October 05, 2006

Unconventional father

On the tenth anniversary of his death, Dad was on my mind. But it was also the anniversary of martial law and it seemed inappropriate to write a column musing about him even if I thought I would write about how a parent raised his activist kid without really trying.

Well, readers deserve a break, so here goes a not-so-dutiful daughter’s tribute to a father long gone but still, ever so fondly, remembered.

Dad wasn’t a rollicking fun, teddy bear-huggable type of father when I was growing up, the youngest in a brood of five girls and one boy. (I was born after a serious but obviously failed attempt to produce another boy.)

He was the typical driven executive of a multinational company who was busy entertaining clients and socializing with the top company honchos way past office hours. At home he could be playful but for the most part he was preoccupied, aloof and a bit of a disciplinarian.

While I was hands down, Mom’s favorite, it had always been the eldest who was Papa’s girl. She was the campus beauty who took what was then considered a “man’s course” and was always top of her class; who acted like a boy with her self-assurance and devil-may-care attitude. So I was always self-conscious when I had conversations with Dad, wondering whether what I had to say would meet with his approval.

One of my defining experiences with my father as an eight-year-old was when I found myself excitedly blurting something out to him as he ate his Sunday breakfast. He replied curtly, “Speak clearly, enunciate your words and make yourself understood.” Thus did he give me my first lesson on how to talk to a person in authority; a lesson that would hold me in good stead in years to come when I have had to negotiate, mediate or otherwise hold my ground with all sorts of persons in authority.

Dad played golf and practiced his swing at home. My job was to replace the golf balls on the tee as quickly as I could for which chore he paid me with coins to fill my piggy bank. I did learn the value of working for one’s keep early in life even though unlike today’s child worker, I “worked” not to survive but to add to my horde of coins.

For some reason, I took to regularly helping our old Ilocano cook wash the dishes. One day, Dad saw me perched on a stool in front of the kitchen sink. He remarked matter-of-factly, “Wash it again; there’s still oil on the plate.” He then ran his index finger down the just washed plate to show that it didn’t pass his standard of cleanliness no matter my exemplary behavior.

Frankly, washing dishes was not something that I expected anybody’s pat on the back for, least of all my Dad’s, but his casual remark has been written indelibly on my brain as a classic admonition to do one’s job well or not do it at all.

Dad and Mom were outstanding students in high school; they were in friendly competition with one another and if my memory serves me right, he graduated valedictorian while she finished salutatorian. But Dad didn’t actually get his college degree because he didn’t finish his Reserve Officers Training Course (ROTC), the mandatory military training at the collegiate level. I could empathize with him on this shortcoming since I had the impression ROTC consisted of endless marching drills, boring lectures on military science and having to kowtow to the not-so-bright but pushy officers.

He didn’t talk much about it (likely he didn’t want to encourage any of his children in the direction of being a college dropout) but that fact in his life impressed upon me that my father had a kind of rebellious streak deep inside of him. The enigma appealed to me despite the fact that I soon realized -- as I became more and more involved in student activism in the university – that my father was quite a successful, if conservative to liberal, capitalist.

When martial law was declared and I went “underground” to avoid arrest, my parents met me in an uncle’s house to appeal to me to stop my "foolishness" and come back home. I was going on nineteen, had just been elected University of the Philippines Student Council Vice-Chairperson and had decided, like many others, to join the resistance movement against the Marcos Dictatorship.

Dad told me that should I refuse their entreaties and instead join my comrades in a precarious life on the run, I would be on my own. Half suspecting that he didn’t mean it but was merely testing my resoluteness, I calmly said I couldn’t come home while others were fighting the fascists. I was completely taken aback when he broke down and sobbed; he knew I had made my decision and he could no longer invoke parental authority to make me change my mind. In that sense I was “on my own.”

A year and a half later, in the office of the Fifth Constabulary Unit (5th CSU), Camp Crame, where I was brought after being arrested without charges, Dad embraced me tightly and said in a steady voice loud enough to be heard by the military men guarding me, “I guess you know what you’re doing, right?” And I nodded my head slowly to reassure him, as much as to reassure myself.

But he and my Mom never really stopped doing everything they could to keep me from experiencing physical torture at the hands of the 5th CSU, a notorious Philippine Constabulary (the precursor of the Philippine National Police) unit and to get me out of detention. Years later I found out that they paid a hefty sum to a lady lawyer who had friends in high places in the military; likely, her services included bribing some officials to facilitate my early release from detention.

I went back to the university upon release from detention to finish my undergraduate course and then took up medicine. By that time, my parents, especially Dad, were happy enough that I was not in hiding and so did little to try to alter my political views. But in the 1978 Metro Manila-wide, hugely successful noise barrage against the dictatorship, Dad complained tongue-in-cheek about losing his new job at a firm owned by a Marcos crony if we didn’t stop making such a ruckus.

I guess Dad quietly rued the fact that I never really succeeded in the usual, mainstream way by having a fine house, a nice car, grand vacations and enough extra income to help aging parents cope with their dwindling income and the rising cost of living. But I knew he took pride in my standing up for, and living by my principles, no matter that he thought them quixotic.

In fact, in a last bid to try to put some pragmatism into a middle-aged, activist daughter’s head, Dad came to see me one day, after the Berlin Wall had collapsed and the Soviet Union had started to disintegrate. He earnestly posed this question, “Don’t you want to rethink your Marxist philosophy and your socialist perspective now that these ‘communist’ regimes have fallen?”

I smiled sheepishly and answered, “My nationalist and democratic viewpoint and hopes for a better world remain as valid today as they were when I was a young girl marching the streets and dodging bullets. You know how tenacious I can be, Dad, it’s in the genes.”

He never spoke about it again but in time, I really think he learned to appreciate, respect and be content with what his youngest daughter had become -- in no small measure due to his rather unconventional fathering. ###

* This column failed to reach Business World last week because of Typhoon Milenyo.


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