The girl who stole my heart

I have fallen in love a few times in my 65 years, but never have I allowed a girl to steal my heart. Until last month, late August.

I first saw her early morning of 2005 August 22, just after midnight, at the Manila International Airport, now called the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. She came in a Cathay Pacific flight from New York via Hongkong, with her parents, and the moment I saw her, she stole my heart. It wasn’t the pretty face – yes, she’s pretty – it wasn’t the beauty, it was the warm smile. What can I say? I loved her the first time I saw her. She is my joy.

She is Gabriela Marie Hilario Cerni, visiting from Queens Borough, New York, with her parents, Karl and Maria Lorena (Dida to us). The mother, my second daughter and third child, is an OT (occupational therapist); the father is a financial wizard or such (he works for Lehmann Brothers).

She is the second of my three granddaughters. The first, Maia, is in Toronto, Canada; the parents are Christian & Christina Capati, the mother being my eldest daughter.

The third, Samantha, is in Manila; her parents are Toto and Teresa Ilowa. Sam is in the hospital, the UERMM (University of the East Ramon Magsaysay Memorial); she has just had a 5-hour operation for a choledochal cyst. So young and so vulnerable.

I didn’t know I could be a good grandfather until Gabby came. Gabby is my second handheld granddaughter, the first being Sam, whom I held for just a minute or two just to show the father and mother (my daughter) how to hold a baby while breastfeeding or bottlefeeding – the natural fetal position.

The Cernis came to the Philippines on a 2-week vacation, flying days included. One thing my daughter Jennifer (the one they never saw) noticed was that the clocks in New York and Los Baños showed exactly the same time but different dates, NY late by one day. She was watching the US Open Tennis Championship plays being held in Flushing Meadows, New York of course, and she noticed the time similarities and differences. So when the Cernis flew back home, they arrived the same day they left. Time doesn’t fly – only people do.

While they were here and when I was around (this grandfather wasn’t always around), I would take my turn holding Gabby and the very first minute she would always grab my flash drive that was always clipped to my shirt – she would take hold of the metal ring that I added to the holding band and try to bring it to her mouth. Babies always want to bring what they can clutch to their mouths; Gabby is 5 months old. And I would tell her: ‘Gabby, did you know that that’s metal? Don’t eat that. You’ll have metal poisoning.’ And she would smile, unknowingly. We were communicating very well, across the 64 years and 7 months between us. No communication gap at all!

Next she would be biting and sucking on her teether, either one, a 5-leaf clover or a sunflower, plastic or rubber I didn’t bother to check – that would have been disturbing the peace of a baby. Then I would tell her, ‘Good. That’s vegetable. It’s good for you.’ When she put her finger in her mouth to suck, with the teether still in there, I would say, ‘Gabby, did you know that that’s meat? That’s right. Meat is also good for you.’ And she would smile, and grandfather would understand.

The grandfather was enjoying it all the time. I would repeat what I was telling Gabby, but I would change the words a bit, and still, Gabby would smile, and I would say, ‘Ah, you agree.’ And I would tell the parent who cared to listen, ‘See? She agrees with me.’ You never found a granddaughter and a grandfather agreeing that well and that fast.

Most of the time I held her in a certain way that I like to call the Hilario Handhold. It’s like this: Turn the baby so that her back is to you. Place your right forearm across the breast from near the baby’s head, then bring your hand down and clasp the diaper between the legs, hand cupped to her behind. That’s as steady as you can get. What happens then? The slight squeeze the baby gets from your forearm presses the stomach and gets the gas out – the baby will thank you for that if she could talk. But the best thing that happens is that the baby enjoys being free with her hands and feet to wiggle and waggle, free to reach for anything if you allow her to, free from your smell and free to smile at the world. Some babies are so lucky.

With the Hilario Handhold, you can then use your left hand to do something else, like sip your hot chocolate, Daddy, being careful to swing the baby out of the reach of a spilling cup just in case – you can do it because your hold is firm and your control is full. When your right hand is tired, you can support the baby from her behind by cupping your left hand over your right hand. At these times, two hands are better than one.

With Gabby’s parents, we did much less, I’m afraid. No, we didn’t see the sunrise at Los Baños. And no, we didn’t see the sunset at Manila Bay. We went after them but no luck – the dark clouds were always in the way of the beautiful sights. I was explaining that the most beautiful sunset can be found only in the tropics, because a beautiful sunset means dust particles in the atmosphere, and where do you find such dust? In the tropics.

I know my son-in-law Karl Cerni (German and Puerto Rican), like I said, works for Lehmann Brothers. I know they work wonders with figures. But I didn’t ask for details about what he was doing for a life and his loves – numbers have never had a hold on me as the sunrise and the sunset have always had.

