A group of about 30 people, ranging in age from very young to very old, pose outside a church behind a casket adorned with wreaths and candles. Inside the casket lies the recently deceased, an old man. It’s probably right before the funeral, though it’s hard to say—in those days the period of mourning could last a long time, with family and friends gathered for days and days at the home of the deceased. I imagine that back then time probably stood still with a little more frequency than today, and that when it was time to pose for the photograph, the silence was welcome: it gave you the opportunity to pause, to catch your breath. To turn away from other faces with all their words and worries and just look through the comfort of stillness at the cool, clear lens of a camera.
This photo of a gathering of mourners was sent from the Philippines to my father in Washington, DC nearly sixty years ago—several years before I was born here in the states. Written on the back in blue fountain pen ink are the words, “This photo was taken during the funeral of our grandfather Enoy in front of the Agat Church last Jan. 23, 1953, with the family.” Enoy, dressed in white with what was probably his favorite hat lying at his feet, is not one of my relatives as far as I know. But the man to the right of the coffin—crouched down, his hair combed back, and looking away from the camera—is one of my father’s brothers, my uncle.
Right away I can see the family resemblance—the high forehead, like my father and I have; the high cheeks; the straight, half plaintive, half stoic line of the mouth. Or is it a mouth that’s about to break out into the festive sneer of some island version of Elvis Presley? I have scores and scores of relatives in the Philippines whom I’ve never met—or even more, what I imagine to be a baseball field full of uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, and nieces.
Here in the states the only people I ever called “Uncle” or “Aunt,” and whom I saw regularly and who knew us well enough to come to our door anytime unannounced, were actually only cousins—cousins once or twice removed (and here I must say that the whole system of designating cousins as first or second, or once or twice removed, etc., etc, baffles me like the higher forms of mathematics I used to understand in my younger years). Cousin—the word even by itself, without all the modifiers, never fails to bring a confused expression to my face. It may as well be a word in Tagalog or any of the other languages of the Philippines that I never got around to learning when I was growing up. Indeed, it’s one of those words that gives me the feeling of being lost.
In the photo, the expression on my uncle’s face speaks of sadness, certainly, but the far away look in his eyes seems to indicate something other than grief. Others in the photo look like they’re trying to hold their heads high in an admirable show of strength; they’re not afraid of the reality of a deceased loved one lying so close to them that all they have to do is lift an arm and extend a finger to touch his cold, stiff body. Unabashed grief I see clearly only in a few of those in the photo, such as the woman in the center, behind the coffin, whose eyes look at the camera with something approaching abandonment. Fear I see in the young girl standing behind the coffin to the right. It’s a look of a child understanding for the first time that thing she doesn’t want to understand.
All this, of course, is simply my interpretation. I could be way off. The little girl may simply have a stomach ache, while those who are standing strong and tall may be the ones most filled with fear. My uncle may be the one most overcome by grief for his older friend, or he may be looking away simply because he needs to catch his breath on a hot day in this tropical country. It could be this or it could be that, and it sometimes occurs to me that the interpretation of the past is something akin to the interpretation of dreams—which is to say that despite whatever facts one may have, one’s past can only be recalled through the subjective filter of years and distance.
My 96 year old father, recently interviewed by my 8-year old daughter Maggie for a school project, remembers that back in the barrio of San Carlos, Pangasinan Province, The Philippines, “life was good. We had plenty to eat—fish, rice, fruits. We had lots of friends—everyone in the barrio was your friend. We played baseball.” I imagine that in the photograph are a number of those my father counts among his friends from those days. And even though I’ve never met a single person in the photo, I feel that somehow I’m connected to it.
Yes, connected rather than lost in face of it; and even though each is a complete stranger to me, they are my people. People: family and friends who shared simple meals along with big feasts and a love of baseball, the bats swung and bases run during what I imagine were warm, humid days. Playing until the tropical day turned dark in a remote part of my past. All this in a photo taken so many decades ago, in a country I’ve never visited. Such is the connection that comes from our common bloodlines.
But the funny thing is, if I were suddenly transported to the Philippines right now through some science fiction portal, or swept away by a great wind like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to the Never Never Land of the Philippines, I would have no idea where to go, no idea who I should contact, and, above all, no idea how to survive.
