Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tatay

This was my column last Monday, dedicated to my dad who I call Tatay.

Because I grew up in the care of my grandmother and an aunt, my interactions with Tatay were limited to a few perfunctory gestures during official family functions and occasions. It didn’t help that— despite the abundance of maternal affection (she was called Mama by the whole clan)—my grandmother seemed to belong to that genre of mothers-in-law who seemed to think that no man was ever good enough for their daughters.

So Tatay was simply the stereotype “man of few words” who lurked in the shadows of my childhood.

I don’t have memories of having been carried in his arms or being hoisted up on his shoulders; he wasn’t the man who taught me how to balance myself in a bicycle, or swim, or fashion balls and carts out of palm fronds and tansans. I never flew kites as a child simply because I didn’t have anyone to teach me how. Somehow I couldn’t imagine imposing the task of hoisting up a kite and running with it to an aging grandmother.

Which is not to say that I lived a childhood deprived of mirth and mischief. Kids do make do with what they have with their amazing ability to adjust and rationalize.

What Tatay and I shared were a few poignant moments of awkwardness as we struggled to get to know each other throughout my childhood. But I guess fathers do have a way of making their presence felt even if the impact and the power of those few shared moments would only unravel years later.

My own realization of the important roles Tatay played in my life struck me like the proverbial thunderbolt when I joined a Toastmasters speech contest in the early ’90s. The theme for the contest was family relations and while reaching deep down inside myself, I decided to do a piece on my awkward relationship with my own father.

I realized I wasn’t as unique as I thought because of the five finalists in that particular contest, four of us chose to craft and deliver speeches that talked about our relationships with our fathers. This was the in the ’90s when Fathers’ Day wasn’t such a big deal yet. Most fathers in the audience squirmed in embarrassment. To this day, Tatay doesn’t know I delivered that speech.

The chairman of the board of judges couldn’t help but observe that there was indeed a fount of emotional material underneath all the static that surrounded the relationship Filipino fathers share with their offspring.

That’s when the memories gushed forth.

I must have been six and running around in the backyard gleefully the way someone of that age would, unmindful of the admonitions of the grownups, when I stumbled and suffered a nasty cut on my leg. I remember desperately trying to be a grown up and suffering in silence as I tried to stem the flow of blood. Somehow, Tatay was suddenly there. He didn’t say anything. He simply sat me down, fixed the situation in his own way, and then quietly set me off to do my thing again.

No recriminations, no big drama. That would be Tatay’s trademark.

I remember many times in my life when he would just quietly emerge from the shadows to fix whatever was wrong in my life and just as simply disappear. No flashy declarations of affection. No major expectations of gratitude. Tatay wasn’t—and still isn’t—big on lectures or worldly declarations of what should or shouldn’t be. He simply was there when I needed him, like an invisible shadow that hovered and appeared when needed.

Most fathers are like that, I guess. They are just there. Which is why it is easy to take their presence in our lives for granted.

There’s this admonition that our mothers like to trundle out at a moment’s notice, the way our mothers are wont to do—something about how one learns to fully appreciate certain roles only when they begin to play it. It’s a cliché whose wisdom is often lost in the dynamics of familial intramurals. But it is cliché that haunts you at the crucial moments when one is forced to wonder how your parents coped with your own version of your kids’ misdemeanors.

Yesterday was Fathers Day. Because we live in an age where consumerism is the norm, everyone who stood to profit from hyping certain occasions made a field day out of it. I’ve always had this natural aversion for anything that reeks of commercialism because it makes it easy for anyone to get lost in the fuzz and the hoopla and lose sight of the things that really matter.

But I guess there’s something about getting old—or older—that makes us develop marshmallows in places where the heart should be. And I guess being at the receiving end of affection makes us come to terms with certain occasions and forces us to appreciate affection when we get it. We make peace with the world and simply sit back and bask in the glow of affection.

So if there is something that we should be grateful for about the way consumerism has consumed our lives, it is the fact that at least it has become easier —if not convenient—for kids today to be more in touch with their feelings particularly towards their fathers. It is easier to be affectionate with mothers because their social role dictates that they be nurturing and affectionate. But fathers are supposed to be of a different breed and are supposed to be oblivious to hugs and tears and big expressions of affection.

Tatay and I had an uneasy relationship growing up but I have realized that this has not in any way diminished the affection we have for each other. Tatay was not the proverbial hero of my childhood but he certainly is in my grown up life. I can only wish I am as good as father to my kids as he has been to me.

Happy Fathers’ Day, Tatay.

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