Today is Sunday, September 23, 2018

101 and Counting

By Mani F. Gella

Tito Pepillo, my friend's venerable father, holds the distinction of being the most senior among the elderly in his community where everybody deferentially calls him abuelo. Much as he basks in this appellation, he refuses to feel old. To him, his age is just a number, a whopping number maybe, but still a number. He argues that age is a state of mind. And that one is only as old as he perceives himself to be. These homespun philosophies of Tito Pepillo's became his guiding principles in life.

Weakened now by the burden of years, he still brims over with grandiose plans for the future; his future. He dreams of putting up a small business because “boredom is finally setting in”, he complains. He threatens to run for mayor in his hometown come election time. When reminded that he is “highly disqualified”, he vehemently protested that if a priest can be elected governor in his home province why in heaven's name cannot a centenarian like him be a town mayor?

To many, he may sound a bit odd and strange and perhaps rightly so. But Mang Valentin, his barber for life, says without fear of contradiction, that Tito Pepillo has earned the just claim to his occasional lapses. After all, not everybody gets to be his age, the barber points out quite candidly!

When asked what is the secret of his longevity, Tito Pepillo succinctly replied; “Everything in moderation.” A nugget of wisdom indeed from someone who has been around for a while.

When he hit the century mark, his grandchildren gifted him with made-to-order T-shirts, two of which he particularly treasured and which had the following captions printed on them—“21st CENTURY FOX” and “GREAT TO BE 100 - NO PEER PRESSURE.”

His birthday falls on the eve of hallowe'en. He was born when the clock eerily struck 12; the time for the captive souls in purgatory to roam the deserted streets of the town begging for prayers, as one old wives' tale goes.

When his kids were growing up, hallowe'en was always a big to do in the family but with a difference. Instead of the usual trick-or-treat, Tito Pepillo, like his dramatist father, wrote short plays and staged them on the eve of hallowe'en to the delight of his children and their cousins. But his plays were nothing like the spooky Freddie Kruger-Friday the 13th stuff. They touched more on things that were close to his heart, like family.

Inspired by his family's rich history, he depicted situations replete with the time- honored values of paying homage to their dear departed, preserving family traditions and perpetuating filial love; values that were forever etched in the young minds of his profusely appreciative audience.

Although a strict disciplinarian, he has his light moments too. For this reason, his grandchildren, when they were small, looked forward with great anticipation to their weekend visits with him. A raconteur of the first order, he tirelessly regaled them with hallowe'en stories and his military exploits during the war. To the impressionable kids, he was their war hero and role model, second to none.

There is this one favorite hallowe'en story that Tito Pepillo relishes to tell over and over again. And every time he did, it grew in the telling. So much so that each time it was told, his grandchildren, with bated breath, hung on to his every word lest they miss the “new twists” to the story.

The story goes something like this. A small community of a coastal town in the middle of nowhere woke up one morning , after a hallowe'en night of revelry, to rows upon rows of empty chicken houses. The chicken coops were systematically and methodically wiped out by hallowe'en pranksters of their white-leg horn and rhode island chicken, the town's lifeline to progress. This cruel hallowe'en trick signaled the untimely demise of a promising poultry industry of the town. Henceforth, the inconsolable townsfolk vowed never to raise much more eat chicken again till their dying day.

Later on, this fowl story evolved from the two-bit chicken marauders to pirates who sailed from the depths of the sea who did not only steal chickens but pillaged the town. Only this time, the town put up a valiant fight and drove away the pirates, never to return again. The kids simply lapped up every twist and turn of this rehashed story like it was some kind of fairy tale.

On the other hand, each time he talked of the adversities that he was faced with as a prisoner of war, his children could not hide their dismay over the unfulfilled promises made to war veterans like their father (now all aging and fast dwindling in number) who selflessly put their lives on the line fighting a war that was not of their own making.

Getting on in years has its downside too. Tito Pepillo realized this when he went through three major surgeries followed by a slew of hospital confinements. But each time he did, he looked none the worse for it. Enviably a survivor of life's vicissitudes , this Tito Pepillo.

Once in a great while, he is overcome by pangs of nostalgia. He yearns for the day when he can go back in time and relive that part of his youth when he did not have a care in the world; when life was simpler and less complexed.

An only son in a brood of seven, he got separated from his parents and sisters at an early age when he was sent to study in an exclusive school for boys far away from home. There he learned to speak Spanish like a native. This fluency in the language, he owed to Father Jorge, his mentor and spiritual adviser, who spoke to him only in Spanish and nothing else through out his schooling. Every now and then, Tito Pepillo recounts this episode with unabashed pride to anybody who cared to listen.

With a tinge of sadness, he misses the weekly tete-a-tete he used to have with his widowed mother (who lived to be 99) when she shared with him in whispers (fearful that someone was listening) the family's well-guarded secrets over a bottle of beer. This bonding with his beloved Mama was his way of making up for all the precious moments that were lost in time.

Now at 101, Tito Pepillo still has his dreams. He still tells the chicken story. And yes, he still waits for hallowe'en to stage another play.

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