Three Treasures

There are three different watches on my dressing table that I treasure much more than the others. And I am not talking about costs or how much they’re worth in pesos and cents. I will share them with you in the order of their chronology, not of their importance. For I hold them dear in my heart for different reasons.

Watch No. 1

I have a group of friends (five of us) and we call ourselves “The Golden Girls of Alabang.” This is half accurate—our ages range from 40 to 60. But we all live in the area of Alabang, a place south of Manila. We meet regularly to talk about our lives, most especially that part in the workplace which we once shared and the common friends we sometimes meet and those we don’t see anymore.

It was nearing Christmas and over lunch, a celebration of someone’s birthday, we talked about gifts. Ggie, the artist in the group, was wearing this exact watch model but the charms spelled A-R-T-I-S-T. We coveted it on sight—and each wanted to buy herself one (like a friendship band uniform). The only difference would be the charms (which should describe what we do). We each gave Ggie our pesos, the exact cost of the watch. Simple.

But this group has a penchant for complicating matters. We had the brilliant idea of an exchange gift on Christmas. My pesos would pay for Mabel’s watch, and Mabel’s would pay for Dolly’s, and Dolly’s would pay for Gigi’s, and Ggie’s would pay for Baby's, and Baby's would pay for Grace’s—more or less. Ggie, who'd rather draw, didn't take down notes so that when she gave us all our watches, nobody knew whose watch-money went to whom.

My author-watch is a gift from… Mabel? Or Ggie? Or Dolly? Or Baby? I wear it often, especially when I go out with the “The Golden Girls of Alabang.” In all the other occasions when people say it is a beautiful watch, and it is, I volunteer the unusual tale of how it came to me. Their faces twitch and they hold my hand to look closely at the A-U-T-H-O-R.
Watch No. 2

My client, and now a friend, Lita, has a collection of watches (like I do). But hers comes with names I can’t spell like Gerard Peregeaux, Patek Philippe, Beobachtugshur, IWC Da Vinci, and such bought in her many travels abroad. Mine have names like Redo, Sioko, Possil, Esprek, and such bought in my many trips to flea markets.

In one of our meetings, she burst with what she might have been trying hard to rein in her mind. “Grace, where on earth did you get that watch?” I was appalled that she was appalled. It was a perfectly great plastic watch with multi-colored rhinestones.

In our next meeting-cum-chit-chat that week, before she could sit down, she dangled a black velvet pouch before my nose and said, “Your watch really agitates me. Throw it away and wear this.”

I carefully took it out of the pouch and I sucked in a great volume of air, sounding like a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner.

It was grand! It smelled fresh out of a Swarovski store, with more Swarovski stones than my own rhinestones. And, although I don’t think of costs when it comes to watches, an errant mental note read, this new watch costs more than all my watches combined!

I took off my old watch (put it inside my bag with quiet plans to wear it where Lita won’t ever see it again) and put my new watch on. Now I wear this royalty watch to very special occasions—meetings with Lita.

Watch No. 3

My mother won this fancy thin watch with a matching bracelet in a parlor game played in one of our clan reunions. I happened to be beside her when she opened the box and I let out a teeny yelp of admiration. Aware of my mother’s legendary generosity, I knew what she was going to say next. “Here, you may have it. The watch which you gave me is still in running condition.”

“Mom, you won it. Keep it.”

I never would have guessed that a few months later, mom would leave this world in a rush. After the funeral, my sister and I looked through her things, or what was left of the earthly possessions she gave away. One of them was the box with the thin-strapped watch. Averse to anything that glitters, my sister shoved the box to my chest and grimaced, “Eeek, your taste, take it.”

I loved the watch the first time I saw it. I love it even more now because it was my mother’s. I like to think she must have really wanted me to keep it because it wasn’t one of those she gave away.

If I had a daughter (which I don’t), or a granddaughter (which I don’t—yet) I’d will these three watches to her. And I will tell her that even after I am gone, she should treasure them because they meant the world to grandma.

