|Everything had to be just right—my father saw to that by giving us all instructions and peeking into pots on the stove to check on the progress of the food every half hour.
On the day of Uncle Alan's arrival, every room in the house felt unusually crowded because everyone had the day off. For the first time in almost twenty years, Papa's whole family would be living under one roof again, and no one was going to miss the opportunity to celebrate. Uncle Alan was the last of Papa's three siblings to come, leaving behind his own family in the Philippines—a wife and three kids—to join us. He would wait just as we had waited for him.
All day everyone kept bumping into one another, moving from room to room as they cleaned and prepared for dinner. Everything had to be just right—my father saw to that by giving us all instructions and peeking into pots on the stove to check on the progress of the food every half hour. Out of the kitchen window, I watched my father arrange and then rearrange the plastic green chairs outside on our deck. He would move a few chairs then stop, squint in concentration, and move them all over again. Earlier that morning I helped him wipe down each chair with old white t-shirts we used as rags.
"Your Uncle Alan—he was the star basketball player of his high school," my father told me. "He was good at sports. He can give your Kuya Ron pointers. When you see him, it's like seeing your Lola's older brother. They look so alike." I listened to my father chatter, his ever-present stern facial expression gone. I was unsure of how to respond to his sudden urge to talk to me. I wiped down a chair.
"You're excited, huh, Papa?" He smiled, patted me on the head, and moved a chair just a few inches to the right.
We would eat our meal with Uncle Alan out on the deck because we all couldn't fit around our kitchen table. Our table can seat six, but there are fewer chairs than there are people who live in our house. We always seem to have enough space because someone is always coming home when someone else is going to work. "That's how we can afford this house," Auntie Jane said once. "It's too bad we can't all enjoy living here all at the same time."
|Kuya Ron, Ate Ligaya, and I sat together apart from the adults, listening and watching them tell stories in rapid Tagalog as we swatted away mosquitoes in the Florida summer heat.
Ten people live in our three-story house. We all own it. Mama, Papa, Kuya Ron and I live downstairs. Papa's siblings and parents occupy the other two floors. Auntie Donna, Papa's youngest sister, stays in a room right next to Lola's and Lolo's room on the second floor; she takes care of them. In separate rooms on the third floor, there is Auntie Jane, her smart-mouthed teenage daughter, Ligaya. Uncle Vic, Auntie Jane's husband, lived there until he just picked up and left one day. I think he just got tired of all the yelling and stomping we could hear every time Auntie Jane and Ate Ligaya argued about all kinds of things—Ate's hair color, her grades, her curfew. But no one ever talks about him anymore.
As the sun set, we all sat on green plastic chairs, skillfully balancing our red disposable plates of pansit on our knees. Round white rice cakes uniform in size teetered on the edges of our plates. Kuya Ron, Ate Ligaya, and I sat together apart from the adults, listening and watching them tell stories in rapid Tagalog as we swatted away mosquitoes in the Florida summer heat.
They spoke and laughed loudly. Maybe a little too loudly. Each time they laughed, Ate Ligaya would turn her head to look down the neighborhood street and nervously tucked her blonde-streaked hair behind her ear. Maybe she worried one of her friends, the ones who called her Joy, the English-translation of her name, would see her with her loud family.
When the last citronella candle went out, we picked up our empty plates and sought refuge from the mosquitoes inside the house. Out of habit, Kuya Ron and I began to stack the chairs until Papa called us into the house to join everyone else with the wave of a hand. Shrugging, we left the chairs arranged in a messy circle.
Inside the house, Papa and Uncle Alan pushed a large duffel bag atop a bulging box held together with brown packaging tape into the center of the living room. While waiting arms pulled Uncle into the house, none were empty to drag in his belongings left on the doorstep.
His wife, our Auntie Rona, packed the box for us, Uncle explained. As my father began cutting through layers of tape, my mother and aunties came out of the kitchen, drying their hands on small towels. We were already sitting. I sat between Lola and Lolo on one couch; Kuya Ron playing with his Gameboy again and Ate Ligaya sitting with her arms folded across her chest sat on the other.
|Voices rose with excitement and the need to be heard over the crinkling of packaging. My mother and aunties held up their dresses against their bodies, giggling and twirling like little girls.
"Lola," I whispered. "We've never gotten a box from them before! What's in there? Is it for us?" She laughed. "Goodies. Go see," she said, gently pushing me off of the couch and onto the floor. Images of gigantic jars of peanut butter, cans of corned beef, and bars of Ivory soap that my mother and aunties packed away into boxes just like this one swirled in my mind. Would we get those things, too?
Uncle began to pull out checkered yellow boxes filled with sweets. Lolo began munching on polvoron wrapped in shiny yellow cellophane. "It's been such a long time since we've eaten this," my father said, handing another box to one of his sisters. "Not since Jane went home two years ago." He pulled out garlic peanuts and homemade desserts wrapped in banana leaves and sealed in plastic bags. "Just what we asked for! But why so much?" my Lolo asked, already opening the bag of peanuts.
