The faith chronicles

Thursday, April 18, 2013


My family is overpopulated, but we survived

We are seven siblings in the family (not counting the first who was stillborn and the youngest who died shortly after birth due to a congenital illness). This is overpopulation by today’s standard. But my family has always been ‘overpopulated,’ particularly on my father’s side. It’s because I had a grandmother who had this habit of taking under her wing any close relative (up to the third degree) who was orphaned or in any need of help.

Although twice married, she was a widow for most of her grandchildren's lives, and so she occupied her time with caring for whoever needed care the most. That was how she came to be called ‘Nanay’ or ‘Inang’ by people I called 'aunt,' 'uncle,' 'cousin,' or even 'grandmother' (go figure). Even though she had a deep-set pair of eyes and aquiline nose (her partial Spanish ancestry was never discussed in the family) and could be quite churlish when irritated, she was mostly approachable to all. It confused me as a child, but my grandmother’s habit of being a one-woman charitable institution ensured us a home life constantly filled with relatives lending an unsolicited, voluntary hand in our extra-big household.

Puzzlingly, we were not rich, yet we were able to support them all. My grandmother was what they called madiskarte sa buhay or business-savvy. She often entered into little lucrative businesses to get by, like raising pigs, selling dry goods, etc. This is to help my father, who's a jeepney driver then, to help feed everyone. Maybe it’s part of God’s provision, or maybe the living conditions of 1950s up to 1970s Manila and Pangasinan were still dirt-cheap, but my grandmother didn't seem to be stressed out by it all. In fact, her long, straight, jet-black hair was never visited by grayness. She even took such pride in her shiny tress that, whenever she spotted the slightest curl or a strand of gray straying, she'd solicit her apos' hair-pulling service with a bribe of loose coins.

My orphaned relatives paid their ‘dues’ willingly by volunteering as cooks, dishwashers, nannies, housecleaners, laundrywomen, and all-around handymen. The beauty of this arrangement -- a kind of un-resentful volunteerism -- lies in the never needing to tell anybody his or her part in helping out in the household chores.

This is how I grew up to be a bit like a señorito even if technically we never hired any househelp at the time. An elder female cousin was even on hand to take me to or fetch me from school in kinder grade. Someone else could always be relied upon at any given time for anything. My parents, however, made sure my siblings and I didn’t end up as spoiled brats. We were each given our own tasks for the day: feeding the pigs being fattened up for the market, gathering water from the artesian well, fixing our rooms, and so on. There never was a lack of chores to do, even with the extra hands around.

As time went by, and we siblings grew up one by one, the members of our extended family also flew out of the coop one by one, to chase after each of their own destiny.

Being the eldest of the brood, I saw the extended family through many ups and downs. I was a witness to the time when there was much hope starting out in life as our household became a proprietor of a dry-goods store and custom-made clothing shop in the center of town. I also saw and relished the age of prosperity when my father worked as a contract worker, as heavy equipment operator, in Saudi Arabia during the Marcos era, on and off for perhaps six years. After that, he came back home and my father failed in his business ventures, chiefly as a financier of small farmers, bringing hard times to his growing family. It wasn’t easy, like it was like an endurance test for all of us.

To my knowledge, my parents didn’t practice any family planning method. Such a thing was unheard of at the time. In case they did, well, they failed big time. There was one time – I think when I was in Grade 5 – when my mother came from a health center bringing with her some free condoms and a comicbook that preached the wisdom of contraceptives and family planning. It was the first time I saw clinical illustrations of the human reproductive system, so I read the comicbook with much interest. As for the condoms, which came in different colors, we kids blew all of them up into toy balloons.