(I know, I know, my photos of these treasures don't do them justice. I got a beating from
Ate Vi, who has gotten into the habit of peeking over my shoulders; and Ggie called, giving me many pointers on jewelry photography. But when I look at the photos above, my heart does not see the wrinkled background and the metal glare and the flat composition, and the other gaffes. I see only grace.)


The Boy in the Jeepney

In the Philippines, less than 5% of the population can enjoy the luxury of private vehicles. The rest of humanity takes public transportation.

Now that I work mostly at home, I no longer need a full-time driver. I therefore try to work my schedule around my husband’s so I can borrow his driver.

But that can get complicated.

So whenever I have a quick errand, I make my life easier. I join the rest of humanity and take a tricycle, or a bus, or a taxi, or a jeepney, or an FX (an airconditioned van that packs 14 passengers in a space for 10), or a combination of all.

It was difficult in the beginning. But everything in life is just a matter of getting used to. I once hated okra, now I can’t live without it.

One day I needed to go to the NBI to get a clearance for my upcoming travel. I jumped into a jeepney and started solving the crossword puzzle that I usually bring along to shorten the hours.

A little boy about the size of a four-year-old but may already be around eight, startled me when he put a letter envelope on my and everybody’s lap. In someone’s handwriting, the message read, “Please help me. I belong to the Aeta tribe and I need some money.” Suddenly a man behind him, hanging on to the rear of the jeepney, started beating his small bongo and looking sternly at the little boy.

On cue the kid started wiggling and dancing in the small space where cramped knees from both sides met. I looked at his face and it revealed nothing. After a few minutes, he took back all the envelopes and looked straight at me. That stoic gaze gored my heart.

I fumbled with my big bag trying to look for my purse. Before I could find it, the boy had jumped off the jeepney tailing the man with the bongo.

Must any child be subjected to such indignity and cruelty? He should be somewhere else playing with other kids or reading children's books! I looked at the lady beside me. She was chewing a gum, oblivious to it all. I looked all around, and the whole packed jeepney reeked with apathy.

That scene would be replayed many times over in other jeepneys. And I sat there, with my crossword puzzle and big bag, my heart bleeding, unable to do anything except to close my eyes and ask for grace—that it may be poured upon that little boy to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs.

In Matthew 19:14, Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven."

Yet we adults do hinder them. We play the bongo and let them dance. And we sit there as though it’s just one of those things.


Gate Crashing

While looking, for the nth time, at the pictures of the stately white house in Tagaytay (a cool, high-altitude city south of Manila) and recapturing the magic of the day we spent in it, I pondered the freebies of friendship.

Friendship is a visa to a world of wonders. It gives you the liberty to say anything you want or to ask for anything you need. You may be censured for what you said or may not be granted your wish, but it does not matter. The relationship stands. And the stately white house proved me right.

We’d known for months that Boy P had been spending his free time in Tagaytay, supervising the construction of his weekend house. (I’ve always said that Boy P missed his calling; he should have been an architect.) We, Boy P’s friends from a workplace now non-existent, had been dreaming to spend a day there once it is ready. We knew it was going to be as awesome as everything Boy P puts his hands on. So we kept asking him, “Well, is your house finished yet?”

He couldn’t lie, could he?

Next we asked him point-blank, brooking nothing that faintly resembles a refusal. “Can we come?”

He couldn’t say no, could he?


Cotcha! “When?” we pushed.

“This weekend?”

All of us (ten gate crashers) who invited ourselves took our word for it and drove to Tagaytay. Boy P has impeccable taste, but with the stately white house he outdid himself!

Still meters away from the gate, while navigating our way through a narrow road flanked by pineapple plantations, our eyes popped. I wouldn’t attempt to describe it so I took photos from three different angles.

It isn’t so much the look but the feelings it evokes. The interior was even more magnifique—but I must have been drooling too much I forgot to click my camera.

For lunch, Boy P prepared a healthy menu for our perilous ages. “This is all you’re eating,” he said. Just fruits and vegetables.

