I am the salmon swimming back to my natal rivers,
Circling to honor the clarion call of past caregivers.
Cognizant that we are what we are due to the two worlds
That nurtured, molded, and emboldened us evermore.
From St. Paul, Minnesota. Where we have lived for the past 29 years. Where our four kids have grown. From young, curious youngsters who were all simultaneously awed and challenged by their new environment to caring, responsible adults who cherish family and their roots and have all the gift of gratitude for this world. Where I found, climbed and oft-times tripped my way to personal, academic, and professional triumphs. Where our family learned the secret of enjoying living in America by immersing ourselves in the history and the gifts and the diversity of our new community, and at the same time pronouncing the uniqueness of our own culture, by cooking and sharing our delicacies, by teaching and exhibiting our dances, by singing our songs and introducing karaoke to many, by being ourselves. Where all our 11 grandkids were born, giving Bud and me unspeakable joys only grandkids can bring. Where Bud and I continued to grow, together and separately, pursuing our dreams and thankful for the simple opportunity of being able to dream, and of dreaming together. Last night, Bud and I re-assessed where we are going and what we are leaving.
“We will be back in no time. Six months will be short six months. And we can do this every year, as long as our bodies and finances allow us. And while there, we will see them all every day. There is Facetime. We had been here for decades, and I am missing a part of me. It is a good time to be with relatives and old friends, and to check out our old haunts. And think about the greenery of Saluyan, our farm in San Pablo. Versus the ice and snow, the plowing, and the rigid chill in the bones of the winters that we will avoid,” Bud repeats the mantra honed over the years.
To San Pablo, Philippines, halfway around the globe, about 8,000 air miles and 14 time zones away from Minnesota. An iconic small city, the first declared city of the Philippines, 75 kilometers south of the capital of Manila. San Pablo is a city of seven popular lakes, a flat-topped table or “mesa” surrounded by mystical mountains with cool valleys, resplendent streams, and mythical lores. It is where Bud and I were born and raised and got married. Despite numerous common friends and distant relatives, we both had no inkling about the other’s existence before our chance glimpses while waiting for the bus near our respective Manila colleges in 1972.
San Pablo teems with people and tricycles, which are motorized, constantly revving bikes with custom-built cabs for carrying passengers, with a density of 3,263 per square mile, compared to Minnesota’s average population of 62 per square mile. San Pablo is tropically hot and sunny most days, with an average temperature of about 76 degrees F, coolest at 70 F in January, and warmest at 83 F in April-May. Instead of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, there are only the dry and wet seasons. On the other hand, Minnesota experiences extreme temperatures, ranging from brain-numbing -30 F to sweltering 108 F in a year. San Pablo typifies the Malay/Spanish/Chinese Filipino heritage while Minnesotans sport predominantly strong German/Scandinavian bloodlines and culture. These geographic, demographic, and temperate variances are indicative of many differences between our two worlds.
There were times when I thought I may never see San Pablo again. Once when Papa Remo and the family were running for safety from President Marcos’ ire after Papa Remo exposed the corruption in that administration and instead campaigned for Corie Aquino. And after my mom Inay passed away, my brain and my heart aligned against any place or people associated with my her when she was gone. I felt like a ship abandoning my route after being tossed in the waves. Those were dark times when I had to forsake people and places with special connections to my soul. A piece of me says coming back will deepen the pain of losing Inay, and yet facing self-exile from other parts of me was equally tortuous.
Minnesota was arctic subzero cold when we left in early January. Refreshing evening breezes, drizzly nights, and sunny days greeted us in Saluyan, formally known as Barangay San Lorenzo, a barrio in San Pablo City, in the province of Laguna within Luzon, the largest of the Philippines’ 7,600 plus islands. The Philippines, located in Southeast Asia, hugs one of the longest coastlines in the world and is right smack in the middle of the volcanic Ring of Fire and the Pacific’s South China and Philippine Seas.
Like salmon swimming back to their natal rivers, Bud and I came back to San Pablo to loop back to our beginnings. Bud likes to farm and finds Saluyan to be the only place for his farming dreams. I aspire to write, and while I prefer to accomplish that in the company of immediate family, deep inside I know I owe Bud his dream. His support for me and our family throughout our life journey was always unconditional and unwavering and so deserving of reciprocal support.
For the past three years, Bud must have traveled about eight times from Minnesota to Saluyan to build our retirement home, missing family milestones, holidays, and special occasions.
“Pa, Will you be missing the birthdays of Ariane, Lana, Cassie, and Brian again? Why can’t you just trust your friend and construction foreman Nilo to oversee this part of the construction?” I’ve sometimes voiced my questions about his priorities.
But he was steadfast in his resolve to build us a home we would wish to live in. As he is wont to do, he always keeps tight control of projects he has started. So it is with this house, which he built from conception to completion. He is so proud of the high ceilings and spacious rooms uncommon in the Philippines, and of the loft where all the grandkids can play and sleep together when they visit. The loft concept is patterned after our friends’ vacation home in Aitkin, Minnesota, which we discovered is ideal for community and group fun. And I always enjoy the earthy shades of the tiled master bathroom with a marbled ledge for sitting opposite the rain shower, this idea from the Wynn Las Vegas set-up. I did not get my requested separate writing room like Virginia Woolf had, and instead got a writing corner in the master bedroom. While I was not completely satisfied, I felt luckier than Stephen King who has his writing desk inside the laundry room.
