Thursday, September 22, 2011

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ROSE CHAILANG PALACIOS: COMPASSION by alexie villegas zotomayor

A LONE silver dollar coin is all she needs to make the trip to Nang Iyang store in Chalan Kanoa where her favorite snack of “potu” and a bowl of crashed ice with “azuki” are.

Chailang Palacios narrates how she would get a silver dollar coin that she spends at Nang Iyang store. She knows her father has a stash of coins right at the top of the door. She pulls a stool, stands on it, reaches for a coin, then tightly wraps it in her hand as she hurriedly descends the stool.

For seven-year-old Chailang, a silver dollar coin is all she needs for two days to buy snacks including a bowl of crashed ice with “azuki” or sweet black beans. Rosa Tudela Palacios remembers how she would enjoy her snacks at the mom-and-pop store of Nang Iyang (Corazon Villagomez Tenorio). Her silver dollar coin would last for two days and she could still afford to buy a piece of gum for a cent.

She says, “Because we are so poor we could not manage to buy a whole stack of gum.” With a smile, Auntie Chailang says her father knew she had discovered his coins. Born on Aug. 1, 1941, Auntie Chailang says she barely remembers what happened during the war. She was only three years old when the Americans invaded Saipan.

Although her innocence shielded her from the horrible experiences of the war, her sister Carmen shared how the family and the rest of the islanders suffered during the war. What she knows of the war, she says, all came from her sister Carmen who was already seven years old by then.

Carmen, she says, told her that prior to invasion, they all lived in fear especially when they would hear the siren blaring and everyone would run away. When war was imminent, she was told her father dug a foxhole in their backyard big enough for the entire family. But they would find themselves using a different foxhole, not in San Roque but in Dandan.

She recalls her sister telling her that they were attending a wedding of a relative in Dandan. She says she and her older sister were standing right in front of the long banquet table laded with food and covered with banana leaves. Just as when the banana leaves were to be taken off, they saw balls of fire coming down from the sky — it was a rain of fire. Her uncle, she said, grabbed them and took them to a foxhole they dug in preparation for war.

Seeing balls of fire in the sky, everybody scuttled to safety. In that small hole, they were like sardines and barely sitting, says Auntie Chailang. It was a painful memory for them, she was told as not only were they extremely hungry, they endured an excruciating thirst. But to slake their thirst, someone had to sneak out of the hole. But she was told it was too risky.

Auntie Chailang says her sister told her how thirsty she was and she was crying. But her father, she says, told her sister they had two options: if he left the hole and fetched water he could die or she could endure her thirst. Her sister Carmen told her father, “No, I don’t want you to die.”

Auntie Chailang says she was told there were some men who crawled out of their foxholes to get water only to be shot unknowingly by the Americans who mistook them for Japanese.

It was a horrible, painful memory, she says for sons who saw their fathers’ guts spilling out right before their very eyes.

All the time she thought she was the youngest, she says, there was another baby who was with them, a brother who died of starvation and heat inside the hole.

“Three babies died and my auntie — the mother of Karl Reyes — died there,” she narrates. Her sister told her while the rest were “half-squatting,” the men were digging to bury their dead.

“The men would dig right there to bury the four dead people,” she says. Asked how come she could barely remember events during the war, Auntie Chailang says, “It could be malnutrition.” She says she was so skinny then.

After the war, she says, she was wondering why her father, mother, and siblings would often compliment her for her long hair. Then her sister Carmen, again, helped her with another realization: she lost her hair while they were in that hole in Dandan, that everyone was surprised how much hair she had lost when they all emerged from the hole in the ground.

Right after the war, families began receiving rations of food from the American soldiers. She remembers how they would line up to get their ration of Carnation milk, crackers, canned goods, among other basic necessities. As they begin to rebuild their lives, Auntie Chailang says, her parents, Juan and Juana, knew only one thing — work and work hard they did.

Her father, she says, tilled the soil and whatever extra produce they had they exchanged for items they didn’t have. It was a period of sharing and helping others, she says. “My father is taking care of the animals, cows, goats, chickens, and pigs,” she says.

As her father worked in the farm, her mother worked on handicrafts. She says they would gather pandanus leaves that they would make into purse and hats. She remembers they sold the purse at $4 while the hat fetched $3. As for “guafak” or mat, she says, it cost $40. She says her mother worked hard to earn a living so they could have enough cash to buy milk, rice, sardines, among other basic needs of the family. She tells this reporter they could not afford to buy Spam which at that time was expensive.

Moreover, Auntie Chailang remembers how her mother showed her spirituality in several occasions.

One time, she says, she saw her mother moving her lips while washing the dishes. The inquisitive young Chailang asked, “Mom, what happened? Why are you moving your lips?” She says her mother replied, “You know my daughter, no matter what you are doing, always think of God.”

There was a time too when they were forbidden to swim in the beach due to a great number of metal scraps. Despite this, they could only play on the beach side. One time, while playing, she saw her mother staring at the great expanse of water and when she approached her and asked what she was staring at, she was told, “I am just thanking God for the peacefulness.”

Another interesting childhood memory that never slipped her mind is how they would gather the best farm produce twice in a week. With all her siblings at school, she says, she was left with the task to carry the basket of produce to the convent of the Mercedarian sisters whose yard served as their playground back then. Her mother, she says, would tell her, “Give this to the sisters. They don’t have husbands and they teach about God.”

But going to the convent was never a chore for her. She enjoyed every visit. At the convent, she fondly recalls how she would put down her basket to pull down the string of the bell at the door. Then out would come a Spanish nun with a pointed nose that she longed to have. She remembers how the nun would call her “Rosita” and thank her for the basket of goods she brought them. When she heads back home, the sisters would fill her basket with eight cookies. There were times, she says, she would run errands for the sisters. Through these visits to the convent that Auntie Chailang says she developed the fondness for the nun’s work and how she wanted to be like them. And from the nuns she learned about compassion and service.

Soon, the skinny girl who would bring food to the convent would decide to enter as a nun in 1954 along with Agnes McPhetres, Antonia Sablan, and Regina Aguon with whom she would develop not just lasting friendship but sisterhood.

Later on, the sprightly nun that the convent had come to know would soon find herself pursuing a different vocation—married life — with a Maryknoll brother. (to be continued)

QUICK FACTS • Seven-year-old Chailang would climb a stool to get a silver dollar coin from a stash of coins that her father was keeping • Her favorite hangout was Nang Iyang’s store where she gets a bowl of crashed ice with azuki (beans) for 10 cents • A piece of gum cost 1 cent in 1948 • Three babies and her aunt died in the foxhole in Dandan where they hid in 1944. • Chailang is the youngest daughter of Juan and Juana Palacios • After the war, Chailang’s father tilled the soil while her mother made purses and hats out of pandanus leaves. • A purse sold $ 4 while a hat was $3 then. Sleeping mats also sold for $40 • The Palacios family lived near the convent of the Mercedarian sisters