meet kaiyel

The icing on the cake of my recent Davao vacation was a little girl named Kaiyel, my brother Bong’s firstborn. When Kaiyel is not injecting or feeding her doll, Momay, she takes pleasure in sneaking up on people and jolting them with a hearty “Bulaga!”—complete with hand gestures and a mischievous grin that turns her eyes into two jovial slants. Most times we play along and feign surprise, but sometimes the little prankster really makes us jump. (We have had to gently warn her against surprising her Lola Lils in her sleep.) It’s quite apt considering that this little blessing graced our family quite surprisingly. A new granddaughter and niece? Bulaga!

Kaiyel is a few months short of three years, but if you listen to her, you would think she’s five, sometimes even twenty-five. She is gregarious and does not understand the meaning of “shy”. Like a boss, she walks around with her hands on her hips, and will dance Gangnam-style at the drop of a hat. Her favorite greeting is not “Hi” or “Hello” but “Ano’ng gawa mo?” (“What are you doing?”). She is quick to remember names and never forgets to say, “Ingat ka ha!” (“You take care, okay?”) whenever someone leaves the house. She hardly stutters and is quite a sponge with words. It’s apparent that my niece has the gift of gab, and I can’t wait for when she starts reading.

Now, little Kaiyel has a yellow piggy bank that she requires people to feed. Her Angkong (Chinese for paternal grandfather) enjoys giving her coins to feed her piggy. Sometimes she thinks that all coins belong to her piggy; if you leave coins unattended and later find they’re no longer where you had left them, you should know they’ve been fed to Piggy.

A few days before New Year’s Day, my brother traveled to GenSan with wife Mikay and little Kaiyel. I had hatched a plan that only a heartless uncle could think of – I would kidnap Piggy and see how his little mistress reacts. My brother laughed when I told him about it, which I took as an endorsement. (It’s important that he was in on the plan because the last thing I wanted was to be on the receiving end of a karate instructor’s mean kick!)

A day after New Year’s Day we heard the red gate rattle followed by a knock on the door and a squeaky voice declaring, “Andito na ako!” (“I’m back!”). Kaiyel, cute in pink leggings, kissed everyone with the flair of a movie star in the company of adoring fans. She went to her Angkong to announce her return and promptly received coins to feed Piggy. I hadn’t expected Kuya and family to be back so early, so I rushed to nab Piggy from his usual place under the computer table and hid him under the coffee table in the living room.

New Piggy fodder in her small hands, Kaiyel headed straight to where she thought Piggy was, and it didn’t take long for her to discover that her yellow treasure was missing. “Asan ang baboy ko?”  (“Where’s my pig?”) she inquired with a a small pout and a hint of sadness. Her tone wasn’t accusatory; it was pleading.

My heart was soon crushed by guilt. So I “helped” her launch a search-and-rescue operation for Piggy. “Check under the throw pillow,” I instructed. Kaiyel brushed the throw pillow aside, looked up to me, and said, “Wala ‘man” (“Nothing there.”). She checked one or two other places I had led her to, without success, of course. Then I finally told her to check under the coffee table.

Kaiyel squatted on the floor, lifted the red table cloth, and finally found the object of her search. What followed had us all in stitches. In a voice not unlike a mother reprimanding her child, she quipped—to Piggy: “Ano ka ba? Anong gawa mo d’yan?” (“What’s wrong with you, why are you there?”). The inflection of her voice reflected both the relief of finding and the exasperation of searching. “How innocent,” my sister Liza reflected. “She never thought ill of anyone, and instead ended up blaming Piggy for wandering off.”

After feeding Piggy with new coins from Angkong, grinning Kaiyel tried lifting Piggy so she could bring him to his home under the computer table. She grimaced with the attempt, unable to lift Piggy more than an inch above the floor. So being the good and repentant uncle that I was, I carried Piggy for my little niece.

Piggy was heavy, Kaiyel’s heart light.

Kaiyel discovers a new ride, and his Kuya Paul and Tito Aleks discover back pain.
On Christmas Eve, Kaiyel discovers a new ride, and his drivers, Kuya Paul and Tito Aleks, discover back pain.

this house

I don’t know exactly when I started calling this place of my childhood my parents’ house instead of my house. I just know that after living away from it and staying in several other places — college dorms, boarding houses, “shoeboxes”, apartments, condos — in a span of over fifteen years, it seems inaccurate to still call this bungalow in Davao my house. My parents, Tagalog-speaking migrants from Luzon, tell me that we moved to this house with the red gate when I was one year old. While my elder siblings remember living in various other places around the city, this house on  is the only one I remember.

We didn’t always own this property. We rented for many years, and Mama and Papa had had to save enough to purchase house and then lot, eventually repair the roof, retile the floors, and do a hundred other improvements to ensure we lived as comfortably and securely as their modest income would allow. This house has undergone several make-overs and repairs, including a 25% extension at the back (Papa’s dream project), but none too drastic to efface my memories of this place.

My father had always been proud of the location of this house. On many occasions he would brag about how accessible we are to “everything”. The market is one brief tricycle ride away. The hospital is less than five minutes away on a jeepney (but within running distance given adrenaline and a life-threatening situation). There’s a church down the block, where we worshiped for a few years before moving to the church pastored by my eldest brother (even that was just four blocks away). Our school was five blocks away, and walking that stretch was easy and cathartic for a teen just discovering life’s perplexities.

I left my parents’ house at 17 when I packed three huge suitcases and a pocketful of youthful ambition to study in Manila. I may have transplanted myself to study and eventually work in the Big City, but not a year passed when I didn’t come back, especially during the yearend holidays, to live once again under the familiar roof of this house, if only for a few days at a time.

Yesterday I sat in my mother’s rocking chair. (This one is new, the latest in a long line of rocking chairs that, through the years, had imposed siesta on restless little humans –– my toddler self included, followed by my nephews and nieces years later.) The creaking sound and the rocking motion are therapeutic and have a curious way of soothing heart and mind. I sat there enjoying the moment and taking in the cool breeze that brought with it the nice smell of laundry drying just outside the window. I looked around and realized that I really liked how sunlight would stream through the house’s many windows, as though it was a constant, welcomed guest. The intense orange of after-lunch rays flattered the narra walls and intensified the deep red of the sofa furniture. After a few minutes, this view was muted considerably when the sky darkened and rain started to pound on the rooftop; I liked this too. How aptly and beautifully this showed the changing seasons of life, I thought to myself. I closed my eyes and felt an inexplicable warmth and security, enough to prompt a silent prayer of thanksgiving.

I don’t call it my house anymore, but it is still my home. The years have taken me to many places and allowed me to experience many things, which, I think, have bestowed me with enough wisdom to realize that home isn’t just one place; it’s not even just a place. Home is that deeply emotional collection of things, places, people, memories, rituals that ground you and make you feel rooted, accepted, loved. You get an overpowering sense of it every now and then, like when out of the blue you sit in a rocking chair and then feel a compulsion to write minutiae about a house by a dusty Davao road.

Tonight I pack my little suitcase, and tomorrow I kiss my parents goodbye yet again before catching a cab to the airport. I will leave this house but will carry with me, in my heart, this piece of home. Always.