Time empties even graves

Posted at 05/03/2014 5:50 PM

By 1750, we were pretty well established in this neck of the woods and had more or less married and remarried to produce a distinctive family whose members, for good or bad, close or remote, of either sex, look pretty similar if not identical not just in looks but in mannerisms. At last week’s reunion, I was asked to give a short talk, which follows:

“Like everyone connected to Negros, I feel that my role is to listen and not to talk. The wisdom is here; we come here to find the answers we did not find out there; to find again the sense of place we lost; especially so at another grand reunion of the Locsins of the Montelibano, Ledesma, Gaston, Diaz, Consing, Alcuaz, Lacson, de la Rama and other families linked by blood. I will call them all Locsins even if just yesterday I met someone whose wife is here for the Ledesma reunion, while my best friend Teddy Montelibano regretted that work keeps him away from this Montelibano reunion. There is also the problem of my youth.

“It is the Locsin way for the young not to talk until they are old enough to contribute to the conversation. I grew up eating in the kitchen along with cousins and friends my own age. At the last Locsin gathering in Dasmarinas Village, I gravitated to the table of young people, forgetting I am old enough to be their father if not grandfather. Habits of the heart die hard.

“But at my father’s, Tita Carnay’s and Lolo Te’s, it was the Locsin way that you must earn a place at the table. Not that it mattered; most Locsin men had the habit of eating standing up anyway.

“And yet, and from what I observed, Locsins have fine table manners, however they eat. My father was an orphan, a boarder at Ateneo in Manila, so I wondered why he ate as correctly with cutlery as with his hands. And that I guess is why this is also called, the Ledesma reunion: for the fine mannerisms that give them a branch of their own and the Consings along with them.

“So, at 65 going on 66, pardon me for standing here, not least for attempting to give what my cousin Milou said should be an inspirational talk.

“But Locsins do not look for inspiration. When they need to do things, they do it; they don’t wait around for inspiration. Locsins get enough inspiration by introspection; by searching memories; and by coming back here and walking the streets in the early morning on the way to Mass, passing the old houses so the past springs to life again. There are stories on the cracked, faded and ivy-covered walls.

“From those stories the practical answer that escaped them will come; or the reconciling explanation of an event; and acceptance with a sense of knowing that it happened before. A Locsin went through the same thing long ago; be it a premature death or a death overdue yet feels too soon however long the life that ended. There are early parallels in a gain or a loss; in a victory or defeat; in fulfillment and disappointment. Yet there is no pride involved as in some old families up north, none of whom come close to being as old as our own.

“It is not a sense of being special; we are quite ordinary folk; but of a sense of belonging to a certain kind not to be found anywhere else at all.

“There are famous Locsins like Lolo Te or Lolo Peding; yet among us we never hear a boast. I do not remember anyone telling me, when we played around him as kids, that Papa Te, as even the kids called him, had been a senator; a notable in the Commonwealth; the author of the far-seeing social justice provision of the Constitution at a time when it was a crime to even think the poor deserved any kind of justice at all.

“For me he was the man with the full head of gleaming white hair, in a white barong and white trousers, sitting at the head of the table, to whom alone a proud man would listen. My father listened to nobody else.

“Locsins are close, sometimes too close for comfort. I remember one short little aunt telling my father after his release from prison, “You deserved it, you have always been too proud. It is Karma.” My father reached out for her throat. But Tito Joe said, “Manong Teddy is a car polish?” Another uncle said, “The car polish is Carnu; Karma is something else.” The laughter saved my aunt. Because the other thing is the men have really bad tempers and for that reason this is also called the Montelibano reunion.

“My immediate aunts knew that my mother bullied my father even if, as usual with Locsins, he never talked; he just looked like he lacked sleep. Without prompting they told him that Tatay Ciro—or was it Tatay Carlos?—slept in his car because he was afraid of his wife, as if that justified it all. It happened before so it will happen again, live with it.

“Another Locsin trait is circumspection or a personal reserve. If you want to know the colorful history of our town of Silay read my father’s short stories. But you won’t recognize any as the stories we overheard. When I was preparing his stories for publication abroad, I complained about the story of the Locsin girl whose body was exhumed in a perfect state though not for long. I know that story, I told my father; it didn’t go that way. He said, ‘I am telling stories not exposing secrets. My mother said that every time a secret is told an angel dies.’ Angels abound in Silay from the silence of the old. This was the only time he ever mentioned his mother.

