Mong Nardo

I will never forget his smile, or his way of tapping you on the shoulder and calling you “buddy”. When we arrived in the Philippines, this lovely 60 + year old, became our personal driver. Mong Nardo, a personality that was bigger and happier than sunshine, his happiness and pride hit you square on, and if it didn’t rub off on you immediately, he would work on you, until you were insanely happy. He knew everyone, and I mean everyone. He could park anywhere, and knew every guard, salesperson, jeepney driver, and every piece of gossip happening in every household in every neighbourhood. He told us stories and lots of them, stories of the Philippines during WW2, and being a child planting bombs for the Americans. His stories were always captivating and maybe slightly exaggerated, but who cared, he was awesome. His true happiness came when talking about his family. His wife, children and grandchildren were his life, his heart, his everything. Every morning, we would pile into the car, blast music, and he would drop us off at school, always yelling out “you have good day buddies, see you later.” At the end of the day, we would pile back in, and he would ask “you learn a lot, right buddies.” Then launch into the fact that one of his children had grown up to be a doctor, and one a lawyer, and he had 2 still going to school. We were always impressed, and loved hearing his stories. When he wasn’t there to greet us, and it was another driver, we always sighed in disappointment. He didn’t worm his way into our hearts, he danced. I think I loved him the moment I met him, we all leaned on him, we all trusted him, and felt secure with him around.  He was so good, that my parents entrusted him with everything, he delivered us to school, picked us up, shuttled my Mother everywhere, and began filling in with Embassy drivers delivering letters and packages. My Father quickly saw that he needed to be an embassy driver, and had a secure job with a  medical plan. After a year of being our personal driver, he moved to be a full time driver at the Embassy. We were happy for him, but incredibly sad for us.

By our 3rd year in the Philippines, both my brother and sister were in University, and I was left alone, going to a new school, and ride alone in a car with a driver I detested. I was incredibly lonely, I had lots of friends, and life was good, but as usual, I was split in 2 and it was always difficult to keep things in check. Our personal driver just wasn’t the same. He wasn’t Mong Nardo. On one day, A navy car drove up in the queue of cars, it had Canadian diplomatic plates, the windows rolled down, and all I heard was ‘Buuuuudddddy” and a smiling Mong Nardo hopped out of the driver’s seat. I was so excited, I ran to him, and jumped into his arms screaming “Mong Nardo!!!” He laughed and hugged me back. Everyone in the queue stared at the strange sight, it was not normal to hug a driver, people were whispering, and making comments.  In my head, Mong Nardo had become my cherished Uncle, every time I left him, I told him I loved him, and he would respond back with an I love you. I am not sure we ever exchanged that in public, or that my parents every knew that I told a gentleman that was not of blood, or 50 years my senior, that I truly loved him like he was my uncle, but I didn’t care.

He handed me a lollipop, and told me that our family driver Ray was on the opposite end of the city and my Father ordered Mong Nardo to pick me up. I was so happy to see him, I asked him if we had time for our regular treat. He laughed and said “of course, buddy.” I got into the front seat, and we were off to our favourite little stand, to have a calamansi juice and a sweat treat to chat about school. It was our secret, every time he got a free chance to pick me up from school, we drove to the same stand, and sat on the hood of the car, and I told him all about school and boys, while he nodded and laughed, and told me about what his grandchildren were up to. I loved those moments, being in a part of Manila I normally didn’t go to, unless I was with Mong Nardo, eating local foods. He knew more about my life than my parents. He would then drop me off at home, usually to a parent less house and the rest of the local staff were busy preparing for another event or official visit. Mong Nardo, always seemed to know when I needed him, when I was at my loneliest.

One afternoon, my Mother announced that she and my Father were going on a trip together. I would be left for 5 days alone in the house, or could go sleep next door at her best friends house (our neighbours happened to be my parents best friends, we did a lot together as a family). I cried. I was so upset, I didn’t want to be left behind. My Mother didn’t understand why I was so upset, but I don’t remember her trying to console me that much. I was 12, and absolutely petrified. My Father gave me the usual sh-peal of if something happened to them, I had every right to stay in the house until my Aunt arrived from Canada. The lecture and process had been hardwired into my brain, I knew the process, but it didn’t make it any easier. By the time I would leave for school, they would be gone. I was gutted. As much as I loved our neighbours, I didn’t want to sleep at their house. I wanted to stay in our house, I decided to sleep in my parents room, with the lights on, and the t.v blasting for company.