Although I often feel like some sort of alien being here, in the Shenandoah Valley, beamed down from the mothership—or was I kicked off of the mothership for my bad attitude or just for drawing the short stick?—to a part of the country that will always feel a little strange to me, I have to say that I know more about surviving here than I do about surviving in the land of my ancestors. And ancestry and origin and blood connection be damned, I’ll never know more about there than I do about here. Any romantic notion about being able to go back to the homeland, to my roots—well, that’s all it is, a notion dreamt up by some out-of-touch inner travel agent who in truth has no idea how to be anyplace other than America. Because if I ever go there, I’ll be going as a tourist, and, like it or not, that’s really all I can ever be there (or at least for a very, very long time).
A week ago, at the Martin’s grocery store on Rte. 55, in town, where the John Marshall Highway becomes South Street, I saw a group of about eight or nine Filipino men and women, wearing ATF caps and shirts, who were speaking Tagalog as they walked up and down the aisles. They didn’t, however, appear to be ATF agents, and were probably people whose duties were administrative. Or at any rate, they lacked that slow, deliberate strut you often see from various paramilitary types,who, aside from being utterly humorless, also look like they’re just itching for someone to make a false move so they have the excuse to fuck someone up. No, this group seemed relaxed, casual. And, by no means is this meant as an insult, normal. But again, I could be wrong, and maybe any one of them could have seen me display one of my weirder Tourette’s tics, gotten alarmed, and had me face down on the ground in a full nelson in two seconds.
Still, whenever I can, if I see people in these parts whose blood origins are close to mine, I try to acknowledge them somehow. I try to at least welcome them to this place with a nod and a grin of recognition—it feels like something I’m obliged to do. I want to tell them that yes, even though we’re vastly outnumbered, there are people like them who live here. And, I want to show solidarity with them against the people here in the valley who see people like us and immediately wonder if we’re illegal aliens or if we’re taking jobs away from them or if we’re primitive brutes.
When I went to the checkout to pay for my groceries, I found myself in line right behind them. I smiled and nodded to a few of them, and they smiled and nodded back, but I didn’t try to talk to them. Even though they likely would have understood and spoken English very well, it seems so lame that that’s the only language I have in common with them. So I just flashed a smile and gave them a swift nod of recognition so as not to reveal that any sense of affinity I have with them is perhaps superficial at best—and, at worst, imaginary.
My grandfather was a farmer of sugar cane, rice, and peanuts. My father and his brothers helped him cut the sugar cane, and they plowed the fields using two carabaos. Carabaos are a kind of water buffalo that are crucial to farming in the Philippines and are considered one of the country’s national symbols. Me, I’ve never seen a live carabao—my acquaintance with them is only through the wood carvings of them we had around the house when I was growing up. Carabaos are all part of a world far removed from anything I’ve experienced myself. A world I easily recognize but have never been a part of.
Here, in the Shenandoah valley, it’s nearly summer—that is, if you’re old school like me and mark the beginning of the season with the summer solstice. But it’s been feeling like summer for nearly a month now. Out here I often find myself on roads with names like the John Marshall Highway, the Zachary Taylor Highway, and Jubal Early Drive. A few days ago I was on Lee Highway, just outside of Washington, Virginia in Rappahannock County. I find myself in Rappahannock County pretty frequently nowadays, and sometimes in Page and Clarke Counties. Most often I’m in Warren County, where I live. These were counties I used to hear about on the weather report when they’d talk about a storm making its way to DC, areas that were so far away that sometimes a storm would dissipate before it got to DC, places that as far as I was concerned might as well be as distant as the Philippines.
And maybe that’s why, despite Tagalog being spoken in my home when I was a child, that I never learned the language. The way I saw it back then, the Philippines was a storm that might not make its way to me and maybe I was betting that it wouldn’t—that when I became an adult I would somehow not be a Filipino (or an Asian-American as we were eventually called) but simply an American. Because even when I was a small child living in a fairly diverse city, one thing I understood was that looking like the people who were in the majority would be so much easier. So much easier than being the kid a lot of adults described as a “foreigner” or as an “oriental.” So much easier than being asked “Where are you from?” so often that my answer to that question became angrier and angrier. And of course it would be so much easier if people looked at me, wherever I was in America, and immediately assumed that I belonged. And that, no I’m not lost. I’m home.
As it was, my youthful reluctance to embrace my heritage left me ill-prepared to embrace it as an adult. And even though I embrace it now, there’s still a part of me that like a frightened child wonders what would it have been like to disappear into the majority. To live in the less cosmopolitan, less diverse part of the country I live in now and still at least look like I could belong.
