The Absence of Maps

>> Sunday, September 30, 2007

I arrived from school one afternoon and found my stand-in grandmother pedaling her sewing machine, piecing together random fabrics to make a quilt. My 8 or 9-year-old mind could not establish the connection between "Singer" and "sewing" and thought that maybe for some people, like my stand-in grandmother, the annoying clang-clang of the machine's wheel was music to their ears.

We called my stand-in grandmother "Nanay". She took on the responsibility of raising my mom (her niece) when my mom's mother went to the States. She was never married and never had children. I assumed that her vitiligo made it impossible for her to find a mate. She had white patches all over her body as if the melanin got confused whether she was Asian or Caucasian and it decided to give her the best of both worlds, except that she ended up looking like a freak. I always thought of her patches as continents--her skin a map--but I never mentioned it to her because she might not like the idea of me naming a patch of albino skin as some secret paradise island.

The rest of the neighborhood also called her "Nanay" because she was a retired nurse who became the midwife to all of the baranggay's pregnant women. This irony was last seen in the Star Cinema movie A Love Story. Nanay, however, didn't have her own Aga Mulach.

As soon as I entered her room I collapsed on the floor together with my big backpack filled with thick textbooks which could have been thinner and lighter if it weren't for the large elementary font. My teacher referred to those books as our future. Each day, I carried my future on my back, quite certain that the only future in store for me was a trip to the chiropractor.

I tried to look pained to get some sympathy in the form of Jellyace or Mallows, but a heavy bag could not compete with the troubles of war that Nanay had to endure as a little girl. She was also stingy. Either way, it was a lose-lose situation.

"We are going to write a letter," she told me that afternoon I arrived from school. A grimace from me. I was looking forward to cartoons on our black and white TV especially when rumors went around at school alleging that the Smurfs were blue! I had to see it for myself and letter writing would ruin the investigation I had planned.

We always wrote to her sister, my real grandmother, who lived in Chicago. Lola Chila, name derived from Kastila (Spanish), seemed to answer our letters in dollar cheques and this encouraged Nanay to write more often than she should. When Nanay ran out of sad stories to write, she turned to me.

Nanay put aside the unfinished quilt and converted the ugly sewing machine into a table. She took a couple of onion skin paper and told me to sit on her lap so that we could begin writing. Onion skin paper was invented for old, stingy, single women who went to great lengths to save on postage stamps. There was no clear use for it other than to reduce the weight of an already seemingly weightless mail. You'd think that with all the dollars her sister sends her she could at least buy some scented stationery but Nanay valued every centavo that not even Hello Kitty could sway her. She'd even use onion skin envelopes if they were available, or onion skin stamps for that matter.

"What am I going to write to her?" I asked Nanay although this question was just a formality since she'd do most of the writing anyway. I sat on her lap, she folded the paper in half, took my small hand, put the pen in my hand and began writing using my hand as if it were a large deformed pen. I don't know how she got away with it, saying to her sister that I wrote the letter when the handwriting looked a lot like hers only chunkier. I did not even dictate to her what I wanted to write and she did not even bother to choose words that a third-grader might use. The situation transcended any acceptable form of ghost-writing.

Towards the end of the letter she asked me if there was anything I wanted from Lola Chila. "Toys! Lego! Tonka trucks! Matchbox! GI Joes!" I exclaimed, finally feeling that I was part of this activity and not just a dummy. She hesitated for a bit and as she led my hand on the paper, I got confused because she spelled 'toys' as 'B-O-O-K-S'. My hand wanted to write a comma after 'books' but she already lifted my hand to a new paragraph. As early as 8, I already knew I had to fight for press freedom.

We ended with "I miss you" and "hope to see you again soon". I haven't met my Lola Chila. She left way before I was conceived. Still, we closed with those words and Nanay moved my hand to sign my name. Looking back at it, the letters that "I" sent to my Lola Chila when I was a kid were 50% Nanay's perception of me, and 50% fiction.

