I try looking in old books to see what a mango tree looks like, to see if they look anything like what I remember. Because I haven’t seen one in over twenty years, have never ever seen one here, in California.
And sometimes what I think of as a mango tree is actually a loquat. Which is ridiculous, because one is a short tree, and the mango trees I remember— what I feel pretty sure are mango trees—were tall, tall. The ones I remember growing in our backyard never seemed to have any fruit. The mangos we ate came from the market. I simply took my mother’s word for it that the trees were mango trees.
There was a huge mango tree growing in front of our house. As children, we played underneath it, a game where boys stood on one side, girls on the other. We called to each other: come and break the chain of our linked arms! It was late at night; no one was watching. Never any grown-ups; we were completely alone.
Outside my bedroom window, another mango. This one, tall, gnarly, too, capiz shell lanterns dangling from the branches closest to my window. The wind made a mournful sound through the branches. I leaned out the window and thought of ghosts.
I remember that the shoes I wore with my school uniform were black. They looked like Mary Janes. They were cheap leather, they had straps across the front, plain white buttons. I wore them with socks. Maybe the socks had embroidery, scalloped edges. I never paid much attention to my shoes (in spite of what people say about Filipinas now, after Imelda).
I remember so clearly the San Andres meat market. Slabs of hanging pig carcasses, split from end to end, looking strangely flayed, bloodless. Ground moist with dripping blood.
Lanzones, too. To me they smelled somewhat dusty, musty. I can’t describe it: I’m forgetting so much.
About smells of sampaguita and such, I’d be lying if I said I was absolutely sure. Jasmine—I didn’t even know what that flower looked like. The sampaguita I knew because it was our national flower. I learned this in school. It was white. I don’t remember how it smelled.
I seem to remember it was a simple flower. Like—with only five petals? Nothing like a rose.
But the petals I seem to remember as being uncommonly soft. And the white of them was almost blinding.
Santan. Another kind of flower I didn’t know the scientific name for until just a year ago, when I watched an Australian movie and heard a character call it lantana.
Gumamela. All colors. But the red ones are the ones I remember most clearly.
Orchids. Lots of orchids. My mother loved those. Purple and white— tongued. My mother grew them, and then she got bored and they must have all died.
There were small brown birds. I knew them as “Maya birds.” They perched on the telephone wires strung up and down the street.
Parrots kept as pets by friends.
Aswang—women with wings. These were more real to me than any other kinds of winged creatures. For a long time, whenever I stayed in the provinces, I thought of the night air above me, filled with these silent creatures. I was afraid.
The national bird is the Philippine eagle, but I have never actually laid eyes on one. They live in forests, don’t they?
There were no forests where I lived.
Younger sisters? None.
Leng, Grace, Stella, Lourdes, Concepcion, Raina, Gina—a family of seven sisters
Bacolod cousins—Iggy, Leo, Gaby, Enteng, Jared (who I had a crush on— the last time I visited, I learned he was Born Again, and has four children)
Second cousins—Bertito, Paolo, Jon, Diego
High School—Assumption Convent. Nuns with blue veils. Kindergarten and first grade—Saint Paul
Confusion: Did a nun actually place me in a wastebasket as punishment for talking too much? Did a teacher call me to ask who invented the steam engine, and when I stood up and said, “What,” rewarded me with a “Good”? Did my older sister actually drag me down a school corridor, trying to wrest away a book that I had, that she wanted? Did my plaid skirt actually drop to my ankles as I was running one day across the school quadrangle? (Did I pick it up, mortified with shame, a shame that never left me, every time I walked to class?) Did the girl sitting behind me actually cut oﬀ my braids with a blunt scissors while I sat there luxuriating in the tickling sensation of the scissors slicing across my thick braids? (Later, in front of my mother, I had to pretend to be angry. The nuns suspended the girl for a few days. She later transferred out of the school. Last year, after a Google search, I discovered a woman with the same name runs a spa in Suisun City.)
Early years, early years—
This is what I remember: They were full of small humiliations.
Despite that, I was happy.