Winter Paradise

Via Ottawa Tourism

By grade 4, at the age of 9. I was happily settled in Canada, after back to back postings abroad. I lived only 3 blocks away from school, and in a 3 block radius of all my friends.  Like so many Canadian kids, I was spending every day at an after school program at the neighbouring high school, and my older sister would come pick me up at 5pm everyday like clockwork. One evening, we were walking home, it had snowed heavily, by Ottawa standards winter had just started to set in. The mountains of snow had built up already on the sides of the road, huge mounds had already been plowed into the corners of the curbside. Christmas lights were twinkling and reflecting softly against the snow. Christmas time was coming, and so were the holiday’s. I was getting excited. We started to walk home, the snow crunching underneath us, snow lightly fell around us, making the walk so magical. The silence was comforting, and safe, until my sister became irritated with me over something. She was 7 years older. Through the years, she had become a 2nd mother of sorts, holding my hand through illnesses in postings, taking care of me when our parents were out, being saddled with responsibilities she was too young to take on, but she did anyway.

That evening, our age gap showed, she harped on something I had done wrong. Instead of getting upset, I wanted to get even. She bent down into the snow to make a snowball. She was good at being the bully at times, she was going to start pelting me with snow. She was wearing jeans and running shoes, I was fully dressed. Yet, I had a slight advantage. I could see our house from where we were standing, and I knew, I could outrun my sister any day of the week, even with a full snowsuit on. As she bent into the snowbank to gather a good handful of snow, with all my might, I pushed her head first into the snowbank. She went in without even a hesitation, completely off balance. Like a cartoon character, her body went in, and made a good foot deep imprint of her body in a starfish position. I turned and ran like a bat out of hell. I sprinted like my life depended on it. I ran so fast that I could hear her screaming at me from down the street, and my legs kept pumping, and I leapt up the steps into the house, our front landing had a small powder room and closet, but I ran through the hallway to find my Father sitting in a chair enjoying a fire still in his suit, smoking a pipe. Me, still fully dressed in snowsuit and boots saw him, ran behind him, as snowballs came flying into the house. My Father could only muster up “hey hey hey!” as he sat completely confused. My sister arriving at the door yelling covered in not only snow, but icicles from head to toe like something out of a cave. She realized my Father sitting there, me crouched behind. My Father didn’t take long to realize that little sister got snowy revenge, and began to laugh so hard, that my sister’s nose went out of joint. Puddles of water formed all over the place, but my Father didn’t care, he was just laughing hysterically.

After we all calmed down, we looked at my Father, and realized something was off. We got undressed and cleaned up. My Mother stood in the kitchen drinking a big glass of whiskey. There were blueprints spread all over the kitchen table. We knew what was coming, we just didn’t know if we wanted the news.

My Father and Mother sat us all down, and broke it to us that we were going on posting again.

I sat frozen in place, and looked outside to our wonderful snowy paradise, I didn’t want to leave, and I was sad that I had no choice in this decision. Like every diplomatic kid, it was 3 years like clockwork.

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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.