“HOW come,” I grew up hearing, “you’re so different from your mom?”
I must have been 16 the first time I was compared to my mother, the comment consistently following me through adulthood.
Naturally I’d blurt out a flippant retort, proud to have successfully extricated myself from my mother’s shadow. That was not easy: I share her baptismal name, with Jr. attached to mine until grammar school when a busybody teacher shamed me into dropping it because “only boys are called Junior.”
I’ve followed her journalism career, which she had in common with my father. I notched some academic honors plus gold medals for declamation but never graduated valedictorian or summa cum laude as she distinguished herself in high school and college.
As a child, I was her miniature; I grew up fitting her Pitoy Morenos but soon decided that recycled jeans were more me. I tried on her pearls, dabbed on her Pierre Balmain, only to chuck those for beads, bells, carabao horn and patchouli oil. Only once did my mother react to my taste.
She wasn’t amused that I would proclaim myself a “blabbermouth” across my chest. But force me to toss the T-shirt? Ban my chainsmoking friends? Talk me out of wearing blue at my wedding? Not my Mom. On the surface we were poles apart. She refined and pious, I wild and irreverent. I identified with my Dad, the eloquent, volatile, and therefore, this child of the then-nascent Women’s Lib movement concluded, the strong one.
After 30 years, I see the big picture. I tend to lecture – about privilege and the responsibility that comes with it, of taking pride in my race, on standing against oppression. That’s from my Dad, who was orphaned at 4, consigned to servitude by aunts and uncles, who fought in World War II and challenged the Philippine dictator till the end of his 73 years.
My mother had brighter beginnings. A Spanish-speaking classical pianist, she is the eldest child of a doctor and a nurse. Soft-spoken, she evades the spotlight, and prefers playing support roles. Educated in convent schools before following her father to the University of Santo Tomas where he was dean of the College of Medicine, she starts and ends her day with prayer – some three hours-worth in the morning and the rosary at lights out.
She will be 89 in July and has been silenced by a brain tumor, but the silver-haired woman lying still in the hospital bed is the most courageous human being I’ve ever known. Visitors cannot believe her age, marveling at her smooth skin. Must be the power of prayer, her lifelong trust in the highest love – her faith.
Truth is I cannot remember ever hearing my mother express fear or dread. “Leave it to the Lord,” she often assures herself.
Was that what she said when her father was captured for having aided guerrilla fighters, compelling her to find employment to help support the family? Did she say it when she arrived from a press trip to find her mother had died while she was in Germany? When my Dad received death threats for exposing corrupt government officials? Perhaps when he was diagnosed with lung cancer?
Of this I’m sure: She uttered those words many times because of me. And yet, my mother always made me feel special, loved.
How many moms bothered getting an autographed picture of the Beatles while the Fab Four were in Manila? Or returned from a U.S. trip with the factory-fresh Woodstock soundtrack? She conspired with my father to indulge my caprices. She herself, however, was selfless.
To this day, I have no recollection of my mother coveting anything other than the company of her beloved grandchildren. While my father disciplined by military mode, my mom is gentle and compassionate, raising neither her voice nor hand to me.
She gave refuge from my father’s fury, her warm caress clear affirmation of her love and understanding. I’m not certain who drew strength from whom, but I finally realized my mother’s fortitude in my father’s terminal illness. He refused to hire a nurse, letting only my mother, my sister and our longtime nanny to attend to him. She devoted herself to him, uplifting everyone around her as she protected Dad’s dignity.
After my father’s death, my mother came to live with my husband and son in Northern California, gifting us the family we craved. In the winter she’d fly back to Manila and return when the mercury hit the sky. She treasured her independence, traveling alone, until age 84.
One morning we expected her to arrive later that night when the phone rang: It was mom. She had been waiting patiently for us to pick her up and where were we? So she asked a fellow passenger to please call us and let us know she was already here. Grace under pressure, she had heaps.
We worried how she would cope with loneliness when on top of her daily TV Mass, her novenas, the Chronicle, “I Love Lucy” reruns, needlework, TV Patrol, and her journal, she devoured stacks of novels she would recommend for our next read. We became pals, sharing Cabernet with dinner, nature-tripping, sharing jewelry, perfume – our wardrobe. We discovered each other.
In December 2006, she joined me in receiving the Philippine Presidential Award for Overseas Filipino Organizations and Individuals conferred on our domestic violence prevention outreach group, of which she was a volunteer. A few months earlier, the UST Thomasians USA named her an outstanding alumna and our family honored her for being a model of virtue, integrity and grace. I long to see my mother’s eyes open, feel her touch, listen to her play the piano, show her the orchids blooming in the kitchen, take her on our weekly shopping expeditions, and beg her to please please stay with us, but in my heart I know what she would say: Leave it to the Lord.