I grew up without you

Although I never got to know you, you were still able to take care of us all, even after you were gone.

Mom constantly talked of you. Spoke to you.

I know you loved mom and us. And your mom and sisters. Tita Mer and Tita Lourdes spoke of you as their handsome, big brother who, walked with them down the street, sent letters to them while you travelled the world.

I know that when you worked as a stevedore, on the piers of Iloilo, you were only 13-years-old and that you tied rope around the cuffs of your pants at your ankles. That was so when you carried bags of kamote unto ships, you filled your pants with one sweet potato from each of those bags to bring home to feed your family. Tita Mer and Tita Lourdes told us this story, Dad.

I know you had to leave your home when you were only 14 so you could be an OFW (overseas Filipino worker), at such a young age, in order to send money home to your mom, Lola Garet, who cried such tears as only a mother can, as she ran to the wharf to bid you farewell. And then you were gone, far across the seas.

I know you ended up in Guam, and worked in the home of a U.S. Colonel and his family. And there you learned how to speak English and learn their social southern manners.

I know you were in great physical shape… because you trained other soldiers at boot camp… and because I saw the pictures of you and mom at the beach. You both looked so happy. She was gorgeous and shapely in her 50s style swim suit. Your hand is at mom’s waist, and you were proud and muscular in your trunks, with a jaw-dropping six-pack. Those pictures made my little girl’s heart wonder at your love with Mom, and sadness at the marriage that lasted so few years.

Mom used to say that she was married to you for seven years, but you were gone so often, it was only like two years of being together.

Did you train parachuting? We used to drive by these parachuting towers in Fort Ord, all the time. From the car window I would stare and stare, imagining you there. Maybe someday maybe I’ll try jumping out of a plane too… (it’s on my bucket list)… As we drove past, I would feel a pang deep inside… a longing for your homecoming.

When I saw the photo of that teenage girl running to her father in the airport, the man who came back as a prisoner of war from Vietnam, her brothers and sisters and mom trailing behind her… I wanted to be that girl. And I wanted that father to be you.

Burst of Joy. From left to right, Lt Col Robert L. Stirm, Lorrie Stirm, Bo Stirm, Cindy Stirm, Loretta Stirm, and Roger Stirm.
(© Slava Veder / Associated Press)

Oh, but you didn’t come home. I was jealous of that girl who got to have her dad back.

A distinct memory of your smell comes to me. You came home to the tiny apartment where we lived… and you picked me up to give me a long hug. I inhaled the smell of your stiff green uniform—sun, sweat, grime, men… my father.

I know you knew how to sew because it was a way to earn extra money… I used your metal Singer sewing machine when I was a little girl to make clothes for my dolls and for projects in sewing class… That machine lasted for decades.

I know you had impeccable table manners, mom and Lola tried to teach us too…

I know that when you and mom were newlyweds, she wasn’t yet the great cook she is today. But you’d smile and eat her new-wife-cooking… and later you’d hide the fact that you got an upset tummy. But mom heard you throwing up in the bathroom anyway.

I know that you were a fantastic ballroom dancer who could show-off your waltz, boogie and fox trot at parties in your home town on Panay island. And that your sisters were great dancers who partnered with you. When they talked about it, to me and my brothers, their eyes glowed.

I know you danced into the wee hours of the night with mom and Tita Mer in New York City… Well, guess what, my brothers and I love to dance, too! We never learned ballroom, but we were pretty fun at parties. And I got solo parts at ballet recitals. Mom says our dance talent came from you.

I know that you brought mom to Radio City Hall and the National Museum of Natural History — I brought my kids there too.

I know that you were in Korea, Japan and Germany… we’ve been to Japan, but only on stopover flights—but we got to try the food! And Mike was at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Germany for two years… He has a beautiful daughter who’s half German… Your granddaughter’s name is also Josephine… and your great granddaughter’s name is Amelia.

But of course, you must know that.

I know that your parents, my Lolo Bitoy and Lola Garet, came to see mom’s parents, my Lolo Pisyong and Lola Tilde, to ask for young Josefina’s hand in marriage. Your parents took the ferry between islands. I recall my Lola Tilde, mom’s mom, tell me that although your family was so humble, they gave their blessings. (Mom’s family was an old established one in Bacolod City, with patriarchs in the city government, ancestors as landowners and buried in the catacombs of the cathedral). And your family was full of hard workers who raised themselves from poverty and became doctors, lawyers, captains and made something of themselves—including yourself.

Mom’s parents gave their consent, because your parents were good people—and, ha!—they thought she would never ever get married. All her family thought she was going to join a convent! You obviously swept her off her feet and took away all thoughts of the nunnery. And she loved you—so my grandparents gave their blessings to your union.

And we know that you loved photography and had acquired some great cameras. Well, I and my brothers love photography too… I used your camera for my photography classes at the college of fine arts. And we kept your Nikon all these years… And got our own cameras… And your grandsons love photography too. My eldest son has your camera now… and he started collecting antique cameras in addition to it.

I remember being at a swing with you and Buddy.. I can see the dirt at my feet… my sandals… the skirt of my dress… It was sunny and hot. I remember you were going to go very far away. Mom was there, pregnant with Michael, and terribly sad. I think now that was your last hour with us… I was two years old.

I know that you were a great father… and that mom loved you… You see, you know… she never remarried… and tried to be both mother and father to us after you were gone.

Beyond time and space, she loves you.

Mom called us kids half-orphans. We had a mom. But no dad. She always said that your blood and sweat sustained us all these years… that you paid for our food, for our home, clothes and private schools, even after death.

Dad. Dad? Those words sound strange to me as I whisper them and speak to you. I never got to say that word to you as I grew up. Or when I was grown-up and had my own kids.

Dad. As I write this your scent comes to me. I close my eyes. I remember your shoulder with my nose on it, inhaling deeply the love I felt being in that moment with you. And today, I just want to write to you that I love you.

Beyond time and space, I love you, too.

And, thank you for taking this selfie over a half century ago. Because we now have it to help us remember who you were. It shows us how much my brothers look like you, and where we got our strong eyebrows from… and even your grandsons—Mark, Greg, Brennan and Skyler—all got that feature from you… And the picture gives us glimmers of hope that your heart and love very well may have been with us still, all these years, from beyond the veil.

Sergeant Ismael Juson Paredes

Sergeant Ismael Juson Paredes was born in the Philippines, but had served in the U.S. Army for 19 years and died in action on November 17, 1965. He was in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment (Airmobile) 1st Cavalry Division/D Company. Did you see the movie with Mel Gibson—We Were Soldiers Once—and Young? That movie is about the 1st Battalion. My father’s platoon followed. And they were massacred by the Viet Congs. He was shot in the head and died instantly.

Young Ismael joined the army at the age of 17, in Guam. He forged his age and pretended he was 18. He became a U.S. soldier and citizen, to pursue the American dream, fend for himself and his family, and to see the world. And he did end up getting to travel and see the world, sending postcards and letters constantly to his two younger sisters.

My mother was part of the first waves of Philippine nurses who came to the United States. My dad met my mother in the U.S. in the 50s through his sister, Mer P. Espiritu, who was also a nurse and my mom’s best friend.

Today is not just Father’s Day, in the U.S. Today would have been my father’s 89th birthday.

Today, we’re going to a Vietnamese restaurant to celebrate Father’s Day with my sons and husband.

Forgiveness was a given a long time ago.

mom, artist, writer, cultural activist—awakenings, connection, kinship, kapwa, decolonization, feminism, ancestral healing, pakikipagkapwa, & liberating madness

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