These were questions the three-year-old would never have thought to ask. And if he had thought to ask them he’d be too terrified to give them voice. At age three he’s already learned that if he even dares to ask any questions like these, he’d be slapped, immediately and hard. Or worse. Parents never make mistakes, and children never question their parents. The grammar of that language he’s already learned.
The questions never were asked. We all sat in the sala for a while, listening to my mother weeping. The weeping scared me, but I didn’t join in and cry myself. I didn’t know, at the time, why I didn’t join in. But there was one question I thought I could safely ask my mother: “Does this mean that he’s never coming back?”
My mother broke into more weeping, covering her face with her hands, and wailing her answer, “Yes, he’s never coming back, he won’t ever come back to us now.” She was veiled in a cloud of her own grief, alone, her children across the room from her, the two older ones weeping on a couch of their own.
Sitting there on my hard couch, I could feel my feet begin to swing back and forth under me. I didn’t feel heartbroken, the way my mother obviously did. But I felt guilty. Not because I wasn’t crying, but because of the other emotion that rose up in me when my mother assured us all that my father was never going to come back to us. The other emotion was relief.
Who was this Louis Loewinsohn, my father? Who was this man whom my mother and my brothers were now weeping over? Why did I feel relieved to hear that he was never coming back to us, relieved that I’d never see him again?
My father’s ancestors, I’d been told, had migrated to the Philippines from Germany generations earlier, in the middle of the 19th century. I remember my mother telling us that Louis’ father had taught at La Salle University in Manila. Law, I believe. But Louis didn’t enter the academy, or any of the professions.
Instead he went into sales. He seems to have been a natural-born salesman, he loved every aspect of the business. He liked the products he sold, and he loved breaking the customer down. Selling, for him, was like acting out a play that had all been written out beforehand. You knew what lines the customer was going to use to resist, and you knew which lines to use to break down that resistance, to actually convince the man or woman that they couldn’t get along without this product, they couldn’t live without it. And then, the magical moment of the sale, when the customer signed the order form or handed over the cash. The moment of victory.
Louis was described to me, both by my Aunt Ruby and my mother, as having an engaging sense of humor: he was sort of a “class clown,” always full of wisecracks and jokes, always full of movement, telling funny stories and acting them out. He also had a horrific temper, one that scared both my mother and my Aunt Ruby, her sister.
In one series of photographs he’s wearing a sleveless undershirt ( a “wife-beater” these are called), standing in a driveway, tossing his months-old son, Herman, up into the air. You can tell from the pictures that he’s well over six feet tall, with a beefy, muscular body and a typically German square head and jaw. He’s got dark eyebrows and a dark shock of wavy hair. He looks the way I imagine Tom Buchanan looks in The Great Gatsby, a man with a “cruel” body, a man used to getting his way because he knows he can shove people around. Most of the people who come around him sense this, and so give him what he wants and stay out of his way. When he gets angry he rages and roars and pounds on the table and stomps around the room, or stomps out of it. According to my mother he never actually hit her or roughed her up, though he did roar at her, often, putting his face right up into hers and screaming. When he was really angry he shook his fist in her face, grimacing and growling the whole time. “He had enormous hands,” she told me.
I know just five anecdotes about my father, Louis Loewinsohn. Two of these were told to me by my mother and one I heard from my oldest brother, Rich (he was originally named Herman). The last two are etched in my own memory.
In the first of my mother’s stories Louis is off on a sales trip out in the provinces. He runs into a couple of village con men running a shell game in a local bar. He speaks to them in Tagalog, the primary dialect of the Philippines, and even though they answer him in the same dialect, they speak to each other in Visayang, a very different dialect, which Louis pretends he doesn’t understand. They invite him to guess which shell the pea is under, and Louis pretends that he’s new to this game. The con men let him win a few times, and then raise the bet. Each time the head con man stops moving the shells he tells his buddy—in Visayang—which shell the pea is under. Louis continues pretending he doesn’t understand, feigning great uncertainty, for minutes on end, before—finally—“guessing” the right shell.
This goes on for many rounds—the head con man continues to tell his buddy where the pea is—every time. And Louis—apparently by pure luck—guesses the right shell. Every time. He cleans them out, and then, as he puts their last pesos in his pocket and starts for the door, he pauses, and turns, and tells them over his shoulder— in perfect Visayang—“If you guys want to make any money at this game you shouldn’t tell the mark which shell the pea is under.”
Stunned silence from the con men. Gleefully satisfied smiles and applause from Louis’ audience. My mother told this story often, in a tone of great pride in her husband’s shrewdness and his ability to turn the tables on the bad guys. She was also proud of his flair—that theatrical touch at the end, when he lets the con men in on the fact that he’d been outwitting them all along.
