I was born in a small town outside of Manila City, Philippines. The first few years of my life was spent in a town called Cavite. The residents of this town all knew each other, and they knew each of the family’s history.
The house I grew up in belonged to my paternal grandparents. When they left for San Diego, they left the house to my father. When he left to join the Army, he made sure that my mother and my siblings were well taken care of as he pursued his service in the military. It was not until when I was about 7 or 8 years old that we moved to Oakland, California.
Before the move happened, my childhood was guided along by our Nanny. Her insights about the world we lived in were told in whispers, and always with some moral and social lesson that she made sure I abided by.
Never, ever go into the garden late at night—do you want the gnomes to bite you?
Do not ever squat and use the bathroom in the garden, do you want the gnomes to pinch your flower?
Do not ever play with the neighborhood children—do you not notice how dirty and filthy they are? Do you want to catch lice in your head?
The fact that she referred to my vagina as a flower said enough about how she viewed her world. The house that we lived in was situated on the corner of the main street. Our nanny said that it gave us a good view of what was happening in town. Across the street from us was this palatial church. I said palatial because it looked like a palace with its tall white fence made of cement, and the building was shaped like it belonged in a fairy tale story. Our nanny, on the other hand, said it was a church for Mormons, and that they kidnapped children and kept them in the basement.
I believed her completely that every Sunday, after we got back from our own church, I’d look out from our living room window, and counted how many children went in the church and how many came out. I was always relieved when they all came out walking happily to their vehicles.
While there were moments that I questioned our nanny’s versions of truths, she was often right about the fact that our house gave us a first class seat to the daily occurrences of the town. There was one time when the police chased a man with a gun. The armed man went into the church and started firing at the police officers. I remember how we ducked down in our living room floor and plastered ourselves against the wall to protect ourselves in case one of the bullets hit the glass window. We also had the best the view of all the festival parades that went through the town. We would sit at bench and watch the beautiful colors of the parades walk on by. There was a cement fence that surrounded our house, and my sisters and I always thought that it was a magical barrier that protected us from the rest of the world.
The view from our house not only allowed us to see the beautiful parades, but also gave us a view of the ugliness of the world outside.
There was once a man who everyone threw a celebration because he was leaving for America. They held a street party for him that included a huge amount of food, and beer. There were people laughing, dancing, drinking, and eating. I remember that everyone attended including my mother, and uncles. My sisters and I were not allowed to attend, and we stayed behind the fence with our nanny watching everyone have a merry time. This man was talking to everyone at the party as they wished him well in his new life. He talked about his dreams, and his hopes and how living in America will change his life for the better. Everyone agreed. Anything was better than living under martial law in the Philippines. They all patted him on the back, and wished him good luck.
It was a couple of years later, when I was sitting on the bench and watching the people go by and I saw that a man was selling fresh mangoes. He was carrying the mangoes in two separate buckets, and he held the buckets with a bamboo stalk across the top of his shoulders and on the back of his neck. I asked Nanny if she can give me some money for the mangoes.
“Oohhh, from him? Ha! He came back from America and now he’s selling mangoes?!” she said.
From there, I heard several gossipers who came to the front door of our fence gossip about the man.
Ohhhh, what happened in America? Didn’t do too well, huh?
Why is he selling mangoes?!? Isn’t he supposed to be rich in America?
That is so embarrassing! You go to America to get rich, and you come back selling mangoes?
What a disgrace! See what happens when you get boastful and show off about immigrating?!
One day, after annoying Nanny, she finally gave me some money to buy mangoes from the man. I had seen that he decided to sit at the café that one of our distant relatives owned. He was sitting with some people eating their merienda.
“Pare, no one realizes how difficult it is to make a living in America,” he said.
“Really? That’s hard to believe, pare! Everything comes easy once you leave the Philippines! You can get a good job that pays American dollar! You can be rich!” his friend said.
“That is not the truth. You have to work just as hard. The jobs are not easy. What? I am an accountant here, but there, I am only a janitor—working over 40 hours a week to pay the bills, and then sending the money home. People here think that the money come easy, and what? Just because we now live in the states, we’re supposed to be overnight millionaires? That is not the truth,” he said.
“Tito, may I have some mangoes?” I approached him with my money.
“Ahhh Jeng! Your Tatay is in the U.S. Army now, huh?” he asked.
“Uh-huh. I don’t know. I just want some mangoes,” I answered.
“See, it’s not going to be that hard for Jeng when she moves to the states. Children can adapt and become Americanized. For the rest of us, it’s much harder!” he said. He grabbed some of the mangoes and stuck it in a bag. I gave him the money, “thank you po, Tito,” I said. He laughed.
“Jeng, our hope is with your generation. Just remember don’t be a spoiled little shit, ha?! You go live our dream—we’ll just be the nobodies!” he said. I walked back to our house as his laughter faded behind me.
There was once a woman who came by our house once a week for a few hours. My nanny called her the “launderess”—because she took care of our laundry. There was no washer or dryer. She was, quite literally, the washer and dryer. I watched her use her hands as she’d grind the clothes against an object that looked like a cheese grater. Her hands were big, and their strength can be seen through the way she wrung the water and the soap from the clothes. They were often dry and chapped from all the washing that she must have done. Her arms were deceitful because they were flabby, and yet when she’d take the sheets and hung them out to dry, she was constantly reaching up to the clothesline, and holding her arms mid air as she grabbed the clothespin and glided them through the fabric with ease.
She had short reddish brown hair, and she had freckles to match. Every time I saw her, she allowed me to touch her freckles because I have never seen such things on a person’s face.
“Do you like my freckles, Jeng?” she asked.
“I inherited them from my father,” she said.
“What about your red hair? How come it’s not black like mine, or my sisters, or my mom?” I asked.
