Style Living Self Celebrity Geeky News and Views
In the Paper BrandedUp Hello! Create with us Privacy Policy

A treasure of memories found

By CHARY MERCADO Published Jun 17, 2024 5:00 am

For people 45 years old and above, memories of our elementary and high school days back in the ’70s and ’80s are as blurred as the overexposed photos we unearth from bauls. Everything seems antiquated; primitive, almost. Yet for all the technological enhancements that have become so integral to our current lives, I have never heard a middle-aged person declare they would have preferred to grow up in the internet age that millennials and Gen Z are in now. There was a simplicity, an innocence of being a child in the pre-social media years that we recall now with wistful nostalgia.

For those like me who have forgotten what our lives were like back then, the memoir Under the Aratiles Tree (Stories of a Childhood) by Gem Deveras Mañosa is a plane ticket back in time. Born in 1969, Gem writes a series of 20 stories that are liberally sprinkled with iconic references that most children who grew up in Manila will recall fondly. My mouth watered to read the detailed descriptions of the Magnolia frozen delights, particularly the elusive ice cream sandwich, and muscle memory brought back the crunch of rosquillos, the flower-shaped biscuits. 

I was also thrilled to have Gem recount not just the names and characters but the days of the week when the robot shows (Voltes V and Daimos specifically) would play on one of our five TV channels. Also mentioned are the first love stories that had us swooning like Blue Lagoon and Grease, which we replayed endlessly on Betamax. There are also the Abba songs on cassette tapes that became the soundtrack of dance numbers we rehearsed for endlessly and performed for random family or school events.

Games that typical village kids played in the streets such as patintero, agawan base (apparently called janturi), taguan, shato, kickball and chinese jackstones are daily occurrences in Gem’s world. I found myself actually pitying today’s children because the competitive sports training favored now is totally different. We played games then for fun—they had no overriding benefit other than expending our youthful energy and excitability in the company of friends and neighbors. 

Unlike today’s vigilant helicopter parents that patrol the sidelines of swimming pools or Kumon centers, the mommies of that age smoked and cursed, played pelota in tiny skirts and stockings, and were unapologetic about mahjong sessions that lasted all afternoon long. A mother’s role has certainly become a lot more engaged and hands-on since then, I realized ruefully, and I wonder if our children are benefiting from our swinging so far to the other end of the pendulum.

People playing patintero on a sunny afternoon.

In the ’70s and ’80s, yayas played the roles of nurturers and disciplinarians, dispensing treats for good behavior and making kurot their alagas when they misbehaved, wandered too near the talahib or when they came home with torn and dirty clothes. 

These details of daily life are the background fillers, however, to the real gold nuggets in this book. We become privy to a child’s observations of the goings-on in a small, fenced-in pocket of Fort Bonifacio reserved for families of military officers. Because of the nature of the jobs of the fathers in these stories, there is much movement of families in and out of this enclave. Each departure brings a heartache, each new arrival ignites everyone’s curiosity. As Gem and her plucky gangmates pop into the different houses on the cul de sac, the hidden skeletons of each home emerge. A marital spat plays out at the dinner table, a mysterious “special” child that is kept indoors, an alcoholic father who embarasses his wife and daughter—all are replayed without judgment through Gem’s sensory-filled recollections. 

There is also the ever-present threat of the fathers getting seriously injured or even killed in the course of duty. In one such story, Gem recounts the day that Dida, the undisputed hard-nosed leader of their gang, showed her friends what was recovered after her father had drowned in a training exercise earlier that day.

“That’s my dad’s parachute,” she said evenly, “his jumpsuit, his backpack, his boots....”

“My dad’s boots, “ she repeated again. But it came out as a high-pitched wail. Dida’s impassive mask had broken as her face contorted in grief. She clutched her chest with both hands as if to contain the pain from her broken heart…

We all started to cry. Ruthie put her arms around Dida. I embraced the two of them. Then Marty and Kara enveloped us. We held each other for a long, long time.

Gem uses this same level of astonishing detail to describe other monumental rites of passage she went through as a child: body shaming in a ballet class, palpitations at seeing a crush at a village bonfire, and a forced confession in the classic “truth or consequence” game, to name a few.

Under the Aratiles Tree is the literary, Pinoy version of the TV show The Wonder Years, a charming time capsule of our youth. To embody the purity of the narrator, the writing style is straightforward, with zero pretensions or attempts at cleverness. It is the diary I wish I had had the good sense to keep, before my spotty memory, and the passage of time, washed away the details that made all the difference. 

The book was part of the Sinag 2024: The Annual UST Publishing House Grand Book Launch” that took place on April 25 at the World Trade Center in Pasay City.