Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Remembering

[This is probably one of the most personal, if not the most personal, posts I will ever have on this blog. This was written in memory of our late housekeeper and family friend, Yaya Ines, who shepherded me and my siblings during our childhood. She died, at age 59, due to complications of her diabetes. Please say a brief prayer for the soul of this remarkable woman, who has  been instrumental in my and my family’s growth for as long as I can remember.]

The memories I have of my childhood are almost always visual ones: the light angling into the boughs of the macopa tree, filtering down to my face as I lay in my hammock in the afternoons; the long trek to the store at the end of the street, with its brown gate and elderly grandmother proprietor; the sight of stray dogs lazing around by the roads, awaiting the arrival of the ice cream man and has pushcart, and in the evenings, the elderly blind man who sold ice buko and the other man, also elderly, who sold balut by the dozen. Nowadays, when I  make the trip to the old neighborhood, I find that a lot has changed: there are new houses now, and old ones with new owners. The blind man no longer walks about by night selling ice buko, and even the stray dogs seem to have diminished in number. The sounds, too, have changed: whereas before a silence that could only be described as rural permeated the atmosphere, today, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and the latest novelty songs compete for supremacy over an increasingly attenuated auditory space.

My constant companion during those innocent times was Yaya Ines, our housekeeper. She first came to Manila from the province in the 1970s—1972 to be precise—which almost coincided with the proclamation of Martial Law. She was a sprightly lass then who had come to the big city in search for a better chance at life. She worked as maid in a few other households before settling on ours, by way of her brother, who studied in the same university where my paternal grandmother taught, and who used to be a bedspacer at their home. I was the firstborn male of the new generation on either side of my family, much to the delight of both sides, and early on, it seems, I was already being groomed to be the breadwinner who would change the fortunes of the clan; we were not wealthy and possessed only a modest fortune (if, indeed, something to tiny and attenuated could even be considered such), a comfortable sum born out of the many years my maternal grandparents spent teaching in the public school system.  My parents both worked nine hour shifts, and since my aunts also had their day jobs, the folks hired us a yaya—maid, in simpler terms, but in the Philippines the term can easily mean guardian, mentor, and even a confidant

She had come to us when I was barely a year old, and, according to my mother, I looked more like a girl than a boy. Indeed, when she first came to us and gave me my first bath, Yaya was surprised to find a penis dangling between my legs. It did not help that my mother frequently made me wear yellow, a color which still carried, then, a connotation of effeminacy. Yaya Ines came to us in 1990; she was a stout woman, who by then had weighed close to two hundred pounds, but that was perhaps what endeared me to her. She would often wake me up at the crack of dawn, whence we would go out for a stroll, and buy taho from the ambulant vendors. Life was simpler then; mine was a happy, idyllic life, which started with early morning cartoons (my favorites were TMNT, Conan the Adventurer, The Incredible Hulk, Popeye, and Superhuman Samurai Cybersquad—Power Rangers were still a few years away), followed by another stroll to the City Hall in the early afternoon (we lived right behind it), then dinner at six. I would already be fast asleep by eight. Simple, like clockwork, and uncomplicated a possible.

On Sundays, my father would drive us to Greenbelt Chapel (aka, Santo Nino de la Paz) in Makati, which was a considerable distance from our place. It was surrounded by a lush park filled with trees and shrubs, where I would often play hide and seek with Yaya when I became too bored at Mass. Today the park is gone, replaced by a glittering, high-end mall, but the chapel remains standing, right at the center. Mass usually ended at 12pm sharp, unless Fr. Anton Pascual was the celebrant, who was wont to be prolix with his homilies and who, if I remember correctly, was a fan of liturgical dance. After Mass, we would walk a few hundred meters and have lunch at Max’s and feast on their ineffably good chicken. We would be home by three, and by then, I would usually have fallen asleep at Yaya’s shoulder. My younger brother would sit in front with my mom, while I pestered Yaya in the backseat with my strange antics and occasional tantrums.