I was in high school when I began to notice we were really hard-up. I couldn’t buy a lot of the things I needed in school. It didn’t help that my classmates came from the most affluent and prominent families in town. When I was about to go to college, I was fortunate to win a full scholarship from the Department of Science and Technology (including allowance) at the University of the Philippines in Baguio. My brother, the one who came after me, wasn’t so fortunate; he was sent to our maternal grandmother in faraway Aparri, Cagayan, for college, there to take up Marine Science. It must have been a harrowing time for him. Recently, he said he felt like being given away. He reached only the third year and quit -- it's a complicated story. The third one was luckier: she earned a private Japanese-funded scholarship at Adamson University, finishing B.S. Computer Science. The fourth one was a problematic case: initially, he wasn’t able to finish his computer course at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), so he had to finish a technical course (Electrician) at a vocational school in Bicutan (LDCSI) many years later, plus an extra TESDA course (a technical mechanics/pneumatics course). The fourth one finished a vocational course as well, an IT course, also in PUP. The fifth was also lucky to reach college (BS Computer Science at Angelicum College, ironically an exclusive school mostly for children of rich people) partly for free, thanks to a Pres. Erap Estrada-funded scholarship and, later, to private Japanese sponsors recruited by the school rector. Our bunso or youngest didn’t find any scholarship, but there wasn’t any need because she had several kuyas (elder brothers) and an ate (elder sister) to help her out. Although her choice of school was limited to the province (in Pangasinan Sate University, Bayambang campus), she was able to finish B.S. Education despite being derailed by pregnancy at age 19. Even though most of us studied on a scholarship, scholarship was never enough; the day to day expenses proved just as  steep, but miracles happened along the way somehow. 

Despite all the scholarships and allowances, we found out that day to day living demanded the steepest expense, and we certainly had a hard time making both ends meet. It’s a miracle how we got by with the sheer art of making do. I pitied my poor parents, for whom I pleaded to God to provide a means of livelihood to restore their dignity. Thankfully, they survived by operating a little sari-sari store and other 'rackets' on the side. They were also able to let heir children live on the lendings my father had granted to several of his relatives and friends when he was still working in Saudi Arabia.

Each family member seemed to be a challenging mouth to feed, not to mention body to clothe, but together with the sorrows, which multiplied by seven, came seven-fold blessings as well. Through the mercy of God, all of us are now working and taking turns in supporting our parents in their twilight years. I am an office worker, the second a production worker at a large manufacturing firm, the third a call center agent, the fourth a machine monitoring staff, the fifth a factory worker, the sixth an HR officer, and the seventh a grade-school teacher.

All but two are married (mostly happily) and have kids. Currently, our parents have a grand total of eight apos (grandchildren). They have certainly reached a figure long past the replacement rate of 2.1, although my siblings had some catching up to do, with only one of them having three kids, the rest having either two or one. Most of them seem afraid of ‘overpopulating’ the Philippines, and given our personal encounter with poverty, it’s understandable. Being the conscientious big brother, however, I have advised everyone to shun artificial contraceptives, specifically pills, and research natural family planning instead, the one the Church approves of. I am confident they are following my advice.

All of my grandmother's children have  absorbed her value of self-giving. Sometimes, the boundaries of ownership and money matters are violated especially when it comes to my father and his brothers and sister, but instead of being irked, we children are often left amazed: property and ownership didn't matter to them much if someone in the family is in dire need. As for our vast extended family, they are all fairly well-established, mostly because someone down the line have gone abroad for better opportunities. A number have become really wealthy -- I hope they won't forget us, especially how my grandmother helped them when they needed help the most. I dread to consider who among them could prove to be "ingrata" or "walang utang na loob." I am confident we can always rely on them for help if needed, although I'd personally much prefer not to bother them, lest they think my family is demanding payback time. I actually dread it -- may the time never came when we would be forced to ask for assistance, not because we are proud, but if only to let them know that they were helped in their moment of need without a thought to having something in return, and that they had already paid their dues a long time ago by serving the family one way or another. I just want to keep my fingers crossed that their gratitude would be as eternal as our affection for them is permanent, because we treated them as family not by blood but by by choice and circumstance.

I just hope our generation and the one that came after will try to be like our forebears, especially my paternal grandmother, in her generosity of spirit.

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