But we grumbled (some silently and some noisily), aching for rice and meat. Unable to control ourselves, we raided the fridge and voila! There were adobo and caldereta and lechon and lengua (dream dishes or nightmares, depending on whose point of view), and in minutes, after a quick microwave heat, they were washed down.

Boy P shook his head, tut-tutted and tsk-tsked, but between friends, who listens?

The Tagaytay breeze chilled our skin even inside the commodious house and the conversation warmed our hearts even out in the rolling garden. We recycled well-worn jokes and anecdotes, and there was much nostalgia, but the laughter was new and fresh.

The stately white house regally stood on its sprawling lawn, mutely listening to the sounds of friendship.


Isn't He Lovely?

Going over my September posts, all I seemed to be doing was whining—from internet to health to passport problems. Let me do a 180-degree turn and speak about the topic that takes away the blues and the blahs.

The loveliest baby in the world.

This is the baby I have yet to cuddle and hold in my arms. He lives 14,000 miles away. Born in the USA on May 5 this year, he lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his parents—my second son, JB, and his wife, Gianina.

Someday, my husband and I promise (and threaten), we will spoil Adrian, our first and only grandson. Meanwhile, we will treasure all his photos and videos as though he were right here. Funny how one little bundle can render a writer wordless.

So let me borrow from (this definitely dates me) Stevie Wonder who celebrated his daughter Aisha’s birth in 1976 with the song, “Isn’t she lovely?” I am taking the liberty of changing some words for my purposes—like she to he and Aisha to Adrian.

Isn't he lovely?
Isn't he wonderful?
Isn't he precious?
Less than five months old
I never thought through love we'd be
Sharing one as lovely as he
But isn't he lovely made from love

Isn't he pretty
Truly the angel's best
Boy, I'm so happy
We have been heaven blessed
I can't believe what God has done
through our children He's given life to one
But isn't he lovely made from love

Isn't he lovely
Life and love are the same
Life is Adrian…
Isn’t he lovely?

(A gift of grace is he.)


Am I in Hong Kong?

Outside forces conspired to make me miserable in Hong Kong. But they failed. I made the most out of my four days there and I came through grateful for small and big blessings.

I was still nursing the remnants of a two-week stubborn cold from some strain of a virulent virus when I landed in HK. I felt lethargic, a new kind of feeling which was alien to me, so I slept if off the whole afternoon.

What a contrast to my HK trips with friends when I was young and peppy! (And foolish.) As soon as we had deposited our luggage in the hotel, we would run to the all the shopping centers, come back to the hotel when the bags got too heavy to carry, then rush out again for more bargain hunting. We’d grab a quick, cheap meal and shop some more till 12 midnight when all stores were locked up for the day. The next day would be the same—we shopped and never dropped.

A shopper’s paradise HK was and is.

But that was not to be, not for me this time around. After waking up from a long nap, I got ready for the formal dinner where I was invited to deliver an inspirational talk at the Christian Trade Association International convention.

I felt woozy and was feverish but I received enough grace to be inspired and, I hope, inspiring. I was rewarded with an applause and a heavy chunk of good-looking glass (or maybe crystal?) with my name etched on it from the organizers.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting new friends from all over the world. The representatives from mainland China spoke a different language but through a competent interpreter we understood each other to the last article and conjunction.

I met an American author, John Mendola, with whom I had a spirited discussion about his books on the end times. He gave me complimentary, signed copies—seven in all.

The next day was not much different. The tenacious fever would not let go. I looked down from my hotel room on the 19th floor and saw people rushing in and out of stores carrying shopping bags filled with goodies.

HK was, as usual festive and feisty. It was a perfect time to go down the elevator and join the shopping crowd. I went to bed and read John’s first three books.

The next day, I thought I should earn my keep and attend the convention. I did—for half an hour. I wasn’t concentrating much anyway so I decided to walk around and maybe trade my cold virus with the shopping bug. I struggled to walk to HMV for the CDs my first son wanted. They were not yet available.

Then I had to look for a Giordano shop for the tees son number 3 specified. Got a few on sale. I saw a myriad of “sale” signs—which would have pumped enough adrenaline into my body to last a year—but they seemed more like the signs I see along EDSA, Bawal umihi dito (Don’t pee here).

