Friday, June 22, 2007

Scenes From Yesterday

On Sunday afternoons, much of the children would already be lining up at the gates, coins in hand and parents in tow, awaiting the arrival of the ice cream man. Boys would bravely step out into the streets, daring cars to hit them, while the girls waited patiently to one side. As the singing bells and hoarse, staccato voice of the ice cream man made themselves heard, the children would whip themselves into frenzy and greet him as if he were a laurelled hero, a heroic Gideon ripped from the pages of the Old Testament.

In our apartment, things were cozy yet comfortable. There were drab, whitewashed walls where I used to draw figures of monsters and dinosaurs with crayons; a perennially humid bathroom with rubber tiles; polished, wooden floors creaking with age. All the rooms were locked in static mess, and occasionally reeked of milk, drool and uneaten sandwiches. The kitchen was small and utilitarian: there was an oven, a stove, a refrigerator, and nothing else. The foul reek of vinegar clung to it like mold.

Further down the street was my grandmother’s house. It was an ancient house, built in the 1960s, when much of that street was still grassland. My grandfather was one of the first settlers in that area. In front of them lived a wealthy Spanish couple, the Gamos, who had long been affiliated with the practice of law. They drove an old Ford; the Gamos were driven in a Mercedes. But despite the obvious difference, the Gamos never saw my grandparents as beneath them, but treated them as the closest of friends, a relationship which exists to this very day (my grandfather died in 1987).

I lived the first years of my life in my grandparents’ house. Before we moved into the cramped apartment, we lived in an even more cramped ‘house’ adjacent to the main house in the compound. Everyday, I would wake myself at eight in the morning, and greet the sun with a smile. I recall riding my bicycle in a never-ending Mobius strip in the garage, much to the consternation of the dogs (since I would always bother them). At five years of age, I went into my uncle’s bedroom and discovered a box full of chisels and an ancient rubber mallet. Thus, my ‘art phase’ began: I practiced on an old plank of wood, trying my damnedest to re-create the grimacing, bone-crunching maw of the Tyrannosaurus rex. It didn’t work out; the best I could muster was a crudely shaped, sideways facing letter ‘V’ with some triangles sticking out. Yes, I played with chisels before (luckily one of my aunts was always beside me).

Our old neighborhood was not without its quirks. At the Southern end was the elegant mansion of some apparently famous TV actress in the 1970s. At the Northern end, near the bend leading to the next street, was a house notorious for the events which happened there. A family of six had been brutally murdered there, including a seven year old girl. To this day, I still cannot fathom the depths of this incident; indeed, it is only now that I am beginning to realize its full implications. On some afternoons as well, we were always greeted by the sight of a grown man, probably in his 30s, walking the hot and barren streets on tiptoes. As it turned out, the man was mentally retarded. He always walked without any shirt on, and always dragged a bamboo stick with his right hand. I never once felt threatened by him, but I realized he may think of me as a threat. We confined our charity to giving him a glass of water and a ham sandwich occasionally.

There, too, was the ‘astronaut man’, who was dressed in several layers of clothing, face covered by a white towel, with the rusting skeleton of an umbrella serving as a hat. He would amuse himself by striking a pose and holding it for hours at a time. Were he not so creepy, I would probably have befriended him.

We moved into our new house exactly nine years, eleven months and twenty nine days ago. Though the house is definitely bigger, my ambition has shrunk, and my dreams shattered. I am much older now (though I’m not ancient, I’m only 18, just an old soul), and perhaps a bit wiser. Physically, I am no longer that skinny boy with broken teeth; I am now the tall and somewhat dashing kid obsessed with lawn tennis and scuba diving. The old, whitewashed walls which seemed to stretch on forever vertically now reveal themselves to be short, finite and dirty, covered in a writing entanglement of vines dead and dying. The backyard where I amused myself by baking mud pies now seems a cesspit, constricted and constricting. The trees which I once climbed had been cut down, the floor on which I played was now occupied by a grand piano.

As I look back on all these old memories, my mind struggles what to make out of them. Ten years is an incredibly insignificant amount of time on a geologic timescale, but it is the difference of lifetimes in our human years. I cannot help but launch into nostalgia sometimes. Seeing these old pictures of myself, my family, my old neighborhood, without the scars inflicted by age and without the cares and worries of the world, I wander into an age I had seemingly lost in the cascading of years. Memories from sitting in the hammock under the shade of the macopa tree would rouse themselves from slumber and fill my mind once more with the hopes and dreams and ambitions I had as a mere boy. Cynicism would vanish once again, and in its place flooded back wonder and enjoyment with renewed vigor. I was a kid once again.

At the end of the day, we would gather in the main house, the one that my grandfather had built. We would have a short program of sorts, of which I was always the emcee. Things were simpler back then, and by 8.30 in the evening, we would already be heading to bed. But before the festivities of the night ended, my grandmother would always play ‘O mio babbino caro’, the lullaby which sent me to sleep dreaming of flying cars and walking houses. And they were very good dreams.


Archistrategos said...

I didn't feel like writing three pages. Hehe.

matt said...

hopes and dreams and ambitions I had as a mere boy [...] I was a kid once again.

I'm 22 and you're making me feel old, which is just absurd!

I don't know what's going on in your life that's making you feel nostalgic and cynical, but you're too young to feel like that, trust me. I remember when I was 18, I felt the same way, because I didn't get into my top choice for university, and I ended up getting B's (gasp!) in my first year. But life goes on! You've got your best years ahead of you, and honestly, so do I!

You're 18. You still get to have those hopes and dreams and ambitions. And you still are a kid, I don't care how damned high-falutin' your vocabulary and writing skills are!!

Archistrategos said...

^ LOL, I'm not a total defeatist, I still have my ambitions. Life is too beautiful to be marred by something as trivial as grades or break-ups. It is just that I am beginning to lose more and more of my boyhood self. I guess I am just becoming more cynical. The rift is sad, yes, but in the end it is also beautiful. Maybe it's because I am just a moody person most of the times that I tend to write like an old person, a trait I share with a good number of people in my family.

Andrew said... I'm starting to remember the good old days and suddenly, I'm starting to feel my years bearing down on me.

The good old days were really good, a more innocent time where the cares of the world were borne by others and the weather wasn't so darned hot! I recall the delicious food sold by hawkers who travelled from home to home.

I remember the trees in my garden, the rambutan tree which would fruit once a year, a lime tree which made lemonades a walk and a squeeze away and a wonderful custard apple tree which I would dutifully inspect daily.

I recall the joy that the simple pleasures accord and the time when treats were rare and were much more satisfying.

Sigh...all are gone now and even though we're slightly better off than we were before, am I really happier? I can't say. I do think that those were happier times, despite the want but perhaps my rose tinted glasses is obscuring my view of history.

Would I trade it all and go back to the days of my childhood? You bet.