Poised all throughout the match, Alma Antonio was inwardly rapturous, brimming with pride for her youngest and tallest child as Jaja Santiago showed total domination in Wednesday’s Game 2 of the NU-Ateneo finals in the Shakey’s V-League Season 13-Collegiate Conference at Philsports in Pasig City.
Used to watching daughter’s Jaja’s and Dindin’s games on YouTube while she was away in Israel working as a caregiver, Alma, a widow, travelled from Tanza, Cavite, 30 kilometers or so away, with another daughter, Diane, only son and firstborn Axel and his wife Cess and four-year-old son Andrei to watch Jaja’s game live for the second straight time.
The first time was in Game 1 on Monday.
“Kinikilabutan po ako,” she said of how the NU community and fans raucously and lustily cheered every point delivered by Jaja in the opening of the best-of-three title playoff, where her daughter struck for 31 points to give the Lady Bulldogs a 1-0 advantage in the series.
“Hindi man ako pumapalakpak o sumisigaw na mabuti, nag-uumapaw naman ang aking pusong-ina sa saya, sa pagmamalaki. Gusto ko na talagang sumigaw ng, ‘Anak ko ‘yang pinapalakpakan ninyo.’”
The five-foot-nine mother, looking every inch as young and beautiful and tall as her three daughters, indeed couldn’t be more proud of Jaja, especially in Game 2 of the well-attended finals before which she saw her honored as 1st Best Middle Blocker first and season’s MVP next.
“Agad kong tineksan ang kanyang lolo at lola kahit na alam kong nanonood sila sa TV noong oras na iyon. Ibinalita kong Best Middle Blocker ang paborito nilang apo at nagteks ulit noong ini-announce na MVP siya. Lunod na lunod ako sa saya at pagmamalaki.”
Sadness crept in her voice as Alma Antonio spoke briefly of her parents, who had raised Jaja and Dindin practically from birth and who, in her absence as she was away in Israel, had dutifully followed the Twin Towers of Philippine volleyball wherever they played.
Their health conditions are now hobbling Victorio and Lucila Antonio, both 70, and for whom daughter Alma left Israel after 11 years of working there. “Ako naman ang nag-aalaga sa kanila ngayon. Sobrang-sobra ang ginawa nila at isinakripisyo para sa mga anak ko, lalung-lalo na para kay Jaja at Dindin,” she said, her voice almost cracking.
Daughter Diane also left her work in Dubai to help out her mom in taking care of her grandparents. She arrived last August and had since been regularly watching Jaja’s games live in the V-League, an annual undertaking of Sports Vision in cooperation with official outfitter Accel and official ball Mikasa.
Interviewed by phone two days later, the Santiago siblings’ grandma, Lola Luz, breathlessly recounted how she left the TV room starting in the fourth set and prayed hard for victory for the NU squad.
“I headed for the bedroom at the start of the fourth set (with the Lady Bulldogs two sets to one ahead) and prayed hard for God’s mercy for the team of my apo. I knew families and supporters of the Ateneo players were also praying for victory.
“But NU couldn’t be denied. Jaja’s winning the MVP as well felt right; God knows how she worked hard to get it. I was still praying in the bedroom when Dad (Lolo Boy, her hubby) shouted that NU won Game 2 and with it the title.”
“I rejoined him in the TV room, shouting out my thanks to God. Did you know that Dad’s colostomy bag leaked in overexcitement?” said Lola Luz, a retired schoolteacher, before breaking into fits of laughter. (Colostomy, according to the Reader’s Digest Universal Dictionary, refers to the surgical construction of an artificial excretory opening from the colon onto the surface of the abdomen.)
Twin Towers grew up with grandparents
Much like two of its popular occupants, the freshly-painted bungalow rising on a 240-sq.m. property in Barangay Uno in Amaya, Tanza, Cavite stands out in a neighborhood of small houses whose coats of paint, if they’re painted at all, are faded or peeling. But this brightly-colored bungalow, one of many lining a narrow tertiary dirt road, attracts the eye, visible over the low concrete walls fencing it off.
The V-League website writer visited this house, either newly built or newly renovated, last year.
“Sir, matagal na hong nakatayo ang bahay, 1994 pa,” said homeowner Lucila Antonio, a five-foot-four retired schoolteacher who is still uncommonly sprightly and straight-backed at 69 then. “Pinaayos lang ho iyan ni Dindin at ni Jaja.”
Lola Lucy is referring to her two superstar grandchildren, six-foot-two Aleona Denise ‘Dindin’ Santiago-Manabat, and six-foot-five and, some say, still growing, Alyja Daphne ‘Jaja’ Santiago.
Inside the house, Lola Lucy’s five-foot-11 husband, Victorio Antonio Jr, retired from government service as assistant regional director of the National Food Authority, was sweeping the kitchen floor.
The four Santiago siblings — and a half sister later — grew up in this house practically since birth in the care of their very loving and nurturing grandparents. Their mom, who’s five-foot-10, has always been a working woman and was at the time in Israel where she’d been working as a caregiver for years and who had been playing actively in the Pinoy-Pinay volleyball tourney there. Their dad, from whom their mom had long separated legally, was a former six-foot-five basketball center of University of Manila; he died three years ago in an accident.
