As the first grandchild of my paternal grandparents (never mind my maternal, they had 14 ahead of me) everybody fussed over my arrival. Just the onset of a cry, I was often reminded (I don’t know why I chose this word), brought everybody in the household over to my crib, or wherever I was. And it made me cry even harder, I did not like all those hands making a grab at me.
My father, a photography enthusiast, had to have his first family portrait quite when I was just a few months yet, and here it is, with himself nattily bedecked and nobody bothered to check my hair.
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Next, at 6 months and 3 days, I had my first official portrait that showed the beginnings of a stud. Locks, impish eyebrows, biceps, triceps and a butt that just won’t quit. The locks have since resigned in small spurts, with the eyebrows growing instead, and the biceps, triceps and butts have quit. I’d hate to have a picture like this taken of me now. I look better in person.
[insert photo here]
I was delivered at the Immaculate Conception Hospital, which later became the first Cebu City hospital on Mabini st. in Cebu City. My father, then teaching at the University of the Visayas, was renting the second floor of the Gutierrez house on Don Pedro Cui. That was our house for some months until I was old enough to understand we could have many houses; my mother was then working as a public school teacher at Ocaña, Carcar (and before that Mantalongon, Barili) and we stayed at my Aleonar grandparents’.
Formal education for me began in 1957 at Carcar’s St. Catherine’s School kindergarten class. At the end of the schoolyear, they said I was valedictorian and the teacher, Miss Paz Urgello, and Sr. Gertrude, a Belgian nun, had to double time teaching me to speak as they gave me a valedictory piece to deliver at graduation. It was in English and the only English words I knew at the time was come, Daddy, Mommy, no, and even longer noooo, Christmas, and its partner, gift. And yes! (a little crisper than no), how do you do, my name is, I am five years old. So, if I was ever able to do the task, I must have learned the speech only by sound then.
Here I am with my cousin Alex dela Cerna (God rest his soul) who was my salutatorian. He was only 16 days older than me but died 12 years ago, leaving behind his widow and their two sweet daughters, aged 11 and 7 at the time.
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Kinder graduation must have been a family affair since the invited speaker was my own uncle Fr. Benjamin Aleonar, then the interim parish priest of Dalaguete, Cebu. When we visited him during the summer holiday, my proud grandparents would bring me to the school there ran by nuns to show off my speech. The nuns retrieved something from a box and handed me a religious card. It would not be hard to imagine a boy, newly turned six, would be underwhelmed by an estampita since before that, when I had given the speech before a packed audience of parents and my own, my school had given me a shiny medal hanging from a red ribbon.
It’s funny what do you don’t recall, said David Foster Wallace (GRHS, too, who decided to rest it himself). There was a primary grades classmate at St. Catherine’s I’d thought was the most beautiful girl in class. She was not from Carcar, maybe from Naga or Tinaan. So, it’s funny I never could recall her name. This belle doesn’t ring a name.
It’s really funny. My childhood memories spending spare time in Carcar were of drawing and of newspaper cartoons all over and yet the only character hero I can remember now is the Phantom. Oh I’m sorry, also the Lone Ranger. And the Roy Rogers coloring books.
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The NY Yankees were the first sports team I knew, and the papers also bannered the name Mickey Mantle. Later on, a local basketball team, the CYO (Carcar Youth Organization), and every ear in the house got glued on the radio when a game was on in Manila involving the UV Green Lancers, which my father had nicknamed, he having been engineering instructor and dean there and student publication moderator. He also drew the publication’s first logo, actually the signature outline caricature of his with the hanging crewcut, I don’t know if the student staffers through the years finally got on to its identity, or whether they still use it.
Caloy Loyzaga and his Yco Painters became my second sports idols. High school was all Flash Elorde.
Somewhere in there, from reading A and B and C and the rest, at first for what they were—letters, and later recognizing—this may well be where the arts part ways–typographical possibilities and also that their combinations can represent a thing or a concept, and the latter path to narratives and story-telling, and on to the difference between a plot that you can’t stop turning to get to the end and a page you don’t want to ever end.
A young boy’s imagination may run away but life always hits you back home with its more concrete experiences. One afternoon after school, I had lost sense of the time playing and as I walked home, was getting tense as to what awaited me in the form of my grandfather who never wavered on his rule (actually, observed by every parent in the town at the time) for us to be home before 6 o’clock. But near the house I met a cousin staying with us, my ‘Noy Mario, on an errand. It was only some 50 years later, after I got caught by the genealogy bug, that I found how exactly we were related. ‘Noy Mario was my 4th degree cousin.
“Hurry home because your Nanay Eding is dying,” he said. With his meek countenance, ‘Noy Mario had a flair for the understatement.
That news all the more tensed me up. I was 8 years old. I hadn’t known dying close at hand. Nanay Eding, Praxedes, was a relation, like ‘Noy Mario, only much closer, since she was an older half-sister of my grandfather, and a spinster. Neither did I know much then about half-sistering.
As I passed her room on the ground floor, I saw many people inside, religious standards all over the room, and old ladies praying aloud. I did not look too closely. Instead I went up and through a gap on the floor, peered down directly over what seemed like Nanay Eding sleeping, only she was heaving while she breathed.
That scene of her prayerful dying never left my mind to this day. It became for me the perfect death, surrounded by religious banners, family and friends praying over you, exhorting you that it’s okay to leave this earth and meet your Maker, and exhorting your Maker that you’re an okay human being to take to His kingdom. They never left her side and never stopped praying and chanting until she heaved her last breath. It was her final rite of passage. There was left no room for the devil.
The following morning I woke up to the news that she had died during the night. She was 82. There would be no school for me that day; we were burying her in the afternoon.
Going out of the cemetery, we were told to pass through smoke of lit twigs and leaves. It was later explained to me that this was so you wouldn’t bring the odor of death back to your house. They said if you didn’t pass through smoke, infants and babies could smell the death in you and be in a fit for hours. Such a sound sense to it. Practical.
Just five years ago, in a tract about American Indians I came across how they also pass through smoke and herbs—but before entering a burial ground. The exact opposite. You cleanse yourself because you’re entering holy ground. Wasn’t this what the Spaniards also called the cemetery—campo santo?
I like this Indian custom better. Sacral. Except maybe we should pass through the smoke again on coming out—just for the babies?
Photographs of me from 4 to 6 had me doubled over tables or spread over the floor, doing sketches. Cartoon characters were my favorite subjects, but not, I seem to remember, funny animation types. I took on the Lone Ranger, the Phantom. Boxing photos in newspapers were a favorite, too. I was especially attracted to the folds and creases a clenched boxing glove made, its sheen, the Everlast on the wrist, and already noticed that the tape on the boxers’ fists and wrists peered under the gloves themselves. The many shapes of cowboys’ hats, too, caught my eye. A classmate now recalls my notebook was filled with studies of cowboys.
Tons of precious trees must have been felled to make paper for my sketches and drawings that I never even bothered to keep. That’s my contribution to climate change. But you can see I never got off the practice stage, beyond hit-and-miss sharpening of the eye and mind and my hands to execute what I saw or thought I did.
Art must have been something else and it was farthest from my grade-school mind. Maybe, it is not all technique as much as how we treat our subject. How we see even ordinary things and present their extraordinariness or even their ordinariness in a new light. Or one’s technique itself may be one’s subject. It’s when you put yourself — not just eyes but ideas — on your work.