Fort Santiago Scene

Manila was my father’s city, long before she became mine.

In the 1945 Battle of Manila, when she emerged as the second most destroyed city on earth, Pa was just a boy. He watched his mother starve to death as bombs pulverized the capital, killing over 100,000 people. A relative extricated him from the rubble and brought him to Lucena, the city his ancestors founded.

In Lucena, he grew up, married, had me and lived out the rest of his days.

But when I left for college, he told me I shouldn’t return. My home, my life, my future is Manila. I reckoned he wanted me to get back what his birth city – his “la belle dame sans merci” (beautiful lady without mercy), took from him.

Manila’s paradoxes – beauty and danger, squalor and grandeur – intrigued me. I was enamoured with her secrets, her past, her people and her ghosts.

She alone witnessed the lives of all dear to Pa whom he lost – people I should have known but couldn’t. My grandparents rest in her bosom somewhere. Pa never knew where they lay buried. His pianist father died before his mother, when he was 3. Pa can’t even recall his face.

But he knew the churches they haunted – all in Manila, except one.

My grandaunt, Mother Rita, raised Grandpa beside San Sebastian. Grandma was devoted to the Black Nazarene in Quiapo. They had Pa baptized in Santa Cruz though they married in Binondo, same place where Andres Bonifacio, the Father of the Revolution, tied the knot. They frequented Manila Cathedral and San Augustin in Intramuros.

Yet it all began in St. Joseph Church, Las Piñas, where my Great Grandma played the world-renowned Bamboo Organ, where the parish priest seduced her. Their lovechild, my Grandpa, inherited her passion for music, passed on to my father, a violinist.

Together, we pursued the fragments of their lost lives, Pa and I. We took long jaunts together, covering many basilicas in a day, walking or taking jeepneys from one to the next.

Come to think of it, we never run out of things to do and places to see in Manila. And if Pa never told me his life story, I’ll never imagine she was a bombed-out ruin 67 years ago. As for Pa, he could never again sleep with the lights off after the war. But he and his city, they never flaunt their wounds openly.

I’ve been to great cities – older, mightier, wealthier, more populous than my own – in over half a hundred countries in five continents. Seoul, New Delhi, Beijing, Tokyo, Kyoto, Sydney, New York, Moscow, Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Cairo – I’ve seen them all.

But Manila is beyond compare. She is mine. Or rather, I am hers.


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