Yesterday heavy rains brought flooding from here, the northern Shenandoah Valley, all the way to east of DC. On the television Jim Vance, from DC’s Channel 4, saw the name Happy Creek on the far western edge of the weather map, and said something like, “Happy Creek? Where’s Happy Creek. I want to go there!”
Me, I can walk out of the house, go maybe two hundred yards, and I’m there at Happy Creek. I used to be like Jim Vance—the man who has anchored the newscast I’ve watched for most of the last forty years—seeing these names on the far edges of the weather map and being intrigued. All sorts of odd things would go through my head. I’d wonder what I’d see, who I’d see. I’d wonder what life was like and what possibilities were created by the state of being “out there”—at the edge of the map.
And now I’m living those possibilities, driving down that part of the map, going down Rte. 522 in the late evening when the sun approaches the horizon. It’s a time when I seem to be more aware of how we live in an actual valley. That time when the dimming light makes the mountains surrounding us seem more solid, and less distant, against the Shenandoah sky. It’s during moments like these when I feel less like an unwanted tourist and more like someone who, though he may not exactly belong here, has somehow found a home here.
Earlier tonight I dropped off Heather and Maggie at Dancin’ Downtown, the Front Royal event where they close the intersection of Main and Chester streets on a Saturday night and have a band play for several hours. We could have all gone, but Julien had been recovering from an ear infection, so we thought it best not to keep him out too late.
When we got there we saw that they hadn’t closed down the intersection after all, and that the event was a lot smaller than in past years. Maggie looked at the crowd and was incredibly disappointed.
“Look at them, they’re just standing there,” she cried. “Nobody’s dancing!”
Still, she wanted to go, and we assured her that even though it was a much smaller event this year, things would get a little more lively later in the evening.
After I dropped them off I made a quick stop with Julien at the Martin’s for milk and diapers. Inside, I ran into George, the man who lived across the street from us for a year and who thirty or so years ago lived in the house we live in now. In fact, he was the person who built the back porch and kitchen for our house. The first time I saw him he looked, to me, like a country version of film director Nicholas Ray—especially the way Ray looked when he played a cameo in Wim Wenders’s film, The American Friend. George was shopping with an elderly woman I’ve never seen before and introduced me to her by saying I was one of people now living in house they used to live in.
“Oh, I love that house,” she said. “I wish I were still there.” George nodded in agreement.
“I live up the hill by the hospital, now,” he said. “I hate it there.”
I asked why he had to move from across the street, and he explained how the woman who owns the house wanted to move her daughter into it. I then told him how the daughter and her boyfriend are pretty nasty people and how they bombard the neighborhood with noise from their home stereo and their car stereos, and are always blocking other people’s driveways with the five different cars they seem to own.
“Oh yeah,” George said, “She’s a nasty one. But she ain’t worth a hill of cotton.”
Then he laughed and patted me on the shoulder sympathetically, even though I was the person living in the house where he used to live—the house which, if things had gone differently for him, would still be his.
When we moved to this small town and bought this house nearly five years ago, we had no idea that we’d regularly be running into people who were part of its history. Any other place I’ve lived, the only sign of the people who used to live there would come in the form of mail—those envelopes on which I’d write “No longer at this address” and leave for the postman to pick up again. Now, in this small town, I’ve found that history could be right across the street, or at the grocery store, or even closer: George’s family name is painted on one of the walls in the basement, while a wall in one of the closets upstairs has a message—from one of George’s young daughters, now grown up, of course—that’s addressed to whomever may live in the house in the future. The message: Greetings.
Maggie, too, has written quite a bit—not in one of the closets, however, but on the dining room wall. There, underneath the penciled in lines showing how much she’s grown, is the brief story of how we came here when she was four, nearly five years ago. It’s a story about this house, about what she does here, about the friends she’s made here. It’s a story that’s intended for future residents of this house. And she’s determined that the future residents of this house will be her own children or grandchildren.
Maggie doesn’t remember much of the other places we used to live. Indeed, the most vivid memories of her childhood, the ones that she’s most likely to take into adulthood, will be from here. And even on bad days—days of heavy rains, days of horrible noise, days when there’s no dancing—Maggie feels it. And whenever we ask her, she says she never wants to move away from here. Because even though I don’t always feel it, this town feels like home to her.
Title photo courtesy of Pat Padua.