“Ma, from this ideal nook, you greet the morning sun, have the front view of the gardens, your favorite flowers and fruit trees, and of the visiting birds and fowl. Plus, don’t you think we will need an extra guest room, which can also double up for your writing?” He reasoned.
In January 2015, our entire family came en masse from Minnesota, experienced the thrill of a lifetime spending time and creating memories together in the new setting provided by our new house. I can still see Bud’s ever-present grin as he watched our grandkids play, swim, and explore the farm, the nearby stream, and waterfalls, and experience the Filipino common folks’ life. While they were here, we had a house blessing and invited relatives over for a family reunion.
For the past months though, there is but little farming and writing. It has mostly been organizing. We shipped tons of stuff from Minnesota, each piece moved in a conga line of friends to a 40-foot container van parked in our St. Paul backyard. The container van was picked up by a train in St. Paul and delivered to Long Beach, California where it sailed two months through the Pacific to Manila. It required skilled maneuvering by the truck driver to deliver the goods through the narrow roads of Saluyan to the farm. Eventually, each piece found its spot in our new home. Bud also built a separate storage shed close to the main house for his thousands of tools, devices, wires, things that I would not venture to guess the proper names for. Piece by piece, drapes, photos, calendars, and wall decorations were hung. I found homes for the large family photo frames, office supplies, beddings, fixtures, towels, documents, desks and drawers, mug and magnet collections, cabinets, wardrobe, and countless other stuff. The flower garden took shape. So did the herb and veggie plots. The computers and printers and related devices were set up, or attempts were made to set them up. A couple of devices blew up when plugged into a higher voltage. When a farm helper was wounded by a sharp wire, I was able to produce the antiseptic and the band-aid from the first aid kit within a couple of minutes.
“We are home,” I finally declared after months in motion. “Or more appropriately, we’ve transplanted our old home on new soil.” And Bud agreed with a smile and a nod.
We are also devoting time and effort to reconnect with family and friends, hosting or attending get-togethers, and enjoying what binds us. We’ve not been able to see everyone yet, and are still trying to keep in touch with our folks. We are savoring opportunities to also meet new friends. We know that wherever we are, friends and family form the critical base of support as we go about our daily lives and fit in within a community.
Bud devotes time to his gardens. He wakes up with music in his body and tends, propagates, communes with the soil and plants. Every day, he wears his farm uniform of old white Hanes shirt, old shorts, and rubber slippers or old and battered athletic shoes or clunky farm boots. He begins at the break of the day and finds joy in mentoring young helpers in coaching seeds to grow. Our harvests of beans, peppers, lettuce, squash, tomatoes, and many other vegetables, herbs, and fruits like mangoes, soursop, jackfruit, chico (naseberry), lanzones, papaya, banana, pineapple,caimito (star apple), and many others, grace our dinner table and make their way to friends, people of the barrio, and organizations that distribute free food in San Pablo and beyond.
I find time to connect with groups and people, particularly a group of seniors devoting time to teach and bring food to street children of San Pablo, who are abandoned or orphaned with nowhere to go. They are picked up by the police loitering on the streets or the public market scavenging for food, or using drugs, or otherwise involved in petty crimes. These are kids from 4 to 18 years, boys and girls alike housed and fed in a 2-bedroom house surrounded by barbed wire, and owned by the City’s Social Welfare Office. Beyond the room and board, there are no programs or assistance to help them grow, navigate society, or give them hope. Our group connected with the City Mayor’s Office, the Departments of Education, Health, and others, and developed and led classes on basics such as Math, Language, Reading and Writing, and other self-help sessions, as well as Music and Art lessons, and Physical and Mental Health Care. We arranged visits from doctors, dentists, priests, and other teachers to broaden their care and their experiences with adults and society. It will be hard to forget or to leave them, as they’ve given me parts of themselves. How can I forget Jay, about 5 years old who in his deeply scarred face from the top of his head to his damaged and bulged left eye, his shortened leg and more scars in the torso told me his parents threw him in front of a rushing train? Years later, we saw his parents showing a picture of him on a public service tv show, asking anyone for his whereabouts and describing an altogether different story from what I heard from the kid. Or, of Ramon, about 8 years, who upon learning that I’m from Saluyan, informed me he came from a nearby barrio and pleaded for me to tell his parents to get him. I searched for his parents but they outright refused to get him, saying Ramon is better off at the shelter, instead of being an added burden to them. I learned from neighbors that the father just got out of jail and cannot provide for the family. Or of Beb, a 12-year old who wrote of her dream to be a doctor, whispering to me if I can get her a training bra, instead of another book. It is unnerving to think what else these street kids need to survive, and what kinds of help they need to even imagine and hope for future lives.