When I started school in 1993, Yaya would always accompany me on the way there in the tricycle. Imagine a motorcycle with a roofed sidecar attached and you have the rudimentary figure of a trike. She would usually sit behind the trike driver in his motorcycle, while I did my homework inside the sidecar. Sometimes, she would sit beside me, helping me fix my things which I just sloppily threw in my bag. But wherever she sat, she would always make sure to keep an eye on me, glancing back every few seconds and saying my name as if to assure me that she was right there all along. The school I went to was, in a word, small: it was scarcely bigger than a daycare, with a total population of sixty two students. She would wait until my first class was over, before going back home to cook and clean. One time, as we were running late for school, our rented tricycle bumped into a blue SUV. Our trike driver, Mang Rene, went down to confront the driver of the SUV; we had the right of way, but the car appeared out of nowhere, and the tricycle had screeched to a halt, scratching the side of the SUV. A burly man stepped out of the SUV; he was the biggest, meanest looking man I had ever seen. And he had a gun, which he  pointed straight at Mang Rene (and this was just outside of the school, too). Yaya Ines told me to stay inside the trike no matter what happened, before she descended from the back seat to lend our driver a hand. Then, she took off her bakya (wooden clogs), and with one swift motion, hurled it at the face of our interlocutor. Angered, the man now trained the gun at her direction; but at this point, the neighbors had all gotten out, and came to our defense. The police soon arrived and thankfully, the asshole was carted off to the station.

I believe I came close—too close—to death that day, but it is only now that I realize how serious it was. Yaya was certainly ready to die; it was on her face, which by then looked as if it were on the verge of tears. I went to class as if nothing had happened, but Yaya made sure to linger an extra hour in the school premises to make sure there was no reprisal of the previous situation. She was panting and sweating, so my teachers gave her a glass of water to calm her down. At around ten, she left the school to go back home; later that afternoon when she came to fetch me, she brought a knife just to be safe. She had entrusted my brother to my aunts, but since he was asleep at least half the day, they had no trouble with him whatsoever.

That was almost two decades ago, and in that time, I had grown up a lot, both figuratively and literally. The soft, scrawny little boy would eventually grow to be not so scrawny and develop an outward façade that sought to radiate collectedness and toughness. Yaya would grow old, too; and in time I began to notice that she could no longer keep up with me when I ran around the mall, or that she began to be hard of hearing and cranky at times. In grade school, I began to grow more independent, perhaps in an early effort to establish an identity for myself. I would begin to deliberately outpace her when we went out as a family, so as not to appear too much like a mama’s boy. And when the car fetched me from school, I told her to wait inside and not bother to come and fetch me. I was big, brave, and did not want nor need to be coddled anymore.  When I entered high school, I became increasingly lonely. Deep down I felt that no one understood me, and even in the conservative Catholic atmosphere of my new school, I was referred to as the “God boy”, who seemed perennially lost in the clouds and who could only talk about God.

Yaya would stay on with us till 2009, and watch me and both of my siblings graduate. But as early as 2001, I could tell she was no longer the invincible protector that I thought she had been; she had become sickly and moody, even fatalistic; she slept earlier and woke up later, and when she cooked, she could no longer taste anything unless it was smothered in a fistful of salt. In 2007, she was diagnosed with diabetes; I remember turning a blind eye when I would notice a long line of ants milling about the toilet every time she used it. I would pretend I did not see her eating the fat off the pork chops we'd eat for dinner, or when she could barely understand a word I was saying, even if I already had my voice raised. Finally, on June 26, 2009, she left our household and returned to the province. In the weeks prior, she would often tell me “Gusto ko na magpahinga” [I want to rest already], and “Ano man mangyari sa’kin, nasa Diyos na iyon” [Whatever happens to me, it is already up to God]. When she left, she looked as if she were on the verge of tears; I gave her some extra money in addition to the farewell gift my father had given her [Php 20,000] and told her to come and visit one of these days.