“Because my father was a kano,” she answered. Kano, as in American.
She told my mother that she was searching for the father she never knew, and she’d asked my mother to see where she can go to find out. My mother told her that she can go to the American embassy with the little information that she had to see if they can track him down.
She once told me while she was washing our clothes and I was playing with all the bubbles from the suds that her mother never wanted to talk about her father: how they met, who he was. All she knew was that he was stationed in the Philippines and that she was never sure whether he knew she existed.
One day she came to our house, and I asked her if the laundry days have changed. She wanted to talk to my mother because she received some information about her father. She was quite happy about her good news. She clutched on to the letter as if her life depended on it. That day she went her merry way, and I watched her walk down the street.
The following week as she was grinding the clothes against the board, I asked her, “will you get to meet your father soon?” She looked up at me and smiled, “oh Jeng, the world does not work that way sometimes.”
“Why? How does the world work?” I asked.
“Sometimes, there are curiosities that needs to be left on their own,” she said.
“Like when I am curious about the garden gnome, and Nanny said that if I try to go catch one, the gnome might pinch my flower?” I said.
“Yes! That is correct. We get tempted to be curious because we want to know, and we become consumed with the answers that we no longer could see the beauty of life because we are always wondering,” she said.
“I like to wonder,” I said.
“You must wonder, and never lose that. But, you must always understand that sometimes curiosity and wondering will lead to only nothings” she said, “yes. Because when you think that there is something, chances are it is nothing, and then you must remind yourself to never become a nothing,” she smiled at me as she said this. Her smile reached her eyes genuinely.
When she was done humming her song as she hung the laundry on the clothesline, I watched her walk down the street again that day. It was the end of her day, and I thought that she must be happy going back home to be with her family. She walked slowly, her broad shoulders looked heavy as if she had been carrying a great burden not meant for her shoulders—perhaps the heaviness of a great nothing only she could understand.
Whenever I wonder who may have potty trained me, or taught me about things (don’t leave the house with your hair wet, don’t chew your gum out loud, keep your mouth closed when you chew, etc.,), I always arrived at the conclusion that it was our nanny.
Perhaps it may have been my mother.
But, chances are it was the nanny.
She was quite young when she started taking care of me and my sisters. She didn’t like for us to call her nanny, and instead we called her Ate Maria. Ate is the respectful way to address an older sister.
She had a heart shaped face, and her chin length hair with bangs accentuated her face, which made her look like she was only in her teens. Her brown eyes were always kind, but oftentimes I felt their resentment burn through me whenever she scolded me for doing something naughty that I would get in trouble for. I kept telling myself that she had to have been older than 16 years old to be held responsible for taking care of four little girls. Her family was not from the same town as ours or else she would have gone home every weekend to see them. When I woke up before anyone else in the house, she would always be the second one to wake up to make sure that I was preparing for school.
One day, we had visitors arrive at the house. It was a woman that my mother knew and she brought along her daughters. One of them looked as though she was lost because her eyes kept looking around as if she was afraid that something or someone will hurt her.
“There is something not right with her!” the woman told my mother, “I think she is really crazy!” The women made their clicking noises with their mouth as if to dispel any bad omen to themselves.
I watched the daughter stand there. She had short dark hair that looked as though it was chopped all over the place. She had her arms held across her chest as if she was protecting her being. She looked afraid, and kept looking around her as if there were others that she could see, but the rest of us could not.
“That is what happens to women when they go out of the house with their hair wet. They become crazy,” Ate Maria whispered in my ear.
“That is not true. She is afraid,” I whispered back.
“She has become afraid because she is seeing people who are not there, and that’s because she went out at night with her hair wet. See, she chopped her hair off. I remember when it was really pretty. I wonder what happened.”
“Did someone hurt her? Because she is pretty?” I asked.
“Tsk. Tsk. Don’t ask those questions. The answer is not for little girls to know. But, I will tell you this: sometimes when young girls ask for too much attention, they might not get the right kind of attention,” Ate Maria answered.
“Why would someone do that to her hair?” I asked.
“Because they want to take away attention from her, so they cut her hair so now she looks like no one will notice her,” she answered.
“That is very cruel,” I replied.
“The world is a cruel place for women, Jeng,” Ate Maria replied.
The day that led to the departure of our nanny was a tumultuous one. I came home from school looking for her, and found my mother in a panic. They could not find her. She took off after having an argument with my mother. I began to panic inside with the thought of someone hurting the woman who had become the comforter in our lives. They searched for her, and it was towards the evening when she finally came home.
My sisters and I hugged her and would not let her go. I remember that we all took a limb to attach ourselves to. I took her left arm, while one of my sister took the other arm, and the twins took one leg each. They were tiny and could only reach her knee. It must have been a sight to see that a reaction that expressed a profound sense of love.
It was the beginning of the end of our love for her.
The day she left us, my sisters and I could not stop crying. The world was spinning out of control, and we all began to panic what our world would become. It was as if there was an invisible umbilical chord that attached us to Ate Maria, and her departure would mean a brutal disconnection of those chords.
She said her goodbye to my sisters, and only they would know what she said to each of them.
When she finally got to me, she said “you need to remember to take care of your sisters, ha? You probably will forget about me, but you must remember to take care of them. You are in charge, ok? Stop crying now or your face is going to stay like that. Do you want to be ugly for the rest of your life?” she said.
I watched her pick up her things and walk away from our house. I don’t recall whether she had taken the bus or there had been a jeepney to pick her up.
All I can recall of her was that every now and then, I’d find myself saying things she used to say. Someone would then ask where I came up with such old wives tale notion, I would simply answer, “probably no one.” But, it would be Ate Maria who would be in my mind. A no one who whose invisible umbilical chord shows up from time to time.