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Christmas Eve and ‘Tennessee Waltz’

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The year was 1951. It was a lovely time in Pasay City. We lived on Mabolo Street beside Cartimar, which didn’t exist at that time. A dilapidated shrimp crackers factory stood there instead, in the middle of a vast empty lot. Each day, square pieces of white, gelatin-like, future crispy crackers were placed on the pavement to dry in the sun.

When I stood on the cemented foundation of the rusty iron fence to view the stuff, a nice, friendly Chinese man gave me some ready-to-eat crackers, providing me a lesson in charity. My sister Meg, a born skeptic, told me that I was eating dirt, and like one of the characters in Louis L’Amour’s western novels, I replied in my best drawl, “But they sure as hell taste good!”

In the 1950s we could roam anywhere, everywhere, without any problem, running, for example, from street to street to catch a Santacruzan as it wound its way around the next corner. The darling beauty was Yvonne de los Reyes, who had an equally lovely sister called Simonette.

My world was bounded by Libertad, Harrison, Vito Cruz and Taft Avenue. Leveriza is the street in the middle of the main ones mentioned, and Mabolo intersected from there to Taft Avenue.

Sometimes, my cousin Orville would give me a ride on his bike and we would tour Pasay, so delightful a place in those days. Those were happy times, never to be again.

I was 12 years old. My mom’s eldest sister invited us to spend Christmas Eve with her in her daughter’s house on Buendia in Makati. Her only daughter had just given birth to a baby boy, and that was the reason for the invitation and celebration.

So, there we were, all around my cousin’s bed, staring at the baby, all 13 pounds of him. Everyone was talking excitedly as I watched little Alex who was sound asleep. He looked like a mini-Sumo wrestler, so cute and cuddly.

Music was coming from somewhere in the house and soon we were urged to partake of the midnight Christmas meal. I cannot remember what I ate because I was terribly distracted. Above the noise and the chatter I strained and listened, trying to catch every single note, every word in the song.

In the living room, Orville, a handsome devil of a man, had a girl in his arms, pretty, if one were to consider her dress with a balloon skirt over three layers of stiff petticoat, emphasizing a tiny waist. They were dancing to that popular and beautiful Patti Page hit song, “Tennessee Waltz.”

Over and over they played the song and over and over they danced to it, till dawn. I sat there, listening to it, until I had memorized every sound of her voice, every phrase. Its haunting melody touched my soul and came to rest forever in my heart.

I will never forget that night. I thought it was the most natural thing for two people to dance to one record all night. I watched them, stopping when the music stopped, lifting the needle’s arm on the turntable, putting it down to begin the song again. The record was called a 75 (later to be followed by an improved, smaller version called a 45).

Love and happiness overflowed as the couple held each other tight, oblivious of the fact that someone was watching them closely as they continued to dance in loving embrace until it was time for us all to catch some sleep.

Fifteen years later, my cousin Orville, the lover and dancer, came by my apartment in Cubao. He wanted to wait there for his girlfriend and I peeked through the blinds when she arrived—a girl who had hardly anything going for her, I thought. “She drives a sports car,” my cousin proudly informed me.

I asked him if he remembered “Tennessee Waltz” and the girl he had danced with all night. He laughed.

Orville was only 18 years old then and Macie was 16, and he knew that their love could never be because she was the daughter of the man who married our cousin, Sol, who had just given birth to Baby Alex on the bed. They were almost kin.

I didn’t understand that, so I pressed on. What happened to Macie? I asked. She left for Davao, and they never saw each other again, he said. I could only stare at him, not knowing what else to say.

All night they danced. All night they had eyes only for each other. I didn’t even see them stop to eat. I would have thought that they would marry, but I guess it was just one night when the stars were out and one was holding someone in one’s arms and it seemed that the night would never end, and the music would never stop and the romance would go on and on, like that record of “Tennessee Waltz.”

A beautiful song sung by velvet-voiced Patti Page—“The Singing Rage” they called her—played over and over one Christmas Eve. But with the season gone, love had gone as well.

The song ended on a sad note, too: “Yes, I lost my little darling/The night they were playing/The beautiful Tennessee Waltz.”

 

Shirley Wilson de las Alas, 75, works part-time as a social entrepreneur. She says she likes all kinds of music and is a big fan of Patti Page. (Ms. Page died in Southern California on Jan. 1. She was 85.)


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