Living in the Philippines gave me an appreciation for the cold winters of Midwestern America. Sundays were always a big treat for us. Our entire family would go to church for most of the day. The church was the only building in La Union City that had air conditioners at that time. I remember sitting next to the Santo Domingo statue because the air would pleasantly blow on me. It was a large porcelain figurine with dozens of red glass cups with candles in front. The bright red and gold trimmed cape made his face look so creamy. He had a lit circle behind his head that made his brown hair glow. In one hand, he had a ball with a cross on top and a scepter in the other. On those humid days, church was my solace.
Summers are always hot and humid on the island. Sometimes it was too hot. The monsoon season always came after the hot sticky summers. The trees blocked the sun but the air was so thick; you could feel the sweat leaking from your skin while you sat on the veranda. Most people take a siesta in the afternoon but my sisters and I would play under the house until the grown ups woke up.
In those days, a nice glass of water from the spring was a big treat! It was a thirty-minute hike up the mountain to get the water. We would follow the trail up the side of the mountain and through the MonkeyForest. The trail ended at the last plateau of the mountain where two slate rocks sat side by side. The water came spitting out of the mountain slate crevice. If you went up there while the sun was coming up or going down, the rock walls would twinkle like stars on a clear night. We went to this spring everyday to get our water.
Nanang, my grandmother, liked to spend all our holidays and free days in the province. Tatang, a term of endearment for grandfather, went shopping with Nanang so that he could talk to the other men in town. Most of our extended family lived out in the province. It’s where most of my childhood memories were made. Nanang, Tatang, my sisters, and I would spend days in the province living off the land and the sea. At times, it seemed like heaven on earth.
We woke up before the sun beat down on our heads. Nanang allowed Tatang to sleep in while we finished making breakfast. She said he smiles more when he wakes up to a table full of food. So every day, we put on our slippers, grabbed the market bag, and headed out towards the beach. That was where we get to see Manong Boy and Manong Jing, our elder uncles. They fished all night and into the early mornings. We never knew what fish we would see when they unloaded their catch. Often, there were a couple of large yellow fin tunas, a dozen or so mackerels, many types of shrimp and a stingray or barracuda too. If they had a good night’s catch, we would be able to bring back enough fish to dry and eat for the entire week. This day was a good day. We had brought back enough fish to last us for two weeks.
Nanang and I would carry the fish back to the house. It always felt like it took longer to get home than it took to get to the beach. Ani and Tia, my younger sisters, would walk far in front because they didn’t like the smell of the fish. They would giggle and skip, then run, while Nanang and I carried the basket of fish back to the house. Nanang would get irritated with them when they would run too far ahead. In her scratchy old voice she would yell, “Slow down Girls or you’ll be helping me clean out the fish!” That would always get them to stop. Their skips would then turn to dragging feet. I would smile and keep my giggles to myself. Ani hated to clean fish. She didn’t like the slimy feeling when she had to clean out the innards. Tia didn’t like de-scaling the fish because the scales tend to fly all over the place; however, they did like to eat the fish after it was cleaned and cooked.
Tatang usually woke up to a cup of coffee, rice and some fried eggs. On this day, he had fresh fish from the ocean. He was extra happy because it was milkfish, his favorite fish.
Our family loved to eat fresh fish. It was especially good because we had been in the city for the past couple of months. We couldn’t get fresh fish out there. The city never has the yummy food that we had in the province. Somehow, the fish always tasted better in the province. Everything seemed to taste better in the province. It was a good place to be.
After breakfast, we helped Nanang and all our helpers clean up the tables. Tatang then went for a walk into the forest and brought back our meryenda (mid-day snack). He would carry back a bag full of the best fruits from the forest. My sisters and I would try to guess what type of fruit he would bring back to the house. There were so many wild fruit trees in the forest; we could eat a different fruit everyday of the month.
My favorite was the papayas. He would bring back these tender, sweet papayas. Tatang would have two or three in his arms. They were always light yellow and orange on the outside and when he cut one open, it would be bright orange with small black papaya seeds rolling out of the middle of the cut. You can see the papaya juice drip from the corners of my mouth at every bite. I would devour these in minutes. They were so sweet and juicy; we had to bathe in the river after we ate. Our dresses and faces would be sticky from eating.
Bathing in the river was fun. My sisters and I could spend hours in the river. The water was cold and clear. Sometimes we could see the fish that are trying to swim back into the ocean. The river was where we washed our clothes and took our baths. We don’t drink water from the river because Nanang says, “you never know what was up the stream.” It was safer to drink the water straight from the rock. Nanang always knew what was good for us. I liked the water when it hits the large rocks and makes a splash. I can scrub myself on the rock and the dirt would go down stream. It was great just sitting on the cold sandy river with the water rushing around me. It felt so good to splash the water on my face. I didn’t feel sticky anymore. The air didn’t feel heavy anymore either. The river had a great way of making me feel good. I was clean again.
Nanang and the helpers start to make dinner in the mid-afternoon. Dinner was always the biggest meal of the day. It would take about 4 hours to make. After the workday was done, the field workers would come to the house and we would feed everyone for dinner. We made the dinner in the back by the banana trees. Nanang thinks it’s the best place to cook. The wind carries the smoke away from the house all the time. There was a big flat slate rock in the back in what we consider an outside kitchen. It has a tin roof over it with four large rocks that held it up. Nanang has two clay pot cookers called bilao and a big fire pit, a few meters to the right of the slate slab. We made the rice and the vegetables in clay pots called palayok. The meat roasted over the fire pit while the soup sat in large clay kettles on the sides of the pit. On a clear day, you can smell the food all the way from the beach. Our cousins would come in from the shores and stay for dinner. They would bring the sweet rice for dessert. My favorite part of the day was dinnertime.