Got back to my room and finished reading the rest of John’s books with constant references to my Bible, a luxury I am often deprived of at home. I imagined myself, some other time, in that wonderland when lethargy and fever would be gone. It was a great thought.

The day of my departure, on the double-deck bus going to the HK humongous airport (where you need to take a train to go to your deaprture gate), I never felt better. It was as though the difficult three days never existed. I looked around the place which was once magical. It still was—in a different way.

The modern buildings under construction, new infrastructure, neatly landscaped patches of green in a cement jungle, efficient service, and clockwork precision kept me awed. They spoke of people who think alike about progress and a distinct place in the global village.

They became dreams for one’s homeland, up until the end times: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Matthew 5:18 (ESV)

(That's me in the photo, receiving my chunk of crystal.)


At the End of My Rainbow

Do you have days when at the end of your rainbow you find a question mark instead of a pot of gold?    

I do. These last few days seem that way.

Apart from my internet woes with PLDT’s My DSL, which until now (after almost two months) has not been solved, I now also have a passport problem!

Truth is stranger than fiction indeed.

My passport was issued in 2003 and will not expire till 2008. I have been using it for my travels abroad (a total of seven countries). In short, I have been in and out of Philippine Immigration with absolutely no problems.

But upon my arrival in Philippine soil two days ago from Hong Kong, I got a shocking, disconcerting news. The name that registered in the Immigration computer after inputting my passport number wasn’t mine! Someone else has just left the country with my passport number! Her first name is also Grace and her last name is also Chong. But she has a different middle name, nationality, and birth date.

Agitated, spent, hungry, and nursing a fever, I immediately prayed for patience then called my son who’s almost a lawyer. He told me to tell Immigration Officers that they cannot bar his beloved mother (endearment mine) from entering my own country with a document issued by the Philippine government.

To their credit, the Immigration Officers were very helpful. They showed me the data on the computer and explained that I should go to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) immediately to solve the problem. DFA has just instituted a new high-tech computerized system for passport issuance.

Now that my passport number has been assigned to someone else who was apparently allowed to leave the Philippines, I will, in future, be barred from leaving the country by Immigration Officers if I used my passport because it is now a “duplicate!”

Wh-what?! Wh-why?! Wh-why me?!

The burden of proof that I am who I say I am—the original owner of said passport number—suddenly falls on me! And to make matters worse, I am to leave for abroad to conduct a writing seminar in three weeks.

Only by a mega dosage of grace was I able to get out of Immigration without losing my cool. I kept my composure even after my son told me that no matter what inconvenience I am and will be unwittingly saddled with, I will remain helpless. A citizen cannot sue a government entity!

I’ve written and will continue to write tons of letters to the authorities to get answers and solutions. I trust they will come sooner—not later.

My DSL, passport, etc. are humongous reminders of life’s valleys and falls. Whether we deserve them or not, they come, they shock, they disappoint, they are there; sometimes they fester in your heart if you allow them to. I hope, I wish, I pray I will focus instead on the peaks and rises. And look for that pot of gold at the end of my rainbow!

Ah, it’s liberating to set my woes off in writing.


Did I Enjoy the Fair?

Did I ever!

A few pictures tell the story. Please scroll down to the bottom . . .

A live interview on DZAS right inside the booth of OMF Literature, Inc.—by Eric Maliwat, Head of DZAS.

Behold the newest (and #10 book) in the Oh, Mateo! series:

Teo’s Cockatoo!

A group of mimes (two shown below) walked around carrying posters announcing my day’s activities.

Book signing and let’s-chat-with-the-author time. With columnist and parenting advocate Maricel Laxa-Panguilinan and her daughter, Inah.

In short, I never got around to booth hopping and buying the books I coveted all year. But my escorts, JC and JR, did while waiting for their mom relish her own groundswell of grace.

And hey, there’s always next year!

(Photos courtesy of my friend Aleks)

I could and would write more but I am still distressed and oppressed by intermittent My DSL. Sigh.