A glimpse of home
My grandson Jacob is now in Grade 1. He is brought to and fetched from school by a transportation provider. But in the previous three years, I accompanied him to school and waited for him until his class was over.
My three-year, five-day-a-week excursions with Jacob gave me the opportunity to interact with the “companions” and “watchers” of the other preschoolers in Jacob’s school; and they helped me get to know several families in my hometown.
The companions and watchers were either the children’s mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, relatives, or household help (kasambahay). Almost all nursery children (3 to 4 years old) had their watchers, while the fewer prep children (6 to 7 years old, except two who were 5 years old) had their companions. During class hours, the few male watchers generally preferred to stay outside the school premises, but their female counterparts would remain inside the compound, except the kasambahay who would meet their suitors or boyfriends, or pass the time at nearby sari-sari stores. The number of watchers dwindled as the children moved from nursery to prep.
The parents’ circumstances defined who accompanied the preschoolers. Grandparents, relatives and kasambahay attended to the children of working mothers or parents who had separated. Most working mothers were school teachers, hospital personnel or government functionaries. Their husbands also worked, some of them abroad. In contrast, almost all of the mothers who watched their children were not working; only their husbands were employed, most of whom outside the country as seamen or with construction firms.
Expectedly, mothers with husbands working abroad were better-off economically. They received “monthly allotments” from their husbands, ranging from P20,000 to P50,000 (more than what public school teachers received), plus additional cash for extraordinary expenses, like for the birthday party of their children or the purchase of a household appliance. Yet, because of their expensive lifestyles, many of them would run out of funds before the arrival of their next allotment. Hence, they often borrowed cash or bought things on credit.
But there were the wives, including those of overseas workers, who augmented their family income through direct-selling ventures (that is, they sold products from Avon, Fuller, Natasha and MSE among other brands) or by selling on credit just anything – cosmetics, trinkets, processed food, snack food and used personal belongings (like clothes, children’s toys and beddings). Others rendered personal services (e.g., manicure and pedicure, sewing clothes).
A person’s behavior vis-à-vis the goods being sold on credit became a measure of his/her character. Thus, one who bought anything that was being sold was judged greedy or as someone trying to keep up with the Joneses; while one who did not buy on credit was labeled pretentious or aloof. Still, the selling activities bonded many of the children’s watchers, though these also caused the bitter split of many friendships because of unpaid debts.
The kasambahay bared the sad situation of many rural families. Most of them were teenagers – 15 to 18 years old – from distant, rural and upland towns of the province. Many had completed only grade school, but some had not; while a few had attended, but not finished, high school or were still attending night high school. They all came from very poor families. Because they were expected to help their families, their parents often got their salaries in advance, leaving them without money for their own daily needs. They thus would acquire many of their personal needs, like clothes, sandals, soap, lotion or cologne, on credit. And woe to the seller of the goods, for the kasambahay often did not stay very long with one family, not even for a school year, and they often disappeared without paying their debts.
Three reasons caused the rapid turnover of the kasambahay: they wanted a better employer (one who would scold them often or would pay them higher); they were lured to work in Manila and its environs; or they were impregnated by their boyfriends.
The children in the care of the kasambahay could have done better in school. Their inadequate performance seemed to result from the parents’ reliance on the kasambahay’s supervision of their study habits, even leaving to the kasambahay the chore of following up on their assignments and other school requirements, including attendance in the monthly parents-teachers’ meeting.
Over time the watchers formed their separate cliques and factions. And members of each group would usually share snacks and other foods, including uncooked vegetables, among themselves. They would also exchange seedlings of fruit trees, saplings and ornamental plants. Or look after the child of a group member who could not accompany the child to school or who had to leave briefly to attend to an errand. But sometimes they also would engage in negative things like backbiting members of their own group or of another group.
By the time the children were in prep class, group memberships had firmed up. Those who belonged to the same group usually had amiable and pleasant dealings, but interaction between groups or with members of other groups was stiff and curt.
I was glad to leave the petty squabbles and intrigues within the preschool milieu. But I now miss my loyal friends, my happy friends, my young friends, my old friends, and our eating and laughing together, and our conversations. Since I stopped bringing my grandson to school, I have not found many friends among the watchers of his Grade 1 classmates. I have met only a few parents, and I am starting to be acquainted with the mother of a classmate my grandson is getting to play with regularly.
I continue to look at other avenues for developing friendships, hoping to get more acquainted with the hometown I left and was away from for 29 years of my life. I hope that through my hometown’s camera club, which I joined recently, new avenues will open up for me.
Romana P. de los Reyes, 64, worked and lived in Quezon City for 29 years. She now lives in her hometown in Negros Occidental where she grows ornamental plants, as well as vegetables and fruit trees for home consumption.
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