We are buying our first family car. To be more precise, my two yuppie sisters have agreed to finance the purchase of a car to be used by our family of seven. My father and my third-born sister have already made the reservation last weekend, and although I, being an overworked and underpaid government physician, will not make any financial contribution to the purchase, I cannot contain my excitement. Despite my father and mother having been married for almost 29 years, this is our first family anything.
We have never had our own house. My elementary transcript of records is a mess because as a child, I have had to live in Quezon City, Balanga, Navotas-Caloocan, and Las Piñas. In Grade 2 first quarter, I even had to take Chinese language lessons because my sister and I were enrolled in a Chinese school. Being chinky-eyed, we both blended with the crowd, only to learn after three months that we needed to be transferred to another school because our family was moving to my maternal relatives’ residence in Bataan.
We have no family business. My mother used to sell dry goods in Agora and my father once attempted to sell bananas by the truckload to banana chip factories, but realizing that these entrepreneurial attempts brought more burden than relief, both decided to focus on being the dedicated civil engineer and housewife that they were (and still are).
We have no family investment or family bank account to speak of. No family library, family music/DVD collection, or family insurance. We do not even have a family pet.
What we did have from the start was a growing family collection of medals, plaques, trophies, certificates, and diplomas that my parents had hoped would bring all of us a better life. Thank God my father and mother were right.
Being the eldest, I became privy to our family’s financial constraints at a young age. Every quarter, my and my siblings’ anxiety over the forthcoming periodic exams was matched by my mother’s growing unease over having to look for money that she could use to pay for tuition. My father worked long hours in the construction site but the 15,000 pesos he earned per month was not enough. My father would then ask for bale from his bosses and my mother would ask me to accompany her as she borrowed money from relatives and friends, knowing that these people did not always have the kindest words to say to both of them. At some point, people even questioned why they were having a fifth child when they were having difficulty raising four kids.
Still, every day we had food on the table, and every June, my siblings and I turned up at school in time for the first lesson of the year. We did not always like our baon and we did not always have new sets of books and uniforms, but we never did mind. Content with hand-me-downs and Christmas gifts from relatives, we rarely shopped for clothes or toys. We grew up without expecting birthday parties, and if we wanted to buy something outside of school requirements, we had to save up for them. Every so often, the entire family would celebrate an academic achievement by having lunch in Jollibee, only after going to Sunday mass.
Although my parents spoke openly about our limited budget and perpetually preached about the value of thrift, they never argued about money, or the lack of it, in front of us children.
“Kaya kayo, mag-aaral kayong mabuti kasi kayo ang pag-asa namin. Huwag kayong mag-aaway kasi kayo-kayong magkakapatid lang ang magtutulungan.”
That was what my parents always said. The inadequacies — whether perceived or actually experienced — they tirelessly made up for with sheer dedication.
We have a familial proficiency in mathematics because my engineer father sat down with each of us as a child, showing us how to compute using our fingers. Even after a heavy day’s work, he would readily shove his blueprints to help us solve for X. The same hands that sawed wood and molded concrete, he used to neatly cover our notebooks and books with plastic. Now my mother could never help us answer our homework, but she was always there to bring to school the forgotten baon, or to buy art supplies for the project that was nearing its deadline. Full-time housewife, stage mother and cheerleader, she gave the loudest applause and was always the first person to shield us from critics and detractors.
You could say we were spoiled in that manner. From this upbringing you get five honor students, three UP cum laudes, two engineers, and one physician. So far.
Today, there is relief in knowing that my mother can get a haircut in the parlor or buy new daster whenever she wants to, without having to worry about what our family would eat the next day. I have been telling my father that he can choose to retire early, and devote time instead to setting up his food business. There are talks about finally buying a house to call our own, but the family car is a good start.
This transition coincides with a most interesting time in my training as a public health officer, and the realization is two-fold:
First, we were never really poor. There were unfulfilled needs, but not to the point that we were starved or deprived of a good education. Working with the underserved Filipinos who are always hungry, homeless, and hopeless made me appreciate how much more I had growing up.
Second, the good life is earned. The comfort that our family begins to enjoy now is only because of the culture of excellence inculcated in us from the beginning. People are poor and stay poor only when they choose to be.
So forgive me if I sound like a three-year-old kid waiting for his first car ride. Although I will neither be able to fit inside the car (family of seven), nor be able to drive it (having forgotten all driving lessons I took before residency), these are happy times for the family.
We have waited a long time for this; at last, the tides are turning.