By Myrna Pena-Reyes
Loneliness shaped my father’s life, and circumstances deepened the loneliness that accompanied him to the end. Yet he accomplished his goals with a determination ever since, while still a child, he arrived at a singularity of purpose that would set him apart from the traditional path of his clan, farmers whose days were tuned to the rising and setting of the sun, planting and harvesting, courting and wedding, birthing and dying.
By the time my father Alfredo Y. Reyes was born in 1907, the son of a farmer- cabeza de barangay in Sinait, Ilocos Sur, the Americans had established an educational system that would educate the children of both rich and poor Filipinos.
Alfredo loved school and learning and earned excellent grades. When he and his boyhood companions would lie outdoors on moonlit nights sharing their dreams of the future, he didn’t let on what he wanted to be. While the others talked of earning dollars on Hawaiian pineapple plantations, my father secretly nurtured his dream of becoming a teacher. He admired his school teachers for their knowledge and fine clothes.
But to become a teacher meant attending school beyond the seventh grade that would impose great financial hardship on his family. To reveal his dream would elicit derisive laughter and ridicule from his friends. So he guarded his secret. He knew he could never be a farmer. He chafed at the farm chores, and his family could not teach him how to plow.
When he finished the seventh grade, one of his teachers strongly suggested to his father that he be allowed to continue his education “because Alfredo was an excellent student and not cut out for farm work.” But Alfredo’s older brother thought his place was on the farm like all of them. Still, their father must have felt proud and honored to have a son bright enough to pursue higher education.
At the Vigan High School, Alfredo relished student life and excelled in algebra and science. To stretch his funds, he developed sound habits in managing money and organizing his time, traits that would serve him well always. All his life, he would live a life of strict discipline, but he would always be an anxious and lonely man.
Though he was consistently in the brightest section of his class, a sadness tempered his life. At home, his older brother complained about his absence and questioned their father’s wisdom in sending him to high school. Alfredo’s guilt and sadness isolated him from his carefree peers. While they made plans for college, he knew that that would be impossible for him because he wouldn’t allow himself to be a burden to his family again. In fact, he determined never to be a bother to anyone, which would account for his pride in self-sufficiency and independence all his life.
He was the first in his clan to finish high school. College was made possible through a townsmate, Prof. Juan Campos, who taught botany at Silliman Institute. He told Alfredo’s family about the work scholarship program at Silliman that covered tuition, board and lodging of needy deserving students. So arrangements were made for Alfredo to accompany him back to Dumaguete. Alfredo’s older brother openly resented the plan.
At Silliman, when Alfredo wrote home for additional funds, he learned how his older brother was making life difficult for their father. The next year, Alfredo qualified as a lab assistant in botany, a job he would hold till graduation, showing his family that he could be on his own. He was also put in charge of the Botanical Garden. His success with plants was the only link he would keep to his farming heritage.
He thrived at Silliman and would remember with humor his initial difficulty understanding the American accent of teachers like Dr. Robert Silliman, his history professor, and Dr. James Chapman, zoology professor. But he would form a warm and close father-son friendship with Dr. Chapman who would help him get hired at Silliman later in life.
Since he could not afford to go home, he stayed behind on campus during long school breaks. From his dorm by the sea emptied of his dorm mates, he would watch the boats leaving the pier with other students headed home on vacation.
But Mrs. Laura Hibbard, wife of then Silliman president Dr. David Hibbard, hired him to take care of their yard and plants, as well as their fat spoiled cat, when they went away on summer vacation. Alfredo used his extra earnings for school supplies and clothes. Like teachers and students then, he wore white Amerikana and a korbata to class.
When he had himself baptized as a Protestant, Alfredo embraced religion on a personal level. For several days after his baptism, he was filled with a sense of euphoria that he took to be the power of the Holy Spirit. From then on, his faith and his close relationship with God was a steadfast source of strength. The wondrous mysteries of science that would occupy him all his life accommodated this abiding faith in a Supreme Intelligence who was benevolent and merciful.
But he was a loner with very few friends. Guarded and very private, he did not make friends easily. Sometimes he would join activities of the Ilocano Students Organization where Elena de la Pena and her sister Petra were members. The two were also in his botany class. Elena was warm and outgoing, as Alfredo was distant and fiercely private. He may have noticed her, but she had a boyfriend. Whenever she and her friends would visit the Botanical Garden, they couldn’t help noticing how hardworking and devoted to his job “Manong Fred” was. Their mutual friend, Ginesa “Gining” Gaoay-Heceta, asked him to sign her autograph book. Decades later, she would show his children his message: “I hope you won’t forget your friend, the loneliest of men.”
After graduation in 1931, Alfredo went home to see his family again after an absence of four years. That was during the Depression, and he had to leave home once more to look for work and pursue his dream.
Mindanao, the “Land of Promise” beckoned with land available for homesteading. But he wasn’t interested. After several stints as a substitute teacher where he taught different subjects and struggled to make ends meet, he finally landed a full-time job teaching high school biology.
