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Love and war

On the occasion of my eldest daughter Tish’s 70th birthday, her siblings gave her a surprise party which included a short program. At that program, I related some unique events regarding her birth.

Afterwards, a grandchild approached me and said, “Lola, please write down this bit of family history for us, so we won’t forget. Also, for the fourth generation.”

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Being an obedient grandmother, I now comply.

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I was married on April 19, 1944, and by the next month was pregnant. My husband Felix and I were living with my family in Singalong, Paco. But when Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed in Leyte in the latter part of that year, Manila was no longer safe.

We decided to join his family and evacuated to Polo, Bulacan, where lived a distant relative, Dr. Jesus Delfin, and family.

On Dec. 6, my sister-in-law Josefina and her husband Dr. Cesar Magno arrived from Nueva Ecija in a carretela and convinced us to leave Polo for San Isidro the next day. They had heard that guerillas in Bulacan were quite aggressive and there were rumors of Japanese retaliation.

Bright and early the next morning, we were all ready to leave. Our means of transportation was a charcoal-fed nine-seater Fiat. However, it wouldn’t start. Mechanics were called, to no avail. By afternoon it was starting to get dark and Dr. Delfin was persuading us to stay and leave the next day. “You will be benighted, there’s curfew,” etc. etc. But my brother-in-law Co Ces was adamant. It was urgent that we depart because the next day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, he was to be a sponsor at a relative’s wedding.

Providentially, before sunset the mechanical problem was solved and we left. I consider that a major miracle because we later found out that an hour after our departure, there was a zona and all the adult males were herded into the town plaza and summarily executed. If we had stayed, I would have become a widow at 21 and my unborn daughter a fatherless orphan.

Life in San Isidro, Nueva Ecija, was quiet and peaceful. However, food was scarce because the enemy commandeered most of the available foodstuff. Big with child, I was hungry all the time.

At about 2 a.m. on Feb. 15, 1945, I started having labor pains. And so did the town. The Americans were at the outskirts and engaging the Japanese forces in a fierce battle. There were dogfights in the skies and battles on the streets. And I was right in the middle of it all, because our house was in the middle of the town.

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I asked my brother-in-law Apolonio to fetch the midwife whom I had contracted a month before, and thankfully she came running, and as soon as the umbilical cord was cut she fled, clutching my thank-you gift, two-and-a-half yards of dress material, to join her fleeing family.

We were staying in a big two-story bahay na bato, and my in-laws were already safe down in the basement. I was on the second floor and my husband wanted to stay with the baby and me but I urged him to go down with the others saying, “Let’s be practical; let’s not put three lives at risk.” So he put the baby and me under the bed and left us.

The sounds of bombs, gunshots and grenades filled the air. When there was a lull in the fighting, Felix would go up and carry us back to the top of the bed. Being underneath was suffocating. After some time, we heard the church bells pealing and shouts of “Victory Joe!”

My husband went down to join the jubilation and when he returned, he placed a 10-centavo coin in my hand. “This was given to me by a GI,” he said. That small coin was our first “real” money. “We have been liberated!” he shouted happily. I, however, could not rejoice with him because I was delirious with fever. Infection had set in.

The high fever lasted for about a week. There was no medication, not even clean drinking water (ours came from a deep well). After 10 days I said that the baby had to be baptized. I believed that if she received the sacrament, I would recover.

The next day, the parish priest, Monsignor Tison, baptized the baby, giving her my name. True enough, I got well. “Your faith has healed you,” said the Lord.

Two months later, in April, my mother arrived in a carretela to bring us back to Manila. The drop-off point was in Pritil, no farther. We got off, Felix carrying the two bayong that contained all our earthly possessions, my mother her stuff, and I the baby.

Under the heat of the sun, we walked past Tondo, Binondo, Jones Bridge (the only passable bridge then), Plaza Lawton, stopping momentarily for rest, my heart melting in pain within me, seeing the destruction of my city (I am a Manileña), Intramuros completely demolished, the long stretch of Taft Avenue, down Ermita, Malate and finally Singalong, Paco, and into the welcoming arms of my father, sister and brothers. Home at last, thank God.

* * *

Coming home from daily Mass this morning, I was thanking God for the air I was breathing in and the ground I was walking on. I had a sense of wellbeing. Then I recalled that in my talk during my daughter’s birthday program, I had said that I was hungry during those last days of the war. True, in fact. Never hungrier in all my life, but I was also happy. The supreme paradox: hungry but happy. Why so? I surmise, because of love.

There we were, two young (I was 21, he was 22) and penniless undergrads, very much in love with each other and unafraid of the future. Ah, young love! Foolhardy, some may say, but to me, exquisite. Truly, as the saying goes, “Love conquers all.”

Indulge your Lola, child. She is an incurable romantic.

Lourdes Syquia Bautista ([email protected]), 91, is a retired professor of the University of Santo Tomas, widow, mother of 12, grandmother of 27, and great grandmother of 14.

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TAGS: Family, Japanese Occupation, love, War
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