Jo didn’t need to know that.
My longing was finally satisfied when Ate Joy taught me how to make paper dolls. This happened during one summer, when I was about eight years old, back when we were still living in Cotabato City. We had moved from my grandfather’s big, old house in Bagua into a small, two-bedroom residence—a long sikad ride from Sinsuat Avenue, past Peñafrancia Village and San Pablo Village, then through a sandbar of sorts between two vast rice fields, to San Antonio Village near Tarbeng Creek. Of course, back then we didn’t know it was called Tarbeng Creek. We just called it the ilog.
Just at the back of the new house was a sarisa tree that shot up beyond the roof of the house. Ate Joy called it sarisa, at least. Mama called it mansanitas, although she seldom ever talked about the tree so I ended up calling it sarisa instead. Some of the branches were low enough that I could pluck the delicate white flowers.
They were perfect for laying on top of the cakes that my siblings and I formed from stuffing plastic toy pots full of gravel and water. We’d turn the pots over on a plastic plate and ease out the moist gravel until we had a grey “chocolate cake.” The flowers were the cake decorations, of course. Because in real cakes, my favorite bit was always the brightly colored fondant flowers. I would always lay three flowers on each cake, because in real cakes I only ever got one if both Sha and Kim already had theirs. Astra, back then, was just a baby. She couldn’t have icing flowers just yet.
I didn’t decorate all my cakes with sarisa flowers. Even back then I knew that the more flowers the sarisa tree bore, the more of those tiny, green spheres would appear. These would slowly swell up to the size of Mama’s pearl earrings and turn bright red, which was how you could tell that they were ready to eat.
When I learned to climb the sarisa tree, I’d pick as many of these sweet treats as possible on my way up. I would then perch on our corrugated metal roof and admire the view as I popped the pearl-sized fruit into my mouth, one by one. They were tiny bursts of sweetness, with a faint, fruity aroma in the background. I didn’t quite enjoy the mealy texture caused by the hundreds of miniscule seeds inside, however. The only reason I ate so many of them despite this, I think, was boredom.
Whenever Mama saw me climbing the tree, she’d yell at me from the big screen window of the kitchen: “Mahulog ka, ha?”
I was always tempted to yell back, “Oo, Ma, mahulog ako!” In jest, of course. But I knew that Mama had a tendency towards anxiety. She had already lost my older brother to heart disease and then had almost lost Kim to hydrocephalus, so she practically panicked every time I did something remotely risky. And during these bouts of worry, we weren’t allowed to play outside. So I simply shouted, “Hindi lagi.”
Looking back, my parents probably saw me as the risk-taker. The impulsive, adventurous child who would do things on a whim. But compared to other kids, I was actually very careful. When I was climbing the tree, for instance, I knew exactly which branches were the most stable. I’d place a foot carefully on the low end of the branch, the thickest part closest to the tree, and apply a bit of pressure on it. If it didn’t wobble, I’d put my weight on it and look for another foothold. If a branch seemed even a little bit unstable, I’d look for another one.
Weeks passed. I never did fall from the tree, and I figured that was good enough. Even if Mama was constantly peering at me, worriedly, from the kitchen window. But one day, Papa came home from one of his long trips to see me sitting on the roof, contentedly chomping on sarisa. When I woke up the next morning, the lowermost branches of the tree had been sawed off.
It felt like betrayal. For once in a long time, I protested.
“Bakit niyo pinutol ang puno, Pa?” I wasn’t being rude. We were just never taught to use po, opo, ate or kuya, nor did we ever do mano po, unless we were talking to other people.
“Baka kasi mahulog ka.”
“Nag-iingat naman ako!”
“Eh, paano kung mahulog ka?”
“Hindi lagi ako mahulog!”
“Eh, you should act your age,” he said.
This made me angry and, at the same time, confused. How, exactly, was an eight-year-old supposed to act, after all? My classmates often told me that they climbed far taller trees than I did. They swam in rivers and rolled around in grass, mud, and who-knows-what during the summers.
Nevertheless, I decided to drop it. I knew that no amount of protest could make the tree’s branches grow back again. When Papa left again, I attempted to climb it, but, not having a foothold, I scraped my knee on the rough bark and decided that it was too risky.
I have not climbed a tree since then.
It was because I wasn’t allowed to climb trees anymore that I took to visiting some of our neighbors during my free time. A lot of the time, it was the Bartolomes, who lived just in front of the old Bautista couple’s sari-sari store, where we’d ask to lista Hot and Spicy Tuna or Pancit Canton when we ran out of food. I think that was how we first met them. I don’t quite remember. Anyway, the Bartolomes were a big family, almost all of them girls, some of whom I can only barely tell apart even to this day.
Ate Joy was the youngest, which, I thought, was pretty amazing because she was so old. She already went to the National High School and knew practically everything an eight-year-old wanted to know.
She said sarisa in English was cherry. I told her that cherries in cans and on top of black forest cakes neither looked nor tasted like sarisa. See, they didn’t have the tiny seeds that made them feel mushy in my mouth. She replied that it probably had something to do with the canning process. Maybe boiling the cherries dissolved all the seeds. She also said that if you wanted to eat a fresh cherry, you had to pluck a sarisa off a tree and put it in your mouth without washing it.
She told me about how the kids who went to the Private All-Girls High School were all maarte. And since Mama had mentioned that that was probably where I was going after grade school, she cautioned me not to be like them.
Later, when she found out that I didn’t know about sex, she said that if you did it with a man, his sperm would live in your body forever and you could get pregnant multiple times. I think she genuinely believed that, maybe, her mama and her papa had sex only once. And that explained why there were so many of them, even if her mama and papa fought sometimes.
