REMEMBERING BACK


The first night I spent in America was in Carmel in the red and white cottage of the Gonzales family – Tay Jose, Nay Caring and their two little girls, Joy and Diane. I had flown in earlier that night from Manila to San Francisco on a Pan Am Clipper. It was summer 1955. I had just turned 19 a new college graduate on my way to graduate school at the Dominican College in San Rafael, Marin County. At the airport I was met by uncle Ray and Lolo Cente Fuentes and their friends - all male - one of whom shook my hand with a fifty dollar bill! We drove straight to Carmel, and the following day, I woke up to a pine-scented morning and had my first quintessential American breakfast of bacon and eggs and buttered toast with my new family, who welcomed me warmly and eased my homesickness and anxieties. Carmel was to be my home away from home.

The first summer was full of parties, bienvenidas for new comers, who usually were showered with gifts, and despedidas for returning to the Philippines to visit or retire. There were lots of children’s parties at their homes and the American Legion of Honor. Besides Joy and Diane, there were the children of the Tersols, Garcias, Gomezes, Israels, Domingos, Sucros, Fernandezes, and Macahiligs. The children all look healthy, happy and fun-loving, surrounded by relatives and quasi-relatives, usually single men and couples without children their own.

Christmas and birthdays brought big boxed gifts of clothes and toys. I can still remember how the kids, dressed in their holiday best, rummaged through colorful wrappers, laughing happily. Years later, when I visited from San Francisco, where I had relocated, having found a teaching job at Cal State University, Sonoma, some of these children were now college graduates, with good jobs, who would make their parents proud.

It was a vibrant community that took care of its elderly and the young and of new comers like the families that were housed temporarily in an upstairs apartment of the Filipino Community Hall in Monterey. Community meant that no one was ever alone. The single men, who could or would not return to the Philippines, found homes in the Monterey area, where they grew old together. I enjoyed listening to their life stories and their adventures in their adopted land.

Their favorite recreation was going to Lake Tahoe or Reno to gamble in the casinos, and in Monterey Community Hall, where in addition to gambling, they had a good meal once or twice a week. As they shuffled the dominoes or mahjong tiles in that smoke-filled room, they told jokes and kidded each other like old friends, which they were, having lived and worked in the area together for many years.

Indeed, many of the regulars at the community hall even came from the same town or village, and in the case of Uncle Ray and Tay Jose, their families in Kalibo lived on the same street. Since that summer of 1955, I’ve returned to the Monterey Peninsula time and again, staying a few days or months at the home of Uncle Ray and Auntie Betty in Carmel, right next to the home of Sal Gonzales and acroos from that the Tersols.

Uncle Rey Menes had immigrated to California long before the Second World War, and worked in the Hotel and Restaurant business, first in Palo Alto, where he joined a strike, and, consequently had to relocate to Carmel and even changed his name in able to find a new job. He worked at the Pine Inn hotel and restaurant until he opened his own coffee shop at the mall in Monterey with his partner, Pete Tersol.

Uncle Ray fought in New Guinea during the Second World War. While his contingent was in the Philippines, he was able to return to his birthplace, Kalibo, Aklan, and surprise his former girlfriend. He was so handsome in his military uniform, and apparently popular with the ladies whose photographs graced his souvenir album from the war. Even later in life, Uncle Ray, who owned an extensive wardrobe, like to look his best, whether at his restaurant or church, where he passed the collection plate. In his forties, he married Betty Yarra, also from Aklan, at St. Borromeo’s in Carmel.

Betty had lived with her Nana Mading and her husband, Benny, also oldtimers, who worked for wealthy Americans, including Ms Eastman of Kodak, who’s estate we visited one summer in Long Island. Betty was born in Carmel, returned with her parents to Aklan when they retired, but came back years later to live with her Nana Mading. She studied at MPC, became a bookkeeper in an office in downtown Carmel from where she could conveniently come home to watch her favorite soaps during her lunch break. She and Uncle Ray enjoyed the same things-trips to Reno or Lake Tahoe gabling and dining at the hall, entertaining relatives and friends, and traveling.

It’s been more than half a century since that summer of 1955. I graduated from Dominican the following summer, and at the American Legion Hall, my relatives and friends threw a big graduation party for me. When I left for Europe on my way back to the Philippines, they also gave me despedida. Once more I was showered with gifts, including what turned out to be truly practical- a suitcase from the Macahiligs.

I have returned many times to the Monterey Peninsula over the years, to see sick relatives, attend their funerals, or simply visit. Although most of the people I use to know are gone Carmel seems to be in a time-capsule, evading change. Each time I return I marvel at the well-remembered sameness of the souvenir shops, art galleries, and cottage B&B’s as I walk own Ocean Avenue to the ocean, as vlue as it can be on a sunny day. However the last time I visited the community hall in Monterey, it was hosting a Mexican fiesta. No longer did I see any Filipinos, nor did I hear their favorite songs evocative of what Uncle Tararang used to call “their yesterdays”. The place seemed to be haunted but the men and women I use to know, by the stories and jokes they used to tell while shuffling their dominoes and mahjong tiles.

Across the lake from the community hall where years ago a number of these relatives and friends bought plots close to each other, so that in death, as in life, they could still be together, and as they used to say jokingly, perhaps they could go on telling stories and jokes, and even shuffling their dominoes and mahjong tiles on a pleasant evening.

By,

Herminia (Ming) Menes Coben