‘Ateng,’ aging with grace
“Ateng” is what my three younger brothers and I call our only sister Elena. As “Manang” is to Ilocanos, “Ateng” is to Tagalogs. It is the traditional term of endearment and respect for the oldest daughter in the brood. All her nephews and nieces, her grandnephews and grandnieces also call her thus. With our parents and two older brothers gone, she is now the oldest living member of our family. And at 76, Ateng is unmarried to this day.
She says she never got married because of our dear late Inang, our mother. And she probably was referring to her much earlier resolve to be Inang’s caretaker in old age—a role she fulfilled single-handedly until our mother’s death in November 1999. But the family also had an unspoken reason to say that Inang was the cause of our sister’s having stayed single. We felt that for our mother, no man was good enough for her only daughter!
I remember that whenever a man would come to the house to court Ateng, and soonest after he had left, Inang would start her litany of imaginable reasons why he was not good enough for Ateng. In the process, any prospect of a love life for Ateng was readily abbreviated. Boys stopped coming to our house even just to befriend her because Inang made it a point never to hide her dislike for anyone who would come to court Ateng.
I can imagine now how Ateng must have suffered in silence through all those years, since she, in fact, had fallen in love with one of her suitors then. In any case, she could only say in resignation later that if the man was not brave enough to fight for her and face her mother, then he also was not worth her attention!
The irony of it is that shortly before Inang died and when Ateng was well past her marrying age, she kept on urging Ateng to get married so she would have somebody to take care of her in her (Ateng’s) old age!
I would like to think that Ateng never got married because she never found anyone who could measure up to the high bar set by our beloved Tatang, the ideal husband and father, and the man who was Ateng’s first love of her life. Also, being the only sister of six boys, she was my father’s little girl from the start. To this day, it is an open secret that unlike us boys, she never got to experience Tatang’s famous temper. And her lips are sealed when it comes to the topic of the special treatment that she received from Tatang for being the only daughter. We the sons just knew and accepted the reality that the two of them must have had a deeper and more meaningful father-daughter relationship.
This beautiful relationship became evident some years back when Ateng decided to fulfill a dream she conceived after Tatang died early in life. She invested in a memorial park lot in our hometown of San Jose in Nueva Ecija. She then built a beautiful family mausoleum on the site, to where Tatang’s remains were transferred from the town’s old cemetery. She said the mausoleum was primarily for our parents who had never owned a lot, much less a decent home, when they were alive.
If you ask her, Ateng would reply—in jest, of course—that she never got married because her husband would not have survived having six brothers-in-law who were the most vocal critics next only to Inang when it came to her suitors.
But seriously, Ateng’s having remained single without a family of her own must have been God’s calling for her, considering how she has lovingly accepted her situation and touched even other people’s lives all this time, and even in her waning years. And as far as we her brothers are concerned, Ateng has always been around to support us and our own families especially after our parents died. And her life as a single career woman has been one long story of selfless dedication and loving concern for others.
After retiring from corporate work years ago, Ateng continues to live alone in an apartment not far from my house. Our proximity to each other makes it easier for me to respond to her in case of any emergency. My family also makes it a point to invite her to our house at least once a week, whenever my daughter Dana and her children come to visit.
It was during these visits that I have had the occasion to ask Ateng about her ideas on aging. “I accept it, but I do not end there,” she said. “I fully and lovingly embrace it.”
She said that merely accepting aging is not enough; it is too passive, like doing nothing while waiting for your call to board at the predeparture area of the airport. When one looks at aging in this way, the tendency is to brood over one’s losses—one’s youthful looks and strength, and the roles one is used to that are now gone—resulting in feelings of self-pity, helplessness, uselessness, and even depression.
I’ve started reading about aging and found out that Ateng is right, after all! Embracing aging is what the spiritual guru Ram Dass means by aging gracefully. He says: “The body and its aging journey can be viewed from a larger perspective… Instead of bemoaning the loss of who we were in the past, we should embrace instead who we are becoming now. We may even learn to love our bodies, and to appreciate their different beauty, as they change from young to old.”
Ateng’s life of embracing aging today is more dynamic, more creative and more productive. I know because as I look at her, I can see that she has been aging gracefully all these years, embracing her chosen journey as a single woman faithfully.
Danilo G. Mendiola is retired from corporate work and now serves with his wife in the Marriage Prep Ministry of their parish in Quezon City.