An undercurrent of anxiety wends through the house. Dad’s looking for a job in the States, Scott is edgy at UP, I am now traveling to International School in Makati, Margaret is being bullied by her two American girl friends at JASMS, and mother has a secret she isn't sharing. Only Johanna seems immune to the pall that has fallen over us. We are thus determined to make an event out of Christmas. During the “forced vacation” (Scott’s term) of so many typhoons, floods and student demonstrations, Scott carves a block print in Brother Love style: Peace-Hope-Joy. Mom assembles us, her Christmas elves, to address and stamp the 200 letters. Margaret, already the most organized, helps mom bake a fruitcake before a late-season typhoon arrives. Scott wins the jostle for trimming rights, so our shiny aluminum tree is adorned with red crepe flowers. Somehow we know this is our last Christmas as this Poethig constellation under the Southern Cross.
Mom describes our gift buying to in a letter to grandmother:
- Margaret is the first to buy and wrap her presents. She gets them all out of her P2.45 a week allowance and never asks for a subsidy. This year her presents included a piece of lead found after the typhoon which she gave to Scott to melt into peace symbols, a box of carefully burned matches which were usable as charcoal for Johanna to draw with. She made chokers for Kerry out of velvet ribbon with buttons or lace. I got a block ring she made at school and a baby bottle.
- Johanna saves her money, plans presents carefully and in advance, and often gives expensive gifts.This year she ordered the popular very wide belts to be laced up the front and worn with peasant-style dresses from a shoemaker in Marikina. They didn’t arrive on time, because the man’s wife had a baby, but when she did get them they were a big hit. She’s now going to take orders and set up a business.
- Scott takes presents very seriously and loves to shop for them. He can never keep a secret, which is just as well this year as four times he bought presents duplicated by others. He and Kerry bought Dick identical umbrellas, he and Johanna both gave me a telephone book (Hagen [the dog] ate up the last one), he and Martha Clark both gave Johanna an art pen and he bought Kerry a book of poems she had already gotten from someone else (that didn’t end the coincidences. Kerry bought Johanna large gold loop earrings. Later Johanna shopped at the same Cubao store and saw the earrings and bought herself a pair!)
- Kerry never has any money, can’t think of what to buy, and usually ends up giving Dick a collection of her poems. In self-defense she usually goes together with someone in giving presents. This year Scott gave way to her and let her give the umbrella to Dick, I volunteered to receive the poems, Johanna picked out sunglasses for Scott, and she contributed to the family present to Margaret.
Margaret's dollhouse is mom’s project, so we are all enlisted. We know she imagines a Manila version of her Victorian dollhouse in Dayton, Ohio. The magnificent two story house her father made had wallpapered rooms and exquisite tiny furnishings. Manila’s carpenters are rebuilding real houses after the typhoon, so mom orders picture frames and Scott hinges them together in pairs and secures cardboard for freestanding walls. I glue Christmas wrap wallpaper. Johanna stitches a velvet and felt wardrobe. How to replace the crippled, aging dolls? Our dog Hagen chewed off their arms and Skipper's head has fallen off the neck knob. No matter, Margaret says. She likes to comb Skipper's hair. Barbies have not yet made it to Manila. Mom phones Marie, grandmother's former Peace Corps roommate. Marie's back in the Philippines since her new husband is working on "population control". This time she has PX privileges. Our wiry, blond American angel arrives with Skipper and Christie.
We labor on the dollhouse through Christmas Eve day. Mom fights with the Singer sewing machine to finish Scott's costume of Hell for “The House by the Stable.” She calls it "Faustian." I have to look that up. SS Wright Auntie Joy is the director. Her husband, Cesar Virata, is now Finance Secretary of the Philippines, so we have a real star on our SS Wright tree.
After the long Quezon City-Malate round trip, we plunk down in the sala. I slump on the couch.
“Haaay, let's open presents tomorrow” I sigh. Johanna will have none of it.
“We have to open presents tonight. It’s tradition!”
So, slowly, then with more delight, we deliver our gifts to the aluminum tree, feel a bit better for the look, a little paltry with a sense of plenty. Margaret’s dollhouse sits on a table under a miniature tree, with Christie and Skipper nattily dressed.
We set candles around the sala and celebrate peace-hope-joy.