Whereas I barely knew my father’s side of the family, I was quite familiar with Inay’s owing to the fact that many of them lived within blocks of each other. After my father’s relative success in Marikina, it was only a matter of a few short years when most of my mother’s siblings had also made the move to stake their claim to the modest fortunes otherwise not available in a dusty little farming town like Pook.
By all accounts, my mother’s grandmother was a relatively wealthy woman and made a good living in the hand-looming business. She also owned acres of farmland, the same land that decades later now exclusively belongs to my family. I do not know her name, as my mother only referred to her grandmother by the Tagalog word, Nanay. In fact I do not even know my own grandmother’s name for Inay predictably enough, only referred to her as “ang aming Ina” (our mother). What I do know is that they belonged to the Villanueva branch of the family, but apart from this, not much of the family was talked about.
In typical Filipino fashion, my mother’s family was a large brood: three brothers and four sisters: my uncles Kakang Tiyo, Kakang Teban, Tiya Olympia, Kakang Indo, my mother Ninay, Tiya Ape, Tiya Pinang and the youngest, Tiyo Mario. Of the seven siblings, Olympia and Mario were two who did not live to old age. Tiya Olympia died when her children Mauring and Dune were quite young, and the responsibility of bringing them up fell upon my Tiya Ape. Of this painful episode in their lives, my mother, many years later would only recount how Olympia would spend her last dying days in a state of uncontrollable weeping in the arms of my grandmother, not so much for herself but for the future of her own young children. But she need not have worried, for Tiya Ape nurtured them as she would her own children: Dune subsequently enlisted in the US Navy and settled in California; his sister Mauring stayed mostly in Pook for a long time. Her own family eventually moved to Marikina as well, did very well in the bakery industry, and now owns the largest parcel of farmland in Pook after my family.
Tiyo Mario, a handsome young man who was the only one in Inay’s family to actually go to university, died in the late fifties from meningitis. For days he complained about dizziness and headaches, a doctor came to the house but did not diagnose the condition properly and on time, and the young man was taken to the hospital too late where he soon died. His body was taken back to Pook for the wake when honour guards from the university’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corp stood at attention round the clock at either side of the coffin for the duration. For years after, his portrait hung in my grandfather’s house, and gave my older sisters the creeps; it is a peculiar phenomenon about painted portraits: the eyes seemed to follow them wherever they went within close range of the painting.
Because they were close in age and grew up together, my mother and her two sisters were each other’s best friends. They were, however, distinctly their own personality. Inay being the oldest of the three was the responsible one. In her old age she would recall, without malice, how Tiya Ape was sutil, stubborn, and laki sa layaw, spoiled and pampered. She was also considered to be the prettiest one, and that might have had something to do with it. I still remember how Inay would sum up her life in her old age: “Kahit ako man ay hindi kasing ganda ng iyong Tiya Ape, ang akin namang naging biyaya ay ang aking mga anak na tunay na nagmamahal sa akin”, (Although I may not be as beautiful as your Tiya Ape, I am blessed with children who truly love me). It was not something said out of spite or meanness, but a simple statement of a fact. Perhaps there was a bit of envy about Tiya Ape’s good looks and health, but in all, it was no more than that.
As for Tiya Pinang, she was the youngest, and as in all families, held a special place in their hearts. Inay also said that Tiya Pinang was pretty as a young woman, but always of frail health. Of all the siblings, she also seemed to have struggled through more hardship than all the others as an adult. Despite her poor health owing to some problem or another with her lungs, she managed to raise eight children almost on her own. It was no great family secret that her husband was barely there when the children were growing up, engrossed with nothing but his after-work vice of sakla, a form of gambling, and drinking. There was barely enough money left over after this for food for the children, the constant lament with which Tiya Pinang would come to my mother for help.
It was this lack of financial resources that would lead to one of her daughters permanently crippled in one leg after a bout of polio in the sixties. I still remember seeing my cousin in that old–fashioned metal leg brace in the sixties struggling to walk with no success. Resigned to the fact that her legs will never heal, she learned to walk with a wooden crutch, her right leg permanently bent from lack of use.
