I met Marilyn through her letters
I grew up writing letters to my mother. I don’t know if it’s because I have a natural penchant for putting my thoughts on paper, or because when you’re a child of an overseas Filipino worker, writing letters is a thing you learn next to brushing your teeth or making your bed.
At eight, while my friends and other 1990s kids wrote about Carlo and their hotdog addiction to their diaries, I wrote my daily ramblings to my mom.
Dear Mama, I scored 100 in my English today. Dear Mama, I lost my front teeth last night. I guess I won’t be smiling for a while. Dear Mama, tomorrow is our recognition day. Wish you could be there. Dear Mama, we got your package today. I like the pink dress, only it’s a size too big. Nanay had it altered already. Dear Mama, when are you coming home?
Like most OFW kids, I found myself filling the gaps shaped by a mother’s absence through letters. My mom moved to Singapore when I was barely two years old—one of the typical Filipino moms who had to hop on a plane in search of greener pastures. My father had to work, too. So I was left to the guidance of my grandmother and my aunts who unwaveringly loved and cared for me like I was their own.
I first met my mom through my grandmother’s stories, along with a few sepia photos of her in her early 20s. Back then, a land line was a luxury we couldn’t afford. So, to me, the only indication of my mom’s existence was when her letters arrived. Nanay would read them aloud to me and I would listen to every word, wondering what it would be like to hear them straight from my mom’s mouth.
I first saw my mom when I was around four. We were at the airport waiting for her plane to arrive. After what felt like forever, a familiar face appeared among the surge of the homecoming crowd. She looked a little older than the one in the sepia photos, but she was bearing the same toothy smile. She hugged me. I remember her smelling like Duty Free.
It may seem funny, but the way I’ve genuinely gotten to know my mom weren’t when she’s in the country during her short vacations. Not on those awkward nights that we had to share a bed or when we were talking face-to-face. Instead, I found a greater, stronger bond with her when we were writing letters. If anything, I understood my mom only through her handwriting. I didn’t realize it then but through mom’s messy and coiled cursive words, I found a queer notion of a mother.
Mom’s letters were full of reminders of how much she loves me, how much it hurts her to be away, apologies for missing important occasions of my life and promises that soon she’ll come home for good. In most of her letters, mom always encouraged me to dream, to follow my bliss and do well in school and make her proud. She always asked that I write her back.
I wrote her back always. And in my letters I told her everything, be it winning an oratorical contest or wearing a bra for the first time. I wrote my stories on yellow legal paper, folded and sealed in airmail envelopes. On some occasions I tucked them in Hallmark cards that I had thoughtfully picked. In those letters I carefully scribbled my paragraphs flowered with words that I recently learned how to spell, written in my newly acquired skill of writing letters in slanted cursive.
Then came the wonders of mobile phones and the Internet. The dawn of Yahoo Messenger and, later, Facebook and Skype, among others, brought our snail-mailing to a standstill. By then I was in college and mom had found a new job in the United Kingdom. From constant phone calls, we went for e-mails, chats and video calls. The chance of communicating anytime we wanted was new to us—a welcome change. The idea of writing letters faded away.
It was in May 2009, when I was face to face with a blank computer screen, its cursor viciously flashing, that I wondered: When was the last time I wrote mom a letter? When did we stop writing each other letters? And more importantly: How do I write this letter?
The letter I had to write then was the kind that no daughter would ever dream of writing. To any parent, it might as well be World War Z, a hurricane, a very bad piece of news guaranteed to break a heart. But I couldn’t think of any other way of doing it—not over the phone, much less via Skype. Looking back, it might have been more personal, more me, if I did it in the way I am most familiar with: handwritten on paper, sent via airmail, except that it involved an urgent matter and was better sent by e-mail.
It took me three harrowing days to finish it. I usually have words for anything, but either the universe conspired for all the right words to abandon me then, or there just weren’t less painful words than: “Mom, I am sorry to break your heart, I am pregnant.”
Knowing about my unplanned pregnancy was one thing, writing about it in a letter was a battle in itself. As soon as the letter was done, I clicked “send.” In my heart there was an explosion. Everything inside me died except for one hope: that my letter, like my other letters, would make her understand.
A few hours later, I got a call from her. Mom cried like forever, and, still sobbing, she said: “I understand.” And it was my turn to cry. I cried happy tears.
Sometimes I wonder what it could have been like if my mother wasn’t an OFW and we had a normal mother-daughter, not a pen-pal, relationship. What would it have been like to wake up in the morning and be greeted by a breakfast table prepared by her? Would life have been much different? Happier, maybe?
When I was growing up, while my friends’ moms cooked them meals, attended their PTA meetings, fixed their hair and tucked them into bed, my mother wrote me letters and I was okay with it. I didn’t ask for more. On the rare nights that mom was home and we were sleeping next to each other, I would look at her and wait for the day she’d leave again—just so I can write her letters and talk to her again in a way I know best.
In our letters we were honest. In our letters we scrawled words that cared, phrases that expressed feelings, sentences that told stories, and paragraphs that yearned to bridge distance in a relationship greatly trying to endure. In our every letter we enclosed parts of us—parts very dear and important to us. parts that made us.
If anyone else reads those letters, they may find a sad mother who wishes to be with her child and an even sadder child who wants nothing else in the world but to be with her mother. But if one tries to read between the lines, one will meet a mother and daughter who created a haven exclusive to them—a happy place like Disneyland, but way more special.
Mom still lives halfway across the world and we still send each other letters. Sometimes, when I don’t write to her, I write about her and how I first met her through her letters.
Marriane Elnar, 26, works in Financial Times Publishing Inc.-Digital Advertising Operations. She blogs at heymarriane.blogspot.com.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.