I MISSED writing something for Mothers Day and Fathers Day, so here’s one for mothers and fathers, and their sons and daughters.
The other day my son woke me up with a request. Holding a very wet favorite T-shirt, he asked me, “What was Lola’s wash and wear technique again?”
I was pleased. I had complained the day before that every time he has a new shirt it becomes his favorite, and he will wear it for days on end.
“Clothes get tired too, you know, wash it and rest it,” I had begged, wrinkling my nose to send out another message about his favorite shirts.
That early morning he did get up early, took off the T-shirt and washed it. Now, he was hoping it would dry before the day was over so he could use it again.
“Lola’s wash and wear technique” was something I had taught him some months back when we were out of town and staying in a hotel. He had a favorite new shirt he wanted to use, but it had accumulated sweat and grime from a day’s travel.
I took him to the bathroom and told him about Lola’s magic technique, something my mother taught me many years back when we were traveling.
First I washed the T-shirt again, then wrung it as well as I could. I then took a large bath towel, rolled it out on the floor (the only flat surface available) and put the wet T-shirt on it. I then began to roll up the towel with the shirt inside, unrolled it, rolled it again, repeating the process, much like using a rolling pin to knead dough. After several rolls, the shirt was ready to hang up to dry rather quickly, the towel having absorbed much of the water.
My son was fascinated and wanted to do more towel-rolling, so we washed other soiled clothes. He volunteered to take over, arguing, “You’re too old to do that.”
And as he did the rolling, I told him the story behind Lola’s technique.
My mother grew up in Manila but moved to Baguio for a year when she was 15. She did that out of grief. Her mother had developed complications from diabetes and had to be hospitalized. They lived on Taft Avenue at that time, in Pasay, and every morning my mother would attend Mass and then walk over to visit her mother at the San Juan de Dios Hospital on what was Dewey Boulevard then (now Roxas Boulevard).
Her mother died on the one morning my mother could not make it to the hospital.
She was disconsolate, and decided she could not stay in Manila. I never found out why she decided on Baguio and the ICM sisters. She was in St. Scholastica’s, which is a Benedictine school, but maybe the nuns in Manila, trying to console her, gave her the advice to go to Baguio. Much later in life, I learned about Baguio’s history, and how it was not just a summer capital but also a refuge for broken spirits, especially American colonial officials suffering from “philippinitis,” an inability to deal with pasaway (defiant) natives.
On other occasions when we had to do this “wash and dry,” my mother would go back to her stories, of her mother, of Baguio. With time, I realized my mother went up to Baguio to flee other ghosts in her life, but those stories are not for me to tell, yet, to my children, or in a column.
Her father was distressed about her decision, but let her go, this headstrong favorite child of his. She spent a year in Baguio and while in the dorm, picked up this wash and dry technique from the nuns.
She in turn taught me that technique and for years, every time I had to use it, usually while in a hotel, I would think of her and her flight from Manila, and how she became so independent.
More than a chore
Fast forward to the present. My son was convinced about Lola’s technique and was just making sure he got it right. We repeated the ritual, including his taking over: “You’re too old for this.”
And, to show he too had grown older and smarter, he announced he was going to improve on the method by drying the shirt on an electric fan.
Lo and behold, by early afternoon his latest favorite shirt was completely dry, ready to use.
I thought how appropriate it was that we were doing this in my mother’s house, which I visit with the children on weekends. She was sleeping in the next room, now oblivious to the world around her but there are moments when she seems to recognize my son, who insists on sleeping in her room every time we visit.
When people hear that my mother no longer recognizes anyone, their faces fall and they ask how I cope. I tell them it can be difficult, and yet I am thankful she’s still around.
She started a family late—in her 30s; and I started mine even later, in my 50s; but she still had enough physical energy, and emotional reserves, to help me raise the children.
Now, even if she does not speak and hardly moves, her physical presence remains important for her grandchildren. My son was particularly close to her, and she remains a reference point in our conversations, including those around washing and drying clothes.
My mother was a traditionalist when it came to gender roles, banishing me for example from the kitchen and insisting only women cook. But she did take me to the wet market; and even if I complained all the time then, I love those places, searching them out instead of malls whenever I’m in a new place. I do that sometimes as the anthropologist curious about what people buy and sell, and sometimes simply as a family person, kids in tow (and yes, complain they do, as I did). I regret I didn’t insist on going with her when she would head out to Divisoria and Binondo to buy all kinds of secret ingredients for her cooking.
I did tell my mother many times I wished she had been less tied to gender stereotypes, as she did when she passed on her wash and dry technique, something that a mother is more likely to teach daughters.
But she did teach me, and I am passing on her wash and wear technique on to my son and his sisters. Many of what we devalue as household chores are actually important rituals that bring together parents and children, sometimes even friends and neighbors—occasions for sharing stories, stitching together memories that make friendships and families.
* * *