By now, Kuya Ron and Ate Ligaya had joined me on the floor watching Uncle Alan pull out new clothing neatly folded and individually wrapped in plastic that crinkled when touched. He handed each package to one of us, directing us to its recipient. Names were written neatly across the plastic in black permanent marker. I handed the little packages to everyone in the room who exclaimed, "Another one?"
Out of the plastic came brightly colored house dresses for the aunties, Lola and my mother. T-shirts for Kuya Ron and my father. Dozens of house slippers of all sizes and colors made of material that looked like straw weaved tightly together. Voices rose with excitement and the need to be heard over the crinkling of packaging. My mother and aunties held up their dresses against their bodies, giggling and twirling like little girls. Even Ate Ligaya held up her new fitted t-shirts and tops against her. She inspected my new gifts, too—t-shirts similar to hers, a set of pajamas, and a collection of stationary sets and notebooks with both of our names on them. "Cute, huh?" she asked. I nodded. "It's fun when we get the boxes, isn't it?"
At midnight it was quiet. The adults read letters from old friends and relatives that Uncle Alan had carried with him as well. They read silently for the most part, occasionally reading a few lines aloud or passing around a picture that fell from between the thin sheets of paper. It was hours past my bedtime, but no one told me to go to bed. I fell asleep with my head in Ate Ligaya's lap as she read our first letters aloud from Uncle's daughters, Mia and Suzette, written in the neatest penmanship we'd ever seen.
|Papa danced with Lola. They were all singing at the top of their lungs. The adults never even played the stereo loudly before Uncle came and now they were singing and dancing on the deck.
Night after night, we returned to the same messy circle of chairs out on the deck where the adults told stories and ate sweets. They were almost always true stories like the one about how Papa and Uncle Alan had an entire class standing on their desks the day they decided to let a snake loose in class. I'd never seen my father laugh with tears running down his face as Uncle Alan retold the story. I glanced at Kuya Ron who was holding a Gameboy in one hand with his eyes fixed on our father.
Other times Uncle Alan sat on a faded blue cooler on the deck and played his guitar. He'd sing old love songs in Tagalog and English. From the kitchen window, the one right above the sink that faced the deck, Auntie Jane would wave her soapy hands to get Uncle's attention and yell song requests. Two out of three times, she asked him to play "Unchained Melody."
Uncle played louder so everyone inside could hear the music over their own chatter, the chopping, and the frying as they prepared dinner. Sometimes the aunties and my mother sang along, the sound of their voices traveling with aromas of sautéing garlic and soy sauce through the open kitchen window.
One night, with my arms overflowing with markers and my new stationary, I walked into Ate Ligaya's room to ask for help with my writing. Ate Ligaya was standing at her open window and barely turned to look at me when I entered. After dumping my things onto her bed, I joined her at the window.
"What are they doing, Ate?" I asked. She shrugged.
From the window we saw Lolo dancing with Auntie Donna, his cane leaning against a chair. Papa danced with Lola. They were all singing at the top of their lungs. The adults never even played the stereo loudly before Uncle came and now they were singing and dancing on the deck. We stared out of the window silently for a while until Ate Ligaya muttered, "The neighbors are going to think we're crazy." She slammed the window shut.
"It's not that bad, Ate. Looks like fun. Will you check my spelling in these letters?"
"It doesn't matter. It's not like they can tell whether your English is right or not. Just write anything. Who cares."
"Ask them downstairs. Philippines this, Philippines that. That's all they seem to care about, anyway."
"But Ate, don't you want to write them back--use the stationary they sent?" But Ate was already brushing her hair with one hand and rearranging the hair clips on her dresser with the other. The stationary and notebooks still in their original plastic packing were piled on the floor. Her silence told me our conversation was through. I gathered my things and exited her room quietly.
|When Kuya Ron and I tossed books, toys and clothes into a pile for my mother to send away every so often they were always for "the box."
Three weeks after his arrival, Uncle Alan began working with one of Papa's friends unloading trucks at a nearby warehouse. On Thursdays and Saturdays he worked as a security guard in one of the downtown parking garages; Kuya Ron and I learned not to set a place at the table for Uncle Alan on those days. Once I asked Uncle why he worked two jobs when everyone else in the house had one. He pointed to a picture on his nightstand of him with 2-year-old Junior. Junior's mouth was open in delight, one hand on his father's cheek and the other pointing at the camera. He patted me on the head and said, "You want to meet your cousins, don't you?" I nodded and imagined my cousins with the neat penmanship, sitting at our kitchen table knowing that he did, too.
A little over a month after Uncle's arrival, I stood shyly at his doorway for the first time holding the items my mother sent me upstairs to deliver to him: a package of t-shirts, some old books, and bars of Ivory soap she found on sale. "Thanks, Nene," he said, motioning me to come in. He was kneeling at a box. I stepped over the piles of stuff arranged in a semi circle around him and peered into the box.
