Traveling back in time on a Chopin waltz

Last night, I heard an energetic rendition of a waltz by Chopin. I stopped working on my computer and immersed myself in the piano music by my house guest. It was moving in the sense that it made me stand up and perform fancy footwork on the floor to the rhythm of the piece. Suddenly, I stopped my swaying and sycophantic moves and sat down. A memory so vivid crossed my mind. I allowed it to float fully into my consciousness.

I was a young girl, lying on my thin pillow, ready for sleep at around nine in the evening. Something kept me awake, however. It was that same piece by Chopin played over and over again in hopes of perfecting it, perhaps. I remember the music came from a beige-painted 2-story house across the river, just almost the opposite side of ours. Our house stood around 12 meters from the river bank that was dotted with a few banana plants and a couple of sampaloc trees with branches often laden with lumpy fruit pods. Sampaloc pods contain seeds embedded in fibrous substance which, when ripe, are sucked for their tangy sweet and sour flavor. Thinking of that river reminds me of sampaloc.

Last night, riding on Chopin’s strains, I remembered the Bicol river that runs through the city of Naga and flows on to Lake Bato and then on to San Miguel Bay in the Philippines. And I thought of the waltz that wafted over the waters that were ominously dark on moonless nights, but enchantingly shimmering under a moonlit sky. The repetitive music drifted through the open windows. I recall, I didn’t mind not being able to sleep. While listening in bed, I almost could predict the crescendos, the legatos, staccatos and trills. I learned its movement by heart, hummed its melody, and imagined my fingers sliding over the ivory keys. Almost every night, the studious pianist across the river practiced that very same piece, and it did get better each time.

Last night, my guest’s playing was good, and my thoughts were of the river. In high tide, it was over 15 meters wide. In low tide, it was less than 10. In the hot summers, kids in the neighborhood would negotiate the shallow waters using poles as support to steady themselves in case the rocks on the river bed were slippery. It was in this river that my father tried to teach me to swim when I was a little girl. But I didn’t learn because fear deterred me. It was in this river where often my cutie three-year-old sister in her underwear boldly flailed her arms and kicked her little legs to swim in the midst of her watchful older playmates from the neighboring houses. She became an expert swimmer. It was at this river where my father practiced his lungs and released his deep baritone voice to belt out his favorite old songs. His amused audience were the few fishermen, and children squatting by the river bank pretending to fish with their long, slender tree branches denuded of leaves. It was this river that I looked out to from my veranda seat on balmy weekend afternoons, when Mama would quietly work on her lesson plan for the next chemistry classes, while my youngest brother and sister were playing jackstones on top of the stairs, and my teenage brother was entertaining a friend over a game of black jack. Gazing at gentle waves that never seemed to reach the shore or edge of the river’s banks, I daydreamed and imagined and created ideas until my eyes drooped from staring too hard and thinking too hard. I think I dozed with my head rested on the open balcony’s wide window sill.

Ah, it was on this river where every year, the spectacular fluvial procession celebrating the Lady of Penafranacia would slowly glide by with thousands of devotees in big and small boats shouting praises to the Virgin Mary, “Viva la Virgen – Viva!” The shouted praises reverberated in all the river banks, till echoes seemed to rebound from trees and soil and water and grass – and mouths of masses of onlookers and devotees. It was a grand pandemonium in a holy way. If sounds could be loud and hushed at the same time, that was how it was. The volume of voices was deafening, yet accompanied with a mysterious hush that hovered in an atmosphere of awe. It was like the river turned up the volume and the silencer to max at the same time. Sounds puzzlingly weird, but that’s how it was on the Bicol river during the Penafrancia fiesta.

Oh yes, Chopin’s waltz – my guest arrived at the last measures with full gusto, and that brought a halt to my travels on memory lane. The trip was pure pleasure. I love Chopin. But would you believe? I still haven’t gotten the title of that piece. Neither am I going to make myself go to the piano to peek at the music sheet. I’ll leave it at that – a Chopin waltz that floats me like a magic carpet, back in time and memories of the river.

Linda P. Jacob