I could still hear the singing and belly laughs from our neighbor’s family gathering. It was Christmas Eve, December of 1995. And as expected, people were in festive mood.
I was peeking from a crevice that used to be a bedroom door. The bedroom that the door used to separate from our living room was gone. It was one of the casualties of super typhoon Rosing that ravaged our area over a month ago.
Rosing, known globally as Angela, was a category 5 typhoon with 180 mph sustained winds, one of the strongest on record. According to the Philippine Statistical Authority, it was one of the costliest typhoons to hit the country at 10.8 billion pesos in damages.
My two older sisters and I were able to locate and recycle the old doorframe after Rosing moved northwest over the Gulf of Tonkin. We nailed and latched it back onto the doorpost for a sense of privacy and security. We were keen on giving a potential burglar some difficulty in an attempt to break in our house.
I closed and locked the doorframe and sat on a wooden chair. Darkness covered our living room. My sisters were already in deep sleep while I was deep in my thoughts, moved by the deafening silence.
There was nothing festive in our house. We did not have any Christmas decoration. We neither had a CD of Christmas songs to play nor a Christmas story to read, watch or listen.
At that time, my father was working for a domestic shipping company from another province, four years after my mother died. Jobs were difficult in our area. Father had no choice but to work over 85 miles away from us. That Christmas, it meant we would be spending the day all by ourselves.
Earlier in the day, my eldest sister tried to lift our spirits. She gave our house some makeover and donned our walls with red wallpapers. She also prepared some pork and chicken dishes. A full dinner table seemed to be an effective diversionary tactic.
After cleaning up, chatting and praying, we went to sleep. That was our Christmas Eve. In the last couple of years, we never woke up at or kept ourselves awake until midnight for the usual nochebuena. In the Philippines, nochebuena is a Christmas Eve midnight feast traditionally shared by family members.
But that night was different. I was fully awake when the clock struck midnight. And by looking at how our neighbor celebrated theirs, I suddenly thought I had to chase the Christmas spirit somewhere in the prairie, sealed it in a Pandora’s box and bring and release it back home. And when I would chase it or when I would be able to catch it, I had no idea.
I noticed the leaky roof in the porch, another typhoon Rosing casualty.
My sisters and I did not know when it would be fixed. I just hoped it would be repaired before my elementary graduation the following year. My father’s salary would go to our daily and school needs. We barely had enough for emergency situations. In my father’s estimate, there was a 50 percent chance we would have a budget for house repair – there were other parts of the house that needed attention – during the summer since we would be out of school. In short, we had fewer expenses.
The most difficult part of growing up in a single-parent family in a third-world country was the lack of job opportunity. In a working paper published by the International Monetary Fund, the organization pegged the country’s unemployment rate in 1995 at 9.5% (the United States’ was at 5.6%). Given the high population growth rate and unfair labor practices, working conditions were pretty substandard.
My father was a hard worker, but he could only produce what was enough for our daily needs. He lived by the rule beggars could not be choosers. He was thankful for whatever his company would pay him even if he were overworked and underpaid. He had to work or else we would not finish school. And to him, education was everything. We had to get a good education so that our capacity to choose would not be undermined. He was determined that we would not be like him.
We were still fortunate, though. We had the three of us, and though our father was far away, we knew, we always had his back. The typhoon left with severe damages in our province and other nearby provinces. Rosing gutted houses, turned water unsafe for consumption and took away lives. Fatalities were estimated at over 900.
I poured a glass of the corn syrup-rich green tea from dinner as I glanced at the family picture hanging above our study table. We were all beaming - eyes crinkled, mouth wide open, chin up – it was a picture of genuine satisfaction. Even my sister, who rarely smiled in her kid pictures, was flashing a soulful smile. The picture made me smile as well.
As I breathed in and gulped the sugary drink, I had a Proustian flashback. I was back to when two little girls were pretending to sleep for their afternoon snacks. They would sneak into the kitchen to gobble a good amount of a multivitamin that tasted oh-so-sweet (thank God they did not suffer from a drug overdose), and pretend once more, now sick, for a taste of their generation’s most coveted soda pop. The two little girls celebrated their triumph for outsmarting their mother until she caught them – the latter part could make for material for a book series. They were gripped with fear, hoping Jesus would come back soon and spare them from her wrath.
I crawled onto one of the beds where my sisters were sleeping. I squeezed myself in between them. I was reminded that Christmas is beyond what meets the eyes. It is what happens inside of us, in between silence and uproar. And for as long as I cherish our memories together and find reasons to be thankful even in the most thankless season, we will always have the spirit of Christmas. I do not have to chase it – we have it deeply woven in the prints of our being. That night, I had a meaningful nochebuena.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Krshna G S
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