Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Niños

RECENTLY, I’ve had to rearrange the lights surrounding the image of the Holy Infant in our living room. After the 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Cebu and Bohol last year, the family replaced the candle lit at Angelus with a battery-powered series of blue and white lights.

When the lights blinked for the last time, we replaced the batteries. I noticed a veil of dust coating the pillow. I dusted the pillow and then, the shell-like ear and cheek of the image reclined on it.

This image of the Child Jesus came to our home three Christmases ago. The husband bought it from an antique seller in Vigan, whose selling spiel stressed the “ivory dusting.”

I don’t know what the term means. The image’s chief claim to art is its resemblance to a real infant. Almost a foot in length, the image reminds me of a baby raising his arms to be carried. Its slightly drooping eyes are soft and guileless; from the left eye, either paint or varnish trickled, making me think of an infant who, woken from a nap, cries to be held.

For the husband, it was the small penis of the image that pushed him to wrap it in “hablon,” the plain cotton woven by women in Ilocos Sur. After a little finger snapped off during handling, he decided to carry the swaddled figure in his arms from Manila to Dumaguete to Cebu. In the airport, passengers cooed over the “baby”. A male colleague was spooked by it.

When the husband finally pushed open our gate, our companion thought he was bringing home someone’s baby. I scoured the stalls of Carbon to find a basket, made of rattan, that would hold it. Only after we placed it under the Christmas tree were we struck for the first time that we now have two images of the Holy Infant.

When our first son was born 20 years ago, I thought the retelling of the story of Nativity centered on the man-God born in a manger was not complete without “props”. I found a small figurine of about six inches in a store in Cebu City that also sold a small crib made of “salago” twigs.

The “props” eventually took over the story as the son arranged his toys around the crib and its reclining image every December. When the second son was born, the plastic farmland toys were replaced by racing cars, robots and construction figures. The small figurine suffered a broken neck and finger, but after gluing, the Nativity story went unaltered.

When the boys became older and rechanneled their energies to the digital world, we kept the image of the Holy Infant on the table near the main door the whole year round. Sometimes I touch it before leaving or upon returning. More often, it is forgotten until December draws near.

Last Oct. 15, 2013, when the temblor hit Cebu and Bohol with the strength of “32 Hiroshima bombs,” as described by Inquirer Visayas, some wooden Japanese dolls, books and bric-a-brac fell from our shelves. I was in Manila then and only heard the account of how our home escaped unscathed, including the dozen or so images of the Sto. Niño.

For the arrival of the Vigan image made me do a headcount. How many images of the Infant Jesus is in your home? In ours, there’s a gold-leaf painting on an old block of wood, made and given by the late artist Tito Cuevas, who also painted the image on river stones. There are metal, plaster and flourescent copies of the Holy Infant garbed in imperial gear, with its familiar crown, globe and scepter. There’s a wooden carving of a sleeping child, resting on the globe, its scepter forgotten against its leg, a Cebuano artist’s rendition of the Child taking a respite from eternal vigilance.

My late father cut and pasted on the inside of a clam we had in our meal an image of the Child that he dusted with gold and watercolor. I later stuck the clam on a cardboard covered in red for my sons’ school’s celebration of Sinulog.

I’m not a collector of icons. Our house is too tiny to hold anything but books and other essentials.

But as we learned last October, there’s always room for the Child in every home. Man-made images may suffer a broken neck or finger. But not even the energy released by 32 Hiroshima bombs can stir what lies at the heart of the Sto. Niño.

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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 5, 2014 issue of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column

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