She could only have gotten this story from him, and clearly she believed every word. But how plausible is it? The head con man continues telling his buddy where the pea is. Every time? Even after Louis wins several rounds in succession? And the con men accept being conned themselves? Without a peep? In the great Paul Newman movie “The Hustler” Fast Eddie Felsen pulls a stunt like this—and he gets his thumbs broken for it.
In the second of my mother’s stories Louis is taking her out to dinner, and as they’re being shown to their table they pass a trio of young American naval officers in dress whites. All three of them notice her. (She was a stunningly beautiful brunette with flashing dark eyes and a somewhat “exotic” air. She looked a little like Heddy Lamarr.) All three of the of the officers smile at her, they stand and raise their glasses to her in a silent toast. When she and Louis get to their table she finds that her chair is facing the three officers, all of them talking animatedly and laughing. Louis’ back is to them. As she and Louis look over the menu the officers continue to look at her and appear to be discussing her among themselves. One more time they raise their glasses to her in a silent toast. Carmen finds herself glancing in their direction often, smiling in spite of herself, and having trouble making any choices from her menu. She feels terribly awkward, and even a little anxious. How is Louis going to react to this?
At this point Louis, who so far has maintained an ominous silence, says to her, through clenched teeth, “If you so much as look in their direction one more time, I’m going to go over there and kick the shit out of all three of them.”
My mother took it as a given that he could have done it, and would have.
I asked her, “Did you leave? Did you ask him if you could leave the place, both of you?”
“Oh no,” she said, dismissing the question, “of course not. He wouldn’t have heard of it.”
“Did you ask him to switch seats, so that you’d have your back to the Navy guys?”
“No, what could I do?”
“So, you sat there and ate your entire dinner with that threat hanging over your head?
“Of course. What else could I do?”
The third story I heard from my brother Rich. (He was originally named Herman, but in the US, after the war, he switched to his middle name, Richmond. A kid named “Herman” would never have survived in an American grammar school in 1945, right after the war against the Germans.) Rich told me that at one point when he was seven-and-a-half or so he became fascinated with the kitchen of our Aunt Conchita’s boarding house. He was enthralled by the fruits and vegetables and with the kitchen equipment, and with the work the women did there. How, he wondered, could they slice onions or scallions so quickly—without cutting off their own fingers? He was captivated by the huge stoves and the specialized tools—the sifters and garlic presses and potato ricers, and especially the meat grinders that transformed chunks of meat into long tangled thick threads like spaghetti. He couldn’t keep himself out of the kitchen, even after the servant women told him he was being a pest and getting in their way.
Conchita screamed at him, and then she screamed at Carmen, who cried at being embarrassed, once again, by one of her children. There was no way to shut these kids up, to keep them out of the way. So Carmen told Louis about Herman and the kitchen.
“What the hell is he doing in the kitchen in the first place?” he growled. “It’s the women’s part of the house!”
He stomped downstairs and grabbed Herman by the scruff of the neck, lifting him up off the floor. “Stay out of the kitchen!” he roared, without any explanation. “Conchita doesn’t want you in the kitchen! The servants don’t want you in the kitchen! I don’t want you in the kitchen! It’s the women’s part of the house anyway, for Christ sake! Why do you want to go in there at all? You’re forbidden to set your goddam foot in that goddam kitchen! Do you hear me?” He threw his son down on a couch and shook his fist in the boy’s face.
Herman cowered and whimpered in terror.
“If I hear that you’ve so much as set foot in that kitchen I’ll beat you within an inch of your life! Do you understand me?”
Herman cringed and nodded.
“Do you understand me?”
Herman’s lower lip crumpled as he squeaked out a “yes.”
All the next day, he told me years later, the kitchen remained the focus of his attention. He was terrified of his father, and tried, as hard as he could, to think about other things, to play with his friends outside the house and to keep himself occupied. But on top of his ordinary fascination with the kitchen, the room had now acquired the added glamour of being taboo. All the next morning, he told me, even as he was playing with his brothers and his friends, he was visualizing the magical things going on in the kitchen. My brothers and I often played with other local kids underneath the house, where we met in a kind of clubhouse. Part of that clubhouse space was directly underneath the kitchen. Sitting in the darkness underneath the floorboards, Herman could hear the women walking and talking there as they worked their magical operations.
With a great, prolonged effort he managed to stay out of the quarantined kitchen till almost five that afternoon. Then he broke. He tip-toed up the back steps that opened onto a hall that traversed the house from one side to the other. At the opposite end of this hall was a screen door that opened onto the driveway. Halfway between himself and that door was the opening to the kitchen. As he was making the turn from this hallway into the kitchen he looked at the far door—and there was Louis, his car slowly inching past the open door, his face turned toward the house with a look of eager anticipation. When he saw Herman turning to step into the forbidden room, he smiled a smile of victory.