She departed the world on January 21, coincidentally the feast of St. Agnes—Santa Ines in Spanish—the saint for which she was named. She would have been sixty in April. Diabetes had taken its toll on her, ravaging her body; her left leg had already been amputated in July, and it was only a matter of time before, I’m told, she started going blind. I am told she thought of me and my siblings fondly in her last days; her passing certainly came as a surprise to me, but deep down, a part of me knew that her life was coming to a close. When I look back on those carefree days of my childhood, I can’t help but run through all the memories of the adventures I had with her.  They are now irrevocably locked away in the dim but still luminous caverns of the past, shining unblemished, like stars radiant in the night sky, amidst the rancor and confusion of the present. And perhaps, I now realize, to an extent, why the reforms of Vatican II were welcomed so enthusiastically by the laity: it is because no one can comprehend even briefly the nature of eternity, and the hell that may be attached therewith, without despairing; we cannot bear the thought of our loved ones burning forever in the fires of hell, because they had been guilty of the crime of being born amongst the simple. Yaya Ines was not a regular churchgoer; she even had a slightly anticlerical streak to her. But she also told us, with eyes ablaze and heart convinced, that the Virgin once walked on the soil of their town; that the Holy Child had never ceased to be kind to her. And even when she was already sick, she would make the long commute to Quiapo every Sunday, dressed in the Nazarene’s scarlet, and there attend Mass at five thirty in the morning. And on Ash Wednesdays, she would always be the first to remind everyone that meat was absolutely forbidden, even if she seemed self-righteous at times (and God bless her for it).

And suddenly, I am that young, timid boy again. You realize that you are alone, that you are vulnerable, that you need warmth and protection in the face of the piercing cold all around you. You feel the infinite weight of your own finitude. But behind the gloom and the dark and the storms that rage all around, those memories of my childhood will always shine with a more piercing clarity than the cacophony dancing all around me. And for these, I can only say to our beloved yaya: Thank you. May you rest in God’s peace, and may the angels escort you into the heavenly courts. May God and all His saints embrace you and weave for you an everlasting crown of glory. May you be at peace, and may you find the rest that you have been looking for.


I end this post with a final and most blessed memory, untouched by the encroachment of disease or my burgeoning pride. It I 1995 again, and I am in first grade. Everyone still wanted to be a Backstreet Boy and the Power Rangers still commanded a legion of loyal viewers. The bell rings, and we are dismissed; we sing a farewell song to each other in class, and I fetch my brother, eager to return to the confines of our cozy home. The gate opens, and in comes Yaya Ines. She is smiling, and  she has sandwiches for us behind her back, smothered in pimento Cheez Whiz and some Coke in plastic bags for us to drink. We exit the school and board the tricycle: my brother and I in the sidecar, and she behind Mang Rene, healthy and jovial as ever. Finally, he starts the engine, and we are heading home. All is well; it could not be any other way.


Anonymous said...

It sounds as if she was a good person.

Requiescat in Pace

Archistrategos said...

Thank you. Yes, she was. I don't know how she was able to stomach us brats really

Rita said...

What a beautiful reflection. I can only guess that is some ways this is more painful than the death of a blood relative. My equivalent Yaya is still alive and whilst I haven't seen her for years, there is quite a bond between us. I still can't get over her loyalty to me, it is totally undeserved on my part.

Archistrategos said...

Thank you for your kind and thoughtful words Rita. It is especially painful for me because of all the experiences I've had with her. There's always that painful realization that life has to cease, but at the same time progress. To me it's like severing my final ties to my childhood and all the 'good things' about it for which I am nostalgic.

She will be buried on the 28th, and it is unfortunate that I won't be able to come as I'm in the thick of exam week. But I will have Mass said for her often; she would have liked that.

alex r. castro said...

I am touched by your recollections of your yaya's uncommon dedication and sacrifice. Her leaving home & family at a such a young age to care for somebody else's child is the story too of the thousands of OFWs who leave everything behind just to earn a living for their own loved ones. I sometimes wonder what has happened to my very own yaya...If I could turn back the hands of time, I wish I was less bratty and listened to her more..