"Suzette will love these books," Uncle said. "She likes all the books you send her."
I smiled at him but thought, Books? What books? When Kuya Ron and I tossed books, toys and clothes into a pile for my mother to send away every so often they were always for "the box." The items were always things we were tired of playing with, books we never wanted to read, or clothes that didn't fit anymore. To where or to whom—we never bothered asking. All we knew was that they would eventually be tucked snugly into a box and sent away, somewhere far, somewhere away from here.
"Which one is she, Uncle?" I asked, pointing at a picture of Auntie Rona with a little boy in her arms and two girls by her side-- one round-faced and rosy, the other skinny and missing her front tooth.
"The skinny one. This one," he said. "That one is Mia. She wants to be a ballerina, but she eats too much rice." He chuckled. I picked up the picture. Mia was wearing an old lavender dress of mine that I hated. It was a Christmas gift to me from one of my mother's co-workers. I wore it once and handed it over to my mother never thinking someone would wear it and grin.
"Is she as old as me?"
"Younger. Mia is nine. Suzette is seven, and Junior will be three in a few months. That means when they come, you'll be an Ate!"
"Really?" I grinned at him, kneeling at the box and tossing in the books.
|And at the table, we waited for the day we would remember again that we all couldn't fit there and eat out of plates we balanced on our laps, together.
The evenings Uncle Alan and his guitar were missing from the deck I knew he was in his room, packing things away. I roamed around the house, seeing things in relation to Uncle's boxes. Toys and canned goods fit nicely, but an ironing board or the vacuum cleaner would not. One evening, none of the adults had anything new to send upstairs to Uncle Alan. I grabbed two new sets of paints and sheets of stickers on my dresser and headed down the hall. Passing Kuya Ron's room, I stuck my head into his open doorway. My eyes settled on a stack of comic books on his desk.
"Can I have those, Kuya? For Uncle's boxes?"
"Yeah, whatever," he mumbled, barely looking up from the car model he was piecing together under a bright desk lamp.
Upstairs in Ate Ligaya's room, I stepped over the teen magazines and brightly colored socks littering the floor.
"Hi, Ate," I said. I was breathless from running up the stairs with the paints and books in my arms. Ate Ligaya was talking on the phone to a friend—her head hanging off the foot of her bed. She looked at me upside down and kept talking. I walked into her room, heading straight to her dresser wanting to play with her accessories.
"Ate," I called to her. No response—to me, at least. She was still chattering away on the phone. "Ate," I said again. I picked up her decorative jars of colored sand lining her window. I climbed on her bed with the jars and called her name again. "Can I have these?"
She sat up. "What?" she asked. "No. Why? Get outta here."
"But, Ate." I began to protest. "I want to send them stuff back. Kuya Ron gave me his comic books and I'm giving Uncle the paints for Mia and Suzette. We don't have anything for Junior."
Phone in hand, she stared at me. "I have to go, Carol," she said into the mouthpiece and hung up the phone. "Well, you still can't have those jars. They won't make it anyway. The sand will get all mixed up and the jars will break." Ate Ligaya unfolded her long legs and maneuvered herself gracefully over the piles of the things on her floor over to her closet.
"Which one of these do you think he'll want?" she asked. Her voice was muffled, her head buried in the closet. She pulled out a small, clear garbage bag of stuffed animals. I hadn't seen those stuffed toys in a long time. I remember one day her bed was covered with those stuffed animals and one day it was not. "Which one?" she asked.
We sat on the floor sorting through the bag of toys. A giant pink Flamingo from our church carnival. A tiny yellow bear that took six dollars worth of quarters to win out of a machine with a claw. A soft black cat. We kept digging.
"Chocolate," we exclaimed almost at once. I was holding the stuffed koala up in the air by its arm. He was Ate's favorite—the one that stayed out on her bed for a few months longer when all of the others were banished to her closet. She took it from me, hugging it to her like a little girl.
"Yeah," she said. "He'll like this one."
"He'll bring it back here, too. Just in case you want it back or something. They're coming, you know."
"Yeah, I know. Take it," she said. "He can keep it."
Uncle Alan and I wrapped the paints carefully, bound the comic books together with string, and put Chocolate in a small plastic bag along with our letters of thanks to them before taping up the boxes.
"Now what?" I asked Ate Ligaya. We were standing on our driveway, watching Uncle and Papa load the boxes into the back of our minivan to take to the Filipino store for shipping.
And we did. We waited for arrivals in the only way we knew how. We waited for the new picture of our cousins and Auntie Rona in front of the boxes—the one the shipping company sent us for proof of delivery. We waited for letters in thin airmail envelopes or phone calls in the middle of the night. And at the table, we waited for the day we would remember again that we all couldn't fit there and eat out of plates we balanced on our laps, together.
© Theresa Jaranilla
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