In Manila, they rented out for 10 days a place at Tita Maté’s (a relative on my wife’s side), with bedroom & separate toilet & bath & dining room & kitchen included, for US$125 (at $1 to P56). Visiting relatives, including the Hilarios, slept on the couch and on the floor with mat or foam. Not bad, not bad at all.

On August 26, a Friday, I thought of writing about the twelve children I have. And so I began writing ‘Name That Twelve!’ I was almost finished the day before they left, but I forgot to show them the printout I brought with me from Los Baños. So I’ll just send it by email. (You can read it in this blogsite too.)

We walked the campus of UP Los Baños, which lies at the foot of Mt Makiling, named after a legendary goddess of the forest. (In most days, when you look at the mountain from afar, you will see a woman lying on her back, hair flowing and two mounds showing where the breast would be. She is guarding the whole mountain.) We walked towards Maquiling School, where Dida finished her elementary grades. Then we walked to the Catholic St Therese of Jesus Chapel along the outer road of the campus and attended a mass. Afterwards, we ate at ChowKing, 2nd floor. ChowKing is one of several fastfood chains in UP Los Baños, a university town: 2 ChowKings, 2 Jollibees, and 1 each of Kentucky Friend Chicken, McDonald’s, Greenwich Pizza, Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donut, Bug-ong. With its international population, including the staff of IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) and SEARCA (Southeast Asian Regional Center for Research and Graduate Study in Agriculture), it is not surprising that Los Baños has universal taste.

We went to the National Arts Center up there on Mt Makiling. As happened many times, I shot some video and some stills; you can always tell my videos because they all have both content and context: I get context by panning my shots. My daughter Daphne and Gabby went with her walker around the NAC Auditorium while we looked at the other buildings, and got close to the Executive House, the house that Imelda built. This is where First Lady Imelda Marcos would fly by helicopter straight when she visited the Arts Center. The Center is nestled about halfway up the top of Mt Makiling: should it be here? It was the wish of Imelda Marcos that it be here, and her wish was their command.

The Philippine High School for the Arts is also here, where boys and girls are supposed to hone their artistic talents, where they learn to sing better, paint better, act better. I said supposed to. I haven’t heard about an outstanding graduate of theirs, and it’s been more than 20 years. In the meantime, hillside farmers have come and are attending to their art of slash and burn. And you can be sure they excel in this, as the treeless eroding hillsides will show you even from afar. And on the other side of this legendary mountain, a new village has arisen from nowhere: Bagong Silang (New Born), which was not there when I was 1st year college at UP Los Baños in 1959, which did exist when I was Chief Information Officer of the Forest Research Institute in 1975. abetted by local politicians who declared that village politically and geographically legal, those families have claimed for themselves part of our common heritage – Mt Makiling is a nature reserve of the Philippines, by law belonging to and under the management of UP Los Baños. The small people subvert the big law too.

I too admired the spotless beauty of Imelda Marcos. I saw her close up as she passed between our rows of UP graduates in the summer of 1965 at UP Diliman, Quezon City. That was the time the Marcoses were beloved of the Filipinos, long long ago. Today, we admired the distant views of Laguna Lake, the lakeshore parts of the town of Los Baños and the City of Calamba. Distance lends enchantment to the view – except history.

We visited my office, the room of the Editor in Chief of the PJCS (Philippine Journal of Crop Science) at PhilRice (Philippine Rice Research Institute) Los Baños Station. Karl did his email while I chatted with Dida and Gabby. Dida was breastfeeding her all the time. The mother tells me Gabby is being breastfed even when her mother is away at work – she pumps her milk and the baby gets it from the bottle. Mother’s milk is best for babies.

We also went to IRRI to see the rice museum (‘Rice World’ it is called), and to eat lunch. This is where one of my sons, Paul Benjamin, works as a museum explainer and guide to visitors. I saw Karl reading earnestly the many texts of the exhibits. I was here last year and I can see improvements, new interesting items myself. But not interesting enough to write about.

Then we saw the art exhibit at the museum. That was new, and that was more than interesting. Whose idea was it? Paul Benjamin; you expect that, because he can draw or paint himself if he wanted to. It was a solo exhibit of Anthony Nañola II, who happens to be from Lucban, Quezon, where my wife’s father Gabriel happens to hail from and whose name Gabriela happens to come from. I liked his paintings because he goes for impression and impact, not details – if I were a painter, I would be an impressionist. He also ‘mixes’ his oils and ideas with antique materials of wood and metal and seashells, and they encourage to look and linger. Karl and Dida bought 3 paintings and got 1 free, one painted on veneer and looked good too (both painting and veneer) except that it had no frame. One of the paintings I liked very much and told Dida so, and she liked it too and that was one of those they bought. The painting I shall call Anthony’s Madonna & Child, that is because the mother’s face is unseen and only her back is turned to you, while she holds the baby who is the only one looking at you. I take it that Anthony is telling us: ‘Look at the world with the eyes of a child. Keep the wonder!’

