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The Good Years

Florencia completed shining Lydia’s heavy silver flatware and


studied their grape-leaf definitions. Then she arranged the cherished
heirlooms on a lace tablecloth with monogrammed napkins and fine
Franciscan china.

Although Lydia’s business trips to Manila united her with friends


and associates, she planned this particular weekend especially with a
visit from Manuel Rojas in mind.

Lydia had invited him to come to the countryside to finally meet


Florencia, so the event began by Tuto’s collecting the lawyer from the
last bus stop in Callang.

When Tuto delivered Manuel to Santa Cruz, he shook Lydia’s hand


with respect evident to village onlookers. “It took some time, but these
are signed and sealed.”

She relished reading her daughter’s name change once Manuel


personally handed her final adoption papers. Florencia de la Cruz was
now officially Florencia Consolation Cacayan. A revised copy of
Lydia’s last will and testament was also included.
She beamed while she introduced the nine-year-old to her friend and
turned to her people. “It may come as a surprise that I waited this long
to tell you, but I’d like you to know that our own `Encia was Florencio
Cacayan’s daughter.” She held up the paperwork. “God has answered
my prayers; she’s now legally mine!”

Everyone smiled their approval, and Florencia blushed when Lydia


and others embraced her. It felt odd that this news would draw her such
attention.

“I’ll never be alone again,” Lydia whispered to Gloria as the


children took Manuel by the hand.

He was the guest, so they led him off behind the cooking house to
watch two cows being butchered for the evening meal. The youngsters
squealed and looked at Manuel’s reaction once the carcasses were strung
up from mango trees for the blood to drain out. They couldn’t help
bursting into giggles when his face grew pale.

The village women then proceeded to boil the cattle heads, scraps
and organs.

Their murky stew never appealed to Lydia’s taste, so she always


allowed them to carry it home for their own enjoyment. She, being the
provider, customarily served select meats at her own family’s table.
By the time Lydia’s traveling companions, Rosita and Lila, arrived
on the scene, all food was generously divided amongst the villagers.
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Gloria helped Lydia carry her portion to the main house with
everyone agreeing to meet back later for dessert.

The guests seated themselves in the dining room once Maria and
Pablo arrived, and Florencia appeared wearing her new dress and satin
party slippers.

Her braided black hair reflected the setting sun’s light while she
served sugarcane wine to all.

Lydia also served by heaping marinated steak with fruits and


vegetables on each plate. All the while, she happily boasted again of
Florencia’s adoption to those who hadn’t heard.

The group spoke of Manila and good days ahead before making
their way back outdoors near the cooking house.

Boiled sweet rice with brown sugar was drizzled with coconut milk
for everyone, and Lydia offered the finest tobacco and whiskey to the
adults.

Quinto sat strumming his guitar, and the children began a game
under the moonlight. The contest was often performed by experienced
dancers as entertainment, but here in the country, the dancers did it in
fun.

Two men sat on their knees while holding two, six-foot bamboo rods
parallel. Simultaneously, they alternated clacking the sticks together
and smacking them on the ground to the music’s rhythm. The object
was for each participant to dance the longest over and between the
bamboo poles without getting their ankles slapped. They called the
dance Tinikling after the bird of the same name.

When the party ended, the hour was late and each family departed
weary but content.

Manuel also excused himself to rest in one of Lydia’s guestrooms, so


the woman drew to her somber daughter’s side.

“Didn’t you enjoy yourself tonight, sweetheart?”

The girl’s eyes lowered. “Mamma, why is my middle name


Consolation?”

“I chose that name because it’s beautiful, just as you are. Its
meaning is special to me, too.”

Florencia appeared confused.

“Consolation means comfort or solace,” Lydia told her with a smile.


“You are exactly that in my life without your father here.” She rose and
escorted her daughter out across the bridge. “I want you to be proud of
who he was and who your people are.”

The other children had teased Florencia about her name most of the
evening, but she kept her embarrassment private. She wondered
whether they did it because she was adopted or that the name was fancy

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and long. Mamma seems happy though, she thought, so I won’t tell her
that my new name bothers me.

The following morning, everyone rode in carts to attend the Mass at


the schoolhouse.

Each Sunday the Ilocano villagers gathered to hear Latin sermons


but could only worship the best they knew from their hearts. Even when
Lydia was out of town, Florencia attended these services which Jose
Guinaldo performed.

Jose was the government-commissioned leader for the area.


Although the church expected the priests to be celibate and to maintain
sole devotion to God, Jose was married with children. He had been
minimally method-trained for the position but sincerely desired to
shepherd seeking souls at Santa Cruz. In conversation, he often referred
to the priests at the large church down in Santiago. They inspired him
to eventually train to become ordained also.