Rich said to me, more than fifty years later, “I couldn’t believe it. Just like me. He was just like me. I couldn’t keep from thinking about getting back into the kitchen, it was the only thing on my mind that whole day. And the only thing on his mind that whole day was the whipping he was going to give me when he came home and caught me there. That smile of victory on his face! I’ll never forget it. He was so satisfied that he’d been right, that I’d given him the victory, that he’d get a chance to ‘beat me within an inch of my life.’ And, oh he did. He whipped me with his belt till he tired himself out. I covered my face, but everywhere else he hit me—ass, legs, arms, back. It didn’t matter to him. He literally whipped me till he was too tired to keep going. At first I screamed like hell, but he kept yelling at me to shut up. Finally I covered my head with a cushion, to muffle my yelling. I’d gotten whippings before, you know, you did too, we all did. But this was really something special. I still don’t have any idea why this one was so severe. Or why he looked and sounded like he was enjoying it so much. It shut me up for a long time.”
My last two stories about Louis Loewinsohn, my father, come from my own memory, where they have all the emotional heft and sensory immediacy of authentic experiences. They are not stories that someone else told me, they are not memories that have been “contaminated” by other sources. They are not dreams or inventions of my imagination.
The first of these happened at my grandfather’s house in Cavite, a beach city south of Manila where we were all living before we moved into Conchita’s boarding house. In this memory my two older brothers and I, all of us in short pants, are standing with our backs to the closed white wooden doors of the garage, as if lined up to face a firing squad. It’s bright and hot, standing out there in the driveway, and I’m squinting. The heat reflected up from the gravel of the driveway is almost painful on my bare legs. My father and mother, Louis and Carmen Loewinsohn, are sitting in canvas lawn chairs in the middle of the driveway. They both sit with their backs to us. My father is smoking a cigarette, pausing from time to time to take a drink from the bottle of beer sitting on the small metal table between the two chairs. No one in this picture says anything.
My father and mother are reading newspapers, although from the way they hold the papers, spread out high and wide in front of them, they could just as well be using them to shade themselves from the sun. I get the sense that they’re aware of their three children standing in a row behind them, but they don’t look at us or take any notice.
All I know is that one of my two older brothers has done something wrong, but both of them are denying it. I know I didn’t do it, and when I was called out to the driveway to face my parents I denied it too. My father and mother barely look at us, only taking their eyes off their newspapers for a moment at a time. They tell Herman to go inside and fetch the servant. “Tell her to bring the castor oil from the medicine chest,” my father says.
Now I know that whichever of my brothers or I admits to having done the “something wrong,” that person will have to drink the castor oil. I also know that if no one admits it, then we’ll all be made to drink it. I’ve tasted castor oil before, but never as medicine, always as punishment.
Herman comes back with the servant, who is carrying a bottle of castor oil and what looks to me like an enormous spoon. She stands at the very edge of the gravel driveway, on the brown, dead remnant of what used to be a lawn.
I hear my brothers start to whimper, and within a few seconds I hear myself whimpering too. I’m sweating into my shirt and into the elastic waistband of my pants. The sun is so bright it’s painful, and even squinting doesn’t help. My chest is heaving with my whimpering. I hear my father say, in the same tone he might use to comment on the humidity, “If you don’t stop that whimpering you’ll get two tablespoons instead of one.” My head is down, and my father and mother are little more than dark shadows at the top edge of my field of vision. The closed white door behind us reflects the sun’s heat onto my back and the backs of my bare legs. I can’t stop my whimpering, in spite of my father’s threat. My mother has said nothing, languidly turning the pages of her newspaper. In the heavy air the crackle of her folding newspaper sounds abnormally loud.
I’m angry because I’m about to get a whole tablespoon of castor oil shoved into my mouth, maybe two tablespoons—even though I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m angry at my brothers because one of them did do something wrong, yet he’s willing for the rest of us to be punished along with him, even though he knows we didn’t do it. I’m afraid to be angry at my father. What would he do to me if he found out I was angry with him? What would happen to me if my mother found out I was angry at her for letting castor oil be shoved into my mouth even though I didn’t do anything wrong—and she isn’t doing anything to prevent it?
My father puts out his cigarette and waves casually to the servant. In Spanish he tells her, “give it to them.” He could be instructing her to bring in the mail. Now my brothers are openly weeping and moving their feet up and down in place in a miserable imitation of the act of running away. Now I’m doing it too.
