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On the Sensing of Our Childhood

I was in the McLean public library with my wife the other day, browsing for books I wanted to check out for my winter reading, when I came across two poetic lines on the flyleaf of a paperback I had picked out from the shelf; that was the fourth times I had encountered the quotations from Emily Dickenson’s prodigious output, and at that instance, I stood motionless, only my eyes moved, reading again and again the lines that made me consciously aware of what my life had all been about. The words tell about the “Memory is a strange bell/Jubilee and knell”.

Standing there between stacks, feeling alone and almost helpless, holding tight on the pocketbook, I had come face-to-face with the sum total of any one’s life. And like a soldier battling for survival amid an enemy’s fires, I surrendered to Dickenson’s genius. For, between the gaiety and jubilee of a baby’s birth and the tolling of church bells announcing a man’s or a woman’s death are hours, days, and years spent going through the course of one’s life. Only memory can authenticate the period of one’s existence on this earth.

Memory, as psychologists will aver, tells the past and foretells the days ahead. What we did in the past, how we acted and reacted to stimuli, guides us to what we should be doing for tomorrow, past and future. Memory tells us everything about us, of who we are. When we lose our memory, the same psychologists tell us, the basic link to who we are is cut off. We cherish and treasure our memories, especially of our childhood days in the Philippines. We who are Filipino descendants living and working here in the United States and elsewhere in the world look back with fascination on how we spent our growing-up years, mentally reconstructing details of every event through our sensory experiences. Without our senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hear, recall of our past experiences is not total…formless, colorless, odorless, and without sound.

How many times, in the heat of a summer sun, have I looked back to my young days when I did an almost impossible feat of swimming, on a dare of a playmate, across the surging current of the Pasig River? This was in Punta, a small village in Santa Ana District in central Manila. On Saturdays, Sundays, or on off-school days, I and my four playmates would always spend late afternoons swimming along the river’s bank. At age 12, I was then forbidden by my father not to go farther than a distance measuring not over my neck in water’s depth. I don’t remember why or what prompted me, but I called the dare. But I always remember the strong current that would sometimes hamper my leg strokes, the salty taste of the water touching my lips, the green color of the water lilies with their sprouts of blue flowers, empty colorful matchboxes and other small discarded items floating above the current, and the shouts of hurray from my playmates when I reached the other bank, the taste of water no longer on my lips, and only a feeling of triumph remained after negotiating a span of about 20 yards across.

I remember other things too. In my young age, I joined others in games using rubber bands, flipping cards showing portraits of the then popular movie actors and actresses, in a race to be the first one to kick away an empty milk can, as well as the games of “patintero” and “skip the rope.” My remembrances of these are as colorful, vivid, and as touching as the recollections of our next door’s neighbors. We are all travelers in time. Our memories, heightened by our sensory experiences, prompt us also to go back to events when we went through instances of failures and successes, losing strength in the middle of a foot race, or of losing a game as a member of a youth basketball team.

But for my personal experiences, I can easily recall the feast day of the village of Punta’s patron saint, Santa Ana, a “Fiesta” held annually, when almost all the residents would open their houses to their friends, neighbors, and out-of-town visitors to partake food on the hosts’ dining tables for which they had spent hours of cooking. The village itself would revel in colors, buntings in varied hues were hung across the main street and a band of musicians would be marching intermittently on this street, in their colorful uniforms, playing marshal songs. The Catholic chapel would be ringing celebratory bells every hour on the hours of the day. All these are mentally retrievable even without the use of Internet and other present-day technological devices. And the recollection itself would lift up my spirit.

Of all the memories we cherish, those associated with our childhood are the ones we hold dear in our hearts; they are special because even in our tender age we were free to choose, to roam about, unshackled by any household rules and restrictions. The love of our parents and siblings guided us, a compass, as we go through the stages of our lives. And how lucky we felt because we were not living in ancient times in world history, in the city-state of Greece, Sparta. Spartan children were children of the state more than of their parents. At age seven, soldiers would take the boys from their mothers, housed them in a dormitory with other boys and trained them to be soldiers for the rest of their lives. The girls would also be removed from their homes to be taught in wrestling, gymnastics, and how to fight and endure their physical training.

In contrast, in ancient Rome, children at age six to 10, were compelled to wear a “toga praetexta,” lined with purple to show their social status. Only when they reached age 16 and beyond that they were considered as adults and allowed to wear “toga virilis,” in plain white worn on special occasions. Taking all these ancient practices into the realm of our childhood memories, encoding our Philippine experiences in words, happy most of us are now, if not all, that we passed through our childhood with our physical senses of parental love, caring, and devotion intact, vivid recollections to live by.

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