When speaking of cultural heritage and knowing your roots, I often smile to myself because I have an actual tree for that. Yes, we all have a family tree, but my family came from a mango tree.
During WWII when my grandma on my mother’s side was a child, they abandoned their home and their town to go into hiding. They sought refuge under wild mango trees in the forest, and there they lived. There they made themselves a home. My grandma of course told me this story in snippets, when I was a child.
She used to tell me when they were being mischievous and ‘snuck out’ to go play and run around. They used to pull pranks on each other and pretend to be aswang and scare each other. Their innocent shouts for help would alert the parents, and when met by giggles, heavy reprimanding was still in order.
When I was little, I thought we were pretty similar, my grandma and I. We just wanted to play outside all the time and have fun. We wanted to be loud and feel free. As my grandma gets older, she speaks less and less of those days under the canopy in the forest. As I, myself, get older, I understand why.
The innocence of playing was a privilege for her. During Japanese raids, it was safe only at certain hours of the day to leave the shelter of the tree. Playtime itself was scarce – what precious time you did have, was used to hunt or gather any food or supplies you would need. At nightfall, my great grandparents, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, would take turns keeping watch. And it wasn’t just their nuclear family, it was a community of several families. If there were any noises that raised suspicion, a chain of alarm or warnings would travel through the area. Children at play who spooked one another was not taken very lightly.
I remember my grandma telling me as if they were fun adventures. I thought it would be so cool to live the way she did, only to learn later that it was not by choice but by extremely unfortunate circumstance. The reality of my grandmother’s childhood story – a story told when I myself was a child – is harsh and saddening, so much so that I have been graced with it’s telling only twice in my lifetime. My grandmother might be frail and unable to move on her own now, but through her stories, she has remained a icon of resilience, strength, and courage.
I now proudly weave my own tree story into my grandma’s. I describe my tree as a quiet provider for my family. Ever since I can remember, we have had a lemon tree in the corner of my backyard. This tree is certainly older than I am, and it sports some nasty inch-long thorns. Of course, I learned this at a young age when I thought I would be brave and try to climb to the top to get the biggest, ripest of fruits. It never worked out too well. I used to think it was a ‘mean’ tree for pricking its caretaker (me) but I realized as I got older it was giving me a lesson in patience.
Instead of lumbering about and haphazardly launching myself into the tree, I had to learn how to carefully maneuver around its branches and delicately pluck the lemons lest I tear open my skin from its vicious nature. In this way, my tree also taught me respect. I also learned coexistence. One year, the tree experienced a terrible frost and we expected it to die off. Within one year, it recovered and started producing fruit once again. The qualities of strength and resilience around a tree becoming present once again.
A week ago today, I was given the honor of receiving my first batok. *(I will give the story of my batok it’s own dedicated post at another time). When it came time for Lane to fill in some details, he used a citrus (pomelo) thorn to tap ink into my skin. As I lay on the woven mat, I thought about the physical and spiritual space around me – all the intersections between my immediate environment as well as different points in my life colliding at that very moment. The strength and spirit of my ancestors, their eyes, their voice, their wisdom coming together to be present through my body. So many things whirled through my head, but as I told Lane about my lemon tree’s thorns being very similar to the ones he used to tattoo my arm, it finally hit me that our story of family trees – lemon and mango – were eclipsed by time and ancestry, and being forever present in my skin. Things have finally worked themselves into a balance. When I got home from the Babaylan conference, I showed Lane a couple pictures of my lemon thorns to see if they could be used at all. There’s a chance we will use them to my arm later in a few months time, bringing it all full circle.
Note: Relevant to my lifetime, I constantly hear from 1st , 2nd, 3rd and so on generation Filipino Americans – or any other culturally displaced youths, for that matter – the statement: know your roots. Or: know your history. The idea of ‘roots’ and ‘trees’ are constantly brought up and worshiped. Sometimes its hard for me to envision people in my and future generations that they truly know what it means to come from such humble beginnings. In the age of modern technology and instant gratification, it’s easy to lose sight of who and what brought you here. However, the more people I encounter, the more beautiful and equally as heart filling stories I have heard. Please feel free to share yours with me. I would love to re-post them.