I’ve been punished this way before, all three of us have. I know what castor oil tastes like. It’s viscous and sticky, and its smell and its taste and its feeling stay in your mouth and nose for hours after you’ve swallowed it. It tastes like something mechanical, like the oil you’d put in a machine. It immediately makes you retch, but if you do you get another spoonful right away, till you hold it down. It makes your body feel like it’s trying to get rid of its own insides. And worse than its taste is the way it takes over your guts and forces you to shit till it hurts to do it and you can’t stop and sometimes it forces you to shit so runny and so fast you can’t get to the toilet in time and the shit runs down your legs and it smells so hateful and you hate yourself for stinking like this and for being so utterly helpless that you can’t even control your own body. You’re reduced to being a baby again.
The memory ends with my mouth closing over the oil-filled spoon with the wretched taste and smell of the oil taking possession of my mouth and beginning to slide down my throat while I hear my brothers weeping and wailing and see them holding on to their stomachs, and my father, Louis Loewinsohn, has still not turned in his chair to look at his sons, and his wife Carmen goes right on reading her newspaper, and I know that, however horrible I feel right now, there’s much worse yet to come.
(I didn’t know, until fifty years or so later, when I saw Fellini’s autobiographical film “Amarcord” that castor oil was used as a punishment against anyone who got in their way by the Italian fascists.)
My last memory of my father involves only him, my father, and me. I’m standing on the top landing of the main flight of stairs in my Aunt Conchita’s boarding house, looking down at the front door, which is just beginning to open. I’ve done something wrong, and I know that my father has been told about it. He knows that I’ve done something wrong, and the front door is opening, and I know that in a matter of seconds my father will step through it into the house and see me standing at the top of the stairs. He knows that I’ve done something wrong, and he’s coming to punish me.
My father, Louis Loewinsohn, went off to Shanghai and died in 1941, so this is the memory of an encounter with him when I was no more than three-and-a-half years old. At that age I’ve already been punished by him severely enough that the possibility of being whipped and beaten like that again paralyzes me with terror.
The door at the bottom of the stairs begins to swing open, and in utter panic I turn away from it, looking for someplace to hide. I run into the bathroom, terrified of the beating I know he’s going to give me for whatever it is that I’ve done wrong, but I’m also afraid that my running away from him will only make him more angry, that he’ll beat me harder and longer because my running away silently accuses him. My running away accuses him of having terrorized me in the past. I’m terrified of accusing him, even silently, since that will only make him beat me harder. There’s a very narrow space between the toilet and the wall in this bathroom, and it occurs to me that I might be able to hide there, and even though it’s disgusting to me to get down there behind the toilet, where everyone pees and shits, it may be the only place where he won’t be able to find me. I hear his footsteps climbing the stairs toward me. I look again at the space between the toilet and the wall, and realize that it’s too small. There isn’t any place where I can hide from my father. I stand beside the sink in that bathroom, staring at the door, hearing myself making a sound that I can’t describe but that I recognize as the voice of my terror.
That’s where the memory ends.
[9 R. Hidalgo]
My plunge into the world of reading, the world of the alphabet and the words those letters made up and how those words connected with each other to make sentences and whole stories began a year or so after the Japanese army had marched into Manila in January of 1942 and began the occupation. I learned how to read a few months after we—my mother, my two older brothers and I, our Filipina servant Rosa and her two sons—had moved out of my Aunt Conchita’s boarding house, and into the enormous Valdes house on R. Hidalgo, in the Quiapo district of Manila.
In spite of its imposing size, the old Valdes house (you’d really have to call it a “mansion” or an “estate”) made no claim to luxury or grandeur or ostentatious ornament. Its main corridor, running the length of the building, was austere, with dark wainscoting and a high ceiling and no windows and evenly spaced pictures and photographs of old family members, and parallel rows of tall, dark teakwood doors that led to small, dim apartments. That main corridor felt more like a space you’d find in a school or a priory than a home. The place was immense: the grounds must have taken up several acres, and the main dining room, with long refectory tables and windows that reached up almost to the twenty-foot-high ceiling, could seat more than a hundred people. In his book, In Our Image, Stanley Karnow writes that when William Howard Taft served as Governor General of the Philippines he once attended a state dinner in that dining room.
The house had been built by Benito Legarda as a wedding present for his daughter. One of the streets near the house is named after Legarda, who’d been an important figure in pre-World War II Philippine politics. He was one of the leaders of a group that lobbied, not for Philippine independence, but for statehood, for the inclusion of the Philippines in the union of (what was then) the forty-eight United States. The Legarda/Valdes family possessed huge holdings in real estate in Manila and in rubber plantations and copra in the provinces and abroad. The family also owned a controlling interest in a film studio in Manila, Lebran Productions. After World War II the Valdes house and grounds were donated to the church and converted into a small university.
