Confessions of a (com)passionate buyer

You can sell my mom a stone from your garden. You can tie it with a pretty bow or just offer it to her plain; rest assured she will buy it from you. “Kaluoy intawn, nindot baya, magamit ra ni nako, nagkinanhanglan intawn siguro ug kwarta, mahatag ra ni nako ug nagkinahanglan ani (Kawawa naman, maganda naman, magagamit ko rin ito, nangangailangan siguro ng pera, makakahanp din ako nang mangangailangan nito…” You will most probably hear her say any of those lines or all four in one breath while she turns the stone around in her hands. But trust me, she will pay good money for it.

Growing up in Ormoc, Mommy was easily one of my first teachers in the school of compassion. For lack of malls and big shops, the culture back then, as far as trading was concerned, was practically limited to peddling goods from house to house. Biyaheras would go to the bigger nearby cities like Cebu and Manila, or even to Hong Kong and the States, coming home with boxes and luggage full of cloth, perfume, bags, shoes, accessories. Even fine jewelry would be hand-carried from home to home, i-suroy as we called it. Mommy never sent back any of the bags or boxes without buying something — anything. Even if she did not really like or need any of it. She figured she would find some use for it in the future or, and this was often the case, she could always just give it away to someone who wanted/needed it. Foremost in her mind was making the vendor happy that a sale was made.

Daddy is cut from the same cloth but his ways are more practical. Instead of buying a stone, so to speak, he will dig deeper into the list of products or services offered by that person in need. Because of that, it was not entirely uncommon for us to meet new characters every so often: a blind man he found on the street would be serenading us on the dinner table with songs (he would always be paid after with some money and old clothes and shoes once owned either by daddy or my two younger brothers), a little boy gallivanting on the streets he would hire to shine shoes. When he was still playing tennis, he would come home with a balut vendor in tow and we would all gather around him and sit on the front steps of our home in Bonifacio Street, drivers included, not stopping until the vendor’s basket was almost empty. It fascinated me, the way they kept the eggs warm with layers of thick cloth. I liked the warmth of the eggs in my hands, the hot soup, and the tiny ritual of sprinkling the cracked egg with rock salt right before gulping everything down. He would do the same with the ice cream man. In our eyes, those square boxes — stuffed with as much dry ice as sweet, cold and frozen treats — were magical, a source of joy as we knew it. We would all have our fair share. Daddy would always have a shine in his eyes as he looked at the vendor making his way back to the main street. When I was younger I could not quite put a finger on that look in his face but I now know he was just plain happy for the man and his workday.

A clearer analogy might be this: if someone was hungry, Mommy would give fish and Daddy’s way would be to teach the hungry man how to fish. At any rate, they both never turned away a person in need.

After that nasty, great flood in Ormoc back in 1991, when the waters had already subsided, our helpers found clinging to one of our santol trees a woman. Her name was Ellen and she was swept away in the current, from God knows where, down Bonifacio Street where she had held on for dear life by hanging on to the santol tree. To this day it is still unclear to me who she really was; all I remember is that they say she had amnesia of sorts. My parents took her in and she stayed on with us for a couple of years. Once when I had to come to Manila to shoot an ad and my sister could not accompany me, Daddy and Mommy appointed Ellen as my official chaperone. We were in Megamall with Scho and Gus who both worked for J. Walter Thompson then, and we lost Ellen for a while in the maze of Megamall. Turns out she saw Andrew E. walking and she was so fascinated to see a star that she followed him around. I do not know where she is now but our yayas in Ormoc say that when her memory came back fully she remembered she was studying to become a teacher. I do not know anymore if she ever made her way back to her family, if she had any.

After college, my sister and I wanted to know what it was like to work and earn our own money. Working for some bank or some company (an idea we were toying with) was not an option for Daddy because that was the time when harassment in the workplace was surfacing in real waves, in the papers, in the news. But he was all for self-employment. And so Chow-rap was born. It was a little eatery we put up, nice-looking but not fancy and we hired the wives of our trusted help to run it. We had burgers and meals, sandwiches and other merienda fare. On the side, we tried our hand at selling jewelry. Lola Carmen sold jewelry practically all her life and she taught us how to do it. That I enjoyed more than taking care of the eatery. It was just so much more fun arranging beautiful sets in jewelry rolls than it was counting tomatoes and burger buns.

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We made an appointment first with a woman who was known for her love of jewelry. She said yes initially, enthusiastically at that, but then apparently changed her mind. She kept on moving and moving the appointment until finally she was not even replying anymore. We were sad, uninspired, and all but ready to give up. To make us feel better, mommy came home one day from evening Mass with pretty little clay houses she had bought from some shop. I collected pretty little things alongside with Precious Moments porcelain dolls. I still have those little clay houses to this day, in a curio cabinet in our home in Carlota Hills, and every time I see them I remember a mother’s love, and her quiet, gentle attempt at easing away sadness.

We moved on to the next prospective customer, a lady who owned and operated a textile shop. Very early in the morning, her preferred time, my sister and I went. Quietly the lady chose a set of South Sea golden pearl studs with a ring. We had made our first sale! On our own! Do you know how empowering that feeling is — especially after the disappointment of our first prospect? Because of Tita Anling (that is her name) we were encouraged to keep going. The day immediately after that, we went to Tita Tessie (also from Ormoc, she runs a hardware store) who also bought her own set. The ball had really started rolling, and although we did not always make a sale each time we presented our jewelry, we already knew how to deal with someone saying no. The first time is really just the most crucial, because it can either make or break your spirit.

If only for that alone I will always be grateful to Tita Tessie and Tita Anling. They have a soft spot in my heart. When faced with an opportunity to encourage my memories, they effortlessly drift back to that time in my life. I am sharing those little snippets about them now because I realize it has helped bring me full circle to the understanding of Mommy and Daddy’s ways. Through the years we would sometimes laugh at the useless things mommy would buy from this or that vendor, and she would laugh right along with us. We would be endlessly amused at the characters we find in our home or on our doorstep, as brought home by Daddy, their multi-talents as much a surprise to us as to them. Imagine: he can make the sweepstakes vendor earn additional money by making him play the guitar!

I think of my parents each time someone sells me something, useless or otherwise. Especially if it is a young person, as much as I possibly can I will patronize his/her wares. I would not want to be the one to break anyone’s spirit, crush somebody’s hope, directly or indirectly.

Through the years, my husband has also come home with some totally useless or ridiculously expensive-for-what-it-is things — a brand-less pillow that is supposed to make sleep deeper and better, or a kaing of fresh mangoes that are almost as pricey as wagyu beef, among others. We collapse in giggles each time we get to talk about the strange things and the sometimes even stranger prices.

I look around the house and I see an odd assortment of stuff in storage — some of it promising, other stuff not at all. But then I think…. and think some more. If having this stuff around means someone was helped, empowered, encouraged, even in just the faintest way, then it has been all worth it.

I should carve that thought in stone, and maybe present it with a very pretty bow to my mother. She would love that.

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