Among the last four generations of women in our paternal and maternal families, my mother, Concepcion, was the one with a most ardent wanderlust which sadly, like an unrequited love, was a dream unmet.
She always liked cold temperature and the smell of pine. (Hence, I grew up with the smell of pine- from house cleaners to fresh Christmas tree.) When she reached midlife, a secret part of her that was hidden from her husband and children, wanted to leave Olongapo and its worn-out sometimes happy, sometimes sad memories.
“I wish we could live in Baguio City.” I only heard her say it once. That was before my father, Jimmyboy’s retirement from police service in 1997. She was only 53 years old. I was 34 (and now I am 55, a midlifer myself.) We were living separate lives though strongly connected by the love of my children, their grandchildren.
I felt the burden of those words in my heart and connected to them in a way that they were relevant to my own life at that time. She wanted to start life anew. I wanted to travel to as many places that I could.
However, my father’s retirement fund can not afford a house in Baguio, nor was he capable of finding other means to make my mother’s dream come true. Or maybe he was not really willing to leave “his city.” So there was nothing left for them to do but to stay in Olongapo. Although the positive thing about it was they moved to a new house, away from flood’s harm.
(Yes, it was our childhood normal to wade in the floods every single typhoon season back in our days in Johnson-18th-Ibarra Streets. That was why America’s ‘Riverside’ was one of my high school LSS. The distance between Johnson St. in East Bajacbajac to Cava Street in Gordon Heights is more or less 4 kilometers. Imagine, that was already my parents’ big move.)
Sometimes, I think: If Jimmyboy had been a corrupt police officer to ‘earn’ more money, naging masaya kaya ang nanay ko?
The truth is, had she sprinted away from us all to that dream life of hers, I never would have judged her. I never doubted that she was capable of doing anything on her own, at any age, if she wanted to. Had she ran away, I would have looked for her, no matter what.
My mother had ran away three times in her lifetime. (Laura Brown/Julianne Moore in “The Hours” just did it once.) I knew about all those times, or think I did. The last time was when I was 4. Were there more times than those I knew? I am not sure. Though I was certain that she had to do all those running away to return to herself.
She was one of those women who were born ahead of their time. She did things that some strong influencers in my father’s side of the family had considered ‘vulgar.’ Like smoking in public. Drinking alcohol. Playing cards with the boys. Wearing little dresses without stockings (My mother had styled herself after Hepburn’s pegs- without the glitter. My father’s mother would have disowned her if she wore them black.) People around her years as a young wife were not as understanding and kind. That’s all I can say about that for now.
Right after my younger sister was born, it was established that her greatest weakness was, she can never hurt her family. So she stayed and kept on with motherhood and wifely duties up to her last breath. That bought peace with my father’s side of the family.
But as she gave up her freedom to be who she was, she became a door mat; the one who always, and I mean- always, washed the dishes and cleaned the house of her parents-in-law. It explained a lot why she always looked lonely to me when I was growing up.
I loved my father’s parents, my grandparents, and they were good to me. I grew up in that big house in Cavite City with so many rules. But I was freer compared to my mother because I was the first granddaughter in that family. I was doted on and loved, despite the way they treated her.
Even as a child, I felt my mother’s longings even if I didn’t know what they were about. As I grew from one period of girlhood to another, then to being a young woman, I came to know some of them.
I wish I had known more of her innermost feelings and dreams. The personal history I know of her were culled from snippets of stories she freely shared with me, and from her own viewpoints. Some were painstakingly obtained from senior members of the family who are still with us. I started to interview family relations around the time when we first learned she had cancer.
From these stories, I felt my own sense of understanding the events in and around her life. I committed all of them to my heart’s memory bank. One day soon, I shall write them all down, I am sure, years before I die.
From my childhood until my mature years before her cancer, I’ve always thought that my mother wouldn’t die. I ignored the tell-tale signs of a weakening body, esp. because she always had said there wasn’t anything wrong with her, that she was strong. She refused to submit to medical check-ups.
If she didn’t contract a cataract and needed operation, she would not have submitted to a pre-op medical clearance. That was how it was discovered that she had a big lump between her lungs, the size of a golf ball.
She fought very hard to live longer, but then… ay, mama! All those years of smoking and secret sadness. It must have been very hard. I’d cry each time I would think about how her life on earth was spent.
Mothers do die, too, you know. No matter what sternest stuff they were made of.
I miss my mother and the bamboo daybed that was always waiting for me at my parents’ house. Whenever I was feeling the blues all the years of my fight to survive and thrive as a single parent, I had driven my car to my parents’ house and without saying anything, I would commandeer that bamboo daybed to sleep for a few hours. It was my sanctuary, a breath away from my mother’s love.
In my twilight sleep, I heard her shhhhs to my father and my brothers, I was not to be disturbed. Each time I woke up, there was always a hot meal waiting for me, followed by our cheerful conversations. And each time I return home from that restful day, the next day was always better.
I feel that up to this day I have never addressed my own grief on losing Mama. In my mind, I put her in a small country cottage in Baguio, surrounded by white picket fences, pine trees, sunflowers, and dewdrops on the green grass. A cacophony of birds cawing and chirping may be heard from the thicket of pine trees and from the meadows beyond her backyard.
By now, the cold November wind in the City of Pines sweeps gently through her salt and pepper mid-length hair. Every now and then she would try to tie it into a bun, though unsuccessfully, as her hair strands are so healthy and shiny despite the years so it’s not easy to pony it up. I got my hair from her. And no doubt, my angst and whatever that’s good in a woman that others may see in me.
She is sipping her coffee at the front porch while she organises our family photo albums. She is smiling, beaming even, as she looks at the young faces on the photos she salvaged when Mt. Pinatubo destroyed her house by the riverside. She is unmindful whether she is alone or not. She is just too happy right in that serene moment, the way I always dreamt of that moment for her.
So before I put ‘30’ in this not-so-brief story about my mother, this is what I am going to write: “Concepcion, who lived all her 69 years half spent in secret sadness and the other half- amid laughter of her husband, children and grandchildren, stopped whatever she was doing on March 27, 2014. She looked at the family portraits in the living room one last time, walked out the door with nothing but her love, and took off to her new home by a mountainside in Baguio City where she lived forever.” (30)