Saturday, December 19, 2015

Messenger of memories

THE LAST time I saw him, his sarcasm bristled as the hair that would not stay down. Thirty years or so later, the hair is sparse and sprinkled with grey.

Yet, it was a glimpse of that hair that made me spot him in the swirling holiday crowd.

In the college paper a lifetime ago, he edited and I contributed. When I wasn’t keeping my distance from that black humor of his, as anachronistic as slacks pockets turned inside out in his tucked-in, buttoned-down presence, I listened to his stories.

Last Friday, fittingly the last working day of the year, Jose Sevilla Ho brought a harvest of stories from Washington, D.C. where he lives with wife Marie Frail and their 12-year-old daughter Nadia.

Of the tales that night, two I keep, captured on ink and paper.

Kiddie Lim sent “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa. Published by Bloomsbury, Abulhawa penned the story of a family dispersed as refugees by the conflict in Palestine. The novelist was born to refugees and seemed to have made her escape when she migrated to America and carved a career in medical science.

In 2001, Abulhawa founded the children’s organization Playgrounds for Palestine, which fights for a right we, who live in less fraught climes, take for granted: the right to play for the children of Palestine.

Kiddie introduced me to Asian civilization and Renato Constantino’s critical revisiting of Philippine history. After I finished her courses, she asked me to tutor her precocious daughter Agape who watched us like a hawk as we took Kiddie’s migraine-inducing essay exams.

I confess: I plotted to take my revenge on the brat. I ended up reading Kiddie’s books, some of which Agape was finished with. Agape is a lawyer now for the United Nations and her mother still sends me stories.

“Hope you’ll enjoy these shared memories” is Kiddie’s note handwritten on the cover page of “Mornings in Jenin”. Like Kiddie, I write on books: my name, notes when I found the title, who I was with when I chanced on the find, when and where I finished the book, how often I’ve revisited the tale, dedications to the one I pass on a title to.

Like birds, do readers of the same persuasion read alike?

Ho is another scribbler of books. On the cover page of “Roses from San Gabriel,” he writes a dedication, “To… a fellow traveller on old literary roads”.

Ho wrote “Roses from San Gabriel,” a tale of two motherless brothers raised by a servant woman. When he reaches across the table, I accept the books.

How can something existing only in the imagination have such heft? “Three years before their mother Rosanna died, she found someone who loved her more than their father,” opens Ho’s tale.

It occurs to me that he has carried these books from one terminal to another, a reconnection not just of points in an itinerary but also a recoupling of time, faces, memories.

Nearly at the same time, we blurt out how we stubbornly stick with paper books.

I smile broadly. On an e-book copy, I wouldn’t have seen again Kiddie’s opulent cursive or Ho’s spikey text. In the age of email and status updates, it’s not just penmanships that are sidelined.

Ho observes that paper books have no rival in allowing the reader to easily go back to a passage, a scene. I smile across this fellow traveller, content to watch the past take shape and pulse before us.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 20, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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