(Last Christmas, our editor asked each of us to come up with a personal holiday-related story before texting, e-cards, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram became as ubiquitous and as indispensable as the snail mail, landline and Hallmark greeting cards back then.
(I’ve managed to draw out this sliver of memory from my own bubbling and hazy pensieve—ask Harry Potter what a pensieve is. Published almost a year ago in your favorite newspaper, I’m sharing my story again with you in this blog. May we find deeper meaning behind the season while we busy ourselves preparing for the big day.)
MY FATHER probably belonged to the first batch of OFWs, even before such an acronym came into use. In fact, even before the Marcos administration made it an official policy to send Filipino labor abroad, Daddy had already sought overseas employment in then war-torn Vietnam in the late ’60s.
As an electronics and communication technician for an American contractor in South Vietnam, he and his Pinoy colleagues had the routine job of climbing towers and setting up communication equipment in the outskirts of Saigon and Bien Hoa.
As if climbing and balancing themselves precariously on huge steel bars weren’t enough, they had to be on the lookout for bombing raids and stray troops of the Viet-Cong army who might be tempted to use them for target practice.
Although the American firm allowed its foreign workers to go on annual vacations, they could do it only one or two at a time. Barring emergency at home, everyone followed a prearranged schedule.
Thus, it was pretty common for my sister Ida and me (our youngest brother Ronnie wasn’t born yet) to spend Christmases in Manila without Daddy. And since PLDT was taking forever to act on our application for a phone line, our communication with him was mainly through letters, pictures and occasional voice tapes—reel tapes instead of cassettes, take note—he and Mommy sent each other.
It had been that way for years.
We were bracing ourselves for another holiday season spent without Daddy when we all got the surprise of our lives as we came home one day. It was a few evenings before Christmas Day of 1971.
As my mother, sister and I got off the taxi after doing some Christmas shopping in downtown Manila, we saw through our partly opened door a silver Christmas tree with red, blue, green and gold trimmings. Set in the living room, it had satin balls, miniature bells, nativity scenes and angels playing lyres and trumpets.
In the eyes of a six-year-old child, the tree looked so huge and out of this world. But it still needed some finishing touches. And guess who was doing the decorating to holiday music, sung at full volume by the Ray Conniff Singers?
It wasn’t Santa Claus, but someone dearer and much, much better.