No matter the pace of our lives, Mama had one regular habit - going to the beauty parlor weekly to have her nails and hair done. This was something she kept up till her dying day. I remember that during her illness, her doctor had to request to wipe off her nail polish so Mama’s conditions may be easily monitored. When she died, one of my sisters-in-law had to rush to the mortuary to give her a manicure and pedicure lest she haunt us all from her grave.
Mama had her moments of nastiness and bitchiness and she would never deny it. She was, however, one of the most caring persons that ever came to be.
When we became adults, we had for neighbors a troublesome couple. The husband was a bank manager and the wife a real estate agent. They had four kids, two boys and two girls. The household was often in turmoil with loud quarrels and sounds of blows exchanged. Maybe to avoid embarrassing herself, the wife frequently left the household for weeks and seldom stayed home. The children, ages 9 to 6, were then left on their own. They fended for themselves as best they could with the father providing them the money to buy food. He was out of the house early and returned usually by midnight. When the father came home, he was in the habit of inspecting their abode especially when there were no helpers. Whenever he was dissatisfied, he woke up all his children no matter the hour of the night to have them wax, scrub, and polish. While the children were at it, he loudly and shrilly harangued them. Sometimes, there were sounds of spanking which only the eldest son received. One night, he even locked out the son naked as punishment. The poor boy spent the entire night standing at the driveway in his birthday suit. Mama found him in the morning and that was how the boy was allowed to re-enter their house.
Being immature, these kids regularly squandered their food budget on candies and chips. When Mama found out, she started sending food over to them when meal times came and it became a regular thing between the two households. When the youngest son went to a military academy, Mama sent him delicious food weekly which he wisely shared with his upperclassmen. According to him, he avoided being hazed and beaten by this simple act of sharing his food. Mama did this until he finished his course and needless to say, he was forever grateful for her care. As gesture of their love and gratitude, this son and another sister, took leave from work, insisted on watching over Mama during her terminal illness and stayed until her end.
Mama stood as protector of these children while they were growing up. One time, the husband and wife were engaged in a dangerous fight such that their helper fled and jumped over to our backyard. Mama learned that the wife was wielding a machete and the husband had his gun out and cocked. In a bit, Mama rushed to their house and immediately took over the situation; she vehemently reprimanded both husband and wife for such a glaring scandal right in front of their cowering children. For a short time after, the couple and their children lived in uneasy peace. This, of course, was a perfect example of a marriage gone sour. The wife continued to be absent from the domicile and for even longer periods and the husband later brought home another son borne out of an illicit relationship.
Mama had plenty of superstitious/irrational beliefs, too, which I think was common for her generation. We grew up turning our plates around when someone needed to leave while we were eating. I don’t know the reason for this anymore; whether the person leaving or you will meet an accident if you didn’t! There was that time, too, when she moved heaven and earth to break my brother’s romance for the simple reason that the lady involved had gapped front teeth. She claimed that money will never be retained by the couple. One of her half-sisters got married and borrowed her pearl rosary; during the ceremony, the rosary’s cross got lost. Mama felt it was an omen of a hard life ahead. This sister died of child birth many years after. Mama was likewise wary of persons with smoky eyes because they would try to steal from you and those with rabbit’s eyes because they will betray you. Shifty eyes meant that the person is calculating or is hiding something; and so on and so forth. I was in fear of the way she sat in judgment of my friends simply by the way they looked. I resented such sweeping condemnation then only to realize that she was right most times. Maybe, she could have been a sharp profiler!
The last time that she celebrated her birthday, the first caller of the day, one of my business associates totally unaware that it was her birthday, came in a black dress. Mama commented on it after the visitor left. She said that it was the color of mourning and that maybe it was going to be her last birthday. True enough, Mama died the following year, months before her birthday!
