Thursday, July 12, 2007
2:55 PM |
Why I Listen to Mother
An excerpt from a longer work of non-fiction
It took me a long time to listen to my mother’s story simply because, like most children, I was paralyzed from entertaining the very idea that my parents were once people who had lives that did not involve any of us children. It was enough, it would seem, to consider only the woman who was wife to the father I knew, who catered to all my needs or answered (with the decisive discipline of spanking) my tantrums, and who had been there for all childhood skirmishes, and, sometimes, triumphs. A few years ago, in a rare streak of familial insight, I started to consider in a rather oblique and unintended manner that this woman must have an inner life I did not know about. We were talking about the concept of Great Love over Sunday dinner, and I had casually asked her, “Ma, did you ever have a crush when you were growing up?”—not exactly expecting a reply. But it turned out she did. I remembered asking myself, Who is this woman? How come I do not really know anything about her?
Still, it took me time to listen.
I had not wanted to do what she had been egging me to do all those years, that I should listen to her tales and make a suitable fiction from their beautiful chaos, enough to memorialize an existence.
, listen to my story,” she would tell me when she had the chance. “I think my life would make a very interesting book.” I have always thought that such admission was everybody’s common conceit. Each of us is complicit in feeling that the nuances of our lives, convinced of every moment’s originality, would make for literature. All lives are a book waiting to happen, it would seem. And just like how I often dealt with other people’s advances in telling me of the cinematic possibilities of their own biographies, I did the patronizing tango with my mother, kissed her on the cheek, ate the food she offered on her table, and promised her—time and again
—that I would certainly find an inch of my week to sit down with her, to listen to her life story, to write about how she came to be. When you are young, you can be capable of such deviousness.
It would take a few more years before it occurred to me, in a moment of stray consideration, that my mother was in fact getting old, and that I had only known a slight aspect of her existence: as doting mother, and as devoted wife to my father. Still, I must admit that it was a small biography that felt comfortable enough to me—but all storytellers know that there are many sides to a tale. Mother’s story, I felt, had intricacies and revelations that could even shed light on my own life.
I stumbled on this truth when Lola Mediong, my mother’s maternal aunt (and the originator of the bamboo story) had her last bad fall. A spinster, she had come to live with us after my family got wind of unflattering reports that she was drinking away her profits from making achara
(pickled papaya strips) in Bayawan. She was outdrinking the worst tuba drinkers in town, and regularly stumbled on her way to some ramshackle hut that housed her. When we sent for her to live with us in Dumaguete City, she was a lucid woman in her 80s who demanded a great deal of affection from her apos
. For the most part, she was the picture of health: she still had her teeth, her eyesight was undiminished by time, and she still had the spunk to demand she be given a household task she could do despite increasingly brittle bones and a wavering sense of balance. Sometimes, that meant she would take to the broom and proceed to sweep the entire house of its dirt—stubbornly brandishing the broom like a talisman despite our efforts to make her feel comfortable with her old age, which usually (and perhaps unfairly) meant settling down in some faded corner and whiling away the rest of the days doing cross-stitch. “You’re getting on with the years,” we told her. “You might have an accident if you keep this up.”
I must also confess that when I was a child, I carried with me—the way most children do—that strange dislike for old skin or old smell; I avoided Lola Mediong’s geriatric cajoling and then sometimes also her pleas for me to do the mandated “mano”—cusping her hand to lead to my forehead, a gesture of respect from one generation to elders. She also had stories of her life in Bayawan, but nobody was there to listen to her—not me, not anyone of my five brothers, nor any of my cousins, the nine sons and daughters of my mother’s sister, Tita Epefania.
In hindsight, I realize that we should have been more welcoming of her stories, because today, when we are desperate to learn more about the history of my maternal family, Lola Mediong—our last link to that unexplored past—could no longer be counted on to give a straightforward narrative. She had her last bad fall about three years ago when she took to her trusty broom to swirl away cobwebs in one corner of the house and broke her leg when the chair she was standing on gave way. Recovery took months, but she was no longer the same Lola Mediong who had the ferocity of toughened country women. Somehow, mentally, she had also let go. While she still has some capacity to recognize our faces, the past for her is like broken pottery that she cannot make sense of, nor try to put back together into some cohesive story. Whenever I ask her a question, I get answers that are stuck in some roundabout that has become her inner world. “Lola,” I’d ask, “what did you mean when you used to call mother’s father a buyong
? What is a buyong
?” (Later, I learned a “buyong” meant a wandering stranger one must be wary about.)
Lola Mediong would give me the worst kind of quizzical look possible, as if she was trying too hard to understand what I meant by my question. “Dugong?”
she would ask.
“No, lola, buyong
I would finally move to half a shout, “Buyong!
This would go on for a few more minutes until I—or somebody else—would finally give up in the quest for the simplest, but most elusive, answer. Like her mind, her stories are gone forever.
Stories, especially real ones—the ones that have shaped our families, the ones that our fathers and our mothers know to be their sacrosanct biographies—are always a fragile lot. Family stories, often than not, disappear into the void of the disinterest of generations to come. Nobody ever bothers to ask some of the most vital, and the most fascinating, questions anymore. What was my mother like before she met my father? What did she dream to be? Who was her first love? What was the first movie that she saw? What song made her cry? What curses did she shout out the moment I struggled to break free from her womb?
All parents have their inner lives. The tragedy of children is that they do not willingly try to uncover what fascinating stories they may reveal.
It was with this conviction that I have resolved to know my mother’s story.
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