Florencia’s instincts were that this man was honest and trustworthy.
She and her best friend, Carmen, often witnessed him talking and
praying with fervency while he rehearsed his sermons alone in the
fields.

When this day’s service ended, Jose approached the two girls
outside. “I’d like to know if you’d care to assist me as altar girls during
each Mass. “I believe you can handle the job,” he stated, “you both
seem like nice young ladies.

They smiled and shrugged.

“It’s tradition to have altar boys, but as you can see, the only ones in
this area are much too young.

“We’ll have to ask our mothers first,” returned Florencia.


Carmen nodded.

Jose agreed and explained the duties he would require.

When Florencia approached Lydia at home with his proposal, the


woman wholeheartedly agreed that it would be good training.

Manuel followed their final conversation with farewells to Lydia and


Florencia and started back to Manila. That night, the people attended a
shorter Mass referred to as “evening devotions”.

It was the first service for the girls to aid Jose. They replenished
bowls of blessed water at either side of the school door, and lit candles
when instructed. Finally, they even drew wine and rice “hosts” from
beneath the altar for the Holy Communion table.

The girls went on for months with this weekly responsibility before
they became curious about Jose. They had often seen him sip from the
altar’s wine jug when church was not in progress and wondered if that
was the proper thing to do. They were not certain, so they decided to
judge for themselves by drinking it under a tree in the woods.

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The two quickly became lightheaded and giggly before falling into a
deep sleep. When they woke hours later, their heads ached and they
agreed never to drink the homemade concoction again. They then
returned the jug to its proper place late that afternoon.

As the children made their way back out of the church, Jose
discovered the empty container and urged them to confess. “This wine
is for the sole use of the church, but I can help you to be forgiven of your
sin if you confide in me.”
“Only God can forgive us,” blurted Florencia. She wasn’t quite sure
what drove her to say so but felt confident of her statement.
“You children will eventually die and go to hell for what you’ve
done.”

Both girls certainly believed there was a heaven and a hell but
returned home indifferent to Jose’s predictions. God had to be too kind
to send them to a terrible place for experimenting with a beverage. They
had also never heard of anyone having dropped dead from wine
consumption in their village. Still, from that day forward, they kept a
watchful eye on their behavior.

The old woman observed Florencia.

The girl was brave at the age of twelve and now was able to scoot up
the bamboo trees as adeptly as Carmen.

When the girls inched high to the clumped branches, neither dared
let loose, for the flexible limbs bent over deeply from their weight.
Carmen was first in line and pushed off the ground with one foot.
Whoosh! The two ricocheted into the air with shrieks while tightly
gripping the tough, sturdy stems that swung back and forth in the
breeze.

They repeated the game again and again before they stopped
laughing to join the old woman below. Her presence was a familiar
comfort since she was often seen wandering the village and casually
revealing children’s fortunes.

“You both are strong,” she stated and peered closely at Florencia
with mystic eyes. “To your life will come much change. One day
Florencia, you will marry a foreign man and follow him to another
country.”

The girl nodded and shrugged, and Carmen’s future was foretold,
too.

“Carmen, we should go now,” Florencia insisted when the cooking -


house bell sounded. The gong signaled the final inspection complete

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with the tobacco ready. After thrice cultivation over time it was now
ripe for the picking.

The girls waved to the woman and dashed home to see most of the
other children already in the fields with the adults.

Everyone worked the rows for days to gather matured leaves into
piles designated by quality. Those piles were then be hauled to the
tobacco pavilion where the men separated them from first grade down to
third grade to hang up to dry.

During the drying period, other routine chores continued. The


women picked cotton, men gathered corn, and everyone collected
vegetables and fruits. The children stockpiled jackfruits, granadas, and
lancones, among other fruits more exotic. The young hands also pitched
in to help plant rice.

Florencia enjoyed planting rice with the others in the muddy flooded
fields. The drenched earth felt good as she squashed it between her toes.
She also thrilled to follow the adults slicing through sugarcane with
their sharpened sickles. They often set her to slash safely with her bob
knife about a small area of her own, and she knew better to stay behind.
That way, they could work ahead at a steady pace ahead without
hindrance or endangering the child with their sharp blades.

Other times, if she or her mother desired, Florencia rode along in the
cart to inspect the ranch. When a fence needed mending, Lydia
summoned some men to drop what they were doing and to secure it.
This kept cattle from roaming over to adjacent properties.

The condition of the rooftops of the numerous buildings around the


estate was next in order of priority. If the metal or wood needed repair,
again Lydia called someone to patch the leak.

