The stories I keep
One of my earliest childhood memories was of me and my cousins sitting on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, huddled together and listening to our aunts and uncles recount stories of the old days. Back then, I decided I liked listening to stories. So I told myself that I will collect my own, so that when I’m old and wrinkly and have a raspy voice, I will also tell stories to anybody who cared to listen.So I started keeping stories.
To get to work, I had to take two rides. Every morning, before 8 a.m., when my second ride stops at a traffic light, I would see her on the sidewalk assuming an array of poses. These were the days that I liked the most. Seeing her standing on the wide sidewalk with a wall of galvanized iron as a backdrop felt surreal. Often, she was dressed in a variety of colors — reds, oranges, purples. Her dresses mostly reached the knee and seemed to be made with fabrics that swayed with the wind. And then she would dance.
At first, I found the sight amusing. She obviously suffered from a form of mental illness. A few months before I moved places, she no longer appeared in her usual spot. But an image of her always stayed with me. It was only later that I realized why I kept her story: Seeing her dance in the streets of Colon in her red dress and her galvanized iron backdrop, I envied her freedom.
Once, seeing a group of children play in the pouring rain, I decided to step outside. I was drenched in my white nurse’s uniform, and debating with myself whether I needed to stop the kids from swimming headfirst into the canal water. I must have looked like a nut job, for I saw them gape at me. But I probably also looked like a harmless nut job, because a minute later, I was giving out mermaid names and answering philosophical questions from 7-year-olds.
I’ve kept this story because of two reasons. The first, because standing in the rain watching those children gave me an indescribable feeling of gladness, like being given the chance to watch angels frolic. The second, because some of my life’s most profound conversations happened at that moment.
Then, there was this boy who stood out from the rest of his playmates, partly because he was older, much thinner and taller and also partly because I knew him. Every day, at 6 p.m., he would knock at our gates, rub his belly and cry out, asking for food and money. He was considered an annoyance by most of our neighbors.
Knocking outside our gates in the afternoon, he looked liked a young sullen boy ready to pounce on any sign of kindness. But once he was out there with his playmates, I saw something I had not noticed before — that he was just a child. When I told them to study hard so that they could earn money, he was the first to ask me a question with an innocence so childlike I was caught off guard: “Kon muskwela ko ugma Te, magkakwarta ko (If I go to school tomorrow, will I have money)?”
Back then, I wanted to laugh out loud. If only life were that simple! Then I realized with an unfamiliar kind of grief: How can I explain to a child, who begged every day to be able to eat, that life will only get harder as he grows up? I have forgotten what answer I gave him; all I can remember was another child telling me that rains meant God was crying.
Each time it rained, I wondered if God was indeed crying. Sometimes, I wondered if He cried for that little boy.
Sometimes, the stories would feel like snapshots of a moment, tucked in a special place in my brain. I never knew why I would keep that specific instant. I just knew when I needed to do so. It felt like stepping out of oneself, like a third invisible observer, the mind pulsing with the urgency to take in all the details and the emotions.
Sometimes, I wonder if the stories I’ve kept are really accurate depictions of the events that happened, or if they are modified versions of my memories, retrofitted to become the stories that I want — meaningful, tragic, beautiful.
Truth is, I don’t know, but I know this much is true: It is how we see things that matter, because how we see them is how they change us.
Now, I live with the belief that the world is a vast repository of stories. It will always welcome a storyteller, and it does not always require that a storyteller be gifted. One only has to be able to see, to feel and to listen to the thousand or so stories that unfold at any particular instance.
And out of the thousand or so stories that unfold at any particular instance, these are the ones I’ve chosen to keep.
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Alyssa Jude Montalban, 23, is a registered nurse. She lives in Iloilo with her sassy 83-year-old grandmother.
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