I would later find that all of these were, in fact, not true. She probably did tell me stuff that were true, but I don’t remember. Things that you can laugh about, after all, are the most memorable.
But the important thing was that she taught me how to make paper dolls.
I used to buy paper dolls from the store across the street from school. I wasn’t actually allowed to cross that street, but it was the only way I could get dolls, yoyos and Ghost Fighter cards. Mama used to tell me stories about kids who got run over by cars in that very street.
“Mas maliit ang gasto ng driver kung mamatay ka kaysa kung ma-hospital ka,” she said. “Kaya minsan tinutuluyan na lang nila.”
So I was cautious. I looked left, right, and left again, just like the koala with the ranger hat said in that book about safety. I never got hit and I never told Mama, lest she make one of my classmates’ yayas watch over me like a hawk. In the meantime, she was watching over Kim like a hawk. The doctors had put a plastic tube in Kim’s head, which drained fluid from her brain to her stomach. Sometimes, though, it needed a bit of help to move along, so Mama had to press at a small soft spot on her head just above a little pump. With Mama anxiously watching her for even the first sign of seizures, I often managed to slip out and get whatever toys I wanted.
Even though the paper dolls I often bought were pretty, I didn’t play with them a lot. I’d dress them up in my favorite outfit, and then get tired of them because their clothing always came loose, being helped up only with flimsy little paper straps. Those folds of those paper straps would also get worn down and torn out the more my dolls changed clothing.
On the hot afternoon that Ate Joy taught me to make dolls, she also showed me a neat little trick that solved this problem by making backs for the dresses. She’d fold the paper in half, drawing the shoulder part of the dress right at the crease. She would then cut the dress out, making sure to leave enough room at the top so that the dress would just hang on the doll’s shoulders. As you might imagine, the doll’s head wouldn’t quite fit through the small neck hole at the top. So she’d cut a slit at the back so the dolls’ head entered the dress sideways through the slit, and then she could flip the head ninety degrees, easing it into the neck hole.
This made sure that my sisters and I could now make paper dolls for our bahay-bahayan games without worrying that they’d get disrobed in the middle of a party.
My two main dolls were redhead twins Caroline and Carolyn. A couple of years earlier, my best friend Aika had introduced me to the Sweet Valley Kids Super Snoopers book series. I was hooked. Now I got a book for birthdays and holidays, or every time my parents brought us to the local bookshop. Sha and I had realized that they were much more generous in bookshops than in toy stores. Now, I had an entire row on the shelf full of Sweet Valley Kids above Sha’s Goosebumps collection. It was because of these books that I was now obsessed with twins.
I made regular clothes, just like the ones we wore. But I also copied clothes off the New Book of Knowledge on fashion costumes through history. And so our dolls had an entire range of clothes, from medieval Maid Marian costume to rococo ones with puffed skirts to elegant flapper chic.
To me, they unlocked a whole world of play. Had I gotten a Barbie, I would have needed to buy more and more of those separately sold dresses every time I wanted her to play a different role. After all, there was Princess Barbie and Fairy Barbie. Indian Barbie and Filipino Barbie. Doctor Barbie and Flight Stewardess Barbie. With paper, I could make as many dolls and clothes as I wanted.
I still visited the doll section of South Seas well until I was in high school. To my parents’ relief, however, I never asked for a Barbie again. I was there for research.
Later, I took to making new doll clothes from the back pages of Papa’s old reports. I had learned from an episode of Captain Planet that people cut down trees, just like the one in my backyard, to make paper. Do your part to save the planet, they said, and write on both sides of the paper.
It pained me to think that, somewhere in the world, forests were being cut by the hundreds so I could have books and writing pads and paper dolls. I remembered the sarisa tree in our backyard, now bare of all the branches within my reach. It would be a shame, I thought, if other children like me would not have trees to climb. Besides, it was the responsible thing to do.
I remembered all this a decade later, when an Aunt tagged my parents in a Facebook meme. Kids these days, it said, did not know how to have fun. They were always indoors, practically motionless with new technology. They didn’t know how to transform sticks and strings and empty cans into toys. They didn’t know how to swim in rivers and climb trees.
“Oo,” they agreed. “They don’t know what it’s like anymore.”
Of course, this perplexed me.
But that’s how you raised us, I protested, internally. I climbed a tree. And then, it was cut down. Because you feared that I would fall.
The child in me was like that tree, growing wild and unpredictable in the fertile soil of our home. But also wild and unpredictable were the unruly out-of-school children of the squatters living outside the gates of my grandparents’ home. Wild and unpredictable was the boy who went missing near the ilog, the one whose lifeless body was found days later downstream.
“Anong klaseng mga magulang ‘yun,” I heard Mama tut-tut when she saw the news on TV. “Pinabayaan lang ang anak nila.”
After all, she and Papa were careful to make sure their children didn’t meet such a fate. The world was such a capricious, dangerous place that simply keeping four unruly children alive required effort that strained their time, money, and, possibly, their sanity. That they knew very well because of the brother that I never knew, lost by no fault of their own.
Because of that, we were trimmed and refined, sometimes beyond recognition. We were taught that our negative emotions were to be suppressed, until they were locked within the pages of our childhood diaries. We were taught to avoid risk, no matter how small.
We were made from trees into paper. Because paper was predictable. It was practical. It was useful. It was kept indoors, away from the unforgiving elements. It was also assuring, the product of centuries of discovery, of experimentation, of technology.
So are we the product of the hopes—and of the fears—of all the generations before us. Maybe one day we’ll feel safe enough to teach the next generation how to become trees again.