At the IRRI Bookshop, they bought Graindell, to be a Christmas present to some young one in New York. It’s an illustrated book of rice and wonder. Some wonderful things are new.

In Manila, we tried to catch up with the sunset at the romantic Baywalk along Manila Bay, but it was too cloudy. We ate the new Max Fried Chicken along Roxas Boulevard near the bay, and I found the chicken as delicious as it has always been Max Fried Chicken. Some things never change.

We went to visit Tagaytay City in Cavite Province south of Manila, went up to the ‘Palace in the Sky,’ a memento of the days of Martial Law under Marcos. It is now called ‘People’s Park in the Sky,’ which is a misnomer, because it is not a park; it’s simply a guest house, and it’s not even finished. It was designed and intended for the stay of US President Ronald Reagan in those days. There is nothing special about the palace; I cannot imagine any royalty about it even if it were finished – it is not regal in any sense of the word. But the view from this place, when you look out, it’s magnificent. You are looking at the lowest volcano lake in the world, Taal Volcano & Lake. The view is panoramic; the feeling is great.

While they were here, the tragedy of New Orleans happened and we were watching on wide-screen TV the hurricane coming on CNN, and then the floodwaters, and then the devastation wrought upon the city by Hurricane Katrina. A quick look at the dictionary. Hurricane – a severe tropical cyclone, a violent, rotating storm with winds of more than 119 kilometers per hour, usually accompanied by heavy rains. I’m looking at the electronic map (Encarta): New Orleans is surrounded by 4 big lakes: Pontchartrain, Borgne, St Catherine, and Salvador. When Katrina visited the city, it became one big lake itself, waters rising up to 30 feet, ‘dealing death’s devastating doom.’ The estimate of the damage is $100 billion, and that’s not counting lost lives, lost opportunities and the present maimed. The US Senate has approved a request for $10.5 billion in special funding for victims of Katrina. Into each life some rain must fall, but this was too much!

On their 3rd and last day at Los Baños, we looked for a hot spring resort, going after the hot water coming from the wombs of the earth. ‘Los Baños’ is Spanish for ‘the baths,’ referring to the hot springs. We learned that day that the hot spring resorts in Los Baños are no more, and we didn’t ask why. We proceeded to the most likely place, Pansol, a village in the City of Calamba known to everyone for its hot spring resorts, public and private baths. This is the hot spring capital of the Philippines. We went to a small setup with two pools, one small enough, one big enough. Karl was swimming all by himself all over the place until Dida joined in the soaking. Grandfather and granddaughter just looked and took pictures and videos. We were all enjoying ourselves.

On their last Saturday, the early morning of which they left for home, it was raining at 0400 hours. The ride they had arranged for was nowhere to be found. It said we shouldn’t wait for him and Jomar and I went our separate ways to flag a taxi, as we needed more than 1 for the luggage and the warm bodies. At 0430 we had a taxi, and we loaded it with Karl, Dida, Gabby and all their luggage. I thought they were going to be late, and they would be bumped off their plane seats if they didn’t show on time. Dida had told me their flight was at 0600 hours and I know by hearsay that you are supposed to be in the departure area 2 hours before. It turned out that the flight was at 0655, but it’s better early than late.

I wrote most of the above while waiting for the old lady at the Office of the Senior Citizen Affairs to prepare for me my new Senior Citizen ID. I lost the first one, which I got only a few days ago (July 28) on the night Daphne & Neenah & Gabriela and I went to Manila to see them off the morning after. The conductor forgot to give me back my ID and I forgot to ask for it back. The conductor was young and didn’t have the excuse that I have to forget. Unforgettable. All the more because I had to pay P150 for an affidavit of loss to some notary public – while it’s only $2.68 in New York, it’s worth a lot more in the Philippines. (My ID is free.) I waited for the lady who went out; I waited for the slow, clear writing of a 79-year old who made one mistake – he read my age as 61 and chided me for it, as according to what I have written I was born on the 11th of November 1939 and therefore could not be only 61 years old but 66 – in reality, she was reading my wife’s age. (That birthday of mine is for the record, as my parents falsified the document as evidence to show that I was 7 years in June 1947 just so I could be admitted to Grade One; the one I celebrate is the 17th of September 1940, which I know to be true and correct. How do I know? My father wrote the birthdays of my brother Emilio, me and my sister Brillita, on a piece of white ruled paper (grade school) when we were still young, pasting it hidden behind one of the posts in our house, and I could read it if I slid myself between wall and post. I had always been fond of reading things.)

I woke up today, September 4, telling myself, ‘They must be in New York by now.’ Looking at their own sunrises, minding their own sunsets.

I thank them for the visit. The Hilarios thank them for the visit. The grandfather thanks the granddaughter for the visit. You’re welcome here. Come again!

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