I had a most dysfunctional childhood. Really and truly will bet I will win over what you say is your family’s unforgivable levels of dysfunctionality if you had the bad sense to go toe to toe with me over this. I know this because I’ve tussled with a lot of my friends about this–over dinners, in the mountains, over beers, in my college tambayan, while lying in our dorm beds in med school. My friends and I would have our version of pataasan ng ihi. Only, we called it, ‘Who has the sickest family?’ —and more often than not, I would emerge victor.
If I had to explain my family structure to you, for starters, I would need a Powerpoint Presentation so you could get it at one go. Then I would need to color code and would need, at the very least 5 different colors. So really, you have nothing on me.
There was one huge thing though that saved me and my siblings from embarking on a life of crime. Yes, none of us are criminals, I am happy and proud and relieved to tell you. And I do think, now that most of us are midlifing, it might be accurate to say we are all safely off the road to perdition. One never knows about these things for sure, of course. But for now, you may bet on us being, more or less, productive citizens and being nuisances only to ourselves and the poor unfortunate souls whose lot it is to live with us, day in day out.
Back on track.
As I said, there was one thing that saved us. Besides the virtual absence of parental intervention (we were a most neglected bunch, thank God! No parents breathing up and down our necks!) and a houseful of books–and it was this–that we could speak our minds. There were no sacred cows served in my family’s dining table. Everyone was fair game and so was everything that was brought to the arena of the dinner table by way of discussion. You could say whatever you damn pleased. It was as simple as that.
Forks flew, tears flowed, there were howls, shrieks, curses aplenty– by the spades! Nothing was sacrosanct. Not even the foibles of our parents or grandparents or elders. Certainly not your illusions and delusions about your greatness–wow, most specially not that. Everyone was welcome to join in the fray. And get skewered mercilessly.
Here, at our dinner table,was where I learned to THINK before I opened my mouth because a dozen or so snipers were ready to take you down if you said something you couldn’t defend with, at least, one defensible fact–or a pretense of some fact. And it was here where I learned other views existed apart from mine. And it was here where I learned that other worlds existed, that we were individuals no matter if we shared closet space or DNA or friends or clothes or shoes.
It was at our dinner table that my father (when he had the time) would tell us of the virtues of olive oil and made-up lyrics to tunes sung off-key. And he showed us too, his love affair with the law–in its various phases and faces. From its defense to its legislation to its creation to its enforcement (as he was a lawyer, judge, legislator at various times of his life).
And it was here where I learned first hand of the underbelly of Philippine society and its cancer, corruption. Here where I learned of massacres, of heart rending poverty that made our simple middle class existence seem like lifestyles of the rich and famous (We had a driver, you know. And Mang Felipe could name all of Jai Alai’s pelotaris in one go. Sosyal.) Here where I learned of the evil deeds of the Marcos regime. And here where I learned of lives snuffed mercilessly, viciously. My father did not think it inappropriate to serve us this, thank god.
I have no memory of any of my siblings ever keeping quiet for long. We were a democracy and not even the older ones could pull the ‘older sibling’ card on us younger ones when push came to shove.
In a word, mayhem.
And fun. Because even as I recall the screaming, impassioned discussions wrought and fraught with danger, I recall too the howling laughter–the kind of laughter that had us on the floor, rolling and pleading for whoever the man of the hour was to stop it already as we were near death from laughter. And here where I learned of the stuff that feeds the soul–books, art, the world, theater, music, friendships, love, simple unpretentious food.
My siblings are one of the smartest, most witty, funniest, most ironic, most insightful group of people I know on this planet. (I do not like them all, by the way and do not agree with them a lot of times. Again, let’s keep it real.) But I know now that intellect flourishes in a spirit of freewheeling, let-it-rip discussions. The mind is fed and so is the soul.
Til this day, when I get together with my siblings, I enjoy a level of discourse I don’t ordinarily have. It’s still the kind of discussions we had as children–honest, searing even but a lot more nuanced and studied. No pulling things from one’s ass. You will get no respect from anyone this way. As usual.
And this is why I am the same with my children.
I do not underestimate their ability to get down and dirty where discussions are concerned. Like Maurice Sendak, whom I admire so much, I do think to a large extent, childhood is a myth. Specifically, the part that says that children are half wits who will not get it and that you need to pussy foot around them and that certain topics are off limits.
There are hardly off-limit topics at our dinner table as well. My children need to know the world they live in. They need to know things happen and certain things exist. And they need to know how to cope with the crap that’s served to us in spades and on a regular basis just as they need to know that nobility exists and that everywhere ‘life is full of heroism.’ They are not dolts and I will not treat them as such.
The discussions that stay with me to this day are the ones where my father told us of his day matter-of-factly, taking it for granted that we understood basic stuff– that one must not steal from public coffers (but one may steal from a siblings’ cabinet), that public service is a public trust, that as citizens we had responsibilities, etc etc etc. That to whom much is given much is expected.
He didn’t treat us like twits whom he had to think for. And he definitely didn’t muzzle us.
He taught me, more than anything, that revolutions are started at the dinner table, at home, by your father’s knee. And that if we are to change this country at all, we must start our revolutions in our own souls, then in our own homes.
So when despotic governments decide to muzzle us, to trample on our basic rights, the insult we feel will be at the soul and gut level.
And it will be unbearable. And we will rise.
And this is how we change the world.
A child at a time.
**This was written October 2012**
*This is for you, Matina, on your 12th birthday. Breathe the air of free men and women, honey girl! And go craft a life that is truly yours. Mama loves you. Big time.*