Looking Back

Mothers and history

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My mother would’ve turned 80 this weekend had she not passed away unexpectedly, 10 years ago, 12 days after she turned 70. Aside from memories, the only physical part of her person left with us today are part of her ashes in the crypt of Sanctuario de San Antonio in Forbes Park and a small plot of earth in Lipa, Batangas, where the remainder of her ashes were scattered to fertilize a flowering bush of the  mussaenda  species that her thoughtful friends in UP Los Baños named in her honor. Had I inherited her green thumb, I would keep this  mussaenda  in my balcony together with an orchid also named after her. When we divided her things among ourselves, I got some of her perfumed Spanish fans (one even in tortoise shell of Chinese make) and the engagement ring she never wore because it was a replacement from an unscrupulous relation who “lost” the actual ring. Ten years on, we cling on to her memory.

Remembering my mother is like practicing history. When people ask how I get to know personal details of our heroes not in our textbooks, I reply that heroes practice history, too, without knowing it. One would presume that living with my mother for little over four decades would make me an expert on her life, but the surprising thing was that there were many facets of her life she kept to herself. The process of rediscovery took awhile as my sisters patiently went through her drawers and cabinets, sifting through her personal effects, opening each and every box, unfolding each and every slip of paper to determine what was to be consigned to the trash, what was to be kept, what was to be given away or sold off to the Bangkal thrift shops. Everything had to be opened including used tissues in case these yielded pieces of jewelry.

What a revelation it was to see her college transcript of records, if only to understand why she encouraged and threatened us to excel in school. We had better grades than she! Then there were the originals of our hospital birth certificates that made us wonder why she always maintained that all her children were born on a sunny Sunday morning: one sibling was born on a Saturday, another born on a Sunday evening, I was born on a  rainy  Sunday morning. These birth certificates reminded me of the controversy over Apolinario Mabini’s birthday because the date given by the “Sublime Paralytic,” according to the historian Teodoro Agoncillo, did not jibe with his baptismal record. Agoncillo insisted that we go by the document, by the baptismal record rather than Mabini’s own memory. Well, my mother who had known herself as Belen since birth was shocked when she received her certified NSO birth certificate to find out she was named Valeriano! Her explanation for this was that when she was being baptized and the priest asked for the name of the infant, her wicked stepmother thought she was being asked for her name; so she said “Valeriana” which the clerk mistakenly logged in the masculine—“Valeriano.” I consoled her by saying this was not half as bad as the case of a friend who never traveled because, when he received his NSO certificate, he discovered his real name was Gorgonio.

My mother was a pack rat, and this trait I definitely inherited. Her cabinets and drawers were filled with all sorts of stuff—everything memorable or relevant to her but junk to everyone else. She compiled many photo albums and had boxes of unfiled photos that we sorted out and returned to the families of those in the photographs whom we could identify. The most significant photographs we found were of my eldest sister who died as an infant. She had always been a ghostly memory; my mother said that we should call out her name when we were in trouble. It was a name I saw annually when we visited the cemetery on Nov. 1. Photographs finally supplied a face to the name of this long lost sister; as a bonus my mother also preserved a lock of her hair and an umbilical cord.

Having seen the effort that went into sorting out my mother’s things I regularly sort out my drawers, keeping what I feel are important in one place and throwing out what is unimportant. Then I have to decide whether I destroy what are very personal so they remain for me alone.

Going through our mother’s bedside drawer was most revealing. There my sister uncovered a two-volume illustrated edition of the “Joy of Sex” in a slipcase that wasn’t dog-eared and worn-out as we expected. Also in the drawer was a roll of rope that the Girl Scout in her kept for emergency use, together with an axe under the bed. What were these for? Self-defense against thieves? My sister laughed aloud saying, “OMG, if dad kept a mistress and mom found out, he would have been tied up and castrated!”

Her  bodega  yielded three unused sets of flatware, plates, bed sheets for each of her children. There were personalized embroidered towels, too and so many shirts that I couldn’t use because I have since grown overweight from the scrawny boy she wished had never grown up.

Going over my mother’s effects was an exercise in history that made me appreciate the love and care that allowed me to be what I wanted and could be. This may be a cheesy thing to say, but if you are fortunate to have living parents around, don’t wait for the next Mother’s or Father’s Day to give them a hug.

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