The only thing I looked forward to the letter writing was the mailing process. I liked lick-sealing the envelopes and the stamps. I liked dropping the envelopes at the post office mailbox. I liked our trip to the post office that ended with a quick snack of puto-cheese at the Central Market plus a take-home pack of pinipig. If I behaved, the pinipig would be the cold variety produced by Magnolia Ice Cream.

When we got home, I heard the only clang-clang sound that pleased my ears, one that came from a sorbetero. I asked Nanay if she could give me 50 cents so that I can grab a cone of the most delicious treat that came from a cart loaded with dry ice, salt, and a creamy blend of skimmed milk, sugar and traces of amoeba. She called it dirty ice cream but for me, dirty was a small price to pay for something so delectable.

She did not give me the measly 50 cents. I pleaded, negotiated, begged, cried, wailed. The fainter the bell sounded, the louder I cried, hoping that if Nanay wasn't about to give in, at least the ice cream man would hear an interested customer and turn back while I continued to convince her. She held her ground and I eventually accepted that she was the most inconsiderate stingy spinster in the city. I entertained the thought of her dognapping a hundred and one dalmatians but that might be a bit over the top.

Several months passed. After mailing yet another letter, Nanay flopped on the sofa as soon as we got home. She did not get up since. Her diabetes got worse in the following months. I wasn't at the hospital when she died but the people who were there said that she kept on asking for me and my brother during her last few hours.

Aside from the modest savings account, her quilts were the only possessions she passed on to us. Months following her death, I'd play with the sewing machine trying to recreate the clang-clang sound that I associated with Nanay. It wasn't music but I somehow found it comforting.

When I was 8, I regarded Nanay as a difficult person. But now, her ways seem sensible and fair. She had been difficult for the right reasons. Her guidance played a big part in shaping my mom into a strong-willed and independent woman. Her strictness towards me made me self-reliant instead of a whiny spoiled brat. She provided the map for our growth as a family and had she lived longer, I'm positive that she would've continued to guide us to the right path.

Nanay has moved on and there's no question as to where she is now. Her patches as white as an angel's wings; her destination etched like a map on her skin.

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7 responses:

pablo 02 October, 2007  

Lolas are really great. My lola reared me from being a young pup to what I've become now: an old, scarred dog.

God, I miss her laugh.

Jap 02 October, 2007  

PABLO, you do know what they say about men raised by their lolas, right? hehehe don't worry, my RS teacher once said that 'scarred people are beautiful'. I didn't believe her at first, until I found stretch marks on my body. =)

Annamanila 02 October, 2007  

What a beautifully oblique tribute to a complicated and disadvantaged and (I think lonely) woman, your stand-in Lola -- liberally doused with tongue-in-cheek humor. I love it. Galing galing.

At least she had you to raise -- with her slightly harsh standards of discipline. You must have eased the loneliness a bit.

I hope, though, that my own apo and apos to come would have softer memories of me. :)

Gypsy 03 October, 2007  

This is such a sweet, melancholic, humorous tribute to your "nanay"--she would be proud.

Jap 03 October, 2007  

ANNA, thank you for the positive review =) hehehe you made my day.

I don't know if I 'eased' her loneliness. I could remember feeling guilty after our trip downtown when she wasn't able to get up. I thought I triggered her illness.

I think you'll be a terrific grandma. Your blog has a homey feel to it. I don't know about kids today, but when I was young, I always felt safe and comfortable with my grandparents. If you can give your grandkids that kind of feeling, there'll be lots of pleasant memories =)

GYPSY, thanks =) I hope she's proud too. But she probably can't handle the other stuff I'm doing lol! =)

intsik 07 October, 2007  

one moment i am having a good laugh at your decsriptive words. the next, my heart skipped & melted. i wasn't sure where the story would leave me but i gladly read along because reading it felt comfortable and happy. two important things that i need right now and i got it from this homage.

splendid work japs. for a short telling of a big love from somebody u would want to know a little more.

one of your best. truly!

Jap 07 October, 2007  

JOE, thank you. I didn't expect it would strike a chord in you but I glad that it did =) thanks for the good buzz =)

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