Monday, February 15, 2010

Crazy hearts

For someone usually quite dispassionate or levelheaded about a lot of things, movies in the likes of Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb seem to me very timely for a post-Valentine’s Day story. No, I’m only exaggerating; they`re really far from the truth.

In the movie Crazy Heart, Jean, a young divorced freelance writer (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), says to the principal character in the movie, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges): “I knew what the risks were with you, and I took them.”

Words truly expressed from the heart. How could anyone else love someone if you don’t love the whole package, including all the warts? Falling for Bad Blake, a 57-year-old alcoholic singer/songwriter well past his fame as country music star is an act that can only come from a crazy heart. But it was the same crazy heart that compelled Jean to turn down Bad Blake when he tried to win her over after their break-up–that made her realize what a crazy heart she was after all.

All of us have tales from the bottom of our crazy hearts. Just like Jean and Bad Blake, we have real stories that remain lasting testimonials to the power of romantic relationships. In some cases, the ability of those relationships to hold firm, till death even; or in others, to cut short relationships not meant to last.

I have never known my maternal grandfather except through stories woven by my own mother, and by her aunt whom I had always regarded as my own grandma, my Lola Nena. Lola Nena was a strict disciplinarian whose hair turned all white when her husband died. She was overturned with grief. She became even stricter after that, making straight every bent bone in my body. Lola Nena lived up to 107 and with a 20-20 vision. I had seen her many times reading a book without her eyeglasses!

My other grandmother—my real grandmother—was widowed very young, as it was not a rare occasion during her time when medicine and medical interventions were hard to come by if you were not well-off. She married for the second time after bearing a daughter from her first husband. From her second marriage, she had two children, my uncle and my mother, both of whom became orphans at a young age. My mother was taken under her wing by my grandaunt, Lola Nena, and raised like her own daughter.

Stories my mother and my Lola Nena told about my grandfather never quite interested me as a small boy. My only interest then was to be out with my playmates after school. All I remembered was that my grandfather was a musician, a bandmaster to be exact. A towering figure with a gravelly voice, people looked up to him in awe. He was so dark-skinned that everyone called him “Abo,” as in charcoal. Thus, I knew him from all the stories about him as Lolo Abo. He led the town’s marching band during town fiestas. I often imagined him wielding his mighty baton like a general in his resplendent uniform whenever marching bands passed by our street.

It was my Lola Nena who, one day, confided how much my grandfather had loved my real grandma. He and grandma never got married although that was the tradition of the time. My grandfather was a non-conformist, a man of his own beliefs who did not believe in the rituals of the Church. To him, love was more important than anything else, and a piece of paper from the priest did not prove his love for his wife. Out of her deep love for him, my grandma consented to their relationship. He would only break his own non-conformist and stubborn belief at his deathbed, when he summoned for the town priest to marry him and my grandmother. He died holding my grandmother`s hands, as if asking her to show him the way to the other side. My grandmother would follow him to the grave a few months after his death.

I never knew if my parents were married in the church because I never asked. But judging from the way Lola Nena raised my mother and me, who was always in their house everyday like a permanent fixture in the living room, my parents must have wed in the Church.

Lola Nena instilled in me a sense of strong discipline and fear of God. Together with her own grandson who was born six days after my own birthday, we would never miss going to church every Sunday, not just for worship but for our regular Bible study class. Her daughter died giving birth, so my cousin and I practically shared my mother’s breast for our sustenance when we were infants.

That happened a few years after the Second World War when the Americans liberated us from our Japanese invaders. There were also many American volunteers, some of whom were nurses, who worked in military camps after the war; it was there that my mother met my own father, who came from the hinterlands of the north to take a stab at life in the city. When I was born, they named me after their American nurse-friend, although I know that they really took my name from the calendar, being born on the feast day of St. Joseph.

When my mother passed away from a long illness, my father would follow her after three years. It must be due to the heavy toll of loneliness, his wife not being with him. He died peacefully on a Good Friday many years ago.

My other set of parents, my in-laws, were also married in Church. A young attorney at that time, my father-in-law took the pains of travelling long kilometres by a horse-driven calesa two towns away to woo my future mother-in-law. She was a beautiful lass from the barrio, and he, a dashing young law graduate from the best school in the country. They would marry and live to celebrate fifty years of wedded bliss. When my father-in-law retired from the bench, he volunteered to defend poor farmers in court. In fact, he died from a stroke while in court, arguing on behalf of his poor clients. My mother-in-law, perhaps turned desolate after his death, would follow him a year later.

Of such happy, sad and romantic stories are our lives built. And on them, we cut and paste the crazy hearts that make and bind us and pass on to the generations after us.

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