Ateneo De Naga high school 1980

Those who do not remember history are bound to live through it again.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A simple story about a Strong Filipina

I enjoyed reading this article about the life of a simple but brave woman named Maria Magdalena Vidal-Strong who struggled to sustain the needs of her family under difficult circumstances. Alice Strong, who is the daughter of Magdalena, decided to write her memoirs about her mother’s life. This memoir was read by Alice’s daughter (Elena Maria Vidal) and Elena decided to honor her mother and grand parents by posting their memoirs in her blog.

Maria Magdalena Vidal was born on May 25, 1904 on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. Her great- grandfather, Kiamko, was a Chinese national. She always told us that he was a merchant from Shanghai but we found out many years later that he was actually a notorious pirate.

After amassing a fortune through pillage, Kiamko eventually settled down on vast estates in the Philippines. He married a lady of Spanish-Malaysian blood, descended from one of Magellan's comrades who had settled in the islands in the sixteenth century. Kiamko's son, Alejandro Arnibal, inherited what had become an empire of fishing and sugar cane which he ruled like an oriental despot. His daughter, my grandmother's mother, was Mamerta Philomena Arnibal, an exotic beauty with dark skin and chiseled features.
Mamerta and her sisters assisted during mass in their floor-length mantillas made of pineapple fiber. During the period in the Philippines, the women sat on one side of the church and the men on the other. In spite of the segregation, Mamerta caught the glance of a poor young Spaniard named Jaime Vidal.

Jaime was from Barcelona in Catalonia and was working as an accountant in his uncle's cigarette factory. He was a descendant of the Sephardic Jews of Aragon, the conversos. When his eyes met Mamerta's, they both fell in love. Jaime came to her home and serenaded her under her window with his guitar. Alejandro disapproved of him as a suitor due to his lack of fortune. To show of Alejandro’s disapproval, he and his sons would pour buckets of water on Jaime while he was serenading Mamerta.One day, Jaime and Mamerta eloped. This made Mamerta’s father furious. The father disowned Mamerta and crossed her off the family tree as if she was never born. The father’s wrath never diminished even though Jaime and Mamerta were married and their union is no longer an issue to be ashamed of. Years later when Mamerta became a widow and needed of assistance, her family refused to extend any help to her. They really treated her as if she had died.Mamerta and Jaime had a son named Francisco. When Mamerta became pregnant a second time, there were political problems in the islands and they decided to relocate to Spain. Jaime went first to Spain to prepare a home for them. While Jaime was in Spain, he was killed in a riding accident.

Abandoned by her own family, Mamerta was at a total loss. She gave birth to my grandmother in May 1904. Unprotected, she was kidnapped and forced to marry a Filipino man whose name we do not know. He was cruel and beat Mamerta and baby Magdalena as well. By the time Magdalena was three years old, Mamerta feared for her life. She heard of an orphanage for mixed race children called the House of the Holy Child run by American missionaries. She took her little girl there and begged them to take care of her.

The House of the Holy Child was operated by the Anglican Church under the auspices of a former Boston socialite, Frances Crosby. She was a maiden-lady with no children of her own. She was enchanted by Magdalena and raised her as her own daughter, giving her the last name of "Crosby." Magdalena was baptized a Catholic but her "godmother," as she called Miss Frances, raised her as a high Anglican. Frances later married an Anglican clergyman, Father Barter. They were both devoted to my grandmother raising her as a proper young lady.

Magdalena was a bright and precocious child and wanted to be a teacher. She began teaching as early as age fourteen and by age twenty had her teaching certificate. It was then she met my grandfather, Herman Strong, from Alabama. He had a fiancée back in the States but when he became enamored of my grandmother he broke his engagement. Her foster mother did not approve of Herman because he was a Baptist. Wanting to be united as husband and wife, Herman and Magdalena eloped. They had four children and the youngest was my mother, Alice Strong, who was born in Baguio city in 1939.

Below are recollections taken directly from Alice Strong’s memoir notes:

When WW II broke out we were living in a beautiful, what would these days be called a subdivision, of 6 houses each one walled in for privacy and safety from robbers. House robberies were common in Manila, thus most houses had iron grills on the windows and these had the added safety of walls. I remember the street we lived on was named Colorado Street. I believe my father was doing well as an accountant because my recollections are that it was a fine house.

My mother had two servants who would cook and house clean, and my brother had a 'house boy' whose sole job was to take care of him. His name was Felix. When my father was taken off to Santo Tomas prison camp, Felix would ride his bicycle many miles across the city of Manila taking food my mother had prepared in order to keep my father from starvation. He remained part of our household during most of the war, as did the 2 servants. One was especially close to us, her name was Nena, and I cannot be certain if the spelling of her name is correct. The family photo of all of us standing in a doorway with my father holding me was taken at that location.

When the war broke out everyone in the neighborhood pitched in and built a community air raid shelter where we would all go during an air attack. The house had a beautiful garden with Banana Trees and other lush tropical plants. There were trees with wild orchids hanging from them. I believe it was told to me that orchids are a parasitic plant, the same as mistletoe, and would grow from the bark of trees. My mother loved flowers and had hanging baskets of orchids that had been cut from the bark and placed bark and all in hanging baskets.

