Love and a santol tree

I smiled many times over the past week, and one of the reasons was because of a tree. It all began when I saw Richard eating santol with much gusto. I watched as he remarked between bites how he had never had santol that sweet. That pleased me, mainly because the santol he was enjoying so much of, which happened to be bigger than a tennis ball, comes from a tree that grows in the front yard of our old house on Bonifacio St. in Ormoc City.

That tree has been there for as long as I can remember. We would play under its shade in the afternoons. Yes, it was so much a part of our afternoons we should have given it a name. Manoy Delfin, bless his soul, would coo and caress his prized chickens near it, our yayas would giggle under it as they posed for pictures with flowers in their hair, and I would not be surprised if at night when the whole household was asleep some of our helpers would sneak out to be with some of our drivers to rendezvous under that same tree!

They would never tell, of course; in fact they would swear on their lolo’s and lola’s honor that there was nothing going on, but love affairs never failed to abound within the confines of our gate and we often wondered how they came to be. Pairings among our household staff were as common as fiestas, despite my mother’s admonishing at the onset that it was against the house rules, and when it all would end in the altar Mommy would just sigh and wish them well. She and Daddy would be ninang and ninong and my sister and I were the flower girls, naturally. Thankfully, a lot of them have lived happily ever after. As LolaCarmen used to say when Mommy would lament for the nth time how she has lost the nth helper to the arms of the nth driver/houseboy/carpenter/farmhand: “Sus daimapugngan pa ang baha nungka ang gugma ug biga (Oh well, you can control flooding more than you ever can love and desire).” That really cracks me up to this day. I think if I blame the santol tree for all the forbidden love that still came to be anyway, it would not mind.

It was under that santol tree that I would sometimes read my Reader’s Digest as a child. It was the first non-picture book that I learned to enjoy and I remember how I would give the driver a P50 bill to buy me the latest issue. He would come home with a copy still wrapped in plastic and, always, some change in bills and coins. The coins I would keep to buy my favorite Chippy and the bills I would give back to theyaya. who would use it to buy bread from the bakery for our merienda. To this day, I still read Reader’s Digest whenever I can. It connects me to my childhood and, strangely enough, to that santol tree.

It’s funny what you remember.

After the great flood of 1991 in Ormoc City, where Typhoon Uring claimed thousands of lives in a mid-morning fury, one of our vehicles was found on top of the santol tree when the water subsided. We also found a woman clinging to the branches of the tree, traumatized by the flood, and we took her in. She lived with us for many years. Her name was Ellen, or so she told us, and little by little her memory would come back. She was a teacher of sorts, I’m not very clear on that anymore, but she was young and nice and bright and pleasant to be with. One day she asked permission to leave and that was that, we just never heard from her again. I sometimes wonder where she is now, especially when I remember how she came to us via our santol tree. It saved her life during the flood. I hope she is happy wherever she is now.

When it was in season in June, our harvest from that one tree was seemingly endless. There would be enough for everybody in the house, including all the help, with plenty more to share with LolaCarmen in Cebu. I remember how Mommy would ship big boxes of santol to Martinez Compound where Lola stayed in the big house. And it was there, together with Lola Carmen and our fun titosand titas and cousins, that I learned to not just halve the fruit but to peel it instead so that I was able to enjoy not just the sweet pulp covering the seeds but a little of the sweet and sour flesh also, its color a dull orange, tasting oh-so-wonderful dunked in rock salt. We would eat it that way until our lips were pale from all the salt.

Anyway, in recent years the santol tree ceased to bear much fruit. The older ones believed that was maybe because there were hardly any children playing and dancing around it in the afternoons. You know how green thumbs talk to and play music to their plants? Maybe the same should be done for trees. For it to bear much fruit it apparently needs the stimulation of real life. Add to that the fact that when my youngest brother started handling farm operations, a lot of the trucks would be parked in the front yard, thus cramping the space. Our beloved santol tree was nagtatampo. Maybe it was looking for the gentle rhythm of the sights and sounds of a happy life. For a while there was talk of cutting it but that never pushed through. There was always someone that had a good memory attached to it who would come to its defense.

Now I do not know what has been done differently, but all of a sudden our santol tree, as it grows in the front yard of our old home in Bonifacio Street, is well and alive again. No fertilizer was administered, the trucks covering its view are still there, Manoy Delfin is no longer around to coo to his fighting cocks. But like a miracle it has chosen to live again, bearing fruit that is even bigger and better than before. We are being rewarded now for sparing its life. Ah, the wonders of life as we know it! What changed? No one can tell for sure. Maybe there are children playing and dancing around it in the afternoons again; after all, our playmates then (who were children of our help) now have at least a dozen offspring between them and they still live there. Or maybe, just maybe, there are again many love affairs in the bloom, and when night falls their romance is further nurtured by the rustle of the leaves and the lovely santol tree’s history as a quiet witness to all that was and all that could still be.

That thought really makes me smile.


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