Gatsby Wears Levi’s (Part 1)

Nonfiction by | September 25, 2016

My dad loves expensive clothing brands. He bought his first pair of Levi’s when he got his first pay.

This, people would assume, stemmed from the lack of luxury he experienced during his childhood. But there is more to it than just that. He would rather own just one pair of Levi’s than a dozen low quality jeans.

Dipolog, 1970

When he was only fourteen years old, my dad became the head of his family. Two successive deaths made him the caretaker of his mother and three younger siblings. His father (Jose), according to my lola, was stabbed multiple times by at least ten men because he wanted to build what could have been the first copra mill in their town. Later on, I’d learn that these men were members of the National People’s Army. Later on, I’d also learn that it was because lolo Jose left a woman heartbroken (having learned that he was already married to my lola), and that woman happened to be the sister of the NPA’s commander.

His eldest brother, Manolito, too young and too brave, joined the military to avenge their father only to be killed a month after. Both their deaths were accounted to the same rebel group.

Dad grew up in a town where relatives treated other members based on their status and the material things they own. Dad and his siblings ranked at the bottom because they wore nothing but relief clothes (relip or ukay) that lola had bought from the market. These clothes never fit them right. These were always too big and their color too pale, opposite to their cousins who were lavished with clothes from Dubai.

Dad’s sisters did the laundry. And the contrast of their clothes was obvious: while their cousins’ shirts hanged outstretched and clipped tightly to the rope, theirs were dumped in clumps and stacked sloppy on top of each bamboo pole.

I thought my dad, as a kid, surely must have complained about things. I was wrong.

Dad accepted his worn-out clothes and tattered childhood. He did not complain when they had to eat left-over food in the dirty kitchen, separated from their cousins. He explained to his younger siblings why they had to be really early for school and why they had to exchange torn pairs of slippers along the way.

But all these stories of misfortunes never came directly from dad.

I gathered them during our frequent November trips to his hometown in Dipolog City. These stories were dried divided seeds I loved to collect because then they were too tragic to be real. Because then they were only stories to pass while I sat on the bamboo floor full of lanzones and black ants that marched endlessly with time.

It was one of those harvest seasons when there were too many fruits and too many baskets to fill my afternoons. While my two younger brothers were busy helping the hired harvesters, learning first-hand the meaning of hard labour, I questioned my lola with the ardor of a young folklorist gathering what for me were distant stories.

Lola addressed these questions with snippets from her past. She began with the young and handsome Jose whom she never met until their wedding day. The man who turned out to be the father of her five children: Manolito, Leonardo, Ricardo, Rebecca, and Nemesia. The only husband she would take. Lola never lingered on drama, so no matter how sad the piece of story was, it would appear like a comedy, if not, a story of hope for me.

On our drive back to Cagayan de Oro City, my dad was surprised when I relayed some of these stories. While my mom calculated our time of arrival (and whether we should stop by to grab dinner in Iligan) and my two younger brothers munched their way through the big box of fruits on board, I confessed how I managed to know that when they were teenagers, my dad and uncle joined a local cult (more like a gang) that claimed immortality by eating shards of glass, and how a minute close to doing the most stupid decision in their lives, they were saved by my lola’s maniacal beating.

Or the time when my dad patiently squatted near the rice thresher, he gathered the bitter bran that was left for their meal, until one rice shell went inside his eye. Lola cried and blew hard to remove the shell that had already sunk its way inside dad’s eye. She begged God to spare my dad from blindness, her clayed fingers trembling while repeating the sign of the cross. God heard her and she became a devoted Christian.

A small scar on my father’s left eye is the only remembrance of that day.

Marawi, 1980

But many invisible scars followed.

The only redemption he considered was to enter college and graduate as an engineer. He passed as a full-time scholar of Mindanao State University. He also had to leave his family. He kept a clear vision of the future he dreamt of: to be established and to never go back to where he was. He studied and worked hard to get as far as he could from poverty.

He was Gatsby before I even met Fitzgerald in my under graduate literature class. But like Gatsby, my dad had his fair share of secrets, too.

And secrets were the currency of the silenced 70s.

Marcos still ruled the country even if the roaring 80s already began. Dad’s future, along with the many, did not count much. Freedom was the only thing that mattered. Together with his fellow MSU-ans, dad joined the academic boycotts and learned life’s lessons outside the classroom. Many were with him in the streets. Finally, Cory won.

And Dad lost his scholarship.

The expired revolutionary Engineering major, would either pay his full tuition and continue his academics or go back to Katipunan, his hometown, and sow the field. With the pressure of his own home hanging from his oxen shoulders, my dad stood facing the stillness of Lake Lanao, and was made aware that the golf course was no different from his family’s land. The same land that produced copra.

I didn’t expect that more than two decades later, I would be standing on a rooftop in one of Cebu’s dormitories with the same desperation. Having been fired from my first job, I was alone with nothing left in my account but the senseless pride of leaving home. The stillness of the city’s landscape was suffocating.

So was the fog that covered the pine trees of Marawi, enchanting young minds to dream of the future. A future that dad did not want to give up.

Dad had to double his work load to pay for his tuition. He was accepted to work part-time as a dishwasher at a dormitory. It was managed by an agriculture professor who was known for his four single Ilokana daughters. The eldest of the four was mom.

Dad was blessed with three things: brain, spirit, and charm. The third made him popular with the tenants, most especially with the ladies. It did not take long before he started dating mom. Mom, then a Filipino education major, not only found a boyfriend, but also a private Math tutor. Dad found his reason.

There was, however, the obvious gap in their status. Mom was a Valdez after all. Her family owned the lands that they farmed. Dad’s only property was the copra mill that was never realized. Their relationship was branded the Shawee-Gabby love team and personified Sharon Cuneta’s famous 80s song Tubig at Langis.

But dad had already decided to marry my mother.’

Christine Faith Valdez Gumalal teaches literature at Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan. She was a fellow for creative nonfiction at the 2016 Silliman University National Writers Workshop.

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