I am finding some deep disappointments too. One of the first things we usually do when in San Pablo is to visit the resting places of our dearly departed ones. At Bud’s family gravesite, I sweetly remember how darkly morbid and macabre our family thought how father-in-law Papa Remo would always carry his neatly folded, pencil-marked, and detailed cemetery plans and how he would show each one of us where he thinks he and our perpetual human remains should rest. I am grateful now that he took the pain and time to plan his burial place. I find the plot in the newer cemetery grounds a decent and peaceful place for his remains, as well as for Mama Lily and the rest of the family.
My family’s resting place at the old municipal cemetery is another matter. It is located at a prime spot close to the front entrance of the cemetery and initially housed the remains of my paternal grandparents Juan and Arsenia and family. It is where my mom, dad, sister Leny who died from leukemia at 18 years old, months from her college graduation, lie. My initial memories were of “Undras” or All Saints and Souls Day on the first and second days of November. My mom ordered elaborate flower wreaths and bouquets and special candles, making sure one of us stayed guard at the cemetery from morning till night. The night was a special occasion to meet family, and at any one time, there would be about twenty of us, retelling family stories and the latest community news as we sat around on our private patio as thousands of people passed by. Now, each time I go there, I am scared for my life. Nowadays, the public cemetery is in disarray, dirty, unsafe, polluted, and overcrowded. Despite being by the front entrance and therefore very visible from the main street, the cemetery appears to be a haven for many drug users and pushers. Their paraphernalia is scattered in plain sight, distinctive smells and movements emanate behind the tarped resting niches of the dead. I’m on guard for myself and more particularly when my family comes with me, more than when I walk the dangerous streets of Baltimore or Cotabato by myself.
Over the past few years, I have noticed the pervasiveness and the increasing insanity of drug use. It now targets not only the bored rich, but the “masa”, or common barrio folk, the old people, the working poor who for momentary pleasure forsake family, self, and all. Heinous crimes are being committed throughout the city in the name of drugs. And nobody seems to lead the battle to disrupt or eliminate this atrocity. Even the top officials of San Pablo are implicated in drug manufacturing and dealing, and the majority of the citizens particularly from the barrios who benefit from drug cash take no heed. This is giving me a major concern and keeps me up at night. And right now, I feel so helpless not being able to do anything about it, except campaign against the re-election of the corrupt. I am not sure what I will do if confronted by a stranger under the influence. If any of my family is threatened, however, I know where Bud hides the gun.
I’m at my beloved native land. It mostly remains the same. But in other ways, it has become more different than I expected it to be. Abject poverty, pervasive graft, corruption, drug problems, and the disparity between the very rich and the very poor have been sort of normalized. And this time, I don’t have the will and the capacity to find a solution. Our kids see these, and despite enjoying the scenery and the history of the landscape when they visit, and the fellowship and community of the native people, despite the exposure to the common traits of being adaptive, resourceful, communal, with strong family ties and respect, I suspect each will choose to remain in America if they are asked.
In the United States, I’ve learned to be more direct, independent, reliable, purposeful, straightforward in thinking and in doing, But I’ve come to recognize this is a land that has become more polarized. It is shedding layers of hidden or open hostility towards non-Eurocentric immigrants. Years later, the murder of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis in the summer of 2020 shone a bright light on the existing racial injustice.
As I lay in bed tonight, I squeezed Bud’s hand. We sometimes indulge in moments of self-reflection, checking in on the paths we have traveled and the inevitable destinations ahead. These days, I can say that there is no more fear, just a little of tying in the loose ends, making sure that the i is dotted and the needed documents are in place, that our kids are prepared when we are not available as guides, and that they will continue to care for people and places that informed our lives. That we continue to care for others and shine light to causes that help the common good. The words may no longer come. When that day comes, I trust that whilst the mind may linger and flee, the heart remembers true and forever free.
“I thank the Lord each day for giving us the life we have. We’ve been through a lot, but we always come out stronger and better each time. We’ve accompanied our kids to this point, we both are proud to see what each one of them has become, and they are our biggest accomplishments. We can trust that they will all remain the kind, loving, family-oriented, fun, respectful, and decent citizens of this land. They have more choices laid out before them.” I whispered.
Bud turned to look me in the eyes. “I totally agree. We may not have the riches others have, but we are rich for our family, for our togetherness, our adventures and achievements, our ability to enjoy our two different worlds, and that we’ve made a difference in whichever world we are in. I would not trade our lives with anybody else’s.
Born and raised in San Pablo, Philippines, Lillian moved to the United States in 1983 to finish her doctorate at the University of Nebraska. Until her retirement from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in 2016, she worked in several regulatory agencies in Minnesota. She now spends time between San Pablo, Philippines and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Lillian is a recipient of the Loft Literary Center’s Inroads Award in 2013. A collection of her essays was published in the Inroads Chapbook. Her essay “I Am American Too” was included in the MinneAsian Stories, Power of Me in 2020. Her articles and essays have also been published in several publications in the Philippines. Some of her creative writings can also be found at septemberroadmap.wordpress.com and at lillianbrion.wordpress.com/
She is currently writing her memoirs to share her journey with her 11 grandkids, to let them know what she stands for, and how her faith has guided her life. She hopes her writings will introduce readers to a colorful tapestry of experiences, travels, values and adventures.