There is much fun here, in this repeated act of Leah Francine, a daughter born and reared in the interregnum of exile, (dis)placement, rootlessness, and this genesis of taking roots in an alien land and in our alien(ated)lives.
Papa, anong number mo? was a question I have heard from her the first time when finally her grandmother had gotten her phone when I went to visit the homeland last summer.
She is good with numbers, this daughter, but more so with telephone numbers.
She and an aunt, her Tita Lynette, have developed some kind of a ceremony, a ritual of friendship that is rare between an aunt and a niece, the aunt in middle age, the niece a four-year old adalantada.
Rare were the evenings that they did not talk to each other.
The ceremony has developed this way: her aunt would call the niece and would talk for an hour or so, many times talking about the same things they have talked the last time.
But when Leah Francine has started to go to school, and when she has figured out the importance of numbers especially telephone numbers, she has made it a point to memorize her Tita Lynette's phone.
When she feels like calling her 'Tita Nette', she just dials her number and lo and behold, the wonder of the ceremonial talk begins.
When her grandmother got her phone, the daughter began to memorize her grandmother's number by writing the numbers one by one on that notebook that she asked from me:
Akin na lang ito, pagsusulatan ko ng telephone number.
When she sensed that I was going back to my base in California, she asked for my phone number as well. Now she collects telephone numbers as if these were dolls, clay bars, and childhood knick-knacks.
I was worried about the international call fee aside from the fact that I was shocked by her question. This daughter is so sensitive to her need to call me?
Initially, I dismissed her.
I ignored her, distracting her attention by telling her to work on her classroom game. To teach the dolls how to sing. To teach the animals-turned-students how to behave.
But she insisted, leaving her classroom, our small living room that she turns into a school in a spur of a moment.
She grabbed her Dora pen and her notebook and sat down on a chair.
She was to write my number.
I knew right there and then that she would not stop unless she got my number.
So I did not tell her a lie: I gave her my seven-digit number minus the country code and the area code. At least that was half of the truth.
At least, this is better than lying totally.
When she will go back to her notebook after many years, she will see that I gave the correct number except that she could not connect to me.
Well, not yet.
We simply cannot afford the cost.
We have to think of tuition money for her elder sister, the tuition money for her brother's masters, and her tuition money too.
And her new uniform of which she is proud of.
She likes to dress up, this daughter, like her siblings.
And so we have to worry about these things as well.
A. S. Agcaoili
June 3, 2006