Ben, Babie, and I

by Evans Yonson

(Note: This is a personal semi-autobiographical essay that I submitted to my seminar class in the University of Barcelona during the second semester of the academic year 2008-2009. I have published this series during the first quarter of 2010. As a fitting annual tribute, I have thought publishing this every year to remind my nephews and nieces, my cousins, and the rest of the clan that we have a past, a present, and a future as a family. This is going to be in nine parts and will come out every Saturday starting today here in The Light Traveller.)

Ben slowly comes out of our house and I see her in that elegant light blue dress that she made herself. She has her long black silky hair tied with a red ribbon that I taught her how to make. We have been through a lot these past ten years, moving from one town to another with the children carrying our clothes and kitchenware. I remember well how we have survived all this time. Ben would plant crops while I would go to the forest and hunt for wild animals. She prepares the best stew in this world, while I would sew our neighbor’s clothes for a minimal fee. I harvest coconuts on a weekly basis and sell it to others so we could live a modest life. Ben takes care of our children. Looking back, I know I made the right choice in marrying this woman. She is noisy sometimes but she can be reasonable. When she opens her mouth, I just listen and let it down for some time. I love her laughter. I am amused when she giggles because her whole body shakes. She is trustworthy and she knows how to handle the finances of my growing family. We are now saving money to buy a new sewing machine. The two machines that we have now are old and rusty. Rust is something that we try to avoid especially in dealing with our clients’ clothes.

My children (three girls and two boys) follow my wife as they come down from the stairs one byone. They are all dressed up too. Olive (BB) is almost eight now. I am glad that we were able to stop the malaria that struck her during the war. She has grown to be beautiful just like Ben. But she is the complete opposite of her mother. She takes good care of her younger siblings. Gelacio (Dong), my son who is six, does nothing all day but be with his friends. He plays with them in the streets. Antonina (Nena), my second daughter aged 4, is the mischievous one and the happiest of all my children. Jorge is will be two this year. Julia, my youngest daughter, has just started how to walk and she is very eager to learn every single day. Ben has prepared a special lunch for us. Today is a special day for all us. Today is my birthday.  It has been months since the American drove the Japanese out of our city. We are going to the St. Augustine Cathedral early to hear mass. The bishop will be wearing the cassock that Ben and I tailored for him. After the mass, we are going to pass by our tailoring near Xavier University to clean and arrange for tomorrow will be another busy day.

I was born on March 1908 in Bohol Island to a poor and illiterate couple. Our neighbors told me that my paternal grandfather was a Spanish priest from the Basque Country and grandmother worked in the church. I grew up not knowing my grandparents but my parents taught me the right values that I am teaching my children now. I have a younger sister. I walked to school with no shoes on. I wanted to learn and read English and Latin. My father was a tailor and my mother was a seamstress just like Ben’s parents. Ben and I were neighbors. She didn’t have formal education because they were many in the family and she was the eldest. Before we turned 18, I asked Ben to marry me. Our parents were worried that we might not be able to make it as a couple and we were very poor to start a new family. We decided to elope and went to Mindanao. There we started our new family after being wed by the local priest in Cagayan de Oro. With the little money that our godfather gave us, we bought a used sewing machine. With the help of a relative, we were able to set up our own shop. Customers started coming in after a month of operation. The priests helped in our promotions and we were only one of three tailoring shops in the city.

Our shop is just enough for me and Ben. The space we have is just enough for the sewing machines and for the clients to move around during the measuring and fitting of their clothes. We have a stereo and we love listening to Peggy Lee’s “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” and to some Conchita Piquer songs. Ben and I would sometimes sing Frank Sinatra’s I’ve Got a Crush on You. My children would rather study that sing and dance. BB comes after school with her siblings to help us clean the area. We go home together and Ben would prepare our dinner. Before we have our dinner, we gather around the altar and pray. We have our own house built on our own land in the city. We have a small place enough for the seven of us. The girls are in one room. The boys are in another. Ben and I have our own room too. I have built a deep-well where we can wash our clothes every Saturday. I have planted fruit-bearing trees in our lot, coconuts, papaya, banana and some herbs. Every morning before sunrise, I walk to the market to buy our food. Ben would cook for all of us. BB brings her siblings to school.

Family gatherings mean birthdays and Christmases. My children were born two years away from each other. Ben and I have intended it this way so we can take care of our children by ourselves. I raise pigs in our backyard so we can have meat when there are celebrations in the family. I will always be a tailor and will never be cook. Ben and I would invite our relatives who cook to help us out. Sometimes these relatives stay longer than expected. Our house becomes a big dining hall almost every month. Preparing food for more than 30 guests can be taxing but not expensive. Our backyard becomes a small community of friends who come by to help out in the preparations like killing the pigs, setting up the recipe. From my coconut trees, I make tuba[1]. Ben prepares coconut salad with cream and papaya preserves with vinegar and sugar.

[1] Fermented coconut wine.

(To be continued)