There he was, Mong Nardo arrived this next morning. Told Ray our personal driver to take a hike, and drove me to school. I cried the whole way to school, and told Mong Nardo how scared I was about being alone. He laughed and said “You not alone, buddy, I am here, and you are family, we will take care of you”. In many ways, I knew he was genuine, that he would be there if I needed anything. I dried up my tears, and got out of the car. The day dragged on, but there in the queue of cars, Mong Nardo was there again to pick me up. Telling me he rearranged his embassy work to make sure he could pick me up. He must have told the rest of the staff how scared I was, that night, Mong Nardo came back, and slept at the house, and I sat at the kitchen table with the staff, breaking all barriers of staff versus diplomatic kid. None of them waited on me, they just knew, I needed my family. I looked around that table, and for the first time in 3 years, I felt at home with all of these crazy characters, who were paid to work in the house, not embrace me as a family member.



5 Diplomats, Barefoot, drinking whiskey and talking politics

After 7 years of my early life being abroad, my first experience of Canadian wilderness was at our family cottage. Having had no freedoms, having never seen a forest or a clean lake, we spent a hot ride in our Ford Ltd, packed to the brim with bedding, food, water and books. My Father would be anxious to get up there, wanting to leave the house as early as possible. My Mother, dragging behind slightly, needing to make sure we didn’t forget anything, including dog food. My first view of this beautiful piece of land, I noticed how quiet it was, how dark it seemed when the clouds rolled in, and just how happy my parents seemed. My Father, happily away from phones, electricity and politics, would unwind with a stack of books. The book pile would decrease in size each day, and my Father would get more cheerful by the minute. He wouldn’t put on shoes, would wear old shorts, and t-shirts. He would shed his diplomatic distance and let go, just a little bit.

It would happen mid week. Another diplomat, who my Father was good friends with would show up to fish, and stay at the next cottage, another would join. Soon there would be 5 senior diplomats. 4 happened to be newly retired, except for my Father, who would sit politely asking about the fish, full well knowing, they weren’t there to fish. They would laugh, then break out the whiskey. My Mother would get us all down to the dock, to keep swimming. We could hear the laughter from the dock. My Father rarely let go, always slightly guarded, worried that someone would overhear. The cottage was different, there was no one around, no electricity, no way anyone could hear.

I would take breaks to run up and get Oreos, or water, and hear bits and pieces of war stories that no one knew about. Wild stories of defections of famous people, incidences that would make your blood curdle. Between the laughter, would be serious conversations about loss, about stress, about safety and security.

The first time I did it, I felt rather guilty, like I was eavesdropping on something so intimate, I crouched beside the open window that looked onto the screened-in porch, and overheard them all talking about guilt. The guilt that no one outside of the diplomatic circle would ever understand, keeping secrets crippled them, made them hard, made them unable to bond with their kids or wives. They had split personalities, and were relieved when they could retire, but also missed their sense of belonging in the department. My Father, never saying anything, listened. I had wondered if that is what he felt. He was distant, and often times, sentimental yet removed at the same time. A strange combination for me to understand as a child.

There it was, 5 men, dressed in cottage clothing, no suits, no shoes, sharing whiskey’s, while talking about their experience. From an early age, I knew this yearly ritual was important. I didn’t understand why, until later in life. It was group therapy. The only kind of therapy a group of ex diplomats and a then current one could have, away from civilization, away from ears (except for mine), away from the department. They never fished, they would bring their bottles of whiskey in their tackle boxes. The ice that they claimed would be for their caught fish, was for their whiskey.

As I get older, I realize how much more important those times were for my Father. Being able to let go, and express some sort of emotion as a release. I wonder if there are groups of diplomats today that meet, and do the same thing up at a cottage somewhere!

Dip Kid