Many times during those years, I could feel that Mama was becoming lonely. It must have been painful for someone who was truly vibrant and perky to have to step into the shadows of our lives. In hindsight, I even thought it would have been better had she remarried while she was younger. But, Mama always said: “Walang pangalawang Gloria sa pag-aasawa.”. (You can’t find happiness a second time in marriage.) Am sure it’s one of her homegrown knowledge again; having been burned badly by the second marriage of her own mother. After Papa died, she devoted her entire life to raising us. It was not for want of any suitors, too. I remember parades of suitors coming to pay a visit but Mama must have discouraged them from the get-go that few even ventured a follow-up. It was only after she died that I came to know how deeply she loved Papa. Among mementos that I dug up from her personal belongings were plane tickets of Papa’s trips, passport, letters and telegrams of Papa, even the bathrobe he wore when he suffered his heart attack; all these she kept for thirty seven years.
Being lonely, however, did not hinder Mama from sharing many stories from younger days. Whenever she came home from Canada, we spent lazy afternoons chatting about what occurred in the past; funny stories and family revelations were uncovered! She was constantly alert to what may happen while Papa was alive. He once came home with his secretary in tow. Apparently, the lady was not feeling well and Papa offered to drive her home. He stopped by to tell Mama first so she will not worry if he got late. Not one to let such an unusual development pass, Mama immediately forked over a few pesos to the secretary and instructed her to take a cab home. She advised that a wife should never allow any other woman to grab her husband’s attention and solicitude. For this, my uncle Itio, Ibu’s husband, often teased Mama for being “selfish”. He jokingly remarked that because she refused to share her husband, God took him away early.
Courageous and spunky: these are the two adjectives I believe best describe Mama. If I were a painter, I would most probably paint her as a lady pirate standing on top of the ship and laughing heartily as the wind and rain whipped across her face. She always seemed to have that aura of audacity about her! If she had ever shown any weakness at all in her lifetime, it was her extreme love for and expectations from my eldest brother, Harry. He was always treated like a prince and the rest of us like his vassals. But, that is an entirely different story altogether which may be told another time if ever.
To Mama’s credit, she also retained many of Papa’s friends even after he was gone. Most of these friends were Americans since Papa was assigned to work on contracts with the Clark Air Base. The favorite of these Americans was Chinese food and Mama bragged that she could cook Chinese very well. Of course, they took her up on her invite and she had to order from a Chinese restaurant downtown. With her characteristic chutzpah, she claimed she was the one who cooked them all! Ha-ha-ha-ha-hah….. what a brazen liar!
Papa’s most loyal friend was Mao and Mama was always quite close to him and his wife despite his very poor credibility. You see, the man was addicted to gambling and Mama considered his wife a saint for putting up with his vice. He hocked his family’s jewels and everything else just so he could go to the races and bet. He once borrowed Papa’s watch and could no longer return it because he pawned it. Papa and Mama tolerated all these and even laughed at Mao’s escapades. Mama often mentioned that Mao was repeatedly involved in fights over betting debts but would quickly disappear under the table while Papa tussled with whoever Mao made enemy of. After Papa was gone, Mao visited us every so often just to check and see how we were doing. I remember he also habitually picked me up and drove all the way to their residence in Quezon City for meals. In fact, when he failed to show up for a few months, I dreamt of him coming for a visit in a real spiffy attire. He looked jolly and relaxed and seemed much, much younger. Because of this dream, I called up his wife to say hello; only to find out that he passed away too some weeks back! She could not inform us because she could not find our telephone number. Did he come into my dream to say goodbye? I often wondered.
Mama said it was the same thing that happened to her when Papa passed on. Being young and emotional, she cried to high heavens and questioned God for Papa’s death. She related that there was one night when she fell half asleep on the rocking chair. Her arm was over her eyes which were swollen from too much grieving. She suddenly felt Papa in front of her and he took her arm off her eyes. He told her to pray constantly and believe that God will always take care of her and her children. Then, just as silently, he disappeared. Mama could not tell whether it happened for real or just a dream but that was the time she gained acceptance of his death and moved on.
