Father’s Day: Be the Cowboy (You Wish to See in the World)

Painting by Promencio Lagustan

My father is very manly. 

He loves Westerns. The romance of a lawless land, plagued by corruption and violence, before order is restored by a lone stranger certainly has its appeal. And in a land like ours, a person willing to do what it takes to make the world a better place certainly captured his imagination. 

He also heard stories of his father’s time as a soldier and guerrilla fighter during the Japanese occupation. My grandfather eventually traded military service for the civilized world of legalese, and eventually went on to become a respected judge and professor of law with a long career.

He also heard stories of his mother’s time in the mountain of Mindanao during the Japanese occupation, where she cared for her six younger sister and aged parents. Her stories were pepper with wisdom like: did you know coffee filters could be used as sanitary pads in a pinch? From wartime to her death, her life was spent finding out who needed help and putting them in touch with people who could help them. A poor friend’s neighbor’s sister’s cousin would get a call from a doctor she need to see because the doctor went to the same church as their aunt’s father’s uncle.

He was the son of a soldier and judge, and someone he saw as a saint. And he always walked a fine line of trying to be both.

In my memory, my father looked a certain way that leant to his earliest beliefs. He had these interchangeable white-collared shirt, a sturdy, brown leather belt with a vintage 1930 Smith and Wesson buckle. He worse acid washed blue jeans, and cowboy boots from the same shop in Austin, Texas. He was taller than most, beefy, with a Kenny Rogers-esque beard and mustache that he also permitted to turn salt and pepper before he was 4. It gave him that air or dignity and experience, minus the frailty.

But the stories we grew up on were about benders, brawls, and bullying rich kids for sari-sari store money. He had a forgone list of preferred tools “pang rambol”—a baseball bat or bike chain were best for doing non-permanent damage, but a chako was the best of both worlds and easy to slip it behind your back, hidden by your chaleco vest. 

By the time he was sixteen, he had been kicked out of five of the best schools in Metro Manila. His grades were never the problem, but his attendance and attitude left much to be accepted. It was his utter contempt of rules and students whose noses were so brown they drank out of the faculty toilets, that often sent him packing. 

The bright side to this part of the memory was that his years as a dilettante, made me and my siblings immune to any form of disciplinary criticism or action. My father only ever lost his patience with us over two life lessons. The first was that my siblings and I were terrible at math—which he was not, and second was that none of us had a natural knack for driving—a skill he acquired and mastered by the time he was 13.

But back to his growing pains.

While my grandfather threatened military school, it was my grandmother who saved him through dramatic exile. Banished for two years, to her hometown of Gingoog in Cagayan de Oro, my father the Manileño has to learn to navigate a province with a language he spoke only sporadically.

My father eventually returned fluent in Bisaya, and a slightly better citizen, student, son, and cook. A little older and wiser, he was more willing to make peace for the sake of community. He took to chaperoning his five younger sisters, finishing law school, and finding love, and starting a family.

But again, my father bucked tradition. While he followed in my grandfathers’s footsteps of being a lawyer, then a judge, and briefly as a professor, the salaries of the last two professions proved in adequate for a growing family (of six) in the ’80s. 

My mother, who was from a more manicured family of Chinese immigrants, quickly and successfully took on the role of breadwinner. My father, as masculine and traditional as his upbringing had been, made no objection, and with years of experience caring for his own younger siblings, my father quickly became a kind of dual parent.

He cooked and did groceries, took us to school and to after school activities. He attended parent-teacher meetings, and listened to us talk about our days. He fixed broken things around the house, taught us to do chores, and made sure our homework got done (crying over math, included).

Like the men of his day, he was always needlessly flirtatious with salesladies, but also charming with other parents, funny with my peers, and respectful to our teachers. He was often asked to host events in school and at parties. That he could cook well and always brought food meant every social gathering was a showcase for him. Behind the scenes, he was much like his mother, and helped those he could by putting them in touch with people who could help through skill and or charity.

Along the way, his stone-washed jeans were replaced by breezy capris, his cowboy boots are now a gamut of sandals he is constantly insisting my brother and I try, for the sake of comforts hither-to unknown to human feet. He became pescatarian at 50, and has cooked less and less each year. A youth spent training with firearms (he is a certified instructor and champion shooter) means he now needs hearing aids. He no longer shoots, and did something he often swore he never would—took up golf at 60. There is more salt than pepper in his hair, but he still flirts with sales ladies and likes to drive if it’s not too far.

Seventy-plus years of age, nearly 50+ years of marriage, and four grand children later, my father has softened quite a bit. He is more pious now, prayerful of things he has less control over. When people ask me about him, I do not think of his years as a lawyer or judge, I talk about how he is kind, good humored, encouraging of new experience even though he will not try the himself. He enjoys good coffee, meeting new people, videos of cute animals, and talking about his kids and grandkids.

When I say that my father is very “manly,” I do not just consider his days as a hooligan or urban cowboy, but more in the sense of the scientific Evolution of Man. The slow, steady march of the simple, brutish neanderthal to thinking man we know to be capable of thoughtfulness and compassionate. 

My father has learned to accept those who are different from him, that kindness is always better than contempt, and the belief that if we keep learning to change, it is often for the better. I like to think my father’s even accepted that none of his children, and their children, and their children’s children, will be as good at math or driving as he will always be to us. 

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