It was at this location that my mother had a 'school' for her children and any neighborhood children who wanted to attend. In this way she helped the young people maintain their educational level and earned an income at the same time. She also tutored children of wealthy families in their home. I recall a car being sent for her and I would get to go along as well. I was in awe of the furnishings and size of the rooms of the large mansions we would go to for my mother's tutoring sessions. After the war started and gasoline was no longer available to private citizens, the car would appear being drawn by horses.

The school even had a theater arts program in which the students would perform in plays. I specifically recall the Christmas re-enactment of Dickens's Christmas Carol. I believe my sister, Floy, was Marley's ghost, and my brother, David, played the boy who fetches the Christmas Goose. A real goose was used, and a large bow had been tied around its neck. The scenes in my mind of the fun during rehearsals and the final performance of this play are still vivid to me.

I do not remember how frequently the Japanese soldiers would make their rounds, but my mother had prepared the students by teaching them Japanese songs which they would sing in case of such visits. She had been warned not to teach anything related to the USA, but US History and Geography were part of the curriculum along with the history and geography of South East Asia, and Japan. My mother was quite proud of the fact that after the war every one of these students was able to enter school at their grade level, and the parents were quite pleased about this as well.

Another way my mother earned income after my father was taken to prison camp was by renting the upstairs of the house to a Spanish family consisting of a mother and two sons. The sons were in their late teens or early twenties. Their names were Jorge and Miguel. I remember they were quite handsome and flirtatious. Jorge was my favorite and would take me on outings to the Zoo and other places. Nowadays with the fear of pedophiles this would be unheard of, but Jorge was like a big brother to me.

It was at this time that the whole city of Manila was flooded by the Japanese. I remember wading around in about two feet of water while everyone carried furniture upstairs. I do not know what caused the flood, but my mother said it was because the Japanese did not know how to manage the city water works having come from a rather primitive culture which did not consist of such advances. My son, Pat, who is well versed on WWII History, said the Japanese flooded the city in anticipation of the U.S. invasion.

As the war progressed we had to abandon the area and moved to a smaller house in a safer part of town, however the house consisted of two stories. In this house the air raid shelter was built under the stairway. I believe we spent most of the remainder of the war at this location. While at this location we were robbed by a person who climbed up the side of the house and entered one of the windows (no bars) and stole a bag full of electric light bulbs, which were a valuable commodity. The next day I remember seeing his muddy footprints up the side of the house. The Filipinos were quite adept at climbing. After that my mother slept with a 'bolo', which was a large machete type knife, under her pillow. We slept under mosquito nets and my brother was always getting tangled up in them during the night. It was quite comical, although he did not think so.

It was also at this house that we had a vegetable garden on top of the other air raid shelter built off the back of the house. A wall separated our house from the back yard of the other houses. We had a live chicken at the time that would peck bugs in the garden my mother planted on top of the air raid shelter. I do not know where my mother got the chicken, but she was very resourceful, and also made friends with the local Filipinos who were always helpful. The chicken was being fattened for my father, and we were greatly saddened when my mother cooked it and Felix took it to my father at the POW camp. Not only were we sad to see the chicken go, but we were sad to miss out on a tasty morsel. My mother also hid guerrilla fighters from whom we would receive vital information about future events of the war. If the Japanese soldiers came to search the house, the guerrilla could climb the wall and escape into the neighboring yard.

When the Japanese soldiers went from house to house confiscating cars, radios and other valuables, one of the neighbors slaughtered his horse rather than aid the Japanese with the use of the horse. Food of any kind was scarce at this time so he shared the horse meat with everyone in the neighborhood. My sister refused to eat any of it, but I was hungry enough that I ate it. Getting protein from Mung Beans and Sprouts did not quite satisfy my hunger.

In my brother David's notes of the war he mentions the Japanese Officer, Peco, who befriended us and would visit and bring canned goods and sugar. From my recollection we met Peco when he and another officer were in a truck that had broken down in front of our house. I recall the weather was rainy and the road was muddy. They either came to the door or my mother invited them in for coffee. Even though she had white sugar, which she had obtained on the 'Black Market', she served them brown sugar because she did not want to arouse suspicion by having white sugar. It was after this that he appeared one day with canned milk and white sugar. As my brother mentions in his notes, we knew it was confiscated canned milk. He visited several more times after that and had long conversations with my mother. We grew quite fond of him and loved his visits. He told us that when he was twelve he was taken away from his family and trained for war along with many many other young men, indicating that Japan was preparing for conquest years and years before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

My mother said Peco told her he was a Christian, and was opposed to the war but had no option but to fight. He showed her photos of his wife and baby. The last we saw of Peco was when he came and told us of the impending US invasion. He said that he was being transferred and did not know whether he would survive the coming battle. In his broken English he told my mother, "Americano coming, Boom Boom!" My mother already knew this based on information from her guerrilla friends.

