My family recently sold the old house in Greenhills and have commenced moving into a condo in Makati. With most of the children grown up and living on their own here or abroad, it was decided, among other things, that the house was too big for my mother and my stepfather.
I spent many years of my youth within the walls of that house; my own room was the converted library with multiple shelves and three doors: one into the main house, one into a small study with a secret spiral staircase, and one into the outside world (which facilitated my sneaking in girls at odd hours without waking anyone up or my breaking the curfew for an evening with friends elsewhere). I swiftly took over the shelves, consigning my stepfather’s lawyerly books to the farthest end of the room and stacking my own comic boxes and fantasy novels within my eyes’ reach. My bed was huge and had a cavernous space beneath it: one time, a friend of mine spent hours hidden underneath, waiting patiently to frighten me: it worked and my scream – in the middle of the night – was vintage horror movie.
The old house had a swimming pool with a rock slide that curved once before pitching the bleeding slider into the pool. The blood was there because the stone slide was roughly finished, as one slid down, numerous tiny protrusions lacerated flesh – it all happened quickly though and one never had time to notice the pain immediately since a giant splash into the pool followed. It was only afterwards, while bobbing up and down the chlorine-infused water, that the small suggestions of discomfort blossomed into pain, though it was the kind of pain we all had to smile through because – well, because kids did that. It wasn’t before long that we discontinued the use of the Slide of Sorrow, then when we all outgrew the fact that we had a pool we could use anytime, we stopped swimming altogether. The pool was converted first into a fishpond, a dark and brooding artificial body of water with meager numbers of tilapia and snails. When mosquitoes and other unwholesome creatures took residence, the pool was drained, the fish and snails devoured or thrown away, and the cavity was filled with earth and planted with a variety of trees and herbs. The converted pool-garden was too small to walk through but I think the truncated line of stunted banana trees had its charm.
We had a huge lanai – a covered open area that straddled two sides of the house’s perimeter where my mother positioned numerous sofas, couches, garden chairs, settees and a variety of tables in. Depending on one’s mood, one chose where to sit: amorous and it was the soft set at the corner, where my girlfriend-who-became-my-wife used to stroke my hair as I lay on her lap, mentally commanding my body not to react to her touch; moody, and it was one of the black cast iron chairs, perfect for a contemplative cigarette. When we held parties (and we used to hold a lot of parties), we opened the glass doors from the formal living room into the lanai and created great spaces for people to explore or cluster together at. Sometimes, we’d have lunch at the lanai, semi buffet-style (because, at one point in time, we had 8 helpers and they would rush to refill a water glass or quietly swat a fly), with the sunlight magnifying the orange of the prawns, the green of the salad and the chromatic wonder of the upside-down cathedral cake my aunt would send over.
Inside the house was a heavy darkness, not metaphorical but literal. The interior of the house featured a very high ceiling. Even from the balcony of the 2nd floor, the ceiling was unreachable by man. The few lighting fixtures that illuminated the central area were terribly insufficient and my stepfather was never one to just suddenly determine to rewire the house simply because it wasn’t bright enough. My mother tried to combat the gloom with artfully placed lamps with giant lampshades, but the feeling of twilight never went away. None of us liked staying for long there. It was huge and encompassed the formal living room and an area I can only describe as ad hoc (at times the Christmas Tree was placed there, at times, the piano or a ten-seater table).
Other places in the house were a mystery to me. The expansive space of the master’s bedroom (just as big as my entire condo unit, I think) was never a place I willingly visited. My sisters’ rooms were a great unknown. My brother’s room was more inviting but entailed a trip up two flights of stairs. The two kitchens – dirty and…clean? – were the domains of my grandmother, mother and the cooks and welcomed no children. The large garages were, similarly, under my stepfather’s dominion and he’d spend hours dismantling his cars and putting them back together.
I realize now that I only truly lived in a small part of the big old house, finding reasons to stay within the sectors of my own universe of books and friends. It is so unlike living in a smaller space like I do now, where every little area is premium.
I’ve never had the sense of having an ancestral home. Those I equate with ancient and history-studded Spanish-era sprawls in provincial capitals.
The truth is I only wanted to leave the old house and venture out on my own. For the longest of times, I was paralyzed by fear of not having income, not having food, not having my usual creature comforts. It took an event of melodramatic intensity to get to me leave, and I abandoned what I knew in exchange for what I dreamed of.
And now the house has been sold. Perhaps the new owners will tear it down and build their own place in their own way.
For me, who among my entire family is the least affected by the sale and change of residence, it is just how things are. And it is important to remember that we must not equate a house with a home or a house with a family. A house you can always sell and leave behind. Family, on the other hand, you take with you wherever you go.