Survivor

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I remembered the time when my 94 year-old maternal Aunt, Leoncia, told me stories about her life back then in World War II; how she and the rest of her family hid in the jungle to escape the Japanese invasion in the Philippines, and why she never married. It didn’t dawn on me why these two things were important to her. She would muse about these experiences as if it just happened yesterday. So I decided to interview her about it while we played our favorite game together, Scrabble, for this project.

How old were you when World War II happened in the Philippines?

I was already in my teens. We were planting rice early in the morning in the province when one of the landowner’s henchmen told us that the Japanese were making their way to Manila. Your grandfather decided it was time for us to start packing and head to the mountains. Being the father of three girls, he thought it not be prudent for us to stay in the city. The landowner promised all of his employees that he will take care of them with shelter and food, but your grandpa didn’t buy it. So we only had our clothes on our backs and left. Your grandma wasn’t keen on hiding in the thick jungle, she argued to her wits end that it didn’t guarantee our safety but we trusted your grandfather. It was the right thing to do. Had it not for that decision, I wouldn’t be here with you today.

What was it like to hide in the jungle? Were you caught?

It was hard. We scoped for the thickest and tallest grass and stayed there for a while or lived inside caves with other families. We took turns as lookouts and alerted everyone when trouble came. We also had to ensure to cover our tracks, put the fire out with water or the smoke will definitely put us in peril. We mostly ate on tubers and vegetables. We would hear the planes hovering all over us. We found out that the Japanese rounded out the landlords and the families that stayed with them and made them into slaves. (She paused and sighed). The women were constantly abused. We were also afraid of snakes. Your grandfather taught us how to use and carry a long knife all the time. We were almost caught by the Japanese, you know. Your mom, being the youngest, cried, no not cried but wailed, for days about hearing the endless cries of women being abused and gunfire that one of the families from a nearby hiding cell told on us because she wouldn’t shut up. Your grandfather was really mad at her. We had to move so many times. It was exhausting.

You told me once that a man was interested in you and asked Grandfather for your hand in marriage. What happened?

(Long pause. Her face was pensive. A deep sigh) There were a few boys but one man, his name was Mario and he was tenacious. He was 2 years younger and a tad shorter than me. Your grandmother did not like him. She said he was ‘Dugyot” (Ilocano for Dirty). Your grandfather seemed eager to rid of me. We didn’t always agree and I loved to argue. When the time came that Mario, with flowers picked from the surrounding bushes and some money in hand, came to our area in the jungle to propose, your Grandfather looked at me and said, “It is your choice.” At that moment, I thought of my own future and of leaving my poor family for good. You see, during and after the war, we were dirt poor. I just can’t possibly leave them in that state. I liked Mario. He was a sweet man. Having a life with him would’ve been wonderful but when I saw my parent’s faces along with my two younger siblings that night, I knew I couldn’t just leave them at the time. Mario was the first and last man to kiss me.

After the war, what did you all do?

Well, I had to make a living selling whatever we can grow from the garden at the market while finishing high school and I saved enough money to go to college. I helped raise your other Aunt and your Mom. Both your grandparents were ailing with various old-age diseases and I didn’t really have the time nor the inclination to be with someone. I just poured my life on earning a living to put food on the table and took care of everyone closest to me.

No regrets then, Auntie?

No. In life, we are given choices to make. It may not be exactly what you want but you just have to believe in yourself and face the consequences. That’s how we learn. Now it’s your turn to play scrabble!

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