In 1943, when she first taught me how to read, my mother, Carmen Baugh Loewinsohn, was thirty years old. She’d been a widow for two years by then, and had only recently stopped dressing exclusively in black. She was a single mom lugging three kids around with her, the oldest of whom was eight. Until he died, her late husband Louis supported her and their three kids as a salesman, and evidently he supported us reasonably well, till toward the end there, when the Great Depression slowed sales down to the point that he had to move his whole family in to live with his father-in-law, a widower living alone in a house in Cavite. It shamed Louis and hurt him deeply, my mother told me years later, that he had to depend on her father, even having to borrow money from him to buy cigarettes.
Carmen had married him while she was still in high school, and she never graduated. She’d never learned to type or file or take dictation or manage a schedule or an office. She wouldn’t have been able to operate a switchboard or a beauty salon or the kitchen of a small restaurant. She knew nothing about teaching a classroom full of kids. Her husband and her mother were dead, and her father was in Old Bilibid Prison, a prisoner of war, jailed by the Japanese for working with the US Army Corps of Engineers. What on earth were we—she and her three sons—doing living in the Valdes mansion, rubbing elbows with prominent politicians, land-owners, import-export titans and movie producers?
On top of the social/financial gap between Carmen and her children on the one hand and the Valdeses on the other, there was another divide. My mother’s father, Neville Baugh, was the son of an English missionary. He’d been born in Ceylon and raised in Calcutta and Devon, England, before moving with his family, to California, where he got his degree in engineering from UC Berkeley and his American citizenship. He was tall and thin and pale and very American, in spite of his slightly patrician manner and his trace of a British accent. In the Philippines he’d married the daughter of a wealthy land-owner in Panay, a woman who, my mother insisted, to her dying day, was Spanish, Pilar de la Hoz. In spite of my mother’s joblessness and man-lessness and her precarious finances, Carmen Baugh Loewinsohn was part of the white colonial presence in the Philippines, a member of the insulated American community and the generations-old Spanish community that clung to its aristocratic privilege and superior status.
The Valdes family were Filipinos.
In the Philippines the whites all employed servants, and all the servants were Filipinos. Wealthy, fairer-skinned Filipinos employed servants too, and those servants were always darker than their employers. My mother’s servant, Rosa, had two sons, Jaime and Peleng, roughly the same age as my brothers and me. My mother was shocked to learn one day that my brothers and I played with Jaime and Peleng, pretty much every day. When I asked her why we weren’t supposed to play with them, she was surprised that the question could come up at all. “They’re Filipino,” she insisted, as if that settled the matter, “they’re servants.”
So it was massively confusing to me, at the age of four, to suddenly be taken in and sheltered and protected by a family of Filipinos who, in spite of everything my mother had told me, were—to my four-year-old eyes—vastly superior to us, financially and socially. From my perspective, the grown-ups in the Valdes family even had better manners and a more dignified bearing than my white family and I. I never heard any of them screaming or swearing at each other; I never saw any of them throwing things at each other when they got angry. The grown-ups in my family swore and screamed and threw thing at each other whenever they got angry, something they did a lot.
To add to my confusion, my Aunt Ruby, my mother’s younger sister, not only socialized with the Filipino Valdeses, she had actually married one of them—Jose, nicknamed “Chino” because of his narrow, slanted eyes. The two lived in a small suite of two rooms in the Valdes house, in what was called “el entresuelo,” a kind of mezzanine between the ground floor and the main living quarters. I was told by one of the Valdes boys that the “entresuelo” rooms had originally been designed as servants’ quarters. When the Japanese invaded and more and more relatives of the Valdeses lost their homes, they came to the huge house on R. Hidalgo for refuge. The first people to be moved out to make room for these relatives, of course, were the servants. These “entresuelo” rooms were small and dark, but their windows and doors opened onto a broad, sunny verandah that looked down into the Valdes estate’s side yard or garden. It was on this verandah that I learned from my mother how to read.
As a white boy I was scolded and even punished for playing with our Filipina servant’s sons. Why then was my Aunt Ruby given permission to marry a Filipino man when, according to my mother, Filipinos were by their nature inferior to us, unfit even to play with? I couldn’t imagine asking my mother that question: it would sound to her like I was accusing my Aunt Ruby of doing something unnatural. Her sister. But in my child’s mind I concluded that money and social status somehow made race unimportant. Even though it was “unnatural” for a white boy to play with the children of Filipino servants, it was perfectly “natural” for a white woman to marry a Filipino—as long as the Filipino was a wealthy aristocrat who was also, my mother insisted, “Spanish”.
