In our Filipino culture, being a man meant something very specific. I wondered how my father fit in.
Mom, Dad, a younger sister and an older brother. That was my family growing up in the Philippines. We lived in a town called Polomolok in a small house with a bamboo fence and gate. The giant Dole pineapple plantation provided jobs and income for almost everyone in town. My father worked for Dole, and my mother was a teacher. Everything was as it should be until I was eight years old. My father began working at home, selling insurance part-time. My mother continued to work full-time, explaining vaguely that the arrangement was best for Dad’s health. I didn’t understand. My dad didn’t look sick. I was secretly ashamed. No one else I knew had a father who stayed at home.
Now he was always around after school. He wanted to hear about my classes. “I’m proud of you,” he’d say. He came to recognition day at my school, and pinned on my award ribbons. “All my children will attend the University of the Philippines,” my dad said. “The world is bigger than pineapples!” I laughed. Education was very important in our family. In some ways it was nice to have Dad at home.
I could see that our neighbors liked him. He shared our harvested fruit with them and offered them rides to the supermarket on his motorcycle. But as time went on I still couldn’t shake that nagging feeling of shame. My classmates often talked about their families. “My dad got a promotion at his job,” a friend said one day. The Philippines was a patriarchal society. The man was supposed to be the breadwinner, and the mother was the one to stay home. I wanted to share my feelings with my mother, but I couldn’t. For her, my dad was still head of the house. Only to God could I ask my questions. Why can’t my father be a man like the other fathers? Why does my family have to be different? I asked in bed one night.
I concentrated on my studies, and almost before I knew it I was getting ready for my junior prom. Dad waited for me to come out of my room that night. I wore a long, blue dress, and felt very grown-up at 16. “Beautiful,” Dad said. “Just like your mother.”
Not long after that a heart attack took my dad’s life. I’d never understood how ill he was. I hadn’t understood many things. After graduation I left for the university, 12 hours away. Dad’s dream for me had come true. I majored in international studies, about the world that was bigger than pineapples. I didn’t go back until summer break. Our house wasn’t the same without my father.
One Saturday after breakfast Mother and I heard a voice outside. A man stood by our bamboo gate. My mother went out to greet him. He was dark-skinned and wore faded jeans and a tattered shirt. Who is he? I wondered. My mother chatted with him, and then said, “Come in. Share some of our porridge.” The man sat at the table without saying a word. He seemed as if he hadn’t eaten for days. His eyes were wet with tears. I wanted to cry myself.
My mother left the kitchen and returned with two plastic bags filled with clothes. The man bowed, and took the bags from my mother. She walked him to the gate and waved him good-bye.
“He’s a B’laan man,” my mother explained to me. “They’re mountain people. They have farms, but times are hard.” The people sometimes came into town, she said, selling bamboo. “Your father bought from him always,” she said, pointing. “That’s where our fence and gate came from.” She said that since then, whenever he came to town, the B’laan man stopped by our house. “Your father always gave him our outgrown clothes and anything else we could spare. A quiet gesture, like so many others he made in his lifetime.”
“The man had the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen,” I said.
“Because of your father. He didn’t know till now that he had passed away.”
The B’laan man was crying for my father. He knew more about him than I did. How could I have ever been ashamed? I’d once asked God why my family was different. How little I understood. Yes, my father was different. He was a man like no other. I am proud to be his daughter.
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