By Denver Ejem Torres
I FELT unloved as a child. For many years I held on to the thought that my parents did not love me at all. That only my grandmother, Lola Pilar cared for me. Every Mother’s and Father’s Day, I was reminded of this awful feeling.
In grade school we were asked to create greeting cards made out of white bond paper or cartolina. We were instructed to draw our family with a heart, family under a heart, family inside a big heart, family surrounded by little hearts, heart in hands, red hearts, always red. Then, we were told to write our thank you messages on them for our Mom and Dad. Since kindergarten until sixth grade, there’s not a year that passed by that we were not given special instructions to not forget to bring our crayons, colored pens, pentel pens, pencils, and other paraphernalia of love. This was how love was introduced to me, a piece of folded paper.
I was not without dilemma when asked to do this. I couldn’t bring myself to draw Mama and Papa holding hands for it looked wrong, unnatural, and dishonest. While my classmates were almost done with their cards, I on the other was still deciding on how to portray family love. Should I draw fists or flying palms? Or did I find the hearts absurd as I do today? Could that be what was delaying the completion of a rather simple instruction?
It was not easy to put my parents into paper. I swear if there was a contest for married couples who never once held hands or kissed (even only on cheeks) in front of their kids, I was sure my parents would have won first place. And if there would be another competition for couples who rarely talked and if they ever did, it was in the context of fight, they would have been the champion. How could a child translate that into an aesthetic expression? Tell me.
I was never prepared for that kind of classroom activity every year. But I couldn’t afford to get a zero on my GMRC (Good Manners & Right Conduct class) I guess. And so I did as others. But oh, drawing those sticks to represent as limbs wasn’t really fun. Others seemed to enjoy it, coloring here and there. I think it must have been my seatmate’s work or our teacher’s sample of a Hallmark card she must have bought from Alfie Commercial or Cagayan Educational Supply or United Bookstore (these were the go-to educational supplies and book stores before the giant National Bookstore came to our city) that helped me produce my own Hallmark imitation.
In the 90s, Hallmark cards where still the trend when it comes to love expressions and special occasions greetings. I am not sure when it really started to become popular in Cagayan de Oro City but as far as recollections go they have been widely used during my childhood years. Love was measured on how beautiful the card was, and of course, for some people, the card was accompanied by a hug or a kiss, or both.
Today’s love expressions, of course, have changed dramatically with the rise of Social Media. As new conduits of social interactions, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, among others, are outdating, replacing greeting cards. Or, at the very least, pushing into the sidelines what used to be the main mode of greeting a loved one. I wonder if children nowadays are still asked to make cards like we did back in the 90s. And whether they enjoy making them as my classmates did.
My parents are a different kind of people. They are different in the sense that they do not do the things my classmates’ parents do. They never hugged, kissed, exchanged sweet words, never gave gifts to each other, never gave cards, and never greeted each other happy birthdays or Merry Christmas.
And they fought a lot when I was younger. The fights I believe would explain my dilemma in front of a piece of paper folded to become love. Their fights were perhaps why the phrase domestic violence was coined. I couldn’t account for my mother’s bruises, tears and sobs here. There’s just not enough space.
Love at home was not an obvious thing. I had a hunch that it was stacked on top of the aparador or stashed inside my Lola’s chest, among her notebooks of handwritten Latin prayers. They never showed it to each other. They never showed it to me. I could not see it then, as expected of children, blind to the many shapes, forms and manifestations of love. In fact, I don’t remember them ever planting a kiss on my cheeks. But of course, I never asked for it. I never thought it was necessary anyway. So when I see other kids being hugged and kissed by their parents at school, I convinced myself they were weird people. But I once wondered then, how it felt to be attacked by loving lips and huge hugging arms. I could not bring myself to ask for a kiss or hug as the thought of it was really odd and somehow made me laugh a bit.
When my Papa died two years ago, I realized we never hugged. The closest I got to him was when I sat on his lap, as a toddler. Yes, only that time when Mama came to visit few days after Papa kicked her out of our house. She wanted to see me and perhaps hug and kiss me but he would not open the door.
On my way home from school, I was deciding whether I’d give the card to them. I wanted to give it to them actually but I thought they would not like it. I found my drawing ugly and my coloring skills shoddy. But by the time I got off the motorela, my mind was made. I would hand it to them even if it felt weird by just imagining the moment. As I passed by the Rovillos house, a dog showed up in front of me, but before it could say anything, I barked at it and ran so fast like a crazy canine until I reached our house almost out of breath.
At the dinner table I lost my courage. All I could do was glance once in a while at my backpack where the Happy Father’s Day card was waiting for my big decision.
* Denver Ejem Torres, 31, took English Language and Literature Studies at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan. A Fellow for poetry and literary translation to writers’ workshops, he has been published in the Philippines, India, Singapore and the United States. He is currently based in Cebu City and is working as a Team Leader in Wipro BPS. This piece of creative non-fiction is a chapter of Denver’s book in progress titled, “Memoir of a Sabungero’s Son.”