He was Doreng to his wife; to the neighbors, Ka Doreng. His friends (and they were many) called him Teddy; to his seven children, he was Daddy.
Teddy laughed easily; the dimples perpetually set on his face were always ready to enrich his hyper-smiley disposition. His friends remember him as an affable, gracious man; charming down to his ankle joints, and good-looking with clear brown eyes and light brown hair which he kept slickly in place with several dabs of pomade. He had a coffee-and-cream skin and was vertically-gifted which made him stand out among the average male height and definitely taller than Mother’s less-than-five-feet height.
Teddy was always sprucely dressed; hated wrinkles on a shirt, and on the pleats on his pants. His underpants (loose white that almost reached the knee), socks, and handkerchiefs were likewise neatly pressed. His shoes were always polished, spit-shined, and spotless. A total dandy, Teddy was.
In today’s health-conscious age, Teddy would be an anachronism. He loved to smoke tobacco—stick or pressed into a pipe; second-hand smoke was unheard of yet. The children loved the rich aroma and the paper ring that came with the tobacco stick; it became a prized jewelry on our fingers. Teddy would inhale the smoke and we would ooooh! as he exhaled it in circular forms we watched glide over our heads and across the living room. These days that would be frowned upon but in those times the air was mightily cleaner and safer than the kind of air we poison ourselves in.
He adored us, and deeply so; we were the feathers on his brown fedora hat, the band in his safari hat.
He was always proud of his children; did not pressure us to do supremely in school. But we did our homework and read our books well enough to get good school grades he could brag about. We did not bring him school medals but Teddy never skimped on indicating he was proud of us. It was always reassuring to find him in the audience, clapping and looking pleased as we performed our parts on the school stage and on graduation days.
The lesson we learned, one that created an extraordinary impact on our lives, was the worth of acquiring knowledge and skills—a legacy, he said, not of material wealth but quite substantial, nonetheless, not by birthright or innate talent—a thing to keep for all of one’s life, neither to be taken away nor diminished no matter what.
Life with Teddy had many fun parts, filled with small, simple pleasures. Boy, he can cook. Adobo in turmeric, red tomatoes in coconut milk and shrimp paste, suman Batangueño. He definitely cooked better than Mommy did whose specialties were Ilocano dinengdeng and pinakbet. Mealtimes were yummy times when Teddy was in the kitchen.
Never of finicky manner, he had this wiser-than-wise brand of machismo that he carried off quite naturally. As often as the children grew in number, he did, just as often, trekked to the river half-a-mile faraway from our house to wash the linens Mommy and the midwife used. To him, every new child was a gift to love and nurture, not an indicator of his virility. It was also in this river where he did the laundry—while Mommy took care of the kids—straining himself under an aluminum batya down a narrow lane of wild shrubs, anthills, and nasty cow dung. It was also in this river where Teddy, with his Cal .38, and my big brother with his air gun, practiced their aim using coconuts carried by the river stream as targets. In college, I was with the school’s Women Auxiliary Training Corps and had no difficulty with a rifle and hitting the bull’s-eye.
As his income steadied, he spoiled his children with more revelations of his love. One fine Sunday afternoon he took us to a restaurant which featured a treehouse. Looking up at that marvelous sight—how did it get up there?—in my chicken’s eye view of things, that treehouse, or all treehouses for that matter, is the living celebration within the mothballed cabinet of my nostalgia moments.
Teddy played no favoritism among his children; inflections of a resentful sibling were nonexistent. We all grew up independently of each other but were always on hand to help out at a moment’s notice.
Hawkishly protective of us, he had also this I’ll-be-your-father attitude toward our playmates and saw to it that the house was accident-proof. He let us play ball in the living room. The Lladros were wisely put away in the cabinet. As long as we were inside the house nobody went home with a bump, knee scrape, a bloody nose, or tears shed. To this day that kind of caution remains in my house except for the ball bit even if there are no Lladros to break.
Happiness came in the form of a tiny box of a radio with which we connected to the world and human drama. Soap opera was the ultimate entertainment: Rafael Yabut was the news broadcaster, Eddie Ilarde was the afternoon voice, Sylvia La Torre was the total performer.
Then Teddy brought home a TV set. Ta-da! Tom Jones in black-and-white! Then one day he surprised us with the “pride of his life”—a humongous toy-like chug-chug lime green Ford: two windows refused to roll down, the driver’s door opened only from the outside, the rusted body badly needed paint. He loved to take us for a spin in that antiquated car as we cowered in the spacious back seat and hoped none of our classmates would see us.
Flexible yet authoritarian, he could silence simmering sibling feud with a single alto whistle and a deadpan stare. When Teddy looked us in the eye that said, “That’s it,” that was it. The end.
We were in a muffled generation; the elders always knew what was best for the kids. Most of the time they were necessarily correct; we do learn a lot from our parents by simply listening to them.
But Teddy was neither critic-proof nor was he the ultimate straight-arrow. Between the Mr. Nice Guy openness and the absolute zero mean streak with his children, a few kinks showed up; there were times of occasional lapses that injected variety into our lives. No, he did not hit Mommy. He never did. He liked the company of friends. He would come home past midnight, one beer too many, and Mommy would rant in her famous Ilocano expletives. Teddy would merely shut his ears and sleep the tipsiness away. But those times were few and far between. He gave up the beers and tobacco after an appendectomy at age 40.
Despite the habitual kindness, he was overhasty sometimes. Teddy disliked being overtaken when he drove his Ford. He would let out a stream of half-serious lashes directed at other drivers. He would slam the brakes, charged out of the car and brandished his Cal. 38. There were no fired shots, ever, but we somehow tensed. Teddy did not have a love for fast drivers. He also missed the fact that his beloved lime-colored Ford was a dinosaur straggling on concrete.
There was a hint of an affair with another woman; whatever it was, it was a cautious one, nothing flagrant. His shirt collar still smelled of his favorite Reve D’Or, he still came home to roost, the paycheck was intact, and you couldn’t hear Mommy’s jealous rants. The sexual pot did not boil over and left no one with a third-degree scalding. It might have been just that: a personal, private transgression that quickly ended and the marriage continued till death did they part.
He was, however, a confirmed cavalier as a single man. An aunt, his sister, told how a jilted girlfriend’s balisong found its way through Teddy’s breastbone, its point mercifully frozen half-an-inch off his heart. It was tough to be a beloved man.
At age 59 Teddy died of colon cancer. He was bedridden for a year. The physical degeneration was too painful to witness—the smiling brown eyes lost their glow and shrunk into his forehead, the brown hair receded, the handsome face became emaciated. It was tough for a man used to being strong and esteemed to be a patient, to be vulnerable, to know that he couldn’t fight back.
The idea of perfection disagrees with the actualities of life. Flaws make a man; inconsistencies make us human. What stays is the power of Teddy’s examples, the useful words that worked into our consciousness; their largeness enshrining the inviolability of human behavior no matter how compromised.
Words like, “Ang ‘di mo kailangan huwag mong bibilhin. Ang 'di mo kayang bilhin huwag mong kailanganin,” on prudent spending and resourcefulness, and, “Marry a person who is an improvement of yourself,” on finding a mate. Isn’t it rich…to be someplace when he said that.
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