Filipino blood, she explained, was very “weak.” The facial and bodily features determined by Filipino blood were “purified,” washed away, she said, by a generation or two of intermarriage with whites. After a couple of generations, my mother declared airily, “you wouldn’t be able to tell that they’d ever even been Filipinos at all.” The Valdeses, my mother insisted, had been intermarrying with Spaniards for generations now, and so were just as acceptable, socially, as actual white people. My mother, who at age thirty was stunningly beautiful, had the black hair and eyes, the full lips and puffy eyelids recognizable as Filipino facial traits. The photographs I have of her mother, Pilar de la Hoz, show her to be unmistakably mestiza, half-and-half Filipina and Spanish.
We were living in the huge Valdes house because my Aunt Ruby had lobbied her mother-in-law, Abuelita, the matriarch of the Valdes clan, to take us in. We were living in a tiny apartment made up of two rooms and a bath next to Ruby and her husband’s on the “entresuelo”. It was dark and crowded and we slept on the floor, our mosquito nets nailed to the low ceiling, but it was an indescribable relief to escape from Aunt Conchita. It was also lucky for us that my Aunt Ruby had grasped the wretchedness of our situation at Aunt Conchita’s boarding house when she did, while the entresuelo rooms were still available. Families who came to the Valdes house for refuge after the entresuelo rooms had all been filled had to be crowded into dormitory-style rooms, each room containing several families, separated from one another only by sheets hung over clotheslines.
But if the growing flood of refugees made the house more crowded, it also brought new kids to play with, and it brought people who read books and newspapers instead of playing bridge and mah jong all day. I was glad to meet the new kids, one of whom showed me a newspaper—it was in the newspapers that I first discovered the comics. This boy (I think his name was Ramon) had a father who brought one of these newspapers home every day. And every day, I discovered, the comics page changed: the same characters had different adventures. Some of these comic strips told their stories exclusively in pictures, with no text at all, and these Ramon and I had no trouble understanding.
After a week or so of struggling to puzzle out what was happening in the other comic strips, the ones that used dialogue balloons as well as pictures, I went to my mother and asked if she would read the comic strips to me.
During this period my mother was spending a lot of time each day playing bridge or mah jong with other women at card tables set up in the great dining room/sala of the Valdes house. As I approached her table I began to feel a little uncertain: my mother was talking animatedly and nodding her head and smiling and laughing, in harmony with the three other women at her table. On the one hand this told me that she was in a good mood, and so would be more likely to break off her fun with her friends to read the comics to me. But on the other hand, if she was having such a good time she might not want to drop her mah jong and her friends just to take up the chore of reading to me.
Yet when I asked her she surprised me. She smiled a huge smile at me, just the way she always did just before she was about to have her picture taken. In Spanish she told the women at her table that I was her son, and that she had to leave them now so that she could go and sit outside on the verandah with me and read me the comics.
When we got to the main hallway and shut the door of the dining room behind us she paused a moment, leaning back against the wall with her hand to her head, mumbling in Spanish, “Oh god, what bores those women are! Let’s get some ice water from the kitchen before we go out to the veranda.”
I wondered how I could have misinterpreted her mood so drastically. She looked to me like she was having such fun with her friends.
When she read the comics to me she sat back in her chaise and I sat on her lap, feeling the softness of her thighs and her bosom under me, surrounded by her arms and her smell as she held up the paper and pointed out which of the characters was speaking and what they were saying. When she read the dialogue her voice was a delicious humming in my ear, and I could fit my head into the hollow where her neck became her shoulder. Reading had always been, for me, one of the powers reserved to grown-ups, and along with her beauty and her comfortable softness, this power she had—to translate the silent marks on paper into sentences of dialogue and narrative—was one of many things that kept me in awe of her. She never read bedtime stories to my brothers and me (it was almost always one of the servants who put us to bed), and this new practice of reading the comics aloud to me while I sat on her lap both entertained me and gave me the luxury of physical contact with her, something I was hungry for. It became a daily treat that I looked forward to with a buzzing excitement.
After a week or two of this wonderful daily routine she began to show more and more reluctance to reading me the comics. Now she often insisted that she was busy, or that “this is not a good time” or that she “would do it later.” I had no idea how something that she’d started out enjoying had deteriorated into a burdensome chore that she insistently postponed. But obviously I had caused it. Even so, I couldn’t stop asking her: I’d become addicted to sitting in her lap and having her read to me.
One time when I asked her, for the third or fourth time that day, to read me the funny papers, she snapped at me impatiently—“I don’t have time right this minute, Ronnie. I can’t be at your beck and call every minute of the day, Hijo! You know, I’m not your servant!”