“So I asked my wife what can I tell them? My wife, who has observed us, said, Tell them what no one else can. Tell them what they are like; you know that just by looking into yourself. Sometimes sad but keeping that to yourself; sometimes happy but never happier than sharing it among yourselves, even, from her point of view, we have no reason to be. It seems our own company makes us happy.

“Locsins, she said, are never fazed. In Negros in good times, bad, and worse, her Ilonga classmates in Manila seemed unaffected; they were always consistently themselves: playful, studious when they had to be, and graceful in their flirtations.

“Centuries before the theme song of Frozen, Locsins always knew To Let It Go. Again I can speak only of my father.

“When martial law was imposed and army men came to take my father away, I hugged him and cried but he said, “What’s wrong with you? It was a war; he won, we lost. We knew that when we started this fight.” And gently let me go, walking off with his escorts, leaving behind everything he spent his life building. If he regretted it he never told.

“Locsins don’t hang on; they know when the time comes to let go. Some will credit their faith in the Lord and that’s true and good. But others let go without any faith at all. It is just that we don’t overstay our welcome.

“Locsins take to duty like ducks to water. When the Japanese invaded…well, there’s the famous ruin of the mansion that the owner torched rather than turn it over.

“Lolo Peding of all people allied with the communists to fight the Japanese. With perfect logic, he tried to create a diversion by sending my father into occupied Manila with a broken radio. He expected a bookworm to be caught. But my father covered his radio with fresh eggs so the Japanese would not stick their bayonets in his basket. The working transmitter was discovered and the messenger was shot. Still my father thought Lolo Peding did the right thing; he would have done the same.

“Just a month ago, I met an old man who said he was 7 years old when my father and a Gaston would beach their batel every month or so, ferrying arms into Luzon. They stayed at the Batangas beach hotel of the boy’s father. My father was always reading a book like he hadn’t a care in the world and the Gaston was always chatting like it was a social visit. I wish he had met my father again in his old age.”

If I might add for this publication, Lolo Peding’s group shot a lot of collaborators for which some grudge lingers. He defined collaboration as a failure to show enthusiasm and elan in actively opposing Japanese rule, and that includes a refusal to take up arms even if the person couldn’t afford or didn’t know how to acquire one. His group did not distinguish between a landlord and a farm worker—even if whatever would a farm worker be doing with a firearms unless he was disgruntled with his social situation? In which case—well, never mind. Both had to be enthusiastic or dead. Let me go on.

“I don’t know how common this is in the family but his greatest pleasure was to find something or someone from the past. I notice that most meetings of Locsins consist of recollections so that the past never dies and each one is really much older than their age, living as much in the past as the present, and therefore living a richer even if less eventful life than most.

“The past is as vivid to Locsins as the present. Did I not just listen to an aunt talk about another aunt who danced at the Kahirup ball with her dashing young cousin, in white tie and tails, who charmed her the whole evening with small talk. The only strange thing about him was that he spoke in the past tense. The next day it was learned that he was killed by the Japanese the day before the ball.

“Locsins are also happy with whatever they have even if it isn’t everything you would want. I recall a certain legacy had reverted back because it had been given only for the lifetime of the beneficiary. It took less than a minute for everyone at the table, none of them by any means rich, to decide that the property should go to the beneficiary’s heirs so as not to disappoint them.

“This reunion, called by the different names of which the Locsins have been composed for well over 3 centuries, is not a celebration of pride but of something that does not come before the fall.

“It is a celebration of a sense of who we are; no more than that but also no less; and what we have remained through passing time and a changing world; distinctively the same in face, in mannerism, in attitude, and graciousness.

“Whether these traits will survive the last of the old houses where they flourished, I do not know. I hope we won’t risk it. I think it is time to make conscious efforts to keep what is still here; not for tourism. Christ, I cannot imagine the square filled with strangers but from an abiding sense of who and what we are that may vanish with the old houses.

“It is famously said that you can’t go home again; but if Silay is home by virtue of your name, then you can go home again even for just a day. Thank you for the honor.”

Will these reunions continue? I don’t know. But every time I return to Silay, I feel a wider emptiness in the old houses; the presences that once packed an empty room and felt oppressive in the growing gloom before the total fall of night seem to have diminished if not vanished. An empty room is just that these days and I fear that even before the houses finally fall from the weight of their age, the reasons to keep them standing will have departed long ago. Time empties everything, even graves.