Ethel & Ernest: A Gift Book

I bade goodbye to my colleagues and friends at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore in December 2010. After 10 ½ years of working abroad, I had decided to go home to the Philippines. A good friend gave me a copy of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel, Ethel & Ernest, as a parting gift.

Dear Neil,

I was running on empty the week before my flight home on December 19, 2010. It was the worst time to get ready for repatriation. I had to mark papers like everyone else and, as Chair of Children’s Lit, I had to make sure that all the final grades had been uploaded, then printed, then signed, then submitted to the department.
It meant postponing the sorting and packing of my books, notes, plates, glasses, linens, clothes, etc. It meant going on a whirlwind of last-minute farewell lunches and dinners and even breakfasts. It meant shopping for this and that present as if there was no tomorrow.
I had been exhausted. I was like an old car sputtering up the hill on an empty tank.
It was the day before my morning flight home, the 18th of December. Or was it? Anyway, I went to my office for a final look. Surprise! There was a gift book for me. I don’t remember it being wrapped. I think it was inside a brown office envelope.
Shabby? Cheap?
It was a copy of Raymond Briggs’ award-winning book, Ethel & Ernest (1998). And between its pages was a typewritten letter on an ordinary piece of A4 paper. Let me share some parts with you (in case you’ve forgotten):
“It has been a real pleasure to be able to work with you over the past few years. The fact was… it never felt like ‘work.’ In DUE201, you created a course that is founded on a love of books, stories, poems and great literature for children.
“Then, just to make it even better, you gave those of us who taught the course the freedom to select our own materials so that we could teach from a basis of love and passion for our content…
“Rather than buy a gift, I wanted to give you a book from my own collection. It is one that I love very much so the giving of it comes from the heart. The story is a very English one and has parallels to my own background…
“Thank you for enabling me to bring my love of reading and passion for good stories to DUE201. I will try my best to continue the course in the spirit in which it has been run so far. I hope you enjoy this very English picture book from your very English friend and colleague.”
I felt a lump in my throat — a cliché. I felt some tears welling up in my eyes – sentimentalism. Just the same, I ran down the hall, looked for you in your office, but it was locked. Most offices were empty. Final grades had been submitted; it was time to de-compress away from the university.
I tucked Ethel & Ernest in my handbag and took a school bus to my flat. I needed to pack my suitcases.
By God’s grace, I finished the packing at midnight and made it to Changi Airport the following morning. Fortunately, two lady friends had insisted on taking me to the airport.
I read Ethel & Ernest on that memorable flight – one that was taking me home to my country and to my extended family. Strange, but Ethel seemed like my mother who always wanted her children to behave properly: “Comb your hair.” And Ernest seemed like my father who was always interested in history and current events.
Ethel & Ernest didn’t seem like a very English picture book to me. I guess that’s because I’m a Filipino and I don’t know what it means to be very English. Instead, it reminded me of Lat’s Kampung Boy, also a graphic novel which traced the birth and growth of a boy in a Malaysian village.
The world re-created by Lat and Briggs in their respective graphic novels have some things in common. Both are autobiographies written in memory of their parents and their birthplace. Both show the particular worlds in which they grew up through unique cartoon-like illustration. Both have a sense of humor and faith in humanity.
* * *
Although it felt good to be home, adjusting back to life in the Philippines after being away for 10 ½ years posed many challenges. And so Ethel & Ernest was boxed out of sight. One day, I had to go through my boxes of books, sort them, keep some, and give away some. I kept Ethel & Ernest and read it again. I promised myself that I will always keep it.
What I see in Ethel & Ernest is a universal archetype of ordinary love between an ordinary couple. Don’t get me wrong. This ordinary love is extremely rare today. And priceless.
A young teacher tells me that she gets up every work day at 5:00 a.m. so that she can be in school at 6:30 a.m. She wakes up to a breakfast table of garlic fried rice, sunny side-up eggs, and crispy anchovies or sausage or left-over adobo. Every morning from Monday to Friday.
And who wakes her up? And cooks breakfast? And sets the table? And washes the dishes after she leaves? And who welcomes her back home in the evening? Her old mother who has never done anything heroic – just little ordinary things.
You and I were fellow teachers who didn’t do anything heroic. We just went in and out of our classrooms diligently every work day. We respected and valued each other in spite of different accents and cultures.
Ethel and Ernest never did anything heroic either. They fell in love, got married, had a child, raised their child, grew old, then died.
The constancy and stability of ordinary love may be boring between a man and a woman, parents and children, teachers and students, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues, or even between human beings.
But this ordinary love is extremely rare today. And priceless.
The last frame in Ethel & Ernest shows Raymond Briggs and his wife looking up at a fruit-laden pear tree. Raymond tells her, “I grew it from a pip.”
Fruit-laden pear trees grow from tiny seeds. Ordinary deeds make outstanding achievements possible. Ordinary love in ordinary homes is what we need for world peace.
Who knows if we shall ever meet again? Who knows who’ll read and take care of the books I love? Of Ethel & Ernest?
If ever, I will give it away in the spirit that you’ve given it to me – from the heart – to someone ordinary.
Happy thanksgiving day to Cynthia and you!
Take care,

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