This was the equivalent of hearing her say, “You know, I’m not a Filipina!” I’d insulted her. It was my insistence that had insulted her this way. Then, just as I was getting ready to slink away, she smiled a knowing smile and said, in a soothing, seductive voice, “Besides, if you learned to read for yourself you wouldn’t need to find me to read to you. You wouldn’t need to rely on me. Wouldn’t that be better? You’d be able to read the comics, you’d be able to read anything you like, and you’d be able to do it whenever you felt like it. Wouldn’t that be better? Wouldn’t you like to learn how to read? Wouldn’t you like me to teach you how to read?” She was smiling as if we were about to launch a conspiracy, something secret and delicious that the two of us were about to embark on. Together.
In my world, reading was a grown-up power. By offering to teach me how to read she was offering to transform me into a grown-up. This was a prospect so charged that I could feel my excitement as a physical pressure in my chest and my upper arms, as if I’d suddenly realized that I was in a terrific rush to get someplace. I began jumping up and down in the same spot in front of her, yelling, “Now? Can you teach me now? Now?”
“Well, it’ll take a little while, but we can start now, yes. Go and get some big drawing paper and some crayons.”
Still jumping in place, I reached out to try to hug her. She pulled back away from me, saying, “Ay, no me toques! Juelo de sol!”
I see this five-year-old boy on the verandah, jumping in place in front of his mother, a geyser of excitement, reaching out to hug her as she pushes him away, telling him, “Don’t touch me, I’m all sweaty!” The boy doesn’t realize how this woman has just contradicted herself: just a minute ago she had no time to read him the comics; suddenly she has time to teach him how to read. It doesn’t occur to the boy to ask his mother why she suddenly wants to teach him how to read. All he knows is that his mother has some secret knowledge that she has just offered to share with him, and in his excitement he’s ready to jump out of his skin. When she tells him not to touch her, he runs to the little room he shares with his brothers to bring back the paper and the crayons before she has a chance to change her mind.
Carmen Baugh Loewinsohn never worked as a teacher. She never finished high school, and of course she had no conception of the controversies surrounding the competing theories regarding how reading should be taught. She just jumped in and plowed straight ahead. On the oversize sheets of newsprint she drew the alphabet in large block letters, and taught me the names of the letters. She taught me the little rhyming melody (“A-B-C-D, E-F-G ...”) that helped me remember their names. Then she taught me the different sounds each letter was capable of making, and how the different sounds could be combined to form parts of words and then whole words. The words then combined to make sentences and paragraphs and—ultimately—stories, stories like “The Pied Piper of Hamlin Town,” the first story we worked on after the comics, the first story I ever read for myself. There was no end, I realized, to where reading and stories could take you.
I don’t remember how long this process took, but when I think back on this period it always feels like a magical extent of non-time that can’t be measured, the kind of time that spins past on a movie screen in a blur of pages flying off a calendar while montages of jet liners take off and land at exotic airports. I remember having trouble with some of the diphthongs and some combinations, like gh and ph. At the beginning I persistently read “laughing” as “log - hing”. The combination made no sense to me, and my mother made no attempt to explain it to me. At the time I was sure that her refusal to explain was a choice she made: it would never have occurred to me that she didn’t explain it because she couldn’t. “That’s just the way it is,” she said, in a tone that ended the matter. There would be lots of occasions when she would say that to me. “That’s just the way it is.” I accepted it without question.
But the difficulties I encountered in learning how to read were really minor, and in a matter of a few weeks I’d learned enough about the sounds of the letters and the rules of combining them that I could read the comic strips on my own. I didn’t need to seek my mother out anymore, I didn’t need to sit in her lap and feel her arms and her smell surrounding me as her voice buzzed in my ear and I snuggled my head into the hollow where her neck became her shoulder. I could read by myself now. From the newspaper comics we went on to a collection of fairy tales my mother had or found, one that included “The Pied Piper of Hamlin Town,” the first narrative I ever read from start to finish on my own.
It never occurred to me, at age five, to ask where “Hamlin Town” was located, or why the piper wore such a strange outfit. To me Hamlin was a town in a storybook, a town of red tile roofs and tidy stucco houses painted in happy colors—white or yellow or ochre. I did wonder what the townspeople had done to bring so many rats among them in the first place. They must have done something really evil to deserve those rats. The rats could only have come as a punishment for their sins.
When I asked my mother, she said, “That’s just the way it happened.”
Later on in the story the townspeople demonstrated their own evil nature, they showed why the rats had been sent to them as a punishment—they they refused to pay the piper the fee they’d agreed on. And then they proved their wickedness even further when they stood still and did nothing but watch while their children were being danced out of the town—out of the town and across the fields and through the portal into the Paradise inside the mountain. What kind of parents would stand still and do nothing while their children were being led away by a stranger wearing such a strange outfit?