It’s clear from whom Dindin and Jaja got their intimidating height and interest in sports. And the grandparents who raised them had been star players themselves in their college years. Lola Luz was a pitcher on the softball team of Lian Institute in Batangas; Lolo Boy played varsity basketball for UP-Los Banos, where he obtained his degree in Agriculture.
It’s very clear either that the more popular Santiago sisters have never forgotten the hands that fed and carried them in their infancies and have been guiding them till now. “When they started earning from the commercial leagues, they began voluntarily giving us things and money,” said Lola Luz in straight English, her voice schoolroom-clear and -slow. She recalls with fondness that the first thing they bought for the house was a washing machine. “Hati ang dalawa sa gastos.”
Dindin, according to the grandmother, then bought her a refrigerator and the upholstered leather sofa and chairs in the living room showcasing the various trophies (two of them Shakey’s V-League MVP trophies also won by Dindin), medals, plaques, and other mementos that could only be had through exceptional brilliancy in sports.
And every time the Antonios commuted to Manila by bus to watch the sisters’ games playing either as opponents or as teammates, their grandchildren, according to Lola Luz, would invariably press money to her hands before they travelled back to Cavite. Chico Manabat, Dindin’s husband and an ex-Bulldogs cager, would drive the old couple to the bus station on Doroteo st. along Avenida Rizal in Manila.
Lola Luz spoke very affectionately of Chico. “He is very good for Dindin; in many ways, he has tempered her.” Dindin, said she, is the more outspoken and mataray between the two sisters. “May pagkasuplada si Dindin pero sa TV lang ‘yon,” she joked. “Sa personal she’s very sweet and generous. Maawain.”
Dindin, now 22 and a hotel and restaurant management graduate from NU, has a soft spot for street kids, revealed Lola Luz. “She goes out of her way to visit and give food to children from depressed areas in our village. In Manila when she was still with NU, the street children on Bustillos would swarm around their Ate Dindin whenever they saw her. She used to give them small amounts of money until I advised her against it. Just give them food; if given money, they might use it to buy rugby to sniff or gamble,” she had told Dindin, now a mother of a four-month-old baby.
Lola Luz said Dindin is so generous that a month or so before she was to sign a big promotional contract, her apo was already thinking of what she would give to the street children.
Sibling rivalry, sibling sweetness
In grade school, Dindin was tomboyish, outgoing and had a streak of rebelliousness, but one that would only leave her grandparents shaking their heads in amusement while restraining themselves hard from breaking into a big laugh. Dindin was always complaining why she, the third among four siblings, was doing the heaviest household chore, which was washing the laundry, and why Jaja, the bunso but already very tall at the time, was doing the lightest task, which was washing the dishes.
Lolo Boy would always come to the defense of Jaja, her favorite apo. “Lagi kong sinasabihan si Dindin na pinakabata si Jaja kaya sa kanya napupunta ang pinakamagaan na trabaho.”
He continued from memory, his dark face glowing from too much affections: “Si Jaja ang mas malambing sa dalawa, laging nakakalong kahit ubod na nang tankad, laging nakahalik sa pisngi, laging nakayapos. Minsan nag-aaway sila ni Dindin pero asahan mo hindi siya ang nagpasimuno. Pero mayamaya lang, bati na agad ang dalawa.”
Being the schoolteacher, Lola Luz was more the disciplinarian in the three-bedroom house, where the young Santiagos had to study their lessons, do their assignments before hitting the bed, as well as help out in the household chores.
Axel Leonel, the firstborn and only son, was in charge of cleaning the yard; he’s now 24, a computer technology (vocational) and IT graduate from NU, and a father of one. Diane Angeline did the cleaning inside; she’s 23 and had worked in Dubai as a nurse. Dindin took care of the laundry; she’s 22 and has an HRM diploma to her name. Jaja washed the dishes; at 20, she’s taking a full academic load every semester and seems in a hurry to finish her BS Psychology course.
But unlike their two older siblings, Dindin and Jaja didn’t get to stay long in the Antonio house. Jaja went with Dindin when her ate was recruited by UST on her third year in high school. From then on it had been dorm life for the sisters – and still is for Jaja. Left to fend for themselves at a very young age, they became, according to Lola Luz, extra close and sweet to each other.
At the time, the energetic grandmother was teaching in an elementary school in Cavite City at least 35 or so kilometers from UST via the old route. Lola Luz remembered visiting the sisters at least once a week. She would get up at 4 in the morning, took a bus to reach the UST athletes dorm to give money or food to them and then commute back in time for her teaching duty.
As indefatigable as ever, Lola Luz still gets up at 4 a.m. to attend Mass and then immerses herself in a flurry of activities concerning the church, the senior citizens of her barangay, and even the dying. She’s cutting down on such activities now, though, to be with Lolo Boy, who used to tend the house all by himself most of the day.
When the ceiling lights break down, Lolo Boy would immediately think of Jaja, who, without having to stand on a chair, would effortlessly fix them whenever she’s around. When he glances at the beds in one room, he would remember Dindin and Jaja, particularly the latter. The sisters, he said, would contort themselves so the bed they shared could accommodate their exceptionally long frames.
Dindin and Jaja say they are a million times blessed for having such an incredibly wonderful and loving grandparents.