Pineapple plants and banana trees were also checked for ripeness.
Then the cornfields were inspected for signs of marauding birds or
insects. All the chickens, pigs, and goats had to be examined, too, for
possible sickness or disease.

After a long day’s ride about the margin of the plantation’s, it was
still important that everything in the house be dusted and in proper
order.

When there was spare time, Florencia helped to scrub soiled clothing
and linens clean by hand. Those who washed draped dark pieces over a
rope line to dry and spread whites across the lawn for the sun to bleach.
They would press only special dresses with their charcoal-filled iron.
Along with her workmen Lydia periodically checked on the progress
of the tobacco. Once the leaves dried, they spread them in layers on a
metal dome in the center of the building and sprinkled

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vinegar around each layer. Additional layers followed until the dome
could hold no more.

It was routine to age the crop approximately three months before


preparing it for Market. One-half would be ironed smooth for cigars;
the other half chopped for cigarettes; then all would be rolled in paper
and bundled.

Much labor went into harvesting the yields of the entire plantation,
but no one ever complained. These industrious people had grown up
playing and working with Lydia herself. As descendants of those
previously employed by her parents, they highly respected her judgment.
Now that Florencia was experienced with work, Lydia rewarded her
generously at the end of each day. “This is the fruit of your labor,” she
would say as she handed her daughter fifty centavos.

Florencia hoarded her accumulating riches in a hand-crafted wooden


case. The container was her most treasured birthday gift from Lydia,
and since her mother provided more than the essentials, the girl never
quite knew what to spend her money on.

She kept the case hidden deep in her clothes trunk and only
withdrew from it occasionally. Even then, twenty-cents was more than
sufficient for a girl her age to shop around Callang’s market. With a
nickel, Florencia was able to buy an entire bowlful of ice cream there.
She usually spent the remaining change on some small trinket or even a
token gift for Lydia.

Life was good, food plentiful, and loneliness never experienced.


Once when Florencia played in the woods with some other children,
to her startlement she witnessed a boy swallow a santol pit. The furry
white fruit was a sour treat, but its inner seed was the length and double
the width of her thumb. Dare or not, she could not be persuaded to
follow suit. She feared was that someone would eventually choke to
death on one.
Christmas and Easter were largely celebrated, traditional affairs at
the plantation. They were times when Lydia opened her home to all
inhabitants of Isabela province and most attended the fiestas.
Florencia was continually amazed by the number of people her
mother was acquainted with and who often spoke highly of the woman’s
generosity.

When the year’s Easter celebration was in full swing, Lydia


introduced her daughter to Antonio Pasqual and family.
The girl discovered him to be an only child, not much older than
herself, and his family to be well to-do as Lydia.

The two young people were shy but respectfully shook hands.

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“I’ve agreed to let you marry Antonio once you both are older,”
Lydia said with a smile. She could not help pondering the beautiful
tradition.

This was Florencia’s first awareness of the plan. As was custom, the
boy’s family sought permission from Lydia for the two to eventually
marry, and the idea met with obvious approval.

Once a young couple’s engagement was “arranged,” any or all future


conversations between the two would be properly chaperoned by adults.
Maybe this is only practiced in Santa Cruz though, Florencia thought.
After all, she had often spied boys acting out the familiar custom of
“harana” when she played near other villages.

Older girls claimed harana was a romantic and flattering practice in


which a boy sang to them below the window of the girl’s hut The young
man would sing while playing a guitar or do his best without
accompaniment. If interested, a young woman sang back. If not, she
would disappear from view.

Florencia knew she would feel silly if some boy tried singing for her.
After all, they would most likely have to shout instead with her house
being so high off the ground. There were also many windows, and she
envisioned how ridiculous a boy might feel if he turned up at the wrong
one. Worse yet, what if Mr. English scared them away?

She shrugged off the notion for she was sure that word of her
arrangement would circulate to the other children after tonight. That
meant that Lydia would allow no future suitors to creep about in the
dark.

She recollected the old woman’s prediction and went to visit her
after the holiday was over.

“What I said will come to pass.” She touched the girl’s cheek. “One
day you will meet a man from far away and go to his country to live.”
Florencia half expected the same forecast but did not anticipate the
words that followed.

The woman composed herself and said, “It’s time for me to die.”
Florencia watched as she lay down and appeared to drift off to sleep.
She left the woman to rest but confirmed the following day that the
elderly woman died as she had said.

The young girl chose not to concern herself with her future’s
conflicting plans. After all, the old woman was gone, and her wedding
with Antonio would not take place for several more years. She trusted
her mother’s decision and went about as carefree and secure as before
for she was the apple of Lydia’s eye. Her trust demonstrated itself as she
acquired Lydia’s gentle, kindhearted disposition.

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