Tiya Pinang also had an older son, who did not do very well in school and dropped out before he finished elementary grades, after having learned, with great difficulty, basic reading writing and arithmetic. An extremely resourceful young man, he grew older much quicker physically and emotionally. He had a condition, possibly lipoma that left him with permanent lumps under his skin. Having left school early and quite possibly at that very young age recognized the dire needs of his family, he started working as a peddler of most anything he could lay his hands on. He was probably no more than twelve or thirteen at the time, but he would occasionally pass by our store with whatever product he was selling at the time: in the summer he could be seen toting a Styrofoam box full of ice buko (frozen coconut juice and water on a stick), in the cooler months a basket of warm butse (deep fried rice dough filled with sweet mung bean paste). His daily routine left him permanently tanned, and this, coupled with the bumps on his skin marked him an easy target of unkind taunts from people who started calling him Tanda, old man. If he was hurt or upset he never really showed it in public, but I remember his mother sometimes tearfully expressing her heartbreak at her son’s plight to Inay during some of her visits, of how her son would weep over such a fate at a very young age. But he plodded on, this kind-hearted if somewhat simple young man, and I am sure that whatever meager income he brought home was a welcome addition to the food table.
It is a very sad commentary on the nature of people that Tiya Pinang’s family were subjected to prejudice even within their own neighbourhood. And Daang Bakal, as the area was aptly called, in all aspects, was a poor area, situated immediately beside an old abandoned railroad track. This was a place where no such thing as the wrong side of the tracks existed, for both sides of Daang Bakal were equally squalid. Yet within this confines and social milieu even a form of pecking order existed, and the reality was that my aunt’s family was lower on this hierarchy. I will never forget a day when Tiya Pinang came to see my mother, upset and shamed because the next-door neighbour, after a party at their house, called over to my aunt and asked her to pick up the leftovers, because, in the neighbour’s words, “Mas maigi naman kaysa ipakaing baboy na laang!” (It’s better that you have it rather than feeding it to the hogs!).
In their young days, the three sisters: my mother. Tiya Ape and Tiya Pinang were all taught a trade: that of being mananahi, seamstress. I am certain that it was the influence of their grandmother, who was in the weaving industry, naghahabi. All three would become proficient seamstresses, but only Tiya Ape actually ended up taking the trade and would eventually open up her own tailoring and dressmaking business. Inay would do it only as a hobby, making curtains and pillowcases at home on her foot-pedaled Singer sewing machine, an old relic that still survives to this day. As far as I know Tiya Pinang never pursued the interest, but instead took up embroidery. I remember once seeing a hand-embroidered handkerchief she made for one of my sisters: a beautifully executed monogram with exquisite curlicues around it.
Of all Tiya Pinang’s children, the oldest daughter Betty would become closest to her two aunts: Tiya Ape, at the time doing quite well for herself in the sewing business, and with two sons and no daughter of her own, would temporarily adopt Betty and paid her tuition while in university. It was time and money wisely invested, for Betty was a brilliant student and earned a Magna cum Laude upon graduation. She would teach at the local high school and would eventually become my second year English teacher.
Tiya Pinang would die relatively early, not quite in her mid-sixties. Having lost their mother prematurely, her children became close to both surviving aunts. There would usually be afternoon visits from the whole brood, something my mother always looked forward to. After Inay and my father came back from Canada, and especially after my father’s death, Betty would spend one afternoon every other week visiting both aunts and keep them company. She was infinitely patient and concerned about both of them, and could make my mother laugh with her stories and gossip. She and Inay became most comfortable with each other so much that sometimes during Betty’s visits there was no need for any conversation between them. Betty knew my mother’s afternoon routine so well, and if Inay would be napping when she gets there, Betty would just pull out a pillow, lie down beside Inay and nap with her.
All that remains today of Inay’s family is Tiya Ape. Now in her eighties, she had slowed down considerably since the time when her energy and vibrancy were my mother’s envy. She still retains much of her good looks, and the spark still shines in her eyes on occasion. What it must be like to survive all her brothers and sisters I hope to never know. All those memories, happy and sad, all rolled into one full life must be such a bittersweet burden especially with practically no one with whom to share them.
© August 2007