One needs to know that after the Japanese invasion and destruction of the American military facilities in Manila, life went on as usual and the Japanese wanted to be known as beneficent conquerors. It should be mentioned that the Japanese were not at war with the Filipinos, but the USA. In spite of this there was limited food and other resources, and many people had fled Manila into the outlying areas. We, of course, remained in order to aide my father in prison camp. The monetary system was in shambles and the Japanese printed Philippine bills that were worthless. When my mother would go to try and buy food, she carried a bag full of this currency in order to purchase even a small item. During this time she sold or bartered most of our valuables in order to get food. In spite of this we were malnourished, but fared better than most because of my mother's, and I might add, my sister Floy's, ingenuity. After the war my mother weighed eighty-five pounds, and even though she was not a tall woman, at eighty-five pounds she was quite underweight. I would see her take food off her plate and give it to my brother, who was constantly hungry. He did not want to take her food but she would insist that she had had enough to eat.

My last memory of the war years was when the Americans invaded and we had to go into hiding for three weeks. We hid in the crawl space of a three story house along with many, many other people crammed into the space. My mother had been told about that this house, and that it was relatively safe during the bombing because three stories would deflect the worst effects of a bomb. It had already been shelled at an earlier time because I remember seeing a long crack in the roof.As I mentioned, the space was crammed with families, mostly women and children, and many injured people. My mother always carried first aid supplies with her and would nurse as many of the injured people as she could. I specifically recall a man on whom she had applied a tourniquet which we took turns holding in order to stop the loss of blood. I believe she saved his life. The only antibiotic available in those days was sulfonamide. My mother always had some with her. She was quite resourceful in obtaining first aid supplies.
In getting to this house we had to escape our neighborhood in the early morning hours while it was still dark. This turned out to be a dangerous procedure because the Japanese had planted explosive mines in the muddy road in order to blow up the American tanks that were to come through. My sister had watched through the night as the soldiers were planting the mines and memorized where all of them were. After the soldiers left we crept from our house and had to cling to the side of the house in order not to slip in the mud and be blown up. It was to this house that my brother and sister would return to get food and my sister would cook food and bring it back to the place where we were in hiding.

By then the Japanese were not so 'benevolent' and had established a curfew. Anyone seen out past the curfew would be machined gunned. If the person was a young woman she would be taken to go into sexual service for the Japanese soldiers. Little boys my brother’s age would be taken to pull the Japanese caissons because by then oil for motorized vehicles was almost unobtainable. In my brother's notes he tells of the time he was snatched off the street and hidden during one of the Japanese soldiers’ sweeps of the city. Many children became separated from their family, and I recall seeing children wandering around alone and crying.

My mother had given me and my brother strict instructions as to how to avoid being separated from her. I was to hang onto her hand no matter what, and my brother was to stay by my sister. My mother had prepared a bag which we were instructed to take when we had to move from place to place. It contained some food, clothing and first aid supplies.

After about three weeks of hiding under the house the final ordeal ended when we experienced an unnatural silence and assumed the fighting had ended. We did not know, however, whether it was the Japanese or the American army that had prevailed. Finally we heard tanks rumbling past and someone called out, "Is anybody there?" It was an American soldier. My mother said it was a welcome relief to see those blue eyes. The soldiers handed out chocolates, cigarettes, and Chiclets chewing gum. We were taken to Santo Tomas where my father had been imprisoned, but it was now an internment camp. Santo Tomas had previously been a University, but the Japanese found the setting a good one to use for prisoners of war.

We were 'interned' here while the Allied forces sorted everyone out with the help of the International Red Cross and arranged for all to be returned to their respective countries. Manila was a cosmopolitan city and its inhabitants were people from all over the world. So it was quite a task and one that took months or organizing in order to achieve this. My father was quite relieved to be reunited with us. He had not been able to get word of our whereabouts and knew we were trapped in the worst part of Manila where the most vicious fighting was taking place. His worst fear was that he would never see us again. He and his fellow prisoners knew that they were only going to be able to survive another month if the liberation had not taken place. Many of their fellow prisoners had already died of starvation or been bayoneted by the Japanese guards because of some infraction. My father wrote a book titled "A Ringside Seat To War", about his experiences as a prisoner at Santo Tomas.

Upon leaving we could see that the beautiful city of Manila was flattened beyond recognition. This city, known as 'The Pearl of the Orient' situated on the stunning, blue, Manila Bay, would never be the same again. Our lives as well were changed forever. Because there were no longer any harbors or docks, in order to board the ship that was to take us back to the U .S. we had to get into LST's, which were vehicles that operated on land and in the water. We climbed into these with just the clothes on our backs and a small bag of belongings, grateful to be alive, and grateful to the Allied forces who had liberated us at great cost in lives and resources.

The strain of the war had so taken its toll upon my grandparents. Their marriage failed and they divorced in the late forties. My grandmother returned to teaching. She was always a devoted Anglican and never married again. She eventually moved to Seattle, Washington which she said reminded her of Baguio. She would spend the summers with us in Maryland, and as she crocheted, she would tell me about her life. A stroke destroyed her health and she had to move to a nursing home. She died on November 12, 1987. She is one of the most beloved people of my life, whose influence upon me has no measure


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