Big Sister

Nonfiction by | May 8, 2011

When Gertrude phoned me that I was to say something nice about my sister-her mother-I protested, not because I had nothing nice to say, but because I had too many.

“No, no, Gertrude, please. Huwag mo akong bigyan ng trabaho na nakakanerbiyos, please lang. Pwede ba magpaseksi na lang ako?

“Auntie,” Gertrude scolded. “Multi-award ka na sa kaseksihan. I want the guests to see your inner beauty.”

I insisted, “Ikaw na lang ang mag-display ng inner beauty na minana mo sa akin.”

Sagot ni Gertrude, “I beg your pardon, ayaw ko ng inner beauty lang. Gusto ko rin inherit yung oomph at vavaboom.”

That ended our debate. But in truth, it’s really an honor and a privilege to talk about my sister.

So where do I begin? We are talking about a span of eighty years-or 29,200 sunrises and sunsets, including eclipses in my beloved sister’s life. Those of you who have survived or celebrated life that long know that this makes up for a very, very long story, like Dante’s Inferno or the Arabian tales, A thousand and One Nights. Enough to say that my sister survived World War II with the beauty of her youth preserved, and the wisdom of age added, a lethal combination.

They say that it’s in the genes, that sure helps. But I say it’s the quality of the heart and spirit that makes Ate above lesser mortals. And she is no vampire, I can assure you.

I leaf through my treasured book of memories. The pages are yellow with age but fragrant still with the sense of déjà vu coming alive in flashes: an exquisite girl in her teens; later a young writer of great sensibilite; later Caesar’s wife to proud husband, Ruben; and still later, a young mother struggling to raise five doubtfully promising children, now amazingly metamorphosed into a businesswoman dilettante (Gertrude); a rising rock star soon to be ambassador (Joey); a skilled doctor feared by cantankerous patients of Georgian temperament (Martz); an equally skilled dentist feared for the fees she charges (Gigi); and a winningly charming customer-friendly bank VIP (Jonjon). No doubt, their struggles and triumphs are every bit their mother’s, too. But let them tell their own stories at their own risk.

I leaf further to childhood memories wafting the distinct smell of guava leaves in the breeze as my sister picks the ripe fruits for me; from a distance, the exciting rumble of the forbidden waterfalls; nearby, the dark mysterious rivers with imagined Golem-like monsters lurking in the deep. For it is she, my Big Sister, I remember the most who held my little hand through the wonders and dangers of childhood. I was four and she was eleven. She was not only beautiful but knew everything. She pushed the swings high past the acacia tree so I could get a glimpse of what was beyond; she made mud pies with the glorious feel of mud swishing through my fingers, blissfully endangering my life to staphylococcus, tetanus, and who knows what else. I must have eaten enough anthrax to kill a horse as I put those mud pies to my mouth. Yum.

She said I could not go to the waterfalls for a swim with her friends because there was no room in the crow’s overloaded back which was the only way to go. I looked up at that crow flying in the sky, and my Neanderthal mind doubted her somehow. But she was my Manang, and I believed all the magical tales she filled my mind with. Fly on a crow’s back when I was older? Cool! It’s called faith.

This was the age of innocence and pure imagination yet unadulterated by commercially manufactured fantasy soon to flood the market of progress-TVs, computers, CDs, etc. Somehow technology pales in comparison to the wondrous imagery my sister implanted in my uncluttered mind, like climbing Jack’s beanstalk to a castle in the clouds, where an alcoholic giant kept a goose that laid golden eggs, and whose idea of gourmet lunch was ‘fee-fi-fo-fum- I smell the blood of an Englishman!’ I would ask, how does an Englishman smell, ba? (Could that be you, George?)

Then I was five. Big Sis was twelve. There was this thirteen-year-old boy who lived in a nearby hacienda. His dashing looks perfectly matched the image of the Handsome Prince in the fairy tales Big Sis had crowded into my little head. He had a horse, of course, and I fell in love! But Handsome Prince had eyes only for Big Sister, beautiful like Cinderella in her twelve-year-old glory. And he invited only her to ride with him on that golden horse. So together Handsome Prince and Cinderella rode off into the sunny fields, laughing their heads off, ha-ha-ha-hee-hee-hee, breaking my five-year-old heart.

Well, in the end, Prince Charming did not end up happily ever after with Cinderella. Big Sister later said, he was bow-legged anyway. So cowboy married a beautiful city girl who left him because, as horse-riding hacienderos are wont to be, he turned sabongero, hubogero, and babaero. So there he languishes still, alone like the Godfather played by Marlon Brando, with his loyal farmhands and his horses he can’t ride anymore. And all his babaes are gone, as they don’t care much for his bowlegs anymore.

Life is truly stranger than fairy tales.

Meantime, a parade of admirers came and went in Big Sister’s life. There was the brilliant poet with love letters to die for. There was the smitten priest who sent tiklis by tiklis of the sweetest mangoes, which our mother did not allow her to eat! There was a Filipino writer who spoke in the strange tongue of the balak. There was the dashing pilot with dashing manners. There was the cock fighter who truly loved her but she did not love enough. There was the six-feet-tall kissing cousin. There was, there was… Finally, there came a bright, young, and handsome-enough dentist who had the loudest and most contagious laugh. I think he laughed her right into marriage, with not much time to pause, and together they produced five children who turned out to be amazingly amazing. Praise the Lord!

My sister says she doesn’t like sunsets. Or anything that sinks. She is, of course, speaking in metaphors. But if, indeed, one were to view the setting sun as a grim symbol of sinking life, unlike the poet Dylan Thomas, I would not ‘Rage against the dying of the light,’ but, on the contrary, ‘Go gentle into the night.’ And awake with the great expectation to behold a sunrise more dazzling, and a sunset more breath-taking.

For a sunrise and a sunset are one and the same sun at different times. It is the same sun rising in a blinding burst of new energy, and the same sun settling down for the night, dressed in a kaleidoscopic nightgown of muted colors, as if reclining in rest, re-telling the events of the day now remembered in serene retrospect.

Tonight the sun sleeps. Tomorrow it will rise again and set again. And it will be equally beautiful forever, as you are today, my dear sister, after the passing of 29,200 sunrises and sunsets, with more to come, on earth as it is in heaven.

And I thank you for the sunrises and sunsets, for being a truly a part of me in each day we have spent together.

Go ahead and say- I ain’t too bad.


Cely is next to Jo in a family with six children. A writer in her own right, she was a frequent contributor to Mr. and Ms. Magazine. She lectures now and then on good grooming and power dressing as an offshoot of her training as a fashion model in the USA. She graduated from the Ateneo de Davao University with a cum laude in Psychology.