She started working for my family at 16, too young and barely educated. My grandparents hired her as a maid, a housekeeper, and a nanny for their soon-to-be-born children. She started working for my mother at 40, when my mother married a lanky boy from Tarlac with dark afro hair and quiet eyes. She was older and knowing, and ready for another generation of children to care for.
I was 17 by the time she retired, mostly because she could not come with us to our new lives in Canada, and partly because her body was growing tired more quickly and her knees were suffering from the heavy command of arthritis. She was 65.
She worked for my family for almost half a century. My mother and her siblings called her “Manang Cora,” and my sisters and I, along with our cousins, know her as “Apong.” She cooked our meals and washed our clothes and woke us up in the morning for school. I remember her trying, very patiently, to teach me how to sew for my school projects, and her letting me grind and mash the peanuts whenever she made kare-kare, even though she knew that I wanted to play with the mortar and pestle more than I actually wanted to help with the cooking. I remember freshly-squeezed orange juice and homemade fishball sauce. I remember burrowing under her blanket during restless nights and sitting on her skirt like a swing as she tied my hair and watched “Eat Bulaga!” I remember the smell of garlic and black pepper, of wood polish and laundry soap. I remember kind, joyous eyes, and laughter like sunshine, bright bright bright.
It was more than a job to her, more than the days off and the benefits, the bonuses and the wages. We were her life. I could live a thousand lifetimes and I still wouldn’t be able to repay her for all the things she had to give up for us. She was our housekeeper in every sense of the word, and I think she knew early on that it was going to be her job until she couldn’t do it anymore, until age and disease caught up with her—but it was more than cooking and cleaning and having enough money to send back home.
She never finished grade school. She had to start working after the third grade to help her family survive, and later, she had to work harder to raise a son by herself. Everything she earned was put into her savings or given to those who are in greater need. I look back now and I realize that there must have been so many heavy things she had to carry for years and years, and yet I remember her standing tall, always, standing proud, and there was strength in the way her spine stretched across her worn back.
It is never easy to give up your dreams, to have to put them aside for other things and other people, but somewhere along the way she figured out how to reshape them, to mold and transform them into something else completely. And this is what I’ve learned from her: There is only ever forward, and so that is the way you walk, and sometimes that means letting go, but you keep dreaming anyway. Because life is life, and where would you be if you did not know how to dream? And oh, how she dreamed and dreamed.
Her dreams were always simple: to be able to support her son and watch him earn a college degree, to see my younger sisters and me do well in school, to own a sari-sari store. Her son has a college degree, she saw me graduate from high school four years ago; one of my sisters graduated last June, and the other is starting high school at the top of her class. She is proud.
She has her own sari-sari store now. She tells me about it every time we talk—the early-morning workers who buy soup and coffee, the after-school children wanting candies and gum, the friends and neighbors who stop by to chat during the day. I imagine the ropes of shampoo sachets hanging from the ceiling, the jars of sweets lined and displayed by the window, the Coke bottles in the fridge, the smell of homemade soup. This life she has made is wonderful in its simplicity, and when she tells me how happy she is, doing what she does now, I am reminded that there are so many things I have yet to learn.
I am young and the transition to adulthood hasn’t been easy, but there are constants in this life, things that anchor us and keep us from drifting: I know that she still calls me on my birthday every year, tells me she hopes I’m doing well. I know I cannot ever keep myself from smiling whenever she tells me stories of her sari-sari store over the static of phone lines and the crackle of the ocean between us. I know that she sends me a container of ube-flavored Stik-O whenever she can because she knows it’s my favorite. I know that her hugs are still one of the few things in this world that can immediately make me feel safe.
There are many things I do not understand, but I understand what family is. I understand that family is not defined by blood or the branches of a tree traced back generation after generation. Family is discovered and made and tied and tangled together like the strongest roots beneath the wildest soil.
I was raised by a woman with rough hands and an easy laugh, a woman marked by the hard work and humility a nation would boast of. Of this, I am incredibly proud.
I think it is important to celebrate the little things—hummed lullabies, pan de sal dipped in coffee, birthday cards kept in an old biscuit container. I think it is equally important to celebrate the little people in our lives, those who we sometimes take for granted simply because of our belief in their unwavering love for us. Some of the bravest people I know did not lead a rebellion or die for a country, but I believe that our national heroes and my own heroes have something in common: They are fierce in their love.
Sometimes this is what defines a hero, a love so striking, so generous, that it changes someone else’s life.
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, from every forgotten corner of the world. Heroes can bring both darkness and light, and often they go unnoticed, unrecognized, until one day you realize that they have burrowed a way into your chest. Heroes love and heroes dream, and when they can no longer do this, on days it’s so hard the world might as well swallow them whole, heroes take a deep breath and try again.
I was raised by a woman who is also a hero and a warrior and a dreamer. We call her “Apong,” which is an Ilocano word. It means “grandmother.”
I have never known her to be anything else.
Natasha Victorino, 21, is completing her degree in biomedical physiology at Simon Fraser University. She lives in BC, Canada.
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.