She may have been doing the same for me when I dreamt of meeting her at the memorial park. This was at a time when she had been gone some months. She was wearing her usual long house dress and was beaming as she walked towards me. She assured me that she will always be with me and will constantly watch over me so I need not worry. Maybe that is the reason why I still cannot comb my hair in public, or sit on the sidewalk while waiting in line for a ride, or even look out the window to watch people go by. You see, these were all no-no’s for Mama and I can feel her watching me so my mind tells me, “Magagalit si Alice!” (Alice will be angry!)
I guess, Mama always had such a larger than life presence in our lives. In fact, my brother, Dick, called her a “terrorist”! It began when she regularly came home from Canada. As soon as we received word that she was coming home, I would be busy with my household help sweeping, wiping, scrubbing, waxing and whatever else it took to make my home squeaky clean. On one such occasion, Dick dropped by and saw how busy we were. He commented that it was the same thing happening in his own home. Apparently, the thought of her forthcoming visit terrorized us all into cleaning like there was no tomorrow! And who wouldn’t when this particular visitor climbed our stairs with one finger running along the banister and checking for dust?
Mama seemed to have had an uncanny inkling of her impending departure. On her last trip back, she had this sense of urgency to see everyone whom she had not seen for the longest time. With my uncle Ador, she went on a long trip to their hometown. There, she visited old friends and relatives. She became cranky when at home as if she always needed to be somewhere else. When she fell ill, I immediately told her to fly back to Canada as my brother, Tom, requested. The doctor advised, though, that even there, all they can give her was nursing care. Tom still felt that she would receive better care there and, needless to say, her medical needs can be met by her healthcare insurance. Even with the assurance that I will fly with her, she gently but adamantly refused to go saying, “Dito ko na lang hihintayin ang oras ko.” (I will just wait for my time here.)
So the waiting began. Mama refused to be admitted to the hospital until necessary for times when she needed blood transfusions. Her usually charmed life worked its magic again when we found a doctor volunteer who came to check on her every day. This blessing came in the person of Dr. Carmen Castaneda, one of the best friends of my doctor-cousin, Josie, who had by then been in the United States for some years. Another cousin, Lyja, brought over the hospital bed that Ah-pe used when he, in turn, battled a terminal illness. Everything was set to make Mama’s last days as comfortable as we can manage. A caregiver was hired to monitor Mama’s needs and to ensure painkiller was given as needed.
It was open house from then on. Guests streamed in; relatives, friends, and mostly, people she had influenced and helped. She talked to Ibu over long distance because Ibu could no longer travel due to her diabetes and other complications. I overheard her one time saying with resignation, “Baka hindi na tayo magkita ulit.” (We may not get the chance to see each other again.) Always, though, nights were reserved for karaoke singing. She just loved to watch her grandchildren perform for her.
My aunt, Uma, who was herself recuperating from a long battle with rectal cancer, also came for a last visit. As soon as she entered the room, Mama gave her the good news, “Tom is coming home.” Uma replied, “You know, my ass had been bothering me since yesterday.” Mama again gave Uma the good news about Tom. Uma again told Mama about her ass. This exchange went on for about five times so much so that Lyja and I were bent over in silent laughter behind the door. Then, the two old ladies looked into each other’s eyes and fell into a companionable silence; a silence maybe only two kindred souls can share in the face of death.
On October 23, 1988, Mama finally gave up her fight against stomach cancer. As a sign of consideration perhaps, she chose to creep away in the early morning hours the day after my own wedding anniversary.
Days from now, it would be her 24th death anniversary. It could be a day of remembering for us, her children. But, frankly, in my senior years, I often get to recall how she was with us, how she made life seemed so exciting and exhilarating. Am I meeting the bar she had set? I think of how I had been with my children and how my children would be with their own children, my grandchildren. I truly regret that they and their cousins missed out on one of the most colorful personalities they could have had the privilege of knowing when Mama passed away. Her fiery Castilian temper, her vivid striking beauty that made everyone look her way, the lilt of the laughter that she shared with abandon, her quick wit, and the gentle heart beneath her domineering presence – I will always hold all these dear in my heart and memory.
For those of you in our next generation, I recount some of these memories before age blurs them in my mind. I hope that in knowing more about her, you will know who and what you are because of who and what Alice had been!