The Simple Life: My Family’s Beautiful Lesson

wash, feet, jesus, holy thursday

It was a humid Saturday afternoon in February, thirty-eight years ago, when Lino, then my fiancé, with his parents and a handful of relatives, formally asked for my hand in marriage in our home. After some refreshments were served, Lino’s father asked my father what kind of reception the latter would want for us after the wedding Mass. Father said frankly: “I don’t care whether their reception will be held in a small, obscure cafeteria or eatery. I just want them to live a simple life.” Lino’s father was stunned at that answer, but it was my father’s vision for life.

Blessed Simplicity

Indeed, it was a very simple wedding and reception for Lino and me four months later (he and I both came from families who knew frugal living). Preparations for our wedding had no frills – no bridal showers, no prenuptial photo shoots, and no fitting of a dozen revealing wedding gowns off the rack in high-end boutiques – very much unlike would-be brides in a popular reality TV show today.

I walked down the aisle dressed in a simple white gown sewn by a seamstress friend. Lino wore an unpretentious barong Tagalog (an embroidered lightweight shirt worn by Filipino men on formal occasions). We were sure of one thing: the simple preparations should not rob our nuptial Mass of its solemnity.

A Protestant bishop, a good friend of Father’s, offered to hold the reception at his small restaurant in Manila and asked us to pay for the food at cost. Not one of our friends and relatives was left out; everyone was invited to the reception. There was no dress code – they could come in casual, informal or formal attire – whatever suited them.

Our guests numbered more than 200, if I remember correctly, and all seemed delighted to partake of the simple fare: glazed ham, fried rice, scrambled egg, a choice of hot chocolate or coffee and fruit cocktail – nothing fancy. Everyone was in good spirits enjoying each other’s company as well as a jazz quartet who entertained us gratis with their chirpy, upbeat songs. It was the most joyous moment of our lives as a newly wedded couple!

Not Difficult

Truth be told, living the simple life is not really difficult if you’ve lived all your life in a Third World country like the Philippines. And life was much simpler in the ’60s and ’70s. There were no digital distractions during class, at work or at the dinner table – no smartphones, no computers, no Internet or social media. The only forms of media entertainment then were the cinema, television and radio.

My three elder brothers, younger sister and I were raised in a modest two-story semi-concrete home on the outskirts of Manila. We couldn’t afford glass windows – we had to content ourselves with wooden jalousies where dust and smoke entered between slats. We all helped Mother with the house chores as there was always a lot of cleaning to be done.

But we all had a happy childhood. We played among ourselves – games like Chinese checkers, dominoes, other board games – and we moved around in circles holding each other’s hands and singing the nursery rhyme “Ring a Ring O’ Roses” in our backyard. (In America I believe you call it “Ring Around the Rosie”!)

No Excess at All

While we were growing up as teenagers, we had none of the excesses today’s younger generations feel entitled to. We did not crave parties for friends, even on our birthdays. I recall that we never even dined out. After school, we ate what Mother had whipped up for lunch or dinner – steaming rice with fish and vegetables boiled in tamarind soup, fried fish with fresh tomatoes on the side, or mixed vegetables sautéed in shrimp paste. We didn’t even own a family car. Instead, we rode the bus or jeepney (the Filipino version of the jitney converted from a jeep) wherever we needed to go.

We also wrote our school papers and theses using a manual typewriter. Did we feel miserable for it? Did we think we were deprived of many things? Did we think we had a boring existence? Of course not! We didn’t even know we were living by the day.

Our large brood did not complain because we knew Father was the sole breadwinner – he held more than two jobs at a time, while writing for different magazines and publications. Mother stayed home to look after us personally. I knew we had no money for health or life insurance, but by God’s grace and wisdom, from the time my eldest brother was born in 1955 until Father died in 2000, none of us was ever hospitalized for a serious, life-threatening illness.

What never ceases to amaze me is that, even if we were living on a tight family budget, whenever a new school year came around, Father always had our matriculation money ready – and all of his children graduated from college. Father and Mother even put several of our cousins through school; they lived with us helping us around the house, and helping me with my math homework.

Simplicity is Not Perfection

Ours wasn’t a perfect family, though – we children had our own squabbles, fights and misunderstandings. But I remember Father (perhaps in his effort to keep the peace) would gather us to pray the rosary in the early evening most days of the week before dinner.

When we were first married, Lino and I had to scrimp and save to afford a mortgage. Our home is a small bungalow with a tiny flower garden. That’s it – no room for entertaining family or friends, no swimming pool or anything; just a backyard where our clothes can be sun-dried. We feel extremely lucky to have a home of our own, however modest, because a majority of poor Filipinos have no roof over their heads. And I’m not ashamed to say that my clothes and Lino’s can fit into two small suitcases!

Setting Aside Luxury

Pope Francis once said, “We must set aside luxury so we can serve the poor more fully… and learn to be detached from possessiveness and from the idolatry of money and lavish spending.” He went on to say that “the culture of comfort which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people.”

We can live out this papal wisdom by living within our means. It’s obscene and foolish to “keep up with the Joneses” when we are certain we will go deep into debt. Let’s stop buying things we don’t need and will never use. Let’s not be fooled by ads in the secular and social media which perpetually fuel our inclination to want or possess more.

As we get closer to Lent, let us all interiorize an insightful and challenging quote from St. Basil the Great, a Doctor of the Church:

The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the many acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.

This is not to say we should not improve our lot, pursue an ambition or dream or plan for the future. Whatever our state in life, let us simply work to the best of our ability (the other side of prayer) and remember St. Padre Pio’s wise words: “Pray, hope and don’t worry.”

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