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31 Jan

The house on Number 50 Apo Street was no architectual landmark. The gate was an odd shade of orange, the color of rustproofing primer no one got around to painting over. The three meter square patch of land nearest the sidewalk was host to an over-productive langka tree, a by-product of careless kitchen discards rather than the homeowners’ horticultural zeal. Built in the early fifties by a dashing soldier on a meager salary as a gift to his young bride, it had been expanded on over five decades, which explained the confused combination of Spanish and Filipino architectural signatures. It had no extraordinary history to speak of. No one famous ever walked through the front door. No royal bottom ever rested on the living room’s kapok-stuffed velveteen couch, which had seen better days before Macapagal stepped into power. The other Macapagal.

So Grace was awed at how the absence of the modest edifice that sat on 300 square meters of inexpensive land made their densely populated street look barer. This despite the armies of speechless neighbors still motionless by the front gate, now just ugly chunks of orange iron mangled by the fire fighters’ battering ram. Grace felt the crowd’s silent pity, their desire to help, their paralysis from shock. No one imagined how the house, erected back when Quezon City was still grasslands, could be consumed by flames in less than fifteen minutes.

The air was heavy with soot as Grace entered the pile of smoking embers her mother, her uncles and she, since her parents’ death more than a decade before, has called home. She was oblivious to the pasty puddles of black liquid by her feet.

“Ma’m, you should wear rubber boots,” the baranggay fire marshall reminded her. “You might step on something and hurt yourself. Do you want me to lend you a pair?”

Grace gave the man an odd look. When the fire broke out, she fled with nothing but her white terry-cloth bedroom slippers, now black as her muddied feet, and her paper-thin “air-conditioned” night shirt which barely hid her comfortable but stretched out undergarments — not exactly safety wear. “Boots? Sure.” Grace nodded un-enthusiastically.

“Did you find my pants?” A voice, weakened from screaming, startled Grace. Grace’s grandmother, hunched from age and fatigue, stepped onto what was once the covered lanai. The 80-year old woman stood mesmerized at the long crack that ran the length of the tiled floor she had waxed every other day for half a decade.

Lola, all this smoke is bad for you. You should have waited in Aling Delia’s house like I told you. C’mon, I’ll take you back there. Tito Jun and Tito Mark are going to be here any second.” Grace put her arm around her grandmother and began ushering her towards the gate. She had hoped the mention of her uncles’ pending arrival would give her grandmother some reassurance — no matter how temporary.

“But my pants. I was folding them just before you pulled me out. They were on my bed. I had just mended them. All fifty pairs. It took me a long time to get them just right.” In her eight decades on the planet, Grace’s grandmother never discarded a piece of clothing — one of her few eccentricities. A teenage daughter of a struggling merchant during World War II, she learned to make new clothes from old ones she found around the house. Their bodega on the back end of Number 50 Apo Street was filled with boxes of varying sizes labelled with years, as far back as 1949. With the return of a fashion style, Grace’s lola only had to wash the smell of nepthalene balls off outfits she wore twenty years before .

“Don’t worry, ‘La.” Grace piped with faux cheerfulness. “We’ll go shopping. I’m sure Tito will buy you a new chic wardrobe!”

“But my pants. They were on my bed.” The old woman fell limp in Grace’s arms and cried, “There was a black one I altered — my father used to wear that to his store before the war. The green one was what I wore when your Lolo threw a party here after he passed the Bar. And there was beige one I wore to your Tito Jun’s wedding, that matched my mother’s tunic. There was the blue one I wore when your Tito Mark and your Tita Gilda brought your cousin Ben here for the first time. The other black one with front pleats was what I wore the day the police came over to tell me about your parents’ accident. And the red one I wore to your graduation …” Grace’s grandmother was whimpering like a child.

The grandmother and the grandchild fell into a tight embrace, the younger comforting the older, both weak with the devastating truth about what they really lost.

“It took me fifty years to get them just right, anak.”

“I know, Lola.”

Epilogue. My husband’s family experiened first-hand the truth behind the old saying “Mabuti na ang manakawan, wag lang masunugan” last month, while the rest of the world was recovering from their Christmas hang-overs. While the family is now rebuilding what their parents had began (in more ways than one), no word or phrase has come to me to describe the heart of their collective loss. I was hoping this piece could.

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