We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.
– Pascal Mercier, pseudonym of Peter Bieri, Swiss writer and philosopher, from Night Train to Lisbon
For years, we have traveled to my hometown of Terra Bella to celebrate the San Esteban Circle’s Labor Day Weekend festivities. My late father and his cousins – my uncles – hailed from the coastal village of San Esteban, which has a view of the South China Sea and is part of the province of Ilocos Sur on the Philippine island of Luzon. My father’s cousins settled in Terra Bella, a rural farming town in the Central Valley of California, in the 1950s after World War II. In 1955, they founded the San Esteban Circle, a club that offered social activities and financial and other kinds of support for its members. Our family moved from Los Angeles to Terra Bella in 1965 after my father’s doctor recommended that he leave the city for the country for his health.
The Filipino community in Terra Bella has always been a tight-knit group. Most of my aunts and uncles picked grapes in the summer and in the wintertime the women packed oranges at the local packing house. We were a small band of kids attending the elementary school and trying to fit in. On Saturday – after everyone came home from the fields or packing house – and Sunday afternoons, my relatives congregated at one home to play mahjong and card games and eat an abundance of Filipino food. The host house rotated every week.
On Labor Day Weekend, the San Esteban Circle hosts luncheons and a big dance, which raises funds and concludes with the coronation of a queen and her court, at the local Veterans Memorial Building. As kids, we were forced to attend the long evening in starchy dresses, but I admit that I was fascinated by my relatives’ supreme confidence on the dance floor with ballroom dances such as the cha-cha-cha. They transformed themselves, changing out of their farm worker attire and into their embroidered barong Tagalog shirts and traditional gowns with butterfly sleeves. As teenagers, we participated in the “box” dance fundraisers, in which long lines of relatives would dance for two seconds and deposit a cash donation with the treasurer at the front of the main hall. The girls and later women got half of the proceeds. Not a bad haul for dancing for 15 minutes!
As an adult I came home Labor Day Weekend because aside from Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was the only time I could see my relatives and catch up with my cousins in one place. We took the kids, though their connection to the community has always been tenuous because I didn’t bring them down as much as I should have, in retrospect. As a family we went to one dance, which was fun. Imagine older Filipinos doing the line dance to Bill Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart. But then the next year the kids and David begged off, so Janet and I only attended the luncheons from then on.
Two years ago, we celebrated Janet and Tim’s anniversary in Cambria, on the Central Coast, where they were married over the Labor Day Weekend. While everyone had a great time, I secretly missed my once-a-year touch with my Filipino heritage. However, I also had a reason to not go down, especially that year, as I’ll explain later. In 2013, we didn’t visit because Janet and Tim were dealing with family matters. When we came down this year, I wasn’t planning on attending the luncheon. When my mother passed away in early January 2012, in our grief, my sisters and I failed to let our relatives in Terra Bella know in a timely way many decisions we had made concerning our mother, most notably our decision to release her from her excruciating pain and have her remains cremated and honored in a quickly put together memorial – not in our hometown but in Folsom, where she lived the last of her 15 years of life. Another decision that our relatives were upset about was having her remains rest in Folsom, rather than in Porterville, the next town over from Terra Bella, where our dad’s remains have rested since he passed away in 1995.
At the time, the anger from our relatives confused and upset me. We were grieving and our grief clouded our decisions. Why were they not honoring our wishes and decisions? They clearly had their own ideas of how things should have been done. Not too long afterwards, I looked at the situation from their viewpoint. Even though my mother married into my father’s family, she was embraced by the community. While not one of the first to settle in Terra Bella, nonetheless we were one of the original families. At the time of her illness, my mother was one of the last remaining members of the community’s generation, although she no longer lived in Terra Bella. (She came down for the festivities nearly every year, as my sister and I took turns driving her down.)
One of our aunts was especially angry. To appease our relatives, who were too frail to travel and especially on such short notice, we put together another hasty memorial for our mother at the church where we were baptized and held our first communion and confirmation. Our aunt sat in the back of the church, on the opposite side of the pews where my sisters and I sat. She came late to the luncheon. She did not look at us and when she had to respond to us, she was stony faced and curt. We sat uncomfortably among our relatives during the luncheon, watching the slide show that my nephew had created for my mom’s memorial, unsure of what they were saying about us because our parents never taught us Ilocano and we just never picked up the language to understand the spoken word. Our relatives thought it wrong that we had cremated her and were horrified to learn of our intention to scatter her ashes, which they felt was akin to separating parts of her body. We learned that the Catholic Church, while it recently accepted cremations, requires internment of the ashes.
My Auntie Leonore, who was once married to my mom’s brother, hosted the first anniversary luncheon in January 2013. We sat through the luncheon, awkwardly trying to make conversation with our relatives. We just had nothing to say. After that, I thought to myself, I can no longer come home again. I will never attend the festivities now that my mom is gone and we are not members of the San Esteban Circle. We are not really part of the community anymore. Two years passed.
Over this past summer, my sister had cleaned out her home and dropped off boxes and bags of items for me to give to Auntie Leonore. We had planned to visit just Janet and Tim this Labor Day Weekend. I called Auntie Leonore the day before we left so I could get her new address to drop off my sister’s things at her house. But she wouldn’t give her address and insisted that I attend the luncheon, where she was going to help with the cooking. She wanted me to be there. I told her I wasn’t sure I would be welcomed, but she insisted that nobody was angry. Come and be a part of the community again, she entreated.
So Janet and I came, with great trepidation on my part. I saw the one aunt who was the angriest of the group. She is 91 and still driving. She is the last remaining aunt of the first generation. I wasn’t sure how she would respond, but when I gave her a kiss and a hug, she held on to me and smiled. We ate lunch with my cousins and spent the next couple of hours catching up. I recognized a few faces, but saw more strangers. Attendance had been dwindling for years, but this year it was paltry, which one of my cousins explained why. Many years ago, after I had left, the second generation created the San Esteban Schools Alumni Association to meet the needs of the younger crowd. The two clubs collaborated and at some point a new tradition emerged, with each club hosting its own dance during the long weekend.
Last year, the clubs promoted their candidate. At the conclusion of the dance, the San Esteban Circle’s candidate, who had garnered the most donations, was crowned, but the Alumni protested. Apparently, someone had forgotten to include a donated check so once that check was tallied, the Alumni’s candidate became the eventual winner. The following day, the San Esteban Circle Board met and declared that late donations and checks would no longer be accepted. An uproar ensued. The two clubs split, never to work together again. The Alumni chose a different time of year to have their dance and took the bulk of the attendees with them, with the San Esteban Circle membership dwindling.
We all laughed at the story with knowing glances. Family feuds seem to be part of the culture, with elephant memories feeding the feuds. I was overjoyed to reconnect with my cousins and joke about Filipino stereotypes and reminisce over long ago memories. We all remembered when Uncle Doman – not really our uncle but we called everyone uncle or manong, a term of respect, back then – was chased out of our house by relatives after being caught cheating at rummy. To this day, I remember playing in the front of the house, hearing an uproar inside, and seeing Uncle Doman flying out the door, barely escaping the wrath of my parents and my aunts and uncles. He was never allowed to play again.
Janet and I couldn’t stay the entire afternoon. Before we left we requested a group photo of us cousins. We had Auntie Berta sit in the middle, the centerpiece of the photo. By chance, I ended up sitting next to her and leaned into her so everyone could fit in the frame. As the photographer adjusted the camera, she grasped my hand and gave it a hard squeeze. I kissed her on the cheek, her squishy cool skin. I squeezed her hand, hands that had picked grapes and packed oranges for decades, just as my mom had, and my heart danced.