About this time, Alfredo’s path and Elena’s would cross again. Her closely-knit family in Cagayan, Misamis Oriental were impressed with the quiet, hard-working man and learned to respect his sense of privacy and fierce independence.
After he and Elena wed, they settled in Cagayan where he taught high school and she, elementary school, and started a family. My twin sister Lorna and I were followed two years later by a brother, Dion. This was probably my father’s happiest time. But it wouldn’t last, for my mother had to seek radiation treatment at the PGH in Manila for breast cancer. In her absence, my father held the family together with the help of a loyal housemaid. From school, he would rush home to take care of us.
World War II would interrupt my mother’s treatment. My sister and I had just turned three when our families fled to the mountains. For the duration of the war, we moved back and forth in the forests and jungle evading the Japanese. My father could construct a hut from bamboo and cogon grass in no time; he made and laid out bamboo traps for fish, shrimps and crabs in rivers and streams, and knew what wild plants to gather for food.
But my mother weakened gradually. Devotedly every day, my father would clean and dress the suppurating wound on her breast, braving its stench. As children, we learned to be obedient and quiet.
Years later, he would tell us how my mother worried that she wouldn’t be around to help care for us. She was especially concerned that we should go to college. My father promised to give us a good education. My sister and I were four when our mother was released from her suffering. But life was a constant struggle. Food was scarce, and we were always sick with malaria. In a serious fall, my father broke his thigh while fleeing the Japanese, and he would always walk with a pronounced limp.
Because of his independence and need for privacy, our family would live separately from our relatives. Since we were still very young, he did all the work: gathering food and fetching water in a hollowed out bamboo tube, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, bathing us at a communal spring. I remember watching him sometimes grinding corn on a stone galingan on the kitchen floor at night, a sad, solitary figure. He was very resourceful, sometimes hiring himself out to harvest rice in exchange for a few gantas of rice; at other times he made lumpia which he sold at the tabo-an on Sundays. He was always working and had no close friends, but we were always together. He showed us spiders spinning their webs, katydids and cicadas close up, birds’ nests, and taught us our ABCs which we practiced on the back of banana leaves, using pointed sticks for pencils.
At War’s end in 1945, we returned to Cagayan and started school a year later. Although our father left the public school system to become the first director (president) of Pilgrim Institute, a newly-founded Protestant high school in Cagayan, his dream was to have us educated at Silliman. He figured that if we moved to Dumaguete, we could work our way later through college, as he did. Thus, when he was offered a job at Silliman on Dr. Chapman’s recommendation, our family moved to Dumaguete in 1950.
We were aware that he always expected high grades of us. After elementary school and high school, as he had planned, my sister and I would become “work scholars” in college. My brother would earn an athletic scholarship on the varsity soccer team. When we all graduated from college, our father felt that he had finally fulfilled his promise to our mother.
Professionally, he was a dedicated teacher and researcher, the botanist in the Biology Department which included Professors Dioscoro Rabor, Angel Alcala, Rodolfo Gonzales, among others. New species of army ants in Camp Lookout and marine algae (seaweeds) that he collected would be named after him. He was included in the Directory of Selected Scholars and Researchers in Southeast Asia, and in 1993, the zoological garden in the Center for Tropical Conservation Studies (CENTROP) near the Silliman grandstand was inaugurated and named in his memory. His contribution as a member of the Campus Beautification Committee is still evident around the Silliman campus. In this year’s Founders Day celebrations, he was honored as one of the University’s “Heritage Builders,” having worked at Silliman for twenty-nine years.
In the early 1960s, my father’s older brother, who had objected so strongly to his pursuing higher education, sent his youngest child to stay with us here so that she could also attend college at Silliman. In letters to my father, he expressed deep regret for the past and begged forgiveness. My cousin would earn a BSE degree and had a successful teaching career here where she has made her home with her Dumagueteí’o husband whom she met in college.
A single parent before the term existed, my father never re-married. He had been independent too long and didn’t want to complicate his life. The sole ruler at home, he kept us in line with his strict discipline. He would pass on to us his spirit of independence, sense of privacy, his work ethic and self-sufficiency, but most of all, his abiding faith in a higher power who guides our course in life.
My father encouraged us to discover our full potential and be productive citizens. When we left home to pursue our own lives, he never complained that he would be left alone. He had a full life after retirement, taking care of his fruit trees and renting out the extra rooms in the house to Silliman students. He would keep attending campus activities, drawing strength and comfort from his spiritual life, and considered the Rev. Dr. Proceso Udarbe his best friend and confidant.
When he died unexpectedly from pneumonia at 84 in 1991, none of us were around. But I’d like to think that, with God’s constant presence in his life, my father may not have felt so lonely after all. A grateful Sillimanian, he had left instructions for the lump sum of his retirement to be given back to the school at his death to help fund scholarship programs.