Nanang had made some vegetable soup and she had forgotten to get squash from the open market. She asked Manang Betty and me to go to town and buy some from our friend Manong Paring. He had the best vegetables in the whole barrio. Manang Betty was not a talkative person. She would let me skip and jump when we go on our errands. Since the sun was slowly going down and the wind started to pick up, I started to skip and jump. It was fun just feeling the wind move across your face when you skipped and jumped. The air was getting cooler too. Nighttime was coming and we were in a hurry to get our squash.
Manang Betty went to Manong Paring’s table at the outdoor market. She asked to buy 5 kilos of white squash. Manong Paring had to get this order put together. This was a big order. While Manang Betty was chatting with the local neighbors, I was skipping along the market rows.
I was in my own world; skipping and definitely not paying attention to what was going on around me. Suddenly, I hit my head on something hard. I fell on my back. I didn’t see the wall that was in front of me. When I opened my eyes, I saw a large pair of black shiny boots. It had a dark pair of blue pants was on top of it. As I looked up to see what I had hit, I came to realize that it was a man in a blue jumpsuit. He had shiny golden wings on his shirt. The sun was behind his head. It made his hair glow like the flame in a lamp. His hair seemed golden and his head shined like the sun. His eyes looked like the blue ocean. His skin was as white as milk. I was so scared; I just wanted to run. My heart was beating so fast it felt like it was going to jump out of my chest.
I could hear Manang Betty apologizing for me. I could not take my eyes off of his golden hair and ocean blue eyes. He smiled and put his hand out for me. He said, “Are you alright little girl?”
I was scared. I didn’t know what to say. I just nodded. Nanang always said, “Don’t talk to strangers.” All I wanted to do at that moment was to go back home.
I ran as fast as I could to my Nanang. She saw me coming towards her yelling, “Nanang! Nanang! I saw God!”
Running towards her, I kept yelling “I saw God! I saw God, Nanang!”
Nanang told me to calm down. She asked Manang Betty, “What is she talking about?”
Manang Betty shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t want to talk to Nanang in fear of finding out that she may have done something wrong. Nanang decided to take me back to the market to find out for herself why I was so excited.
I could hear her mumbling under her breath. She was walking fast and briskly. My short legs had a hard time keeping up with her. It seemed I have struck a nerve. All this time, I felt like I was on cloud nine no matter how grumpy she was.
I saw God and He was beautiful!
I saw the market in the horizon. It didn’t seem to take that long to get to the open market. The smell of the vegetables and spoiling meats were pungent and sweet at the same time. I kept skipping and jumping to see if He was still there. I wanted to see him again.
I kept jumping and walking around; searching for Him. He was not at the spot I left Him. I ran up and down the market searching for His beautiful blue jumpsuit. My heart started to sink. Nanang looked more upset than before. I can see her teeth now. Her leathery face looked like a cypress bark, brown and red with crinkles all over. Her tobacco-stained teeth were showing dark shadows. Her eyes were glaring and her nostrils looked big.
As I turned to the right of the toy maker’s booth, I saw something shiny and soft. My heart started to beat hard again.
I found Him! I found God!
Nanang had no choice but to run after me. She was old but she did have stamina. I jumped towards Him and He caught me! He had the prettiest white teeth and such wonderful milk skin. All I could do was hug Him.
My wonderful moment was shattered. Nanang pulled me away from God. She kept apologizing to Him. I didn’t understand. He smiled and spoke to Nanang in such a kind godly way. He kept saying, “Its ok” and “everything’s just fine. She’s just a little excited.” I was so happy for one moment and then I was confused. I was so confused. Why did Nanang pull me off of Him? Why was Nanang so upset? Nanang and God talked to each other in a different language. I couldn’t understand them. I felt like crying. Why was God not talking to me?
After they finished talking, Nanang took my hand and started walking towards our home. She was smiling now. My heart was crushed inside. I was in pain inside. I didn’t know what to think. We walked for a little bit and spoke of nothing. She walked with a smile the entire time. I was so confused. When we turned onto the road that went to our house, Nanang decided to talk to me about what happened. She found a big rock on the side of the road. I sat on the rock and it kept me at eye level with her. She then started to talk.
“Pia, I know you have many ideas in your head. You will need to be calm about what I am going to tell you. Please do not think of me badly, but what you saw was not God. What you saw was an American Soldier from Clark’s Air Force Base. He was a man. He was not God. He comes from a country called the United States of America. They have people there that have very light hair and they have no color on their skin. Many of them are very tall.” Nanang told me this very calmly and gently. She said that I was not going to be able to see God until I go to heaven.
“I would have to wait until I go to heaven?” I thought to myself, “Where can I go to see Him?” That day left an impression in my life. As always, my curiosity followed me through my quest in life. There have been so many tangent paths in my life. Yet through it all, I’ve found that God had always been with me. He’s no longer the image I once perceived.
God is more than the fair skinned, hair glowing man. He’s not the man with the highlighted aura. The truth is I don’t know what He looks like. What I do know is that I see Him in the golden leaves that fall in the autumn wind. One time, it seemed like he was on the sandy beach with me. When the waves were twinkling in the evening sky, it looked like God was winking at me. He reminds me everyday that I’m not alone. I’ve never lost sight of him. You see…I see God every day.