And the lame boy on crutches who gets left behind—what about him? The last time we see him he’s standing there, leaning on his crutches, watching the other children disappear into the magical portal to the paradise inside the mountain. He must have done something bad too, like the townspeople, the parents. Because he’s lame. God must have made him lame as a punishment for something. Otherwise he wouldn’t be lame. He misses out on the Paradise inside the mountain, and he loses all his friends. And now he has to live the rest of his life knowing that he missed out on Paradise. Now he’s the only kid left in the town and he has no friends and he has to live every day of the rest of his life with the people who stood still and did nothing but watch while their children were danced away from them—forever. This boy must have done something really wicked, or maybe he’s just naturally wicked, for God to punish him this way.
My mother chose this story entirely at random, she never gave a moment’s thought to the questions the story might provoke in me, or the connections I might draw from it. How could she (or I, for that matter) possibly have known that some forty years later I would write my own version of the Pied Piper story, a piece titled “The Town”.
Here it is.
The town is a town in a picture—a postcard or a calendar, a town we have seen before. But in the picture we see only a part of it, the part of the town that meets the water, the bright waves flashing in the sun or the sun flashing on the waves, the white boats in the harbor, their colored sails furled, their hulls continuing under the surface of the water, which reflects only their superstructure. If we see the Platz of this little town, the striped awnings leaning out over the tables on the sidewalk, we don’t see the drawing rooms or the bedrooms or the kitchens, where the people of this town sleep or prepare their food or converse with one another. The mountains that rise up protectingly to the east are clean upswellings of green and brown, over which narrow trails wind their way to the neat farms sheltered in the gentle folds of the foothills.
Everything in this picture is clean and bright—the white stucco of the houses and the public buildings, the splashes of the awnings and the orange tops of the tables in front of the sidewalk cafes. Who would even suspect the rats that plague the good folk of this town—first heard in scratchings in the wainscotting at night, waking them from peaceful dreams, then seen in the kitchen, wolfing down great chunks of bread left on the cutting board, and then, bolder, in broad daylight, moving sluggishly across the residential streets in droves, herds—pillaging the stores and shitting on the rugs, turning ferociously to bite the hand that attempts to club them with a rolled-up newspaper. The rats come up out of the sewers and cisterns, out of the cellars of the white houses and the basement storage areas, out of the holds of the bright boats in the harbor.
The townsfolk are at their wits’ end, unable to imagine a way to rid themselves of the rats, unable even to remember what their lives had been like before the rats. At the moment of profoundest despair a stranger in pied garments enters the town carrying a flute, and offers—for a modest fee—to rid the town of its rats. At first the stranger is greeted with derisive laughter, the burgomeister, his butcher’s apron over his blue suit, seeking to match wits with him in the central platz to an audience of idlers. While the loafers watch and listen to the exchange the rats nibble at their shoes and leap up to snap at the apples in their hands. But the stranger seems too simple to offer much sport, and almost in boredom the town fathers agree to call a town meeting, at which the stranger’s price is accepted as part of a perhaps entertaining joke.
The next day at sunrise the piper appears in the town square and begins to play his flute. After a few moments the rats come out to hear, as the townsfolk stare in disbelief from their windows. The stranger continues to play a simple tune on his pipe as he winds his way, with some show of solemnity, and even a note of sadness, through all the streets of the town, from the narrow, winding lanes of the working-class quarters to the broad avenues and parks where the town fathers and mothers are used to strolling their children, followed by an ever-growing crowd of the town’s rats. At last he ends on the municipal pier, and playing his pipe the whole while in the gathering dusk, he pipes the rats with great ceremoniousness into the blue deep water of the harbor. Even the rats in the boats now erupt out of the port-holes and scuppers to join their brethren as they plunge into the harbor.
As the last rat leaps into the water the stranger’s face shows no trace of triumph. He has read the story, and he knows that these good folk will refuse his payment, that they will not accept his ultimatum, that the next morning he will make the rounds of these same streets and squares, piping sadly and followed by an ever-growing throng of the townspeople’s children, who will follow him with stately tread to the side of the nearest mountain, which will open like a door to admit them, never to be seen again by their parents. His lined face is sad and a little bewildered, yet resigned. He does not know what it is about these people that brought the rats among them in such numbers to begin with, but he knows that the children will always follow the same tune as the rats, and he suspects that he will go unpaid for doing the same job twice, that these people never hired him to rid them of the rats.
He is a simple man, and there is a part of